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Songs of lust and melancholy on Rádio Amália

The Portuguese blues has soul but isn't sad.

A summer Saturday night in Lisbon, and in a square in the old Graça district the local community listens to an evening of live fado – the Portuguese blues. Through the days, along the city’s steep streets of distinctive small square limestone cobbles, you can often hear the sound of the Lisbon station Rádio Amália playing in houses and shops. Named after the Portuguese fadista Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), the station transmits fado on a loop – songs sung traditionally in cafes and taverns, usually by an older woman, about longing for a lover, or the past, or men lost at sea. A typical lyric runs: “In the mouth of a seaman/ In the fragile sailing ship/ The hurtful song fades…”

My friend Maria, who lives in Graça, insists fado “has soul – but isn’t sad”. After weeks of addiction to the station, I agree. Fado has brouhaha, wit, lust. Some of the best new numbers are sung by the gorgeous young Gisela João, who always performs in her music videos with a melancholy breeze disarranging her hair and wearing a pair of trainers. She’s a favourite of the station.

Being associated with the era of Salazar’s fascist dictatorship, fado at one time looked as if it might fade, and yet enthusiasm remains solid in Lisbon – especially for any solo on the 12-stringed Portuguese guitarra, which sounds like a harpsichord crossed with a bouzouki. At the concert in Graça, the crowd glows under street-lamps, nodding and applauding the music. Family dogs lie on the cobbles. Couples occasionally get up to slow-dance, and a restaurant hurries out plates of fried baby hake.

When eventually I get back to my room, I switch on Amália and hear about a special event at the local fado museum. “We are waiting for you,” says the closing line of the ad, wistfully – very fado. So many of the best songs are simply about missing friends. As usual, I find it hard to switch the station off; each ballad is so perfectly contained. But soon I’m woken by the sound of a man singing fado live, and magnificently impromptu, from the ramparts above my open window, met by a smattering of drunken applause as the last of the concert-goers wend home, the dawn-saffron sky a blur of swooping swifts. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear

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