The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibition

The Courtauld Gallery, London, WC2: Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery, 14 June – 9 September

This new exhibition draws from The Courtauld’s archives, spanning over 500 years of art historical drawings with an emphasis on both the “great masterpieces” and “rarely seen” works from artist like Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Matisse. The Courtauld Gallery is home to one of the most important and extensive drawings collections in Britain, with over 20,000 pieces ranging from the Renaissance through to the 20th century. This is an unparalleled opportunity to view 60 of the finest in the flesh, as well as attended a related program of tours, talks and events held throughout the summer.

Music

Snape Malting Hall, Aldeburgh: Aldeburgh Music Festival, 7 – 24 June

The town of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast is home the “vast skies” and “moody seas” that inspired Benjamin Britten, in 1948, to found the eponymous Aldeburgh Festival of classical music.  Reclaiming and converting old malting buildings, Britten and fellow musician Peter Pears laid the foundations for what was to become a flourishing performance space. It’s been called “arguably the best musical event in Britain” (the Guardian, 2009), and last year’s festival won the coveted Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award. Early highlight from this year’s 65th annual festival will include the Where the Wild Things Are opera, Sea Change – a unique musical adventure from guitarist James Boyd – and special performance from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Literature

Kings Place, London, N1: Poetry & Sport, Monday 11 June, 7:00 pm

This special “Olympic inspired” literary event rejoices in the oft under-acknowledged union of the poetic and the athletic. Poetry readings on the subject of sporting achievements and feats of human strength will offered by an eclectic mix of writers and athletes, including award-winning sports journalist Clare Balding, former Romanian fencing champion Laura Badea, and Britain’s most medalled Paralympic swimmer Chris Holmes MBE. With accompanying jazz music from The Denys Baptiste Quartet, this event promises to be “the perfect warm up to this year’s Olympic summer”.

Theatre

Jacksons Lane, London, N6: Postcard Festival, 7 – 30 June

The Postcard Festival will be a draw for warm weather revellers in search of a thrill. Postcard offers a platform for the best new talent from the world of circus, cabaret and visual performance – showcasing exciting, original and unexpected work. Expect their roster of enthusiastically named shows, including Boom!, Domestic Burlesque, Pop Magic!,  Lab Time: Experiments in Circus, Death Row Diva and Party Piece to knock your socks off. This is experimental, contemporary vaudeville at is most exhilarating.

Ideas

Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham: Cheltenham Science Festival, 12 – 17 June

Cheltenham is the Gloucestershire town lauded for its impressive yearly calendar of brain-stimulating festivals, including jazz, literature and global music. Next week the town gives itself over to the realm of science, with over 300 thinkers, scientists, comedians and writers converging in a meeting of minds that celebrates and explores all things scientific. Saturated with familiar faces (Brian Cox, Marcus Brigstocke) and groundbreaking talks from botanists, evolutionists, geneticists, astronomers and others, the festival tackles though-provoking themes such as: Space and the Universe, Engineering and Technology, Politics and Ethics, and Being Human.

"Study for La Grande Odalisque" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, featured in the Courtauld Gallery's new exhibition. (Photo: The Courtald Gallery)
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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue