Saturday, June 29, 2013

Overdosing on Zimmerman, Judge Alex and CNN

Is it possible to overdose on Judge Alex? Is it possible to overdose on court TV in general? Do I really need to know the minutiae of Florida law, when I live in California? Am I really a closet criminal/juror/lawyer? Am I just finding more reasons for avoiding the work I should actually be doing?
These, and many questions like them, have been occupying me this week as I have sat down to watch the minute by minute coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. For those not in the know, he is on trial for the murder (Second Degree) of 17 year old, unarmed Trayvon Martin, whom he claims he shot in self-defence – or defense, as I now have to write it (along with color, favor etc. . . . but that’s another story). 

So far, so relatively straightforward. But here’s the crux: Zimmerman is white Hispanic, Trayvon was black. And the black community is up in arms over what they perceive to be a racist killing.
Actually, up in arms is putting it very mildly. They have taken to Twitter declaring that Zimmerman will be raped and/or killed if he goes to jail, and certainly killed if he “walks” and tries to resume normal life.
I am gripped. I am gripped by everything. 

Why George has put on so much weight (he hasn’t just eaten all the pies, he’s eaten the factory that made them), for example? Why is the Prosecution  fielding witnesses that help the Defense (more of that anon)? Why had the Prosecution’s “star” witness, Rachel Jeantel (who was the last person to speak to Trayvon on the night he was killed), not been coached beforehand (“You listenin’?” she aggressively asked Defense Attorney Don West)? When the judge announces that the jurors’ lunch has “arrived”, what is it?  
In my office, during the day, I have the live feed from Fox 35 in Orlando, where the trial is taking place. In my living room, I have the trial live on CNN, but with intermittent analysis. At night, I watch HLN and Fox, and Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan on CNN.
Judge Alex Ferrer, whose courtroom show Judge Alex entertains me every weekday at 2pm, has been on everything. He seems to be the only person who is up to speed on Florida law (such as the reasons behind the prosecution having to field witnesses that potentially damage them) and the legalities of a case that has “experts” responding emotively, rather than delivering unbiased opinion. Women with big hair and tombstone teeth shout at frightened men with glasses as they all try to second-guess what the jury is thinking (six people – allowed under Florida law). 

You see? I am learning, so it’s technically work).
The women’s dress sense varies according to age. The younger ones go casual, like Sporty Barbie; the older ones look like Norma Desmond after a night on the tiles. Judge Alex looks like an ad for Savile Row: impeccably dressed, perfectly ironed (or “pressed” as I now call it over here), shirts and exquisitely chosen matching ties. He is by far the best looking expert and stands out as a Greek god in the Fraggle Rock of men before us, so, naturally, I agree with everything he says.
It’s not hard to do that, though, when he applies reason and the law to the evidence. But although I have always been in favour of cameras in the courtroom, what worries me with these big, publicity generating cases, is that viewer access spawns a level of hysteria from people with preconceived ideas (long before they have heard the evidence) that I suspect, with Zimmerman, will end in violence – not least because, so far, the prosecution (to me) is not proving its case, and Zimmerman looks likely to go free, or, at most, have the charge reduced to manslaughter.
The hatred and aggression appearing on a second by second basis on the Twitter feed that accompanies Fox 35, is truly disturbing. If they had to weed out this kind of prejudice during jury selection, small wonder that it took them so long (interestingly, the jury is made up of six women). These are not people who want to pass judgment when presented with the facts of the case; they are vigilantes who, in reality, are mimicking the very vigilante behaviour of which they accuse George Zimmerman. This probably says more about the nature of social networking than it does about the pros and cons of cameras in court, but, in this case, the ethics of the two seem inextricably linked.
The public is nevertheless fascinated by the workings of the law and, as Judge Alex points out elsewhere, if the public is allowed into the courtroom (which they are in the UK, as well as the US), all the cameras are doing is making the proceedings available to a wider audience.
Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher’s 1986 series LA Law ran for eight seasons on NBC in the US and was picked up, to huge critical acclaim, in the UK (I have every episode on videotape – remember videos? They were those bricks you started to chuck out at the turn of the Millennium). Dozens of law-based shows, on both sides of the Atlantic, have followed. I reckon I have seen every episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit at least half a dozen times.
The truth is, that all human life can be seen in a courtroom - love, jealousy, sex, death, prejudice, empathy, hatred – and when several of these factors come together in a big case, it is as if we are united as an audience in the very essence of life’s daily dramas, but magnified a thousand fold.
I’ve missed my daily Zimmerman dose today, as the trial is off air for the weekend. But the week’s appearances of Judge Alex are still stored in my Time Warner Cable box, so my legal fix is never more than a click away on the remote. Yes, I’m afraid I really am that sad.

Or just someone who really cares about nice laundry.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

James Gandolfini and the Art of Twitter

It was a little after 4.30pm in Los Angeles on Wednesday when Twitter went into overdrive after Variety and the Hollywood Reporter confirmed the death of James Gandolfini.
On holiday in Italy, the actor, who was just 51 years old, had apparently died suddenly from a suspected heart attack. The outpouring of shock, disbelief and despair that the world had lost this genius of a man was immense.
Gandolfini is best known for playing Tony Soprano, a capo of the New Jersey-based DiMeo crime family in the HBO drama, The Sopranos (from series two, he was the acting boss). First broadcast in January 1999, it won a multitude of awards, including five Golden Globes and 21 Emmys - three of the latter for Gandolfini. In its time, it was considered the most financially successful series in the history of cable television (and remains HBO’s highest rating series ever), and in 2013 the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written series in television history.
Its success (and ongoing success thanks to box sets) is in no small part down to Gandolfini’s performance, which is strong, warm, funny, frightening, tender – and he brings to the character a complexity that, despite the violent themes, makes him immensely likeable, especially to women. An unlikely sex symbol (overweight, overbearing, cruel), Tony’s struggle is trying to balance his life in the Mafia with a complicated family life and his bouts of depression. Visits to his psychiatrist, Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) complicate his life still further, owing to the sexual tension between the pair (although the good doctor never openly shows or acts upon it). He is that lethal but attractive combination in a man – powerful and vulnerable.
At first, people thought the news of his death was a hoax; Twitter is renowned for some sick individuals announcing the sudden passing of celebrities. I recall on the day that Michael Jackson died, I was in the gym and a friend texted to say that he had just heard that Jeff Goldblum had been killed while filming. That, thankfully, turned out to be a hoax.
For the next couple of days after Gandolfini’s death, it was as if the whole world united on Twitter to send their condolences to Gandolfini’s family. People who had worked with him spoke about his kindness and warmth; all proclaimed his incredible talent.
It is at times like this that social networking operates most successfully, providing a platform for people to share their thoughts and emotions. While Twitter has its fair share of trolls, whose personal comments cause great distress, and while it is also a platform for rumour-mongering, it still provides a great social service.
With increasing numbers of people having to work away from home (I spend most of my time on the other side of the world, over 5000 miles away from most of my friends and family), social networking stems the feelings of loneliness and isolation that are often felt. More so than Twitter, Facebook shares photos, stories, TV and movie clips, book extracts – anything that people have enjoyed personally or professionally that they think others might, too.
Through Facebook, I have touched base with incredibly talented people the world over whose work I would never have known had it not been for this online contact. I rely on Twitter for most of my news, as it reaches the Twittersphere long before it reaches traditional broadcast and print routes. The problem with this is that it might not be entirely accurate but, for the most part, it is.
I keep up with famous court cases and have learned a great deal about the law as a result of comments and discussions on Twitter. I have been directed to TV shows that have never reached my radar. Twitter and Zeebox have also resurrected the pleasure of watching live TV, as Tweeters share comments while a show is actually on the air. The disadvantage if you have recorded the show is that social networkers have a habit of giving the game away, thereby ruining that night in front of your stored programmes you were so looking forward to.
But social networking has undoubtedly changed the way we look at the world and our communication with it. Just think, if it hadn’t been for social networking, you would not have just read this blog. 

And that really would be tragic.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Matthew Rhys, Judge Alex and TV Addiction

Dressing gowns could have been invented just for watching TV. 

This week, having seen just two episodes of The Americans in the UK, I bought and downloaded the other 11 in LA and, over two days, watched the lot. In my dressing gown.
A couple of weeks ago, I bumped into one of its stars, Matthew Rhys, on a Virgin flight from London to LA. Matthew’s family lives just a couple of miles from me in Cardiff, yet it was only in LA three years ago that I finally got to meet him.
He is an extraordinary actor. His performance as gay lawyer Kevin in Brothers and Sisters was genius; no less so is his undercover Russian spy, Phillip Jennings, in The Americans. And he's always getting his kit off. Always in the name of is art, of course.
While The Americans is not yet a box set, increasingly viewers have turned to these packages to view shows they have missed. More than anything, it saves time. No ads, no having to remember to set your Sky Plus or TIVO – you just slob out on the sofa for 12 hours with an Indian takeaway and a bottle of Rioja and forget to shower as you become immersed in the story.
I watch way too much TV. There are episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Cold Case I have seen several times over. My daytime fix, the courtroom show, Judge Alex, at 2pm, is programmed into my Record list, and I am currently watching repeats of shows I first saw just weeks ago. 

Judge Alex is like a favourite cartoon: no matter how many times you see it, it’s still funny. I was hugely entertained this week by a case involving heavy discussions about rims, which means something entirely different in the US (think cars, rather than body parts). Call me easily amused, but hearing Judge Alex say “rims” just made me giggle. A lot. Like I said. Easily amused.
On Tuesday, two of my favourite shows, Suits and Covert Affairs return to the USA Network (Suits stars the divine Gabriel Macht - an actor born to play Christian Grey - PLEASE!). Now, here’s my dilemma: do I watch them live on the night because I will not be able to bear waiting (nor everyone telling me on Twitter what has happened before I have seen them), or do I wait a few weeks for a dressing gown day when I can watch non-stop (and, in the meantime, totally avoid Twitter)?
At least if I opt for the latter, I will avoid the American ads, which are many. I always lose weight when in the States because these ads make me feel so ill with their surfeit of food – all of it orange. Orange prawns, orange chicken, orange bread – no amount of colour adjustment on my set transforms these disgusting beds of fat into anything other than a floating sea of orange cholesterol.
I imagine that men are as put off sex as I am food, with ads that put the fear of God into you with the products’ side effects.
You can get your sex drive back, but be warned: this product may cause sweating, palpitations, liver damage, kidney damage, headaches, nausea, brain tumours, blood clots. Then there’s the dastardly warning; please see your doctor if you have an erection lasting longer than eight hours. I imagine after hearing about the possible side effects, you’d be lucky to get one at all.
The box set saves you from the side effects of consuming too many commercials, and if you download them, they also save you from having your shelves cluttered up with these monstrous cardboard bricks.
Practically the whole of my life runs through the computer now. I have systems that enable me to watch UK TV in the US and vice versa. My laptop is plugged into my TV so I can run everything through my 50 inch screen. I suspect that in a few generations, nobody will have legs, as humans will have lost their need ever to use them.
But as it’s Sunday and there’s not much on the TV, I’m going to do something revolutionary and take a hike up Runyon Canyon. I may take my iPad with me, just in case I get withdrawal symptoms and need to watch repeats of The Americans when I’m there.
Then it’ll be back home for supper and taking my dressing gown out of the wash ready to start another TV viewing week.

Tomorrow, on Judge Alex, the defendant Richard says he took his Bengal cat to Kismet for breeding and to sell Bengal kittens, but was devastated when Kismet told him his kittens had died. 

Oh, please say pussy, Judge Alex. Just for me. 

Matthew Rhys - Cymru Am Byth in America!

Who would win a wet cotton shirt competition? Colin Firth or Matthew Rhys? 

It was the question on viewers’ lips when it was announced that Rhys is to reprise the role of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy, in a BBC adaptation of the PD James’s sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley.
The 38 year old actor from Cardiff is sitting in the Pali Hotel on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, pondering the answer, but it’s a fairly quick response: ‘I’d say Firth.’
It was Firth’s Mr Darcy, emerging from the lake, all tousle-haired, with white shirt clinging to his fine, muscled chest, that set female hearts racing back in Andrew Davies’s sexy adaptation of the Jane Austen 1813 classic back in 1995. So can we also hope for a repeat performance of the iconic scene from Rhys? ‘Definitely not. Colin is so rooted in the national psyche, it would be almost sacrilegious to try to do it; it’s a level of comparison I wouldn’t want. He looked good. Really good. It’s not as if he looks bad now, but that scene resonated so much.’
Comparisons are nevertheless inevitable, not least in the physical similarity between the two men – dark, handsome, great eyes, and the ability to hold a fixed expression that makes the ladies swoon. Rhys was chosen, says Ben Stephenson, head of BBC drama, because of his good looks and a ‘likeable but dark edge’ as an actor. ‘We did not want a Milk Tray advert kind of handsomeness.’
Rhys still feels a little apprehensive at taking on a role so fixed in the minds of viewers. ‘It’s what I found when I played Dylan Thomas (in the 2008 film, The Edge of Love). Everyone had an idea about him, even though there had never been any footage, so nobody really knew. It’s the same with Darcy. So many people love Pride and Prejudice, they have a very strong idea of who or what Darcy should be. Coupled with that is the fact that Laurence Olivier played him, Colin Firth nailed it, as did Matthew MacFadyen, so there are instant comparisons to be drawn. My only saving grace is that it’s not Pride and Prejudice, it’s Pemberley, it’s 6 yrs on and he’s a very different Darcy.’
Anything remotely sexual (‘at least, on screen’) is definitely off the agenda five years after Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth Bennett, but they have two children, so something must have gone right (‘although you can’t categorically say that both the kids are his’). The toned down nature of the couple’s attraction can be attributed to the adaptation being a family show.
Currently single (he claims, although he is intensely private about his personal life), he believes that we are all searching for that one person. ‘I have romantic, rose-tinted notions that someone’s out there – I just wish she’d hurry up and knock on my door.’ 
Rhys clearly has a place in his heart for the man he is trying to get to understand (not least, in the love department) where others, on first impressions, fail. ‘I think he comes from somewhere else. First of all, when I approach a character, I never try and give them negative characteristics; I always try and look for where the empathy lies – justifications. I think with Darcy, it’s all to do with Pemberley and the name he’s inherited. He’s incredibly duty bound and he’s incredibly honest – which is why Elizabeth first hated him.’
While Rhys sees his own romantic nature in Darcy, he is less sure whether he shares the man’s moral core. ‘It’s been tested . . . I struggle . . . but I’ve not always been as well behaved as I should be. Darcy has a strong sense of honour – that’s why they call what we do acting.’
While we await the smouldering Mr Darcy, viewers can catch a very different Rhys in The Americans, currently showing on ITV in the UK. Created by Joe Weisberg and first broadcast in January this year on the FX cable channel in the US, it is the story of two KGB spies, in an arranged marriage, posing as Americans in suburban Washington DC during Reagan’s Cold War era. While Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) remains firmly loyal to the motherland, Phillip (Matthew Rhys) is increasingly attracted to the American way of life, which his two children (who remain oblivious to their parents’ true identity) have embraced.
It is an astonishing performance by Rhys, who employs different guises and accents with seeming ease. He moves between love scenes and scenes of extreme violence with a fluidity that one minute has viewers’ hearts pounding, and the next melting for the character’s tenderness.
The show is a huge hit in the US, where Rhys has become a star following his portrayal of gay Kevin Walker in Brothers and Sisters, which ran for five seasons. It required him to get his kit off and engage in relatively explicit sex scenes with his lover, Scotty (Luke Macfarlane). There was only one thing he found difficult about the scenes – ‘Stubble. That was the first thing I remember thinking. Then you just approach it as you would any part.’
In The Americans, he’s getting his kit off – again. The KGB has never been so sexy; so sexy, it makes you want to defect. Where once there were men in overcoats growling in Russian, now there is Rhys’s torso engaged in a variety of sexual poses with different women.
His seeming lack of shyness and undoubted good looks (he has a ridiculously perfect mouth) have turned Rhys into a sex symbol on both sides of the Atlantic – an observation he greets with uproarious laughter. ‘It continues to make me laugh; I don’t know anyone who genuinely believes they are a sex symbol.’
He hasn’t always been confident about his looks, either. ‘I was a massively self-conscious as a kid. I had bad skin, bad acne and the multitude of insecurities that every teenager has. I overcame them by pretending to be other people. It was a natural progression into this ridiculous business.’
It took a long time for Rhys to feel comfortable about playing out sex scenes and developing the confidence to take his clothes off in front of the camera. ‘The first job where you have to do that, you’re terrified; you just feel so vulnerable. The second time is pretty scary, too. By the third time, it’s more familiar. You just think, I’m gonna have to do this.’
It’s a far cry from the shy 25 year old who, playing opposite Kathleen Turner in The Graduate in 1995, could not bring himself to look at the 45 year old’s naked body onstage once. What he did learn, however, was how to effect his American accent, as Turner would correct him when he got it wrong. Having also grown up with American TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch, Rhys’s accent could, these days, easily pass for a native’s and is undoubtedly a factor in his having been able to land top jobs in the US, where so many others have failed.
Like Phillip in The Americans, he is now a foreigner (proudly Welsh - his first language) trying to be an American, while acknowledging the need to keep a realistic head on his shoulders. 

‘This place is like an asylum. It’s an industry driven town and it’s like Klondike – that gold rush fever. Everything is possible, and I love that about the place; it is the land of eternal optimism, and it’s great. You can chase your dreams; you can follow your dreams until your last day. There is that thing in the air, that mercurial thing that anything is possible here; but on the flip side, where I come from, you carry your sack of salt on your back, because you take a pinch of it every second of the day.’
Rhys’s down to earth attitude, delightful nature and great humour make him a joy to work with – everybody on both sides of the Atlantic says so, and nobody has a bad word to say about him; but there are things that rile him. ‘I don’t deal with diva behaviour very well – any sort of rudeness or ignorance; arrogance doesn’t sit well with me – or injustices; for example, if somebody’s being ill-treated because of hierarchy on the set.’
His lack of grandiose behaviour rooted in realism has ensured ongoing success. While his acting skills were honed at RADA, he carries a Welsh modesty with him that is borne of both family and country. ‘As a race, the Welsh are not known for their arrogance, and we have a healthy attitude – an ability to smash it out of anyone who does have it. But we do suffer from small nation syndrome sometimes. I think we could do with a healthy dose of confidence. But you know, there’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance.’
His modesty is also abundantly apparent in his ability to recognise external factors that have contributed to his success. 
‘I don’t say this glibly, but so much of this business is luck – massive, massive luck, and I’ve just been incredibly lucky in the parts that I’ve been given and in the timing when they’ve come about and I’ve been able to do them. Because as much as you sit down at the beginning and you leave drama school and you say This is what I want my career to be, there’s no way on God’s green earth that it’ll pan out the way you want. And another great liberating day is when you realise you have very little control over your career unless you’re Tom Cruise – A Listers are the only ones who can go This is what I’ll do next. You’re at the mercy of the gods.’
At the moment, the gods are smiling very kindly on him. When he finishes filming Pemberley, it’s straight back to New York to film series two of The Americans, which is already being tipped to pick up dozens of awards – including several for Rhys.
As for the future, he’s not sure, although he feels that he will in all likelihood return to the UK. ‘I feel like I’ve been on location for eight years. I keep feeling someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say “Come on, time to go home.” I’ve no idea where the future lies. Given the employment situation in the US and Britain, you just go where the work is these days.’
Until then, he is just looking forward to taking up residence at Pemberley where, filming in Yorkshire, he will be able to return home often to friends and family in Wales. 

Maybe, in the rugby club, he’ll bet getting his kit off for the lads. 

And why not. He’s done it for everyone else.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Happy Father's Day, US

On Sunday, it is Father’s Day in both the US and the UK and, as with all celebrations and public holidays, there is no escaping the event.
This year, as the past four, I am in LA, and everywhere I walk, there is the promise of gifts, drinks and meals at special prices – deal after deal, and every one of them encouraging you to spend, spend, spend on that special man in your life. Every celebration here dwarfs its equivalent in the UK, and some are all the more painful for doing so.
It is over 23 years since I last sent my dad a Father’s Day card, and this day more than any other is particularly poignant and has been so ever since he died in 1990 at the age of 60, and the celebratory images in shop windows never lose their impact.
Twenty-three years since the first Father’s Day after his death passed with a gut-wrenching sobbing and feeling of resentment towards children buying cards and gifts for their dads. This year, as every other, flower and gift services to which I have subscribed have been reminding me to send something to Dad, despite my having told them, as the first Father’s Day approached after his death, how much their automated prompt had upset me. 

Even the online Apple Store, which I seem single-handedly to be keeping in business these days, now suggests Father’s Day gifts. This year, it’s suggesting an iPad Touch or an iPad Mini. Or there are headphones and cameras – and a “Fuel” band, whatever that is.
But the things my dad loved were not computers, movies and music. They were not nights spent down at the local pub with his mates. They were not flash holidays, fast cars and other material goods bought only to keep up with and surpass the Joneses. 

What my Dad loved most was his family. 

My mum, my brother and me. 

And now, every Father’s Day, I try to put aside the immense sadness I still feel at his not being here and celebrate the fact that I was blessed with such a kind, thoughtful, strong and loving man who, all these years on, continues to have such a huge, positive impact on my life.
Dad was born in Cardiff, the eldest of five boys, and met Mum at a dance in the city’s Sophia Gardens. Mum wrote in her diary that Dad had “funny eyes”, but she soon overcame any doubts and they were married when she was 21 and he 24.
The last birthday party he attended would be his last. On his 60th, in March 1989, he had just left Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital where he had been in and out since 1987. He was pleased to be home in time for the celebrations, but his hands looked older, as if, in spirit, they were still in Frenchay, merely on loan until the day came for them to be returned permanently. Outside the abnormality of the ward and back home, they seemed more lined and appeared to have taken on a yellow tinge. The fingernails, as always, were perfectly trimmed, with not a speck of dirt.

“Hi, Gaggie Nennens,” he said, greeting me at the front door. It was his pet name for me when I was a child and he started using it because when people used to ask my name, the mispronounced words came out as: “Gaggie Nennens.”
The party felt like a farewell: a rehearsal for the funeral we all suspected was not too far away. When the guests had gone and he was ready for bed, I kissed him goodnight at the top of the stairs and was shocked to feel the smallness of his frame in his pyjamas, bones drowning in blue cotton. When I held him close, the softness gave way to small, sharp points bursting out of his back. This was not the body that lifted me up to Georgie in his budgerigar’s cage, saying “Night, night, Georgie”; nor the hands that held my clammy forehead over the toilet bowl when I was sick. Dad was slipping away to a place he had not yet been, and I was helpless to pull him back. The more I tried, the further he seemed to fall, all the time shrinking, shrinking, and it tore me apart to feel my father so small in my arms. But the inner strength that had always been him was still there; he did not seem like a man who wanted to die.
I was always Gaggie Nennens to Dad, just as I would always be the little girl who was never old enough to cross the road by herself. Well into my twenties, when I went home and would venture out for, heaven forbid, a pint of milk, he would warn: “Be careful crossing the road.” When we went for a drink, after two minutes he would be wiping his eyes, as if he had never even recovered from the fact that I learned to speak.
Dad was an intensely emotional person, whose feelings did not reveal themselves in outbursts, but in still, quiet moments when the tears would come at the slightest prompting. He would be the first to cry at Lassie on a Sunday afternoon when we sat watching TV as a family; he could never talk about his parents without crying; and when our pet poodle Emma died, he was grief-stricken for months.
He blamed himself for not cleaning out the boiler flue that killed Emma by carbon monoxide poisoning. He and Mum had wondered why my brother, who was also near the flue, was sleeping almost to the point of rigor mortis, so in fact Emma saved his life. But Dad never forgave himself and, when we had our next dogs (two, to assuage the guilt still further), he was particularly soft on them.
Sally the Chihuahua and Tara the poodle lived longer than their predecessor (indeed, they outlived Dad), largely as a result of Dad’s solicitations. When Dad was taken ill, they had, between them, two good eyes, six good legs, one and a half tails, one womb and no properly functioning bladder. Where Mum would put down one square of the Bristol Evening Post for both dogs for their nocturnal habits and then berate them for the spillage, Dad put down the equivalent of the New York Times. When he was in hospital, his role as acting urologist to the dogs was probably the main thing they missed. That, and his giving each of them a saucer of coffee in the living room last thing at night.
If Dad’s love for the dogs was revealed in such small acts of kindness, it was multiplied a hundredfold when it came to his children. He always treated us equally and also could not bear for him and Mum to have anything without sharing it with us. On the rare occasions when they had a Chinese takeaway (very rarely; money was tight), he put a small amount on two saucers (having been washed after the dogs’ coffee, I must presume) and brought it up to us in bed, two little birds with open mouths anticipating a rare luxury.
Until my late teens, our social life centred on family activities. We were all ballroom dancing competitors and used to travel with Mum and Dad to their evening competitions, where my collection of rubber animals was always a hit amongst the judges. It did no good when they came to awarding Mum and Dad points, though, not least because no lime green latex praying mantis in the world is going to compensate for the fact that your parents cannot dance in time to the music.
It was one of the rare skills Dad could not master. In other things, he had a lot of knowledge about a lot of things, and his practical skill at all things electrical and mechanical (he was a mechanical engineer) is something I have inherited from him, albeit on a small scale (I read instruction manuals from beginning to end in order to master a product; my mother and brother have no patience in such preambles and are still screaming at the gadget's incompetency three years down the line).

I also inherited from Dad a strong work ethic that was instilled in me from primary school age. If you are not in work on time, he used to say, it is not your employer’s problem. But what if the bus breaks down, I used to say. Still not your employer’s problem. The responsibility to do what one is asked, to the best of one’s ability and deliver it on time is something to which I have adhered to my entire working life, and it astonishes and frustrates me that others do not adopt the same philosophy.
His practical skills manifested themselves in all areas of our lives. It was to him my mother turned when the Betterware man, Tupperware man, Avon lady, or whoever else my mother had taken pity on, rang the door for payment for the useless goods she had ordered (there was a Cancer research man, too, but he died). Whatever they required – the Avon payment book, invoices, insurance certificates, cash – Mum could never find to give them. Along with car-keys, lipsticks, cheque-books and pens, these items were Dad’s responsibility in the midst of Mum’s mounting panic over their apparent loss.
When Dad died, the first car through the door was from the Avon Lady.
My first thought was one of surprise that Avon ladies still existed; the second, that Mum still bought from them. Within two hours of Dad’s death, Mum picked up the card from behind the door, opened it, smiled, frowned and started to cry. 

“It’s from the Avon Lady,” she said, passing me the first bereavement card of the day. I read the message: “You’ll never be able to find the book now.” 

Don’t bother calling again, Avon.
Both my Mum and Dad gave my brother and me a happy childhood. There was not a vast amount of money, but we lived a comfortable life in which we felt no deprivation - well, apart from my resenting the cooked meal we had every day after school, when my friends up the road were enjoying Ritz crackers and cheese. 

Our holidays were spent at Butlin’s, where we enjoyed late nights drinking hot milk and watching the doughnut-making machine sugar our supper. 

On summer weekends we went to the beach, where Dad really came into his own packing the car (and unpacking it at the other end) the essentials Mum deemed necessary for a day at the sea - wind-break, Lilo, Flotina, deck chairs, table and chairs, cold-box, hamper, sun umbrella, Tupperware for sandwiches and squash, flasks for tea and coffee, dog bowls, towels and swimming costumes, eight gallons of Calamine lotion. By the time we left the house, dusk was falling and our day out became 40 minutes. But, as with everything, Dad bore his lot with equanimity.
Dad’s calm nature was in stark contrast to that of Mum, Nigel and me, whose rather wacky humour put us in tune with each other in rather more obvious ways. Where Mum had me dressed in psychaedelic dresses and wearing cowbells to school when I was 11, Dad practically needed oxygen when I wore my first pair of platform shoes with a bright red plastic heart on the sides. His views on fashion were, as his values, old-fashioned by today’s standards, but I remain grateful for them.
He taught me manners and respect; the importance of hard work and being driven, but not to the point of negating the people closest to you. Despite his intellect and enormous success in his work, his family came first, ambition second. I doubt he ever thought of it as a sacrifice, but it is one that I believe he made in order that his children might have better lives. His goodness and love live on in the special relationship I continue to have with Mum and Nigel, and, every year, on Father’s Day in the UK, we call each other and remember just how lucky we were to have him - just as I will be doing this year in the US.
The day of his death is as clear today as it was in 1990, when I woke in London to the sound of my answer machine clicking in the living room. When I played back the messages, the last one said: “He passed away a few minutes ago . . . Jac? JAC? Oh, my God, it’s the answer-machine! What do I do? What do I do? It’s her answer machine!”
The nurse, having heard my voice, passed Mum the phone, without realising that it was a recording.
I took the train from Paddington to Bristol and, hours later, was looking at two bags on the kitchen unit under two separate pieces of paper. The first said SMALL ITEMS OF VALUABLE PROPERTY and listed: £1.25 – cash, 1 watch, glasses and case. The second, PROPERTY TO BE KEPT SECURELY IN GENERAL ADMINISTRATION OFFICE, listing toilet requisites, 1 track suit, 1 vest, 1 pants, 1 pair slippers, 5 hankies, 1 book, biscuits and container, cards, 1 towel, 1 dressing gown.
On paper, it didn’t look much to show for 60 years, but I continue to regard them as tributes to a man for whom avarice was anathema, and I stood crying next to a half-eaten tin of biscuits where, true to form, Dad had eaten only the plain and left the chocolate.
And now, as then, I give thanks both to, and for, my Dad. 


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Matthew Rhys - My American (So Back Off!)

Reader, I married him. 

Okay, so that was the end of Jane Eyre, and this was May 2013, and the man I was marrying knew nothing about it, but you can’t have everything.
But my New Best Friend on board, Jen, officiated. The rings were made of champagne foil. And I moved cabins on Virgin Atlantic to force it onto the finger of Matthew Rhys.
To bring you up to speed with MY HUSBAND (stand back, ladies, or I will shoot). Several years ago, I pondered, in this blog, whether the man actually existed, so difficult had my attempts been even to catch a glimpse of him. Then, suddenly, he appeared in the King’s Head in Santa Monica for a rugby match on the TV; two days later, I met him again at a St David’s Day event he organised in LA.
This week, he appeared yet again in my life. I was not Stalking by Air, I promise; it really was an accident. I was at the bar on a Virgin Atlantic flight back to LA and telling my NBF about why some UK actors made it big in Hollywood and others didn’t. Talent, charisma, good looks, an ability to get on with others, that extra something that you can’t just put your finger on – the IT Factor. Like Matthew Rhys,” I said.
“Oh, he’s on board,” she said. “Just back there.” Well, I tell you, I was up that aisle quicker than you could say Fasten Your Seatbelts.
The man who is to be the new Darcy in the sequel to the Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, was, indeed, there. They practically had to call the paramedics to me. Handsome, dark tousled hair, beautiful eyes, perfect mouth . . . Honestly, if the plane plummets now, I thought, I will die a happy woman. My only worry was that he would usurp me in the South Wales Echo headline – “Hollywood actor goes down” – that sort of thing (in my dreams! . . . By the way, is anyone swallowing (as it were) that Michael Douglas excuse for his throat cancer?).  
This week, Rhys came to our screens in The Americans, and he is nothing short of brilliant (as is the show). After five seasons of Brothers and Sisters, playing gay Kevin Walker, Rhys is being heavily tipped to win major awards for his portrayal of a KGB spy living a “normal”, suburban life in the US.
It has to be said that Russian spies have never looked so sexy. 

No overcoats, no two octaves below par accents, and at least 30 years younger than his predecessors, Rhys (unlike Austin Powers) is The Spy You Want to S**g.

Sorry. Someone had to say it. 

And he’s my husband. 

So join the queue, bitch!