Lunching alone at Academy Coffee Haus, Northampton

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Once upon a time in the very distant past, I wrote regular restaurant reviews for the local daily paper.
We’d be allowed to claim £30 on expenses (for two, with drinks!), and always went incognito, so we’d be treated the same as any other paying member of the public.
Restaurant reviews were good ‘talkers’ for newspapers, as readers would like to share their opinions, especially once the Internet arrived and made commenting on stories far easier.
Anyway, in my reviewing days, I’d sometimes take Bloke, father of my children and fellow journo, who unfortunately considered food reviewing an almighty pain in the arse. He would prefer the Just Being A Normal Punter aspect to include Not Bloody Reviewing Everything.
Therefore my favourite restaurant reviews were with another journalist, Jess. For several years we’d use sporadic restaurant reviews as an excuse to catch up. We were both working full time, having babies and generally being rubbish at staying in touch. Restaurant reviews also meant we ate proper food rather than picking at the kids’ leftover fish fingers or eating nothing but crisps while driving from one job to another.

Reviews are not as easy as you might think. They can be utterly tedious to read if the writer insists on something along the lines of ‘we went here, we had this’ using words like ‘nice’ and ‘tasty’.
Reviews should paint a picture of the experience, even if the only picture published is a GV: a general shot of the restaurant from the outside.
They should ultimately tell your reader whether it’s worth handing over your hard-earned cash. Usually we were pretty happy with our experiences. Restaurateurs would display framed cuttings of reviews behind their tills. Sometimes they weren’t so happy: one threatened to pull their advertising from the paper because I’d said the service was slow. Another establishment, that had served us raw chicken, then served me, the editor and the newspaper group with writs claiming defamation in the review. It later transpired the place was being run by a crook, who had run out on other restaurants and debts around the UK, and he’d finally been caught.
Time moved on. Jess and I had yet more kids, our lives went in different directions, we were still good pals, but without the regular meals.
Then we met up again and made a date to meet for lunch, at Academy Coffee Haus, tucked away behind Debenhams in College Street Mews.
For once I wasn’t late, and even cycled there instead of driving (nearest parking would be in Marehold or on street on Bridge St). But Jess was poorly and couldn’t make it.
I decided to stay, and in the spirit of our previous culinary adventures, I’d review my lunch experience.
The cafe is small, it has around 30 covers, simple wooden chairs and a couple of padded benches. Ceiling fans add character and I presume some air in the summer months.
There’s a loo that is small and probably not wheelchair accessible, but which had a changing mat and emergency nappies and wipes, something I’d have appreciated when wrestling four children aged under ten around town in the past.
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I had a couple of good cappuccino coffees, in a decent sized cup with a biccy on the side, and a huge chicken and sundried tomato salad, with olives and pinenuts.
I think the menu did say it came with pesto bread, but I didn’t get any, and to be honest I totally forgot about this while eating, so it clearly wasn’t needed. The chicken was well seasoned and hot, and was delicious with both fresh and sundried tomatoes, pinenuts and black olives.
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Eating alone was actually a pretty sociable experience. I chatted with a young artist who had just moved back to Northampton from London after realising she just couldn’t go on simply earning money just to pay the extortionate rent. An old journo contact who now works in PR by coincidence arrived to have a coffee and cake lunch just to escape the office, and joined me for a chat too.
One waitress had to escape outside for five minutes due to an attack of the most entertaining hiccups I’ve ever heard, like a tiny puppy yelping. On another table a girl was telling her friend how desperately unhappy she was at work, and vowing to leave, while her pal tried to talk her round.
The staff were friendly but not intrusive, and my total bill came to £9.45, pretty good value for a warm and well fed couple of hours, with free WiFi.
If you’re in Northampton I’d recommended it, whether meeting friends or not. It’s far from a lonely experience.
****

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Review of Gaslight, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, October 2015.

Review of Gaslight, Royal & Derngate, Northampton. (Press night performance)

 

By Hilary Scott

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

YOU usually find mention of the set design for a new theatre production much further down in a review, but in Gaslight at Northampton’s Royal Theatre the stage is the first star you lay eyes on.

With the action confined to the classic ‘one-room-in-a-period-setting’, it’s a tough job to be original.

But William Dudley and the Royal’s set-production team have created a stunningly clever Ames Room – one of those that alters your perception of the things within it – which perfectly reflects the theme of the play: manipulation of someone’s mind to make them doubt their own sanity, or Gaslighting.

The use of clever modern video projection, in a 130-year-old theatre, for a play set in stifling the stifling late Victorian age shouldn’t work – yet it does, brilliantly (except for one very ridiculous section near the end which doesn’t, and made us laugh when we should be shocked).

We had no time to leaf through the programme beforehand, which is just as well, because then we had no spoilers or expectations. This is a psychological thriller, which made the entire audience shift uncomfortably in its seats as the stellar cast messed with our minds.

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight. Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham
Jonathan Firth as Jack Manningham in Gaslight.
Photography by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Tara Fitzgerald is exquisite as the vulnerable, bullied Bella Manningham, running the gauntlet in her own house between her domineering husband Jack, played menacingly by Jonathan Firth (I was two-thirds through before I recognized him as Colin’s brother), the servants, and her own sanity.

Fitzgerald stars in the globally popular Game of Thrones and I suspect a percentage of the packed audience was there to see her.

Is her encounter with her apparent saviour, the rosy-cheeked Inspector Rough (Paul Hunter), just another example of her mind playing tricks?

No spoilers: You’ll have to go and see for yourselves.

Gaslight, a Made in Northampton production, runs at Royal & Derngate until November 7. Box Office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk

 

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Huxley’s Brave New World is Made in Northampton

Review of Brave New World, world premiere, at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, running until Saturday September 25, before touring nationally. Press night performance.
By Hilary Scott

Olivia Morgan as Lenina and William Postlethwaite as John the Savage, with ensemble. Photography by Manuel Harlan.

Olivia Morgan as Lenina and William Postlethwaite as John the Savage, with ensemble.
Photography by Manuel Harlan.

IT is a compelling, and at times uncomfortable, adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World which challenges the audience at Northampton’s Royal theatre.
Those not familiar with the original 1931 text will not struggle to find familiarity in its themes, particularly pertinent to contemporary issues of the stupefying capitalism of western society juxtaposed with the violence, poverty and despair of the abandoned poor.
And hey, you get the story that spawned the Hunger Games trilogy, and even a Poldark-esque shirt-off scene from the floppy-haired William Postlethwaite as the passionate outsider, John the Savage.
The production whacks the viewer straight between the eyes – opening with a boom of music and lights and steading with the sterility of the laboratory conditions of the hatchery and conditioning centre.
For this is a world 500 years in the future where parentless babies are grown in test tubes and genetically modified to join their caste of clones to work in factories and sewers, or to be the educated Alphas and Betas of the elite.
But there are no wars or crime; this is a society controlled not by pain and fear, but of perceived happiness, conditioned from birth and powered by sex, consumerism and drugs. In this manufactured utopia, nature and art are treated with distain, while gyms and gadgets are the trophies of the elite. The citizens of this World State have everything they think they want, no family bonds, no emotional ties, an ecstasy-style drug called Soma, promiscuity and entertainment, and an indifference to death. “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”
Happiness is essential, and those misfits who aren’t happy and promiscuous are shipped off with their unwanted emotions to remote islands.
Brave New World - James Howard, David Burnett and ensemble 102 c Manuel Harlan[1]Meanwhile, out of sight and left to rot are the majority of the population, the Savages, who live ‘naturally’ while imprisoned in vast ‘reservations, occasionally gawped at like zoo animals by the holidaying Alphas.
These two cultures come into contact with the discovery of a young man accidentally born naturally in a reservation, and brought back to see the utopian world of his elite parents. John the Savage, educated in secret by reading the complete works of Shakespeare, sees the world through the constraints of ancient, Tudor rules, and is both enticed and repulsed by the hedonism of the World State.
On press night the theatre was packed, and any early-run technical issues had clearly been fixed, as the multimedia production was visually stunning. Huge video screens hung above and around the stage adding texture and depth while the original music by These New Puritans was perfect for the adaptation. The casting is excellent, particularly for the performances by Gruffudd Glyn as the bullied misfit Bernard Marx, Samantha Pearl’s naturalistic portrayal of conformist Polly, Olivia Morgan’s confident Lenina and Postlethwaite’s conflicted savage. All ones-to-watch.

William Postlethwaite as John the Savage and Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, and in the background, Theo Ugundipe as a guard, Scott Karim as Helmholtz Watson, Gruffud Glyn as Bernard Marx and David Burnett as a guard. Pic by Manuel Harlan

William Postlethwaite as John the Savage and Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, and in the background, Theo Ugundipe as a guard, Scott Karim as Helmholtz Watson, Gruffud Glyn as Bernard Marx and David Burnett as a guard. Pic by Manuel Harlan

Also in the talented cast of ten is Abigail McKern as Linda, the bedraggled former Beta elite and John’s reluctant mother, who gives both mature gravitas and light relief to the piece, while playwright Dawn King’s adaptation cleverly morphs the dictatorial World Controller Mustapha Mond into the female Margaret Mond, played with cold indifference by Sophie Ward.
There were issues – particularly with the pacing and delivery in the first half when the necessary set-up of the story meant the audience was starting to lull into a Soma-like stupor. It just needed to be faster, more dynamic and daring, to match the visual staging. There were a few fluffed lines in the second half, but nothing too distracting and I’m sure this is a production that will gain momentum and develop as the run continues.
It is a definite go see; an excellent story and a timely reflection, albeit written in the past about the distant future, on our own present. It’s no wonder Spielberg is planning a film version.
For tickets, visit royalandderngate.co.uk or call the box office on 01604 624811
Brave New World - Gruffudd Glyn and William Postlethwaite c Manuel Harlan-123[1]

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BBC to fund 100 reporters to “provide impartial reporting on councils and public services.”

Naughie and Humphries read the real news

Naughie and Humphries read the real news

IN the semi-conscious blur of an early, school-morning wake-up, I could swear I heard John Humphries tell me the BBC was going to fund a pool of 100 reporters to help local papers.

I jolted awake.

Humphries, rather than standing shouting at the end of my bed, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, being typically bombastic, appearing not to have read the story he was discussing live on air.

Media pundit Steve Hewlett filled in the gaps: The BBC, the state broadcaster, funded by taxation via your licence fee, was proposing to fund 100 reporters across the country to cover public affairs stories (that’s anything involving councils and court) and share their content with regional newspapers.

Hang on, I hear you ask, surely court and council stories are already covered by local papers; in fact, aren’t they the bread and butter of regional news? Isn’t that what every cub reporter spends their early years covering, honing their shaky shorthand and getting shouted at by angry relatives of defendants, or councillors who have opened their mouths without thinking (again)?

No. Those days are gone. In reality, apart from the papers based in bigger cities, and those who are still producing a daily print run, the chances are that your local paper (which you probably read online rather in print), will no longer send a reporter to council meetings unless there is something particularly sexy on the agenda, (and I use the word ‘sexy’ purely because it stands so uncomfortably alongside the word ‘council’).

Instead, the paper might cut-and-paste a press release written by a communications officer at the council (who probably used to work at the paper but now earns twice the salary without having to cover evenings and weekends).
Chances are, the taxpayer-funded press and communications office for your local council or police force will have more staff than the combined newsrooms of all the media outlets in the area. But I digress.

Would you, as an editor of a regional weekly paper and associated website, with one and half reporters available on a given day, 30 pages of editorial to fill and a target from management of several thousand web hits, then send a reporter to cover a council meeting or court case that may take hours to get to the interesting bit? Oh, and then give them time off in lieu for working late? Or would you use the press release version with its already-sourced quote instead and get on with the other stuff?

Similarly, you will probably have seen your local papers publish slightly out-of-date sentencing results of court cases, sent by HM Courts Service in an attempt to show they do manage to drag some wrong-uns through the archaic justice system. It’s as popular these days to trawl the lists of convictions for people you might know, as your parents would have scanned the Births, Marriages and Deaths section of the paper in its print heyday.

But is there a regular court reporter, either for a paper, a broadcaster or as a freelance, actually based inside your local magistrates or crown court? Are cases covered in full if they don’t involve rape and murder? Again, highly unlikely unless you are in London or a large city.

Many would argue that unlike in past decades, this means the Fourth Estate is failing in its duty to demonstrate democracy and justice being seen to be done. And I’d also argue that some cracking tales, the ones that inevitably crop up buried in a weighty council agenda, or during a full day spent in court, are also being missed.

And all this at a time when there is a gigantic audience, a massive thirst and an enormous platform, via smartphones and tablets, for genuinely interesting stories. Think no one is reading papers? Imagine that all the people you saw today reading smartphones were actually reading newspapers – chances are they will all have clicked at least one news site.

Anyway, back to the promised 100 new journos, armed with their sharpened pencils, ready to throw themselves into the farthest reaches of council chambers and crown courts from Carlisle to Truro,. (There are 91 Crown Courts, 330 magistrates courts and 400 odd council chambers).

In his speech today (7/9/15) BBC Director General Tony Hall (a former BBC broadcast journalist) stated: “We’ve been working with our local newspaper partners on an exciting scheme.

“Local democracy really interests me. I’ve seen for myself how important our local radio stations are, and I’m really proud of the way they serve their communities. But I now want us to go further. So, in future, The BBC would set aside licence fee funding to invest in a service that reports on councils, courts and public services. And we would make available our regional video and local audio for immediate use on the internet services of local and regional news organisations.

“In my view, that’s good for audiences, good for the industry but we look forward to hearing the views of others. Together with our partners we look forward to consulting on this scheme and adapting it as we learn from the consultation.”

Naturally, the immediate reaction about the proposal was pretty one-sided (of course it’s far easier to vent on news stories these days via the comments section, rather than having to find a pen, write a letter, buy a stamp, go to the postbox…).

The initial general reaction online could be nutshelled as follows: Why should taxpayers’ money be used to prop up large commercial media organisations who have asset stripped the newsrooms of once popular regional papers?

And this is before the big newsgroups got involved. By the afternoon they were venting via the Guardian.

In the detail of its proposal the corporation says the operation would have to be “run by the BBC” and that any news organisation, “as well as the BBC itself”, could compete to win reporting contracts.

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BBC’s proposal … [is] anything other than BBC expansion into local news provision and recruitment of more BBC local journalists through the back door,” said Ashley Highfield, the vice chairman of the News Media Association and chief executive of regional publisher Johnston Press.*

John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, was equally scathing, describing the plan as a “Trojan horse” and a “further expansion of the BBC’s encroachment”.

“It’s a Trojan horse because under the guise of being helpful, the BBC would end up replacing independent local news and worse than that would replace local news agencies,” McLellan told Radio 4’s World at One. “”It means the BBC effectively replaces local newsgathering.”

*[…and former BBC employee who dreams of being DG one day, I reckon…]

Back again to my unexpected news alarm from John Humphries.

I pay my BBC licence fee and think overall we get pretty good service. But you want to save some money in your charter renewal Mr State Broadcaster? Here’s some ideas:

  • Stop putting half a dozen reporters and presenters on a story that only needs one. Stop doing expensive live OB reports in front of darkened buildings, especially Downing Street.
  • Help your regional TV reporters by pool-sharing jobs with papers or hyperlocals – your broadcasters are stretched by the huge areas they cover. Let them be journalists.
  • Stop equating the success of your local radio stations to their Facebook likes. Good stuff will be shared anyway.
  • Invest in your local stations. But let them cover features and long form investigations and stop wasting time and money repeating what the papers already do better.
  • I love BBC4, but I think a lot of it could be on BBC2. Keep the content, just move it and make room by binning all of those ridiculously expensive lifestyle programs with ‘celebrities’, especially home-makeovers and chefs (except Bake-Off, keep that). Let the commercial channels do them, where they can ‘product place’ to their heart’s content.
  • BBC3 is more important than you think and should stay as a terrestrial channel (seeing as it is the only youth channel available).
  • Get over your obsession with ‘Talent’ and hire people who know what they are doing.
  • Have fewer meetings, make quicker decisions and implement stuff faster.

Feel free to add your own, as I’m in a post-news story ramble.

Apart from being interested in this stuff as a journalist, journalism academic (I lecture in journalism to university undergraduates) and better-half of a local newspaper editor, it bothers me as a member of the public too. We should be getting more impartial coverage of public affairs. And there are some really essential stories we’re not hearing enough about.

OK, it’s a universal truth that newspaper journalists have always liked to bitch about BBC journalists (they get paid more, they nick our stuff without giving credit or links (I’m looking at you Radio 4), they actually DO talk like they are in the spoof W1A, they might be posh/public school/Oxbridge, they still get expenses, and they get better reception from punters simply by saying ‘I’m from the BBC.”

But that’s just banter. There are some really fantastic, dedicated regional BBC reporters and presenters who work their backsides off to get their programmes out for their non-Londoncentric audience and they will be wondering what this latest idea will mean for them.

The real reason Humphries woke me with a start this morning is because I’ve actually been sitting on the consultation panel between the BBC, regional publishers and hyperlocal media organisations for the past year. We’re supposed to be having a further meeting and more detailed feedback session next week.

Early on in the discussions, in the ‘blue sky thinking’ phase, I raised the idea of the state broadcaster staffing council or court in areas where court and council wasn’t already covered, and sharing content with everyone else, similar to what happens during visits involving the Royals via the ‘Royal rota pool’.

The idea was deemed too expensive to do properly, and politely shelved.

Or so I thought . . .

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Secrets of the Swiss Garden…in Bedfordshire: How Shuttleworth’s garden is maturing a year on from £3.6million restoration.

Northamptonshire Gardens

All images copyright Hilary Scott unless stated Swiss Garden, Old Warden, Bedfordshire. All images copyright Hilary Scott unless stated

IT’S a curiosity, that’s for sure. A nine-acre landscaped garden based on a Regency fondness for all things Swiss.

Swiss Garden, between Bedford and Biggleswade, has a ferny grotto, thatched hideaways on handmade hills, a whole load of 150-year-old fake stonework and a meandering stream with precarious humped bridges.

But in recent history – on and off between the end of the Second World War and the recent £3.5million restoration – the Swiss Garden was neglected and all but forgotten, vandalised throughout the ’70s and ’80s and kept just-about intact, thanks to the cash-strapped local councils and determined volunteers.

History

With not so much as a hillock in the flat Bedfordshire landscape with which to create his mountain-style retreat, the wealthy Lord Robert Ongley started his European fantasy almost 200 years ago. He began by making some fake…

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Why is David Cameron treating the local press with contempt?

David Higgerson

examiner

“Local newspapers hold public authorities to account. They report on council meetings – and taxpayers know if their money is being spent wisely. They publish police appeals – and witnesses come forward.

“They cover court cases – and communities know when justice has been done. And they scrutinise local politicians – so voters know if their MP is working in their interests.

“Second, local papers continually fight for their communities, agitating for change, and, very often, succeeding. With their commitment to campaigning on local issues, local newspapers aren’t just breaking the news, they’re making it.”

The gushing words of praise prime minister David Cameron lavished on the regional press when he agreed to support the Newspaper Society’s Local Newspaper Week during 2014.

Sadly, he seems to have forgotten just how much he values the regional press, if actions of his party’s spin doctors in recent weeks are anything to go…

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Watch Northampton Greyfriars Bus Station demolition

Here’s a video showing the former bus station Greyfriars demolition in  Northampton disappear in less than 60 seconds : http://youtu.be/D9O8RgI3S7E

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Camp Bestival 2015 – early line-up announced

Camp Bestival in Dorset is the best festival if you’ve got kids, and the line-up is usually great for all ages.

One year we saw Blondie, Mark Ronson and Primal Scream in the same weekend, a high-point in our festival-going lives.

You can read reviews of previous Camp Bestivals here and here
Here’s the latest news on who will be performing in 2015. Clean Bandit, Underworld and Kaisers, plus The Cat in the Hat Live. Pretty good for starters. You can sign up now for early-bird tickets at www.campbestival.net

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Annoying things 1

Gah!

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Another set of headphones fails to sneak unharmed through a 40degree wash.

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Jack and the Flumflum Tree by Julia Donaldson coming to Northampton in July

Jack and the Flumflum Tree

Jack and the Flumflum Tree

A NEW theatre show for children comes to Northampton’s Royal & Derngate in July, based on the book by Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson.

Hot on the heels of the excellent Moominsummer Madness, Jack and the Flumflum Tree will be performed in the Underground theatre and is suitable for children aged 4-10.
Here’s the press blurb:
Another much-loved story by Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson, Jack And The Flumflum Tree comes to the Underground stage at Royal & Derngate from Friday 4 to Sunday 6 July.

Jack’s Granny is sick with a bad case of the moozles. And the only cure is the fruit of the fantastic Flumflum Tree which grows on the faraway isle of Blowyernose. It’s a perilous journey, but Jack bravely sets sail, with a motley crew of only three – and a large patchwork sack that Granny has filled with an odd assortment of items from chewing-gum to tent pegs. But what use will they be against hungry sharks, a leaky boat and a thieving monkey?

The show has been devised by Bamboozle, the company behind last year’s stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Crazy Hair, and Royal & Derngate’s Christmas show for younger children, Along The Riverbank. Puppetry is by Sue Pyecroft – whose enthralling work will be familiar to anyone who saw Alice In Wonderland, Crazy Hair or Along The Riverbank – taking her cues from the book’s charming illustrations by David Roberts.

With beautiful songs, engaging puppetry and Bamboozle’s trademark multi-sensory style, Jack And The Flumflum Tree promises to enchant family audiences, including those with a learning disabled child. It is recommended for children aged 4 to 10, or for ages 7 to 14 with learning disabilities.

Jack And The Flumflum Tree comes to Royal & Derngate from Friday 4 to Sunday 6 July, with performances at 11am and 2pm daily. Tickets, priced at £7.50*, can be booked by calling Box Office on 01604 624811 or online at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk.
* A transaction fee of £2.50 applies to telephone and website bookings only. Does not apply in person, or to Groups and Friends, and is per-transaction, not per-ticket.

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