Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Cambridge Film Festival, 13 – 23 September

The Cambridge Film Festival is, simply put, a celebration of cinema’s past, present and future. Well-regarded enough to attract big names yet still intimate and approachable, you won’t get a better opportunity this year to discover some brilliant new work and then find yourself chatting to the writer or director afterwards at the bar. CFF takes over the Arts Picturehouse in the centre of the city for the duration of the festival, but their real passion is bringing cinema to spaces that would not normally be used for that purpose. The outdoor spaces are always used to maximum effect, so if you fancy seeing some films en plein air at venues such as Grantchester Meadows, the steps of Cambridge University Library or even an open-air swimming pool, now is your chance.  


This House, National Theatre, 18 September – 22 December

The only original play to feature in the National Theatre’s autumn season, this political drama by James Graham starring Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, Eastenders) and Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes), should be big hit. Set in 1974 as the country faces economic crisis, the play opens up the engine rooms of Westminster to reveal the Labour whips behind the scenes and their attempts to coerce a hung parliament.


God’s Garden, Laban Theatre, London SE8, 19 September

Back by popular demand, award-winning choreographer Arthur Pita’s God’s Garden is a darkly comedic, Madeira-set family drama based on the parable of The Prodigal Son. It includes design by Jean-Marc Puissant as well as live fado music and, incredibly, the ages of the cast range from 23 to 84. An absorbing tale of jilted lovers and revenge, it’s like magical realism in dance form.


The People Speak, The Tabernacle, London W11, 16 September

The People Speak is an international initiative which seeks to tell the events of history through the voices of everyday people – the dissenters, rebels and visionaries of the past 1000 years. This one-off event, which celebrates the publication of a new book, is led by actor Colin Firth and editor Anthony Arnove. It features names such as Rupert Everett, Ian McKellan, Celia Imrie and Emily Blunt, who endeavour to bring to life the forgotten voices included in this book. It sounds like an intriguing project.


Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool, 15 September – 23 November

The 7th edition of the Liverpool Biennial, opening this weekend, will explore the theme of ‘hospitality’ as it invites artists to showcase new interpretations of this concept in our increasingly globalised times. The biennial exhibition, An Unexpected Guest, is comprised of sixty exciting international artists and, in addition to this main exhibition, pieces of artwork (both existing and newly-created) will be installed in public spaces around the city. Highlights include installations by Oded Hirsch and Jorge Macchi, and a concert presented by Rhys Chatham as part of the opening weekend.

Cambridge provides beautiful outdoor spaces in which to enjoy films. Photo: Getty Images
Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game