Popular in Poplar: Angela Lansbury at the Angela Lansbury Film Festival, Poplar, April 2014
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Angela Lansbury: “Peach queens are stars. I’m an actress”

The veteran actress best known for Murder, She Wrote had an emotional return to her East End roots this month with a series of screenings and a personal appearance.

As I looked down at the pavement, Angela Lansbury’s face looked back up at me from the slab. It’s a young face – this is the MGM starlet of the 1940s, not the veteran actress who went on to captivate the world with Murder, She Wrote – but still instantly recognisable. There wasn’t just one of her, either. The spray-painted faces were dotted around Poplar, making a bizarre sort of gingerbread trail through the East End of London.

At the end of the trail is the woman herself, being helped up on to a stage at a community arts centre as the main attraction of the Angela Lansbury Film Festival. “I’m not a public speaker,” she says, half laughing, half pleading, but goes on to speak eloquently and movingly about her father and grandfather, both of whom served as mayor of Poplar. Her childhood memories of the East End in the 1930s are vivid and detailed.

She cites her grandfather George Lansbury (an MP and leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s) as a great influence on her desire to perform. As a child, she was taken to hear him address a rally at the Royal Albert Hall and left wanting to imitate his style. Now 88 years old, she is still following his example, explaining that his enormous stamina is the reason she “never slows down”. Even though George Lansbury’s granddaughter hasn’t lived in the UK since she was a teenager (her family was evacuated to the US at the start of the Second World War), she has strong links with the area. The trail of faces leads past a Lansbury Estate and nearby are a Bruce Road and an Edgar Road, named after her twin brothers by her father when he was mayor.

Lansbury is back on the London stage for the first time in nearly 40 years to perform in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. She plays an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, who presides over a seance in a country house drawing room that goes comically awry. Coward’s play is ostensibly an ensemble drama but on the evening I was there, Lansbury had only to step on to the stage for the audience to break into rapturous applause. Everything from her energetic dance as she enters her psychic trance to the smallest roll of her eyes provoked laughter.

Coward was there at the beginning of her career, too. Lansbury’s first professional performance was at the Samovar Club in Montreal at the age of 16 (she lied and said she was 19 to secure the booking). Exploiting her talent for vocal mimicry, her act revolved around Coward’s song “I Went to a Marvellous Party”.

Lansbury has the kind of pulling power many younger and more ubiquitous actors can only dream of. Part of her fascination lies in the multifaceted nature of her career – few others have achieved such success on stage, on television and in films. From the outset, she played character parts, such as Sibyl Vane in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, rather than being a conventional leading lady. “Peach queens are stars. I’m an actress,” she says, going on to poke fun at her Dorian Gray co-star Hurd Hatfield, who enjoyed being called a celebrity “only because he was no longer an actor”.

After three Oscar nominations, Lansbury finally received an honorary Academy Award last year. Revealing a rather competitive streak, she points out that she didn’t “win” it, because there were no other nominees. Then she laughs and says: “It’s nice to be recognised for hanging around as long as I have.”

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times