Friday, November 27, 2009

Ah here love, you can take a pill for that

A new tablet is being hailed as the female answer to Viagra -- the latest step in an age-old hunt for the female libido. Susan Daly reports

Male desire, the joke goes, is a simple on-off switch while female desire is a whole control desk of dials, knobs and buttons.

The complex nature of the female libido has hitherto been resistant to the simple popping of a blue pill.

Attempts to create a 'pink' version of Viagra, specifically aimed at women, were abandoned in 2004.

But now there's lots of excitment surrounding a new pill developed in a German lab that could actaully be on sale within two years.

It's interesting that the latest much-trumpeted discovery of a wonder drug for female desire works on the brain rather than the body. Viagra worked for men on a mechanical level, boosting the flow of blood to the penis.

This new so-called 'desire' drug, a compound called flibanserin, triggers the production of dopamine, a chemical in the brain which stimulates desire.

How strange that it should have taken this long for scientists to work out what so many of us already know: desire, for women, often begins in the mind.

Hormonal imbalances can also play their part in a flagging libido -- a boost of testosterone has been found to help reawaken a woman's sex drive -- but really, the biggest sexual organ is the brain.

It's taken a long time to get to this realisation. Historically, mankind has experimented with some very strange concoctions in the misapprehension that all it takes is for a woman to ingest one magic ingredient and -- hey presto -- she's on fire.

The word 'aphrodisiac' has feminine connotations, named as it is for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Legend had it Aphrodite held the sparrow to be sacred and the ancient Greeks considered the sparrow to be a lustful creature, in the same way as we now view rabbits.

Sparrow brains might not have a place on the menu of a modern dinner a deux but Grecian women were encouraged to feast on them to increase their sexual potency.

The Chinese believed in the aphrodisiacal properties of the spit a bird used to bind its nest together (bird's nest soup, anyone?); the Byzantines favoured a cake made of honey and donkey milk. Cleopatra got herself in the mood by taking a bath in cardamom, a herb that heats up body temperature.

We talk about fashion victims and suffering for art, but for the ancients the real danger came in pursuit of passion.

An infamous aphrodisiac for women in Roman times was Spanish fly -- really a beetle which secreted an acidic substance called cantharidin. Ground up into a powder, it was secretly slipped into a woman's food in the hope that it would make them burn with lust. It made them burn alright.

Cantharidin is a poison that causes inflammation of the urethral tracts when the unlucky user goes to the toilet. That burning sensation was confused for sexual stimulation. Love hurts, but should it really cause gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney failure?

Aphrodisiacs were to increase a woman's pleasure, sure, but in as much as the end result for society would be more sex equals production of more children.

So you'll often find that traditional aphrodisiacs targeted at women had the correlating benefit of being fertility-boosters.

Mandrake root was supposed to be sexy because it resembled the apex of a woman's thighs, but it is also an effective fertility aid in the Biblical story of Rachel and Leah.

If you think things have moved on a great deal post-JC, consider this news story from Germany in 2006. German police officers were offered a €7 discount on a herbal aphrodisiac for women called Femi-X. They would also receive a free DVD with sex tips.

Andreas Schuster, the police chief in Brandenburg, the province surrounding Berlin, told a German newspaper that he hoped it would help improve the birth rate among Germany's ageing population.

"We all want more children," said Schuster. "The Brandenburg Police is prepared to do its duty. Perhaps this pill will be helpful in this regard." The response from Schuster's female officers is, sadly, not on record.

Whatever the motivation behind the search for female stimulants, it's still not to this day entirely clear what it is that women want.

One recent scientific study concluded that women are turned on by the scent of breastmilk; another reported the arousal of a majority of women who had been shown videos of bonobo apes having sex.

At the other end of the scale, you have the urban legend that green M&Ms are an aphrodisiac, or the survey carried out by a website called that a woman feels most up for sex after a night wearing a certain pair of black Christian Loboutin stilettos.

An Italian study published in the internationally respected Journal of Sexual Medicine last year found that a glass or two of red wine significantly intensifies a woman's sexual pleasure.

This boost in libido was linked to the physical and mental relaxation afforded by a moderate amount of alcohol.

That association links in with some traditional aphrodisiacs like roses or patchouli oil (which might go a ways to explain its popularity with free-loving hippies). These scents are meant to be relaxants along the lines of a mild sedative.

It implies that a low female sex drive is simply blocked by inhibition or, worryingly, suggests that the human race would be having a great deal more sex if women would just, well, loosen up a bit. But there is something to be said for taking a multi-platform approach to a woman's pleasure centre.

John Hoberman of the US National Sexuality Resource Centre records this conclusion made by a South African doctor over 30 years ago: "A good meal, a bottle of wine, and a good film of her choice, are often excellent aphrodisiacs."

For some women, fantasy is a powerful aphrodisiac (yes, yes, lie back and think of Clooney).

For others, according to Henry Kissinger and Napoleon Bonaparte, it's power. Women "belong to the highest bidder", said the little man from Corsica. "Power is what they like -- it is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs."

But for my money, the greatest male philosopher on the deep-seated source of female desire must be Hulk actor Eric Bana who said that the way to his wife's heart is through the dishwashing. "I'm good around the house," he said.

"Housework is a bigger aphrodisiac to women than a set of abs."

At the very least, it's easier than trapping sparrows.

- Susan Daly

Despite the focus having historically been on enticing women into bed, there have also been a plethora of love potions aimed at men with increased stamina as their goal.

Casanova, for example, was said to breakfast each morning on 50 oysters to feed his sexual prowess and fortify him for the day's sexcapades.

The Aztec ruler Montezuma drank 50 -- evidently a magic number -- cups of hot chocolate a day in order to service his harem of 800 women.

Chinese legend has it that the 'Yellow Emperor' Huang Ti girded his loins over 4,000 years ago with a special potion made from 22 herbal ingredients. Non-royal males later made do with the honey-based drink of mead to increase their sexual stamina upon marriage (after which presumably the 'honeymoon' was over?)

But sometimes a man can get too much of a good thing. The Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote of a wild orchid called satyrion which, when dried and ground to a powder, formed the basis of a drink which allowed a man to perform 70 acts of intercourse in a row. Excitable males all over Greece seized upon the plant to the point that it was eaten to extinction. Shame that.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And the bride wore... two dresses

Celebrity weddings: Even Marie Antoinette would have blushed...

The mother-in-law is making the wedding cake. The bride's dress was bought on ebay. These days, most sensible couples are trying to find a way to reduce the price of their nuptials from the Irish average of €25,000.

The celebrity wedding, however, is recession-proof. The clients of Tatiana Byron-Marx, New York-based wedding planner to the stars, don't consider it a party unless the bill comes to seven figures.

Weddings, says Tatiana, are theatre. "Basically it's a production for one-night only. You're building an entire set -- you're the director and producer. The bride and groom are the lead actors and the guests are the audience. It is absolutely the goal to create a memory to last a lifetime."

Considering the brevity of some high-profile marriages, that memory might well outlive the marriage. But what memories! One of Tatiana's clients had Cirque du Soleil perform a specially-choreographed dance above the heads of the guests.

"That was fabulous," says Russian-born Tatiana. "We had two performers -- one dressed as a bride, and one as a groom -- doing an aerial act above the reception."

At another private client's party -- Tatiana has to sign confidentiality agreements as tight as a billionaire's pre-nup -- she hired Lionel Ritchie and the Pussycat Dolls to keep guests amused.

'Some of the most decadent nights we've put on have had major décor budgets and crazy themes. We had a Shanghai theme where we transported the guests into a Shanghai world; the waiting staff attire, the décor, the food, it all matched the theme," says Tatiana.

She's worked with Diana Ross and Mary J Blige, En Vogue but no one can touch her client Sean 'P Diddy' Combs for partying like it's 2009.

"Puff Daddy has the best birthday parties. He's having one tonight in New York Plaza for all his nearest and dearest friends -- 700 people," she laughs. "He'll be performing alongside his friends from the hip-hop world. There will be sushi bars and raw bars. It's going to be a party fit for a king."

Despite the Cristal-quaffing propensities of her usual client list, Tatiana reckons she will have plenty of inspiration for the more modest budgets of Irish brides when she speaks at The Wedding Experience showcase in Adare, Co Limerick, this weekend.

"There are so many brides creating their own weddings -- the DIY brides. We can teach brides where to begin, where the hidden costs are, where to spend and where to save," she says.

Where to spend? The décor, the bar and the food. "It's really important because ultimately you want the guests to have a good time and dinner should be an experience," she says. "And if I were to add a fourth, I would say get a good photographer."

Or, presuming you live in a house made of gold bars, you could opt for a blowout dinner party like the one planned by Tatiana for a very wealthy client in the manicured grounds of the palace of Versailles.

"We hired hundreds of actors to be in period costume, mingling around the guests. It was a party within a party," she says. "We had Marie-Antoinette ride in a horse and carriage. The table was the length of a football field, so it took 35 minutes to walk around."

The irony of theming a million-dollar party around a queen who was beheaded for her extravagance was apparently lost on that client. The truth is that the rich don't worry about scrimping on the canapés.

"That Gilded Age look for table décor was very hot this year," says Tatiana. "Special gold-embroidered invitations, fabulous dessert stations, gold linen, fruits in centerpieces ... When Ivanka Trump got married last month, it was very opulent. She had a Grace Kelly theme, an abundance of flowers, and an 18-piece band -- it was like a mini Carnegie Hall."

The trends for 2010, should you wish to emulate them, are sushi bars, Peking duck carving stations, four dinner courses instead of three (smaller portions though, like tuna tartare in a martini glass -- socialites and celebs disdain pigging out, don't you know).

'People eat with their eyes," says Tatiana. "So dessert stations have become incredibly abundant, lots of chocolate fountains, ice-cream sundae stations. Bite-size cupcakes are huge now -- red velvet and Oreo cookie ones, covered with M&Ms, every variety imaginable."

'Convertible' wedding dresses are all the rage -- a long gown from which the bottom half can be removed to create a more daring hemline when the reception hots up. If that sounds a little Bucks' Fizz circa Eurovision 1981, you could opt for two separate dresses entirely. One is for the ceremony and one for the party, a trend pioneered by Katie Holmes when she donned two Armani frocks for her wedding. It sounds like you can never be too excessive when you're having a big, fat, wealthy wedding. "There are some times when I have to stand my ground," says Tatiana.

"We had a client who was getting married in Moscow who insisted on transporting her guests from the wedding to the reception by boat. It would have taken six hours: I had to insist that wouldn't be good for the guests."

Still, surrounded by such opulence must turn a girl's head. "It's so funny you say that," says Tatiana, "When I got married, I had just 11 people at my wedding."

Then she laughs: "I still had a nice photographer and a Sylvia Weinstock (baker to the stars) cake. Three tiers of chocolate on chocolate, with gold and lush red roses to match my bouquet."

Tatiana Byron Marx speaks at the Wedding Experience in Adare Manor, Co Limerick next Saturday. Entry is free but to reserve a spot, call Sarah Stuart-Trainor on 061 605200.

- Susan Daly

Pineapple-shaped hole

Jedward may be out of The X Factor but there's hope yet for Sunday night talent-show TV
SWITCH ON: This touching band of home-grown acts is just what we need

What are the chances of next month's Budget stumping up for a Jedward helpline? Not high, I imagine, what with the biblical floods and overstretched welfare system rattling their collection boxes.

Fans of the terrible twins will have to deal with withdrawal symptoms on their own, bolstered perhaps by their appearance at a supermarket opening near you.

To paraphrase Jedward's special rendering of the Ghostbusters ditty: So now who you gonna call?

Luckily, RTE have stepped in to fill the pineapple-shaped hole left by Jedward's X-it from X Factor. Behold, they give us: The All-Ireland Talent Show!

That sounds sarcastic but it is absolutely not meant to be.

While Jedward prepared to make their last contribution to the gaiety of the nation on Sunday night, RTE One were airing the first episode of this season's All-Ireland Talent Show. RTE have cleverly scheduled their show to be over by 7.30pm so it's not in direct competition with the 8pm X Factor kick-off. That would be plain dumb.

And -- whisper it -- it wasn't half bad. I would go so far as to say that the All-Ireland Talent Show is what we need from reality TV right now. It's like the anti-X Factor. (In the same way that Daithi O Se is the anti-Simon Cowell. Who is in turn the anti-Christ. Maybe.)

The X Factor can be tiresome and nasty. Who needs to hear another sub-Mariah poppet with acrylic hair extensions warbling her way through a power ballad? Jedward went from jeers to cheers because they challenged the jaded cynicism of the show. They smiled through the vitriol and abuse.

Maybe two years ago we would have been mortified by them. Look at those eejits making a show of Ireland, we'd have thought. But I guess in the end we admired their mindless good cheer.

On the basis of its first episode, the All-Ireland Talent Show is going to take that perky perspective and run even further with it.

The star of Sunday's show was a middle-aged man whose dream was to win €50,000 grand prize so he might help his children, several of whom have been consigned to the dole by the current economic crisis.

He told his story quietly before unleashing a sweet, soulful voice only slightly vibrating with nerves. Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh and her fellow judges asked why he had waited this long to let his voice be heard.

"I didn't have the confidence," he said, clearly embarrassed by his own modest ambitions.

It was a touching moment but never got to the point of sentimentality. It felt very good indeed to watch people being treated with respect, dignity and sensitivity. Similarly, an incident where Blathnaid welled up was not over-milked. A young woman sang an old tune that reminded Blathnaid of her recently-deceased father. Blathnaid, normally the epitome of the stern mammy, had a little cry, dabbed her eyes and the show went on.

I hope the Talent Show doesn't prove me wrong in future episodes, but it doesn't seem to be going for the usual array of mentally unstable unfortunates that the X Factor likes to showcase in its early auditions.

The scope of its 'variety entertainment' brief helps. Not everyone who comes on it wants to be the next Leona Lewis or Shayne Ward. Which is a blessed relief because if I hear one more take on Eva Cassidy's version of Over the Rainbow I might have to go out and punch some bluebirds.

There are hip-hop dance groups, family acts and trad performers, six-year-old cuties belting out Bon Jovi hits and gentle old men taking a tentative chance. Some might think it's parochial; I think it's quintessentially Irish.

This is our community and now, more than at any other time in the past 20 years, we need to be rooting for each other. Go, team Ireland!
- Susan Daly

From The Evening Herald,

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Twilight Zone

I had a sort of email interview with teen vampire du jour Robert Pattinson and Day and Night magazine carries the result today. Spent Wednesday night in a cinema-full of pubescent girls with my ears clasped protectively over my ears. I'm trying to think - did we have any Beatlesque-mania movies when I was a teen? I liked Dirty Dancing but I don't think I actually SWOONED when Patrick Swayze came on screen...

ROBERT PATTINSON is going to have to start wearing earplugs in public. When he took on the role of brooding young vampire Edward Cullen in Twilight last year, he was transformed overnight into a teen idol. Now that the sequel, New Moon, is on the cusp of release, the screams from the hordes of adolescent girls who follow his every move are set to be deafening.

The English actor is baffled by his sudden elevation to every teen girl's sexual fantasy. Glamour magazine named him Sexiest Man in the World in August. OK! magazine called him Hollywood's Most Eligible Bachelor in April. Those are a lot of superlatives for a 23-year-old guy who says his hands are so feminine-looking he was once a ladies' ring model for a mail-order catalogue.

"I don't feel that I am sexy at all," argues Pattinson. "Really, I don't feel very connected to that kind of talk, anyway. I know that other people say it, but I never thought like that. I never got any of the good-looking guy roles before this, so that says something!"

Before Twilight-mania, Pattinson was most famous as doomed schoolboy Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire, one of the Harry Potter franchise of films. Ironically, he's arguably as famous now as the star of the Twilight series as Daniel Radcliffe is as the bespectacled wizard, Potter.

Radcliffe, moreover, is not what you might call a sex symbol. When Pattinson was in Cannes last May to promote New Moon, he was shadowed ceaselessly by a chorus of swooning French schoolgirls. Never mind that Pattinson wasn't in any of the movies screening at Cannes film festival, nor that New Moon was not due for release for another six months: his presence is an event in its own right these days.

He concedes that the attention can get a little weird. "I did get this really bizarre horoscope thing from someone. It was a full-on zodiac reading, charting and intersecting all this stuff. It was over 20 pages long, basically saying we were destined to be together!

"I don't really believe in that stuff anyway, although I do believe in karma, mainly because it's bitten me on the ass so many times!"

He insists that his teen fans are more in love with the idea of his otherworldly character Edward Cullen than with Pattinson himself.

"It is funny because even the people that think like that [that he's a sexual fantasy], if you talk to them for five minutes and if one of them came up, after about five minutes the illusion has gone," he insists.

"I think people don't really know what they want, and often it is an imaginary thing that they want."

He could probably argue that this is also a factor in the constant buzz about the nature of his relationship with his co-star Kristen Stewart. Fans would just love to see the romance of Edward and Bella's impossible on-screen love bleed over into real life. Even though Pattinson has insisted he is just good friends with the 19-year-old who plays Bella, tabloids have built up a flurry of speculation that the pair are lovers/ engaged/expecting a baby.

Pattinson's antidote to the hype is to stick to friends from his old life. The son of a car salesman dad and a mother who worked in a modelling agency, he is careful to keep in touch with life under the teen-scream radar.

"I hang out with people I have grown up with, with a lot of people who are musicians," he says.

Even so, the Twilight phenomenon has not passed all of his friends by.

"Actually I worked a bit with them [the musician pals] on the soundtrack and it is so funny what has happened with them, just from having their name on a Twilight soundtrack. They have been doing gigs in America and they sell out every single time they play and they have really started on careers.

"But they should have had a career anyway. They are good enough to do it, but it certainly is a positive knock on effect.

"A friend of mine is doing a gig at The Whiskey in LA. This is a guy who is unsigned, completely unadvertised, just on his MySpace page, and the tickets and presale sold out quicker than any gig at the place ever. They sold out within an hour."

His friends' parallel success makes it clear to Pattinson that there are some positives to be milked from the juggernaut that is Twilight. He is happy to ride it for the time being, having just begun shooting Eclipse, the third episode in the series based on the Stephenie Meyer books of the same name. Filming on the fourth, Breaking Dawn, will begin at the end of next year.

In between, he has managed to play Salvador Dali in the low-budget Little Ashes last year. He filmed a family drama called Remember Me opposite Pierce Brosnan immediately after wrapping on New Moon. Next up is Unbound Captives, a western directed by actress Madeleine Stowe which also stars Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman.

He says he worries ("a little, maybe") about being typecast, so his diligent work ethic is to address that fear. The idea is that when, and if, girls stop pestering him in the street to bite them he will still have a career outside Edward Cullen to fall back on.

To this end, Pattinson also likes the turn of events in New Moon, which see his character fade a little into the background. Edward and Bella have been separated over Edward's fears that his vampire instincts to hurt his human girlfriend might overcome his love for her. In his absence, Bella finds herself drawn to her childhood friend Jacob, who is played by Taylor Lautner. Lautner packed on 30 pounds to show Jacob's growing maturity (as a man -- and as a werewolf, natch).

Pattinson has jokingly told how embarrassed he felt having to take off his shirt next to his newly-buff co-star, but he is relieved that the spotlight is a little more shared between them.

"I'm not carrying New Moon, which is nice, I'm just supporting really," he says. "It means I'm looking forward to it -- which normally I don't. I don't usually like watching myself!"

But while his teenage fans will continue to do that for him, Pattinson also believes the Edward of New Moon is one he can more easily relate to as a regular guy.

"He can feel that he is making the wrong decision, but he makes it anyway," says Pattinson. "You do feel that a lot as a guy in relationships and I felt I knew how to do that. In New Moon, he can see he is making the wrong decision, the audience can see it, Bella can see it, everybody can see it but he is compelled to mess it up."

Pattinson seems very keen on finding something normal to relate to in the midst of all the fantasy. Shouldn't he just relax and take advantage of the things his position at the top of the hunk food chain could afford him?

"It's funny, I don't have any massive desires. I really don't," he says emphatically. "I like shitty stuff. I still have a crap car somewhere lost in LA. I don't recall where I parked it.

"I don't request anything from anyone, so I don't want them to ask things of me. There are actors who want that attention, and the paparazzi feel they have a right for me to give them something. But I don't care about any of that stuff."

New Moon is out today

- Susan Daly

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bland de jour

Well there goes the fantasy. All those men imagining call girl Belle de Jour as some pouty Billie Piper type and it turns out she's a normal-looking doctor called Brooke.

The identity of Belle was a well-kept secret until two days ago. Her blog about life as a high-class escort became a best-selling book and a TV series starring Piper.

Belle retained her anonymity and because no-one knew what she looked like, she was a blank canvas for other people's fantasies.

When she finally exposed herself in a Sunday newspaper, it was not in the way some of her fans might have liked to daydream. It turns out that the reality of the woman who has been accused of glamourising prostitution is fairly prosaic.

As Belle, she was seen as a sex kitten stalking the five-star hotels of London. She charged £300 an hour. Because she was worth it. As portrayed by Billie Piper on TV, she was smart, discreet and equipped with a wardrobe of silk corsets.

In real life, Belle is Dr Brooke Magnanti, a research specialist in neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She says she turned to prostitution to fund her PhD studies in the less than glittering West Country city of Bristol.

At a stretch you might call her a hot nerd. But the streetwise vixen some of her more ardent followers might have pictured? Probably not.

The manner of her first public outing was not a sexy reveal. The first picture of the doctor who turned tricks -- no point in mincing words -- had her in an oversized cardi, long woolly scarf and demure sweater dress.

She says she feared an ex-boyfriend was about to out her in a newspaper interview so perhaps she decided to get there first. All of a sudden, Belle de Jour became a very real person. If you listened carefully, you could almost hear the shattering of a thousand male delusions.

She has proved that while fantasy might be a potent aphrodisiac, the reality is nearly always a good deal less sexy. Start thinking of the prostitute as a real woman with an ego and a life outside the hotel bedroom and the titillation is gone, isn't it?


When Belle's blog started gaining notices, some people thought it was made up because it was well written and portrayed prostitution as a sort of lifestyle choice. (The nom de plume was significant as it brought to mind Catherine Deneuve's sexy, bored housewife in the 1967 French film of the same name).

Now that we know the truth behind it, it's almost too much information. I'm sure it's ruined the fantasy for some folk to know that the happy hooker was just a broke medical student with a way with words.

Magnanti doesn't come across as a victim of circumstance. Whatever you feel about her lack of regret at how she sold sex for 14 months, at least she's not changed her tune just because her pseudonym is blown.

Anonymity was, she says, no fun. "I couldn't even go to my own book launch." She has told her colleagues and family about her past and they are all fine with it. Even her mum.

I just wish she'd come out sooner. Now that the mystery is gone, we can see that it's just another story of prostitution and in the cold light of day, there's nothing vaguely glamorous or sexy about that.

Cheap thrills

I love being scared by flying bedsheets...

'Paranormal Activity' is the latest film to turn a modest budget into box-office gold, writes Susan Daly
Saturday November 14 2009

The rule of thumb for any successful horror movie dictates that what you don't see can often be much scarier than what you do.

This is just as well for the latest horror phenomenon to hit cinemas. Paranormal Activity, due to be released here at the end of the month, was put together on a measly budget of $15,000 (€10,100). That won't buy you a whole lot of fake blood.

Nonetheless, the gore-free frightfest has shot straight to the top of the US box office with earnings so far of almost $100m (€67m). It's quite the feat for a movie devised by an unknown video game designer called Oren Peli, shot in his San Diego house over seven days and edited on his home computer. It had a crew of three and a cast of two, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who were paid $500 each for their work.

The plot of the film is also deceptively simple. Katie and Micah, who keep their own names in the film, are a young couple who fear their house is haunted. They set up a camera at the foot of their bed that records increasingly disturbing events as they take place in the middle of the night. Strange shapes unfold under their duvet cover, a door swings a few inches wider of its own accord, unexplained dusty footprints appear on the floor. While there are no decapitations, no grisly dismemberings, the tension builds to a (reportedly) terrifying climax.

The first preview of Paranormal Activity was given to a group of around 250 teens and industry people in LA late last year. That night has now gone down in screening folklore. Audience members hugged themselves in terror; others fled their seats in panic. Some stayed rooted where they were, screaming incessantly.

Stuart Ford, the sales agent who organised the night, said the film was sold to 52 different countries within 48 hours of the screening. It is being described as the new Blair Witch Project, a reference to the 1999 horror thriller that was made on an initial production budget of around $25,000 (€17,000) but went on to pull in $248m (€166m) worldwide through a clever marketing ploy (initial audiences were led to believe that the footage was real, and that the film-makers had since gone missing) and word of mouth.

Blair Witch was also genuinely frightening. Paranormal Activity director Peli cites it as a major influence on his film. "As in the case of Blair Witch and (the no-budget shark-attack movie) Open Water, I wanted there to be only a bit of blood," he says, "That's just the way I like scary movies: you don't have to go over the top."

The myth surrounding Paranormal Activity is just as important in creating a buzz as the content of the film itself. While a viral marketing ploy like the missing filmmakers hoax that worked for Blair back in 1999 would be exposed in days on the internet now, it is still being sold as an experience as much as a feature film. Trailers have included preview audiences' terrified reactions as well as footage from the actual movie.

Producer Jason Blum (The Reader) likes to tell how he was sent the film on DVD and started laughing because he got so scared watching it alone in his living room. "I had run the acquisitions department for Miramax in 1999," he said. "And I didn't buy Blair Witch. I wasn't going to let it happen again."

It was passed on to Steven Spielberg, who has sparked another anecdote that is being circulated widely. Spielberg, apparently, was so disturbed by the film -- and the fact that a room in his house locked itself from the inside in the immediate aftermath of his watching it -- that he returned the disc in a black plastic sack.

Let's put aside for the moment hints of 'supernatural' forces at work on the film's shock success. A screening of Paranormal Activity at the LA horror film festival Screamfest was instrumental in building up a buzz. Indie film festivals have been important in getting low- budget films into the hands of big-budget distributors and studios for some years now.

The annual Sundance festival in Utah, for example, was initially organised by Robert Redford as a low-hype outlet for independent films. Over time it has become a definite box to be ticked by major Hollywood players on the lookout for small-time films with mass audience appeal. In this way independent films like Irish director John Carney's hit Once, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Garden State, Open Water and Waitress -- all made with a relatively low cost-base (relative by Hollywood standards anyway) -- have found themselves caught up in a bidding war between distributors in the days after a festival screening.

Once upon a time, there was a phenomenon known as 'sleeper' films. These were movies that didn't open to a large box office but as word of mouth grew -- sometimes helped by a more spaced-out marketing campaign -- so did their audiences. A Fish Called Wanda for example, took 10 weeks to reach number one at the US box office in 1988. There's Something About Mary, one of the smash hits of the 1990s, didn't top the ratings chart until it had been in cinemas for eight weeks.

Dirty Dancing, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Shawshank Redemption, Psycho: all these were movies that seemingly came out of nowhere and beat more highly marketed films at the box office or, later, in home rentals and purchases.

Now the buzz created by social media outlets like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook means that consumers can have their influence felt even sooner (or be influenced earlier). The infamous first public screening of Paranormal Activity, for example, happened over a year ago in Santa Monica. Paramount cleverly created a sort of consumer-led distribution by asking horror fans to vote at a special online 'demand' site if they wanted the movie to be shown in a theatre near them.

By the time the film opened in the States last month, the clamour to see it was deafening.

Anomalies at the box office are not always easily explained by clever marketing. Ang Lee, director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, told me in an interview to promote his latest movie, the well-promoted Taking Woodstock, that he was "baffled" that it had made a loss at the box office. "It is very disappointing. I don't know what happened," he said. Heaven's Gate? Waterworld? Snakes On A Plane? More proof, if needed, that big budgets don't always yield big returns.

There are, of course, those noble failures: the flops that later revealed themselves to be enduring gems. Duck Soup in 1933 was such a disaster for the Marx Brothers that it led to them being dropped by Paramount -- it is now acknowledged to be their comic masterpiece. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) has always been a limited-release film but midnight screenings of it have made it a cult cash cow, yielding almost $140m (€94m) over the past 30 years. Blade Runner, Bringing Up Baby, Night of the Hunter, Citizen Kane -- it took years for them to be given their due.

As for Paranormal Activity, the underlying reason why it has made it big is because it deserved to. Oren Peli tells how he spent three months alone getting the light just right to ratchet up the tension in the scene where a bedroom door inches open onto a dark hallway beyond. The movie spent almost three years bouncing from office to office in Hollywood but its eventual success reveals a truism: class will out.

El Mariachi (1992): The first film of Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) was shot with an amateur cast on a budget of $7,000 (e4,700) – the director raised half of it participating in clinical drug trials in Texas. When Columbia got their hands on it
they marketed it to a non-Hispanic audience and it made $2m (e1.3m) in the US.

Once (2007): This e160k Irish love story from John Carney was the talk of Sundance and before we knew it, Once had made $20m (e13.3m) worldwide, Dublin earned a reputation as an unlikely capital of romance and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won an Oscar for their love song.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004): Another Sundance success story, this ode to geekhood made its $400,000 (e267,300) budget back in spades – in fact, it covered its costs exactly 100 times over.

The Room (2003): Notorious for all the wrong reasons, The Room – scripted, directed and starring a man called Tommy Wiseau – has been described as the “Citizen Kane of bad movies”. This dubious accolade has translated into huge success at cult late-night screenings, although Wiseau now claims it was his intention that the film be a “black comedy”. Its earnings to date are not recorded, but it is safe to say Wiseau has bested its original theatre run returns of $2,000 (e1,330).

Titanic (1997): Okay, so it’s not exactly low budget, but Titanic was largely expected to suffer huge losses when director James Cameron’s monumental vision for the film pushed its release date back by six months and the budget sky-high to $200m (e133m). The last laugh was ‘King of the World’ Cameron’s: Titanic has grossed over $1.8bn (e1.2bn) worldwide.

The Postman (1997): A post-apocalyptic theme was probably not the best one to run with for a Kevin Costner just fresh from the apocalyptic disaster that was Waterworld. The latter film has received some critical praise in hindsight, but The Postman is still considered a vainglorious mess. It cost $80m (e53.4m) to make but only brought in $18m (e12m) in receipts.

Town and Country (2001): Warren Beatty struck an unattractive note as a philanderer in a midlife crisis. The complicated production took 3 years to reach cinemas and when it did, audiences stayed away in droves (at a $78m (e52m) loss even before marketing costs are taken into a count).

Battlefield Earth (2000): The LA Times called John Travolta’s homage to Scientology leader L Ron Hubbard “a quite miserable experience”. Misery loves company - $90m (e60m) of it in fact. It only made about a quarter of that outlay back.

Cleopatra (1963): An unusual flop this, it won four Oscars even though it was both a commercial and critical failure. Originally meant to cost $2m (e1.3m) to make, this Liz Taylor star vehicle eventually cost $44m (e30m). It did make a profit of $17m (e11.3m) – eventually – but almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox on the way there.

Gigli (2003): With its two A-list stars, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, in a relationship at the time, Gigli should have been a must-see. Its reputation at previews proceeded it however, and it was withdrawn quickly from cinemas due to abysmal performance. Bennifer didn’t last much longer either. It cost $54m (e36m) to make – it lost $48m (e32m).

Would that she'd be luvverly

In the course of our conversation, Martine McCutcheon managed to refer to herself in the same bracket as Michael Caine, Audrey Hepburn, Bono and Barbra Streisand. Bless her Cockney socks.
Here's the interview from last Saturday's Weekend mag in the Irish Indo...

The key moments of Martine McCutcheon's career all seem to carry echoes of My Fair Lady. The Cockney girl turned good; the Cinderella who -- through self-belief, hard work and a sprinkle of stardust -- got to go to the ball.

McCutcheon was the Knickerbox sales girl who became a nation's TV sweetheart as Tiffany in EastEnders. The kid who used to belt out Barbra Streisand numbers for her mum and went on to score an international number one with Perfect Moment. When the pop bubble burst, she really did become My Fair Lady in a revival at London's National Theatre. Later, in the movie Love Actually, she was the tea lady who won Prime Minister Hugh Grant's heart.

Now 33, the girl who used to act out other people's words has been magically transformed into an author.

Her very first novel -- as she tells it, the subject of a bidding war before it was even written -- is a bonkbusting romp called The Mistress. Mandy, with hair dark as ebony, flawless skin and beautiful big brown eyes, falls in love with the equally flawless Jake on the night of her 30th birthday. He's sexy, suave, successful and -- flaw alert -- married with children.

In between athletic bouts of sex and soul-searching chats with her gay best friend, Mandy struggles with the conflicting demands of guilt and desire. Without spoiling potential readers' enjoyment, it suffices to say that all comes right in the end. It's fiction, although McCutcheon has been falsely accused of being the other woman in chef Marco Pierre White's marriage.

McCutcheon says that people who know her and maybe wondered if she'd written the book herself had their doubts laid to rest once they read it. "They said, 'You can tell it was you. You can tell it's your voice'." I don't know what McCutcheon's inner voice sounds like, but from reading The Mistress, I can confirm that the services of a ghost writer were not employed.

In Dublin, on a flying promotional visit, McCutcheon elaborates on how she has added this latest string to her bow. Just off the plane, she's dressed in comfy jeans and boots and her hair is swept up in a girlish ponytail. I ask her about the physical similarities between Mandy and Martine and she laughs.

"Mandy is the supermodel version -- she's a heightened version of me once the A-list hair and make-up have gotten hold of me." The lighting in the hotel bar where I find her is so dim that I have difficulty reading my notes, but from what I can make out she looks pretty good in her civvies.

But back to business. Just over a year ago, ITV had asked her to come up with some ideas for a drama series that she would then star in. "As an actress that's like a dream come true," she says. She was to work with a team of screenwriters, but the TV bosses said the series would be based around "the essence of you".

Somehow, publishers got wind of the fact that Martine was "writing something" and, before you could say fairy godfather, she had to get herself a literary agent to help her cope with the book deal offers that came flooding in.

It boiled down to two publishing houses, one of whom was "looking at me less as a writer and more as me". She went with Pan MacMillan, who she says "were really interested in helping me be a writer".

Prime Suspect screenwriter and crime novelist Lynda La Plante had a go at the trend for celebrity-penned novels a couple of weeks ago. "Publishers are spending millions on TV faces -- these books are a phenomenon and they are awful," she said at a book awards ceremony at which McCutcheon was also a guest.

Without referring to La Plante directly, McCutcheon says: "If you are known for something else, there is going to be a backlash, people are going to be cynical."

Of her detractors she says: "I think it's laziness. Because I've done so many different things, people get a bit narky and all of a sudden anybody who has written a book who was famous for something else, be it a javelin-thrower or a politician, all of a sudden it's all resting on your shoulders."

She is confident in her credentials as a novelist. "You think, 'Hold on, I've always been a storyteller, be it as an actress or as a singer or on stage, TV, film, lyrics for my music' -- this is a natural progression for me."

I ask if she experienced any moments of self-doubt in the writing itself, which took the best part of a year, on and off. "The thing I found really hard was the editing process," she says, "because there was stuff that I was really precious about and then they didn't like it and wanted me to take it out."

Surprisingly for someone who has been acting, singing and dancing from a young age, McCutcheon says she is happy to sit quietly in a room, writing. "I feel it's a yin and yang thing," she says. "Apparently, Bono likes to be on his own for a month after he's been touring. You need to be able to recharge, otherwise you don't have that spark to entertain people again."

Not that her performing career, while varied, has had many fairy-tale endings. When McCutcheon decided to leave EastEnders in 1998 to pursue a music and movie career, she was upset when BBC bosses ruled out any future return to the soap by throwing her much-loved Tiffany character under the wheels of a car.

Her subsequent pop career burned brightly but was over all too briefly after two records -- one double-platinum -- with Virgin Records and one with EMI Liberty. Her turn on the boards as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in 2001 was dogged by illness-induced absenteeism. She was cattily dubbed Eliza Do Little by elements of the British press.

She says now that when she was approached to do the show, she was going through a lot of heartache in her life. The role her abusive father played in her early childhood has been well documented -- her first memory of her dad Thomas Hemmings was of him dangling the three-year-old Martine by the ankles from a balcony in order to threaten her mum, Jenny.

When she got her West End break, Hemmings made a sordid reappearance, selling stories to the tabloids about her. "I had all these things going on and my way of coping was to keep working, have the applause every night and not really deal with it," she says. She notes that My Fair Lady is a particularly draining task for its leading lady. "It's notorious for anybody who's ever done it, from Julie Andrews to me to Audrey Hepburn. It's really famous for that. Which I didn't know until I'd signed on the dotted line."

She was also struggling to meet her Prince Charming, having broken off an engagement in 1996 to DJ Gareth Cooke, who then sold stories of their sex life. A later relationship with friend Jonathan Barnham soured after he attended sex parties behind her back.

She's been with musician Jack McManus, who is 25, for the past three years now and drops him easily into conversation as "my other half". That, and the continued support of her mother Jenny Tomlin, also an author (she even typed up the longhand manuscript of Martine's novel) are obviously hugely positive influences on her.

But back then, she was ready to throw in the towel. After the end of her run as Eliza Doolittle she took off to Spain, feeling rundown and upset. She sat on the plane telling God that she would need to think of something else to do with her life unless he gave her a massive sign. One week later, her agent rang her with the news that Richard Curtis had written a role especially for her in his new film, Love Actually.

"I literally nearly dropped the phone and looked up and said, 'God, you don't muck about do you?'" she laughs.

Yet the role didn't translate into the fabulous Hollywood career that many were predicting for her. McCutcheon says she was signed up to do an NBC show, "the new Friends", but that internal network politics among the head honchos meant she was kept hanging on for a year, contracted to the studio but not working. Even now, she says, there are films she can't watch knowing that she was offered major roles in them at that time and couldn't take them.

"Meanwhile in England they were saying 'Martine's upset everyone in America'. They had me quoted as talking like Dick van Dyke, 'Get off me bleedin' dress' or something," she says, parodying her London accent. "It was so embarrassing. I was thinking, that's so mean: as if I would do that to myself!"

McCutcheon is keen to dispense with the diva myth. Quite the opposite, she says, harking back to the time of My Fair Lady. "I was always scared that if I said what I wanted, it was printed that I was a diva. I so wanted to be liked and so wanted things to be perfect and give people what they wanted that I literally lost my voice. I couldn't speak up for myself."

Another huge misconception about her, she says, is that she's a victim.

"People almost want you to be a victim because then they can be more sympathetic to you," she says shrewdly. "Even I feel like that: you look at some people who are in the public eye right now and they might have everything, but they might have a husband who strayed and you go, 'Phew, there's not perfection after all, so I'm okay', and really it's about you -- it's not actually about that person at all."

The title of her 2000 autobiography Who Does She Think She Is? strikes that defiant note and McCutcheon admits that she has learned to be tough in a tough business.

And while she might not want to be seen as a victim, she does recognise the fact that her humble roots, the way she had to push and fight her way into a scholarship into the prestigious Italia Conti stage school as a kid, gave her drive and ambition.

"I found it very hard to say no to things, being from a working-class background," she says. "Every time I was offered a job -- I think Michael Caine said the same thing -- even if it's not a good project, you take it because there's a part of you thinking, 'Who am I to say no? I might never work again'."

It could be easy to dismiss Martine McCutcheon as a bit of a dreamer. She doesn't aim low: her inspirations are Marilyn Monroe, Judi Dench, Audrey Hepburn, Helen Mirren, Barbra Streisand. But, explaining the heady mix of designer labels, fabulous beauties and glam goings-on in The Mistress, she says: "I think because of childhood stuff, I've always wanted to escape and always wanted that lovely fantasy glossiness."

If she wants to star as the fairy-tale princess of her own creation, who can blame her?

- Susan Daly

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ang Lee's acid test

I was lucky enough to be the last person to interview Ang Lee at the end of a six-month promotion tour for his new movie, Taking Woodstock. Although I can't recommend the film is the best you'll ever see about the event - try the 1970 documentary Woodstock for that - it was a joy to meet the man who gave us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. Frankly, any director who successfully translates E Annie Proulx to screen once is allowed to make turkeys for the rest of his subsequent career...
Taking Stock: Ang Lee

By Susan Daly

Friday November 13 2009

When Ang Lee was preparing a scene in his new movie about Woodstock, in which his lead character goes on an acid trip, he thought: Maybe I should try it.

When Ang Lee was preparing a scene in his new movie about Woodstock, in which his lead character goes on an acid trip, he thought: Maybe I should try it.

The Taiwanese-Chinese director imparts this little snippet with a genial smile. In his buttoned-down shirt and pressed chinos, hair neatly parted, it is as if he's describing how he almost had steak for his dinner last night.

"I was tempted [to take LSD], I have to say," he laughs, "but when my kids said, 'Come on, dad, you have to try it', that's when I had to draw the line and put on the stern dad face!"

Lee is renowned for putting in hard research before he begins shooting his films. The sheer diversity of the subjects he has tackled in his career has required him to.

His breakout hit, Sense and Sensibility (1995), breathed fresh life into the Jane Austen revival genre. For Ride With The Devil in 1999, he tells me he became an amateur historian of the American Civil War.

When he returned to Chinese territory with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a year later, he brushed up on his rusty Mandarin Chinese dialect because its use was faithful to the wuxia movie genre.

Perhaps a flirtation with drugs would have been a preparation step too far, even for Lee. But the fact that he considered it at all indicates he was on a different trip with Taking Woodstock.

Two years earlier, he had directed erotic espionage thriller Lust, Caution. Before that came the heartbreaking Brokeback Mountain, in 2005. It won Lee a best director Oscar but the premature death of its star, Heath Ledger, devastated Lee.

"I was yearning to do a comedy after so many heavy duty films," he says.

He gave himself licence to have fun with Taking Woodstock and depart from his normal directorial style, which he says is "controlled, a little stiff". Kate Winslet once told how the cast members of Sense and Sensibility were required by Lee to write lengthy essays before filming began.

Lee is slightly baffled that he might have earned a reputation for being a difficult director to please. "I'm a nice guy, I don't know why they get so uptight when they see me," he says in his very soft, very gentle voice. "It seems I set a high standard and they think they cannot please me."

This time was different. Feeding off the peace and love aura of Woodstock perhaps, he says he felt very happy throughout shooting -- and he even let his cast know it. "With this movie, I let them know immediately that I appreciated what they gave me."

It could be said that Lee's slightly more relaxed attitude towards Taking Woodstock was a sort of preparation in itself. He believes that Woodstock was not really about the music or the performers; it was about the counter-culture it gave expression to. When he says that he wanted to "totally lose control and go with the flow" when making the movie, it was his way of tapping into that vibe.

He put hundreds of extras up in a "hippie camp", immersing them in books and films of the late 60s and, most importantly, allowing them to just hang out ("No drugs!" he adds quickly.)

Lee admits that he's a long way from being able to relax until a film is in the can. "I couldn't entirely let go," he smiles. "If something doesn't flow my way, I still come in and want to take control."

Still, it is this focus and attention to every detail that has made Lee so revered as a director. It's necessary, he thinks, for an outsider who wants to immerse himself in an alien world.

Lee's is a complex sense of alienation. Brought up in Taiwan by Chinese parents who fled Mao's Cultural Revolution, he only came to America to study film as a young man. Now 55, he is a naturalised American citizen, married to molecular biologist Jane Lin for the past 26 years. They have two sons, Haan (25) and Mason (19), and live in the New York commuter town of Larchmont. There's a chicken coop in the back yard, his boys attended public schools and Lee doesn't have showbiz pals. To all intents and purposes, his life is now woven into the fabric of American suburbia.

"I'm still an outsider," he says. It's not a complaint, just an observation. "But I feel like an insider when I make a movie because I created that world.

"The benefit of an outsider making a movie about something outside of their culture is that they don't assume they know, they haven't built up a lot of false information."

Hence the diligent research. Hence the absolute believability of his portrayal of the social topography of 70s America in The Ice Storm, or of the inner landscape of the human heart in Brokeback Mountain.

Taking Woodstock refutes the notion that if you remember it, man, you weren't there. It is based on the memoir of Eliot Techberg, a young man whose parents owned a rundown motel in the Catskills at the time when the Woodstock organisers were casting around for a venue.

Eliot, as chairman of the chamber of commerce in White Lake, granted the licence for the festival to be held in a neighbour's field.

"I heard a lot of people who were there said the film really looked like it was there; they were looking for themselves in my crowd."

It is remarkable that at the time of Woodstock, Lee was a 14-year-old studying for his high school exam in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan, a base for American aircraft during the Vietnam War.

Lee and his pals were fascinated by Westernised culture. "Taiwan was conservative back then but we listened to American movies, television. I saw Woodstock on the television news -- it was in black and white, guys with big hair jamming on guitars, a sea of people.

"We worshipped anything that was groovy, that was American culture. But we also relied on America as the Big Brother, the good guys from the Second World War, protector, leader of Free World, fighting the Communist. So it's a mixed feeling."

The outsider theme runs through to the depiction of Eliot, played by stand-up comedian Demetri Martin, who comes to terms with his difficult Russian immigrant parents -- and also reconciles his gay identity with his small-town upbringing.

Lee thinks that people try to read too much into the gay issues raised by some of his films. Eliot's sexuality in Taking Woodstock is just part of the big picture. In his 1993 family drama The Wedding Banquet, homosexuality was "kind of a political method", he says, a device by which to illustrate the cultural gap between the old and young generations of a Taiwanese family.

And Brokeback Mountain, the film that had homophobics foaming at the mouth and others praising its sensitivity and layered portrayal of love and desire?

"I was actually interested in that gay romantic love." He pauses, then nods emphatically. "I would say that was a gay movie."

That is how it is with Lee. Being an outsider frees him to tackle the knotty subjects that other directors might shy away from. Right now, he's working on bringing Yann Martel's Booker-winning novel Life of Pi to screen. It's a book many have said is unfilmable.

"I think it's workable," he says calmly, "I think I have a way to crack it."

Lucky for some

My Friday the 13th musings in today's Herald...

Do you feel lucky today? If you're reading this at all, you're doing well. The sky hasn't fallen in, the world hasn't ended and you've managed to get out and buy the paper without walking into an open manhole. Hurrah!

In case you hadn't noticed, it's Friday the 13th -- and this year has been particularly tough for paraskavedekatriaphobics (those with a fear of Friday the 13th). This is our third one this year -- an unholy trinity that only occurs once a decade or so.

It's hard to know exactly when all the hysteria began. The number 13 has been thought unlucky for centuries, sometimes just because it wasn't the perfectly rounded number 12. The Norse believed that if 13 people sat down to dinner together, one would die.

As for Friday: well, that's been getting bad press in the Christian world since the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. (Looks like the Norse were right about 13 people sitting down to supper together, after all). But it's only in the last century or so that the two have combined to give us Friday the 13th, a day that's launched a thousand horror movies.

The funny thing is, Friday the 13th is statistically not all that dangerous. A Dutch study last year found that fewer accidents occur on that date, and there are fewer reports of fire and thefts. Those Dutch are terribly sensible folk. That, or people are so nervous they make a bigger effort to keep themselves out of trouble that day.

In Greece, they think Tuesday the 13th is much more unlucky, so what happens if you're on holiday there today? Does that make you immune from 'the curse'?

Sometimes the biggest danger Friday the 13th brings is fear of the date itself.

In Asian culture the number 4 is considered unlucky and guess what? Research in the US found that more people of Chinese and Japanese heritage died of heart attacks on the fourth of the month than any other. I know none of this rational talk will stop people from randomly looking up today to check for pianos falling out of the sky.

So ask yourself this: What's the worst that can happen today that hasn't happened to us already?

Job losses, home foreclosures, endless rain, Jedward staying on X Factor. Who needs a special day for bad luck?

Forget the 13th bit --aren't Fridays nicer than Mondays? I reminded a friend what day it was. "Oh good!" she said, "I'm sure I'm going to win the Euromillions tonight."

Now that's the kind of attitude that's going to get this country off its knees.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just spray no

THE Health Protection Agency in Britain has warned football players that spitting could increase the risk of spreading swine flu.

About time too. I’ve always thought men who spit in public are a bunch of swines.

Athletes and sportspeople have some excuse – all that running around is bound to loosen the saliva glands. No-one wants to see a Premiership footballer choke to death for want of a throat-clear. It’s expected that they will expectorate.

But for some men the whole world is their spittoon. They walk 100 metres to the shop; they spit. They pull up at a red light: they spit out the car window. It’s not as if these lads have been down the mines and have the black lung. The most energetic thing they’ve done is switch stations on the car radio.

I’m reliably informed that urinal etiquette seems to require men to spit before they pee. What’s that all about? Does one release of bodily fluid help along another?
It’s in our genes, they’ll tell you. Yes, and if you happen to get in the way it’s on your jeans too. Sometimes walking down O’Connell Street is like being trapped in a repulsive computer game, dodging gobs and divebombing pigeons and stepping around trickles of urine coming from the alleyway. It’s as if man and bird are locked in some prehistoric battle to mark their territory.

Hawking up in the street is not a biological necessity. It’s a bad habit. You don’t see women gobbing in public even though we have mouths and fully functional saliva glands just like men. It’s not deemed ladylike. Yet there remains a cultural glitch which makes guys think spitting is what Real Men Do.

I’d love to see Dublin City Council taking notes from the Beijing mayor who banned spitting in the streets at the time of the Olympics. Spit spies now patrol the city ready to jump on offenders. Here in Dublin it’s almost like men think they’ll be fined if they DON’T swill out on the pavement.

We all know that spitting at someone is one of the worst insults. Why is spitting near someone’s shoes just for the heck of it not nearly as repugnant?

Real Men might spit but real gentlemen don’t. My granddad is a veteran throat-clearer but at least he uses a hanky. It might have something to do with living through the dark days of TB last century but he was definitely an early adopter of the Catch It, Kill It, Bin It brigade.

Unless you’re in the Wild West and chew tobacco or are a member of the Ming Dynasty with your own private gold spittoon, keep your mouth closed.
Men: just spray no.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pregnant pause

Bumper spread on the effects of maternity leave on a woman's career in today's Irish Independent...

'When I became pregnant, I worried about my job. When I became a mum, my career disintegrated'
High-flying financier Nichola Pease has claimed that maternity leave is too long and damages women's career prospects. But do bosses need to be more accommodating? Susan Daly reports

By Susan Daly

Wednesday November 11 2009

Imagine a young mother whose baby is born at 24 weeks. The baby weighs 1lb 19ozs and spends months in hospital hooked up to ventilators and tubes. When mum returns to work, a colleague greets her with: "Three months' extra maternity leave? Handy how the timing worked out for you there."

Hard to believe anyone could be so crassly insensitive -- but it's a true story.

Joy Redmond of human resources company was horrified when the mother of that premature baby relayed her experience. It's an extreme case but, says Redmond, indicative of how extended maternity leave is sometimes viewed in the workplace.

"In general," she says, "there is a negative buzz that some mothers are on the skive."

It's a strong statement but then the issue of maternity leave is emotive. There was uproar when French Justice Minister Rachida Dati made an appearance at work five days after giving birth by Caesarean section last January. While some applauded her slick black suit and vertiginous stilettos, some commentators felt she had done an injustice to other new mothers by declining to take up the French entitlement to 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave.

"She has turned the clock back for a new generation of mothers," the broadcaster Anne Diamond wrote at the time.

Diamond said that she herself regretted going back to work days after giving birth.

What got lost in the furore was the fact that the entitlement to maternity leave didn't extend to government ministers when Dati gave birth (a proposal has since been passed to reform that institutional 'oversight'). Also, her trip to parliament wasn't to show off baby pictures. Her boss Nicolas Sarkozy picked that day to introduce a huge reform of the French legal system. As justice minister, no doubt Dati felt an obligation -- or pressurised, who knows -- to be there.

At this juncture in the difficult jobs market, many women have similar fears of being sidelined.

"In the boom people were paying full maternity leave to retain key staff," says Joy Redmond. (Employers are not legally obliged to pay anything to women on maternity leave.) "The mood changed last year, with the idea being that there was a glut of candidates out there, and maternity leave top-ups became less prevalent."

Redmond, however, feels that there is now a move back again towards flexibility towards staff who are seen as an asset.

Patricia Callan of the Small Firms Association points out that as most smaller companies don't pay a maternity salary top-up anyway, it doesn't cost them any extra to find a replacement to cover a woman's job when they are out for months.

"Employers see maternity law as the most protected form of leave," says Callan.

"Say, for example, someone starts with you on a probationary period. Then they tell you within a few weeks of starting that they are pregnant -- well the probation clause goes right out the window and they must be accommodated. They are not a victimised group."

In the civil service, however, maternity leave has an impact on staffing levels as there is currently a ban on replacing people on leave. And the Equality Tribunal last year awarded €30,000 to a woman who had claimed she had been the victim of pregnancy-related discrimination at a credit management firm. She was made redundant while seven months pregnant.

There have, on the other hand, been suggestions that some women take cynical advantage of lengthy maternity leave.

Last year, there were dark mutterings when newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky announced she was 12 weeks pregnant -- six weeks after starting a six-figure salaried job at Channel 5 in the UK. Last month, nine months after returning from leave, she announced she was pregnant again.

Remember when former MEP Mary Lou McDonald was attacked for a seemingly high rate of absenteeism from Brussels in 2006? It turned out she was on maternity leave. Health Minister Mary Harney argued that McDonald was seen doing work for her Sinn Fein party in Dublin at that time, the implication being that McDonald was not using her maternity leave for purely child-centric purposes.

A mother I know who has two children under the age of three says she is frequently told how lucky she is to be able to "swan around" for months.

"They think I sit around drinking coffee all day and getting my nails done," she says. "When the kids are awake I'm entertaining them; when they're asleep I'm trying to get the housework done. I don't know how I'll cope when I'm back at work. And I have to go back -- my husband's job is not secure."

Fine Gael TD George Lee got a lash for tabling a Dáil question enquiring about possible reduction of maternity leave in the public sector to 16 weeks. He quickly withdrew the question, with a FG spokesperson saying it had originated as a constituent's enquiry.

But the question echoed comments from high-flying London financier Nichola Pease last month that maternity leave might just be too long.

Pease, a mother of two and director of JO Hambro Capital Management, said she feared that the culture of longer maternity leave meant that employers often see women staff as a "nightmare".

"We have got to be realistic and make sure the protection around women doesn't end up backfiring," she said.

The effect of taking time out to have children on women's capacity to advance in their careers is not just anecdotal. A report published last month by the National Women's Council of Ireland found that having children had almost no impact on men's rate of employment.

Nine in every 10 childless women are in the workplace. By contrast, only six in 10 women with children are employed outside the home.

A study of the post-graduate careers of MBA students at Harvard found that any career interruption -- a period of six months or more out of work -- is costly in terms of future earnings.

Ten years on from graduating, Harvard's female MBAs were 22pc more likely than the male MBAs to have had at least one career interruption.

"The presence of children is the main contributor to the lesser job experience, greater career discontinuity and shorter work hours for female MBAs," claimed the report.

One wonders where the daddy is in all this. Should the debate around maternity leave not be one about parental leave? After the physical and emotional toll on a woman of giving birth are taken into account, allowing parents to divide the remainder of leave between them might spread the career impact between them.

Sweden, for example, is oft cited as a utopian provider of parental leave -- 96 weeks' paid leave can be divided between both mother and father as they see fit. Patricia Callan from the SFA points out that under the current law, the only way the father is entitled to extended paid paternal leave is if the mother has died.

"Saying that," she observes wryly, "I remember a study of that leave in Sweden -- they found that a huge proportion of the fathers timed their share of the leave with the elk-hunting season."




Simon Scowl - oh yes he is

So I find these yes/no opinion pairings in news analysis pages a lot of fun to write. Okay, so the X-Factor isn't exactly *hard* news - but it did give me the chance to go head-to-head with Evening Herald TV critic Pat Stacey yesterday.

The topic was : ‘It’s real’: but while the tears and tantrums make for great TV, is any of it real?

I was to argue on the YES side...

By Susan Daly

Tuesday November 10 2009

It's easy to presume that there is nothing natural about The X Factor. Jedward's hairstyles, for starters, utterly defy the laws of gravity.

So much of the programme has to be about the glitz, the costumes, the half-naked dancers, the pantomime boos and cheers. This is, after all, the biz we call show.

Everyone's on show -- but that doesn't mean that everything is for show. The judges stand accused of making up their on-screen spats to garner headlines and create drama. What we might forget is that The X Factor is just a day at the office for the likes of Simon Cowell and Dannii Minogue.

Okay, most of us don't go to work in a cocktail dress in a fog of dry ice. But that doesn't mean that what happens on The X Factor is totally unreal -- it's just a heightened form of reality.

The office politics on the show are essentially the same being played out in workplaces across the country. Petty jealousies, bitchy remarks behind the boss's back, style wars between the women: we can all relate to those everyday irritations.

As far as Cheryl Cole was concerned, when Simon Cowell attacked her song choice for her boys Rikki and Lloyd in Diva Week, it was an attack on how she she was doing in her first job away from Girls Aloud. Hers weren't crocodile tears. When Simon likened his female judges to strippers, did they really need an autocue to tell them to be offended? Dannii's brow furrowed in disgust and, let's face it, that's not going to happen on demand.

Even the whole Simon Scowl persona is the real deal: Cowell did not get to where he has in the music business without reminding everyone exactly who's boss.
If Simon is the villain, Louis Walsh often gets accused of playing the pantomime dame.
In his years on The X Factor, he's had a drink thrown over him by Sharon Osbourne, he's been fired and rehired -- all good publicity.

But when he defends himself, he's defending his career. When he accused Cowell of bending the brief of Big Bands Week to suit his own agenda, he had a valid point. (Simon allowed his own charge, Jamie 'Afro' Archer, to sing U2, who are not what you could describe as kings of swing). It is not only the contestants on stage who want to win X Factor, there is a cachet in it for the judges too.

As for the latest row, in which Louis, a music manager for 30 years, slapped down host Dermot O'Dreary with: "You're not a judge, you're a presenter" ... Well, isn't that the hierarchy in workplaces everywhere? Stick to making the tea, young man.

AND this was Pat's big fat NO back at me...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How to be a smart arts

By Susan Daly

My Nightwatch column from Friday's Day and Night magazine in the Indo...

THERE is an assumption that journalists have a glamorous life, swanning from premiere to launch, night after night, floating along on a river of free champagne and wine spritzers.

Maybe that was the case once upon a Tiger time (and if so, my gilt-edged invitations must have got lost in the post). But it's a whole new discoball game these days. A girl's got to resort to some serious bluffing to get a free drink in this town. In fact, she's got to be a right smart arts.

A more culturally aware friend than I has taken to grooming me in the manner of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. I'm her Eliza Doolittle, screaming "What the frig is that meant to be?" across a hushed art gallery as others stroke their chins meaningfully at a black cube suspended in purple jelly.

I have learned something, though. I've learned that exhibition openings tend to be generously lubricated by free wine. No matter the standard of the art, its quality always improves in direct proportion to the number of glasses you have. Everyone's a winner.

There is the risk however that you will be identified for the philistine you are. An added consideration is not to insult the artist or curator of the exhibition by making it obvious that the installation you are most interested in is the man at the trestle table saying "Red or white, madam?" It's only polite and right to return the hospitality by at least looking as interested in what's on the walls as what's in your glass.

There's a great art to this. If you watch someone who looks like they know what they're looking at in a gallery, they always stand back a bit to take in the bigger picture. (Not that arty types use the word 'picture'. It's a 'piece', goddammit!) Peering suspiciously and leaning in for a close-up makes you look like a toddler trying to lick a TV screen.

Neither is it cool to touch anything which is tempting. I know this from when I was faced with a skull made of marshmallow and was feeling peckish. I think the general rule is to never eat the artwork -- unless invited to.

I read once about a German artist who exhibited a series of glass frames on a wall, each filled with a different-coloured cocktail, for all the world like an optics line-up in a bar. There was a little tap at the bottom of each frame and he encouraged visitors to the gallery to fill their glass from it. That's my kind of interactive art.

The punchline was that each cocktail drained away to slowly reveal a picture of a ... pink elephant. Nope, me neither.

This is the only possibly hiccup to hanging out at art exhibitions when you're not in the know: admitting that you just don't get it. The last piece of art I made was an ashtray out of Plasticine -- God bless the 80s when the fashioning of smoking paraphernalia was considered an appropriate crafts project for children. Badly educated as I am, the temptation can be overpowering to blurt out: "Seriously, what's it meant to be?"

It's the same if you're at the theatre with people who don't just go to plays when someone famous off the telly is in them. You mention you nodded off in the second half and they look at you like you've just gatecrashed their dinner party in a PVC gimp mask.

Kindly folk who want the arts to be more accessible and less intimidating to the general public say that there is no right or wrong way to interpret a piece of work. Well, there is. Observations such as, "Hey, my kid could do that!" or "It costs how much?!" are never welcome. If you can't see anything at all, then murmur something about negative space and how the piece is obviously about what's NOT there rather than what is. People will nod approvingly and you can wander off to top up your glass.

The more of these openings I go to though, the less worried I get about spoofing. I tagged along to the opening of a big photographic exhibition recently and it soon became clear that most people there were only interested in celebrity spotting. I suspect that some galleries are just happy to fill the room on opening night and create a bit of a buzz about an artist's name. And if that makes me a patron of the arts, then let's call me Mrs Saatchi and get it over with.

Sing hallelujah!

Paid a little visit to the Dublin Gospel Choir in St Mary's on Church Street (after a little confusion caused by the man with the lived-in face who saw me looking for an open door in the church and asked: 'Ah, are you here for the AA meeting love?' Er, no.)

This was the result of my evening (with the choir; not at AA)...
WHOOPI Goldberg and inner city Dublin might seem an unlikely mix. But when Leaving Cert students in Stanhope Street School saw the movie Sister Act in 1996, they knew they wanted to do something very different for their graduation ceremony.
Out of these amateur beginnings grew Dublin’s first dedicated gospel choir. The Dublin Gospel Choir still raise the roof twice-monthly at Mass in St Mary of the Angels’ on Church Street where the Capuchin friars first gave them rehearsal and performance space. The choir itself has evolved into a musical behemoth that employs at least two people full-time and has just released a new album, Doing Their Thing.
It’s astonishing that a group of 30 or so volunteer singers have become a collective household name. “We’re so lucky with the people we have here,” says Orla Gargan, the choir’s full-time musical director. “When I think back to when we recorded our album… after months and months of hard work, we had two nights where everyone literally sang from 5pm until 11pm.
“It’s incredible what people are willing to give of themselves. Lots of things have come our way because everyone puts in such an effort.”
Some of those highlights have seen the choir rock the main stage at Electric Picnic, support Rod Stewart at the RDS, play to a sold-out Croke Park when they first switched on their new lights and provide backing vocals or artists like Paddy Casey, Glen Hansard and John Legend.
And they are still admirably in tune with their community roots. They support various charities – Barrettstown, Crumlin Children’s Hospital and Simon are favourites – and are entirely self-funded.
The singers are clearly in it for the love of the joyous, foot-stamping, hand-clapping music. At their rehearsals in St Mary’s they laugh and chatter and swap stories while the backing musicians tune up. One man gives a fellow chorister a shoulder rub, while another offers someone a lift home afterwards. The air rings with an energetic buzz – it’s like a outsized family coming together for an evening catch-up.
“I joined the choir with another girl who I used to sing with in a folk group in Rathfarnham – and she ended up marrying the keyboard player!” laughs Orla. The lead soloist on the choir’s new single, Liberty Belle, is Mary Cardiff from Inchicore. She also met her fiancé Eoin McNamara in the choir nine years ago.
“We had another engagement yesterday,” adds Orla, “Kerry-Ann and Sean, they both met through the choir. I guess this is our home a bit.”
** The Dublin Gospel Choir will showcase their new album, Doing Their Thing, at Tripod on Harcourt Street this evening (SUBS: Sat, Nov 7). Tickets available from Ticketmaster.

I MET MY FIANCE THROUGH THE CHOIR – Mary Cardiff, 31, from Inchicore, with the choir over 9 years
By day: Works for Edward Dillon wine sales.
By night: Alto.
“A friend of mine saw an ad in Queen Street near Bargaintown and said: You should go for that! I love music, I went along to the audition a week later and the rest was history.
I met my fiancé Eoin McNamara here. He’s on a break from it at the moment because he had a load of other bits and pieces. It’s very time consuming – we rehearse twice a week for two hours each evening. Depending on what’s on, you might have extra rehearsals and a couple of performances at the weekend. You have to love it to do it.
I had been in the choir for about a year and a half when Eoin asked me out on a date. We’re together eight years now and getting married next October. We sing duets at Christmas time and always get asked to sing together at parties. The choir will sing at the wedding – but I’ll get a break that day!
The choir is always there for me. My dad passed away in April. He had been unwell, he got pneumonia with complications and it was very hard when I sang at his funeral. I knew he would have wanted me to.
But the biggest help was when I came back in here after two weeks. It was the best thing I ever did. We were preparing for the new album and there was loads going on. It really helps in any situation to come in here and go out with a smile on your face.”

IT’S MY LIFELINE IN A NEW COUNTRY – Matt Burney, 39, originally from England, joined the choir a year ago.
By day: Director of the British Council in Ireland.
By night: Tenor.
“My job is quite interesting in that I’ve had lots of overseas postings. My last posting was in Prague before I came to Ireland in September 2008. The difficulty in that is that you make friends and then you are plucked out of that particular environment and sent to another place.
I come from a musical background originally - I’ve got a degree in Music – and it was basically a New Year’s resolution to find a community in Dublin to get involved with. I was amazed that there was a gospel choir here!
It’s been a lifeline to me: I’ve made some great friends out of it. I realised that one of the choir members lives on my road and we’ve become really good friends.
I’m a Protestant and I haven’t been into organised religion for a long time. I was wondering if it would be a bit odd when we did our twice-monthly gospel Masses because this is a Catholic church. But what I have discovered is that I really love coming to the Masses. There are candles lit everywhere, we get great congregations, it gives you a really nice spiritual feeling. It’s just a beautiful place to be.
I have a group of friends who are dispersed all over the world and we are meeting up in Dublin in December. I am getting tickets for them for one of our gigs in Tallaght so Dublin Gospel Choir is getting known across all sorts of far-flung places!
I’m only one year into my posting in Dublin but one of the things I’m thinking is, God, in two years’ time I’ll have to go through the same rigmarole or packing up my boxes. It’s going to be twice as hard next time because I’ll be leaving Dublin Gospel Choir. It will just be really sad.”

MY PROUD GRANNY THOUGHT I WAS A CELEBRITY – Joey McAleer, 22, from Tallaght, with the choir three years
By day: Masters student in Social Justice in UCD.
By night: Tenor.
“When I was in fifth or sixth class the Dublin Gospel Choir came to my parish with the Nights of Soul – it’s funny now but I still have Mary (Cardiff) and Kevin’s (Carthy) autographs from then! After the concerts, kids are completely starstruck by what they have seen and I was one of them.
Every Christmas my dad and I would go and see the gospel choir sing. I sang in boys’ choirs before but that was always felt very reserved for me, all that standing still. I just wanted to move! When I started the gospel choir, I was just in love with it. It’s definitely my life outside college now.
You might be having the worst day - like I was having a pretty bad day today - but the thought of coming into the choir, it really picks you up.
My granny passed away last September but just before that we had a radio slot on 98fm. She was in the hospital, she had had a stroke and she wasn’t very responsive. The family were at her bedside and they turned on the radio when they knew the choir was coming up. Her eyes just lit up.
She always encouraged me. She came and saw the choir perform in Ballinteer and bought a couple of the CDs and had me sign the back of them like I was some kind of celebrity. She had a picture of the choir with Rod Stewart on her mantelpiece. She was just really, really proud of everything.”

THIS IS MY SECOND FAMILY – Caitriona Walsh, 31, born in Dublin, raised in California and Galway, with the choir for 4 years
By day: Microbiologist.
By night: Soprano.
“I went to college in Galway and worked for a while elsewhere but moved to Dublin about four years ago when my boyfriend did. I didn’t know anyone here. When you go to college you have mates from class, it’s kind of built-in. But it’s not like that when you’re working.
When I went to audition all by myself, I was shaking I was so nervous! But Orla told me right then and there that I was in. I haven’t looked back. I just threw myself into it.
We do it because we love it. I think it’s why it goes down so well with the public. It’s like we’re having a party on stage and everyone’s invited.
If you ask any member of the choir they’ll probably tell you that the Nights of Soul are probably their favourite. It’s a full gig, it’s two hours, but we do them generally in community areas, in churches and the like. It’s really rewarding. You probably think we’re on drugs or something we’re so happy all the time, but music is very uplifting like that and we feel like it’s a joy to give it to people.
I find it very spiritual. People come and take away what they want from it. There’s never a message forced on people at all.
I couldn’t imagine my life without it now. It’s an addiction.”

I TURNED MY HOBBY INTO A FULL-TIME JOB – Kevin Carthy, 28, from Firhouse, with the choir for over 9 years
By day: Used to work in finance.
By night: Now a full-time employee of the choir, co-ordinating wedding bookings, corporate events etc.
“I was working in the financial industry for many a year but I always wanted to be in music. I had already started singing at weddings with a group from the choir and it just got busier and busier so they asked if I could look after the administration.
It was a bit of a risk – I had just gotten a mortgage but I thought if I don’t try I won’t ever know how it might have worked out for me.
I deal with the brides and grooms too. We’ve had some strange requests for songs – Sweet Like Chocolate Boy was one that was a bit random. We had to turn that down! The Prayer by Andrea Bocelli is very popular, or Celine Dion. O Happy Day is the most popular one for walking out after the wedding ceremony. It’s pretty joyous – it gets the in-laws and the parents giving it loads!
We do backing singing for other acts, corporate gigs, even funerals. I think I have got the best job in the world. If people are ringing up it’s because they are booking for the happiest day of their lives so it’s a great phone call to be at the other end of.
There is no comparison to the job I had before, it’s just amazing. You’re working with like-minded people, your best friends. Mary (Cardiff) and I joined the same day and Mary and her fiancé are my best friends. I’ll be singing at their wedding and co-ordinating their wedding. Everyone is so close, it’s like a second family.
If this ends, I will still stay with something in music. There’s no going back for me now.”

Whishaw on a star (sorry)

From Friday's Irish Independent, Day and Night magazine...

The eyes have it

By Susan Daly

Friday November 06 2009

Star quality is an elusive factor, just ask the hundreds of thousands of kids who prostrate themselves before the altar of Simon Cowell every year. But there is no doubting that whatever 'it' is, Ben Whishaw has it in bundles. Not that he'll be turning up in X-Factor or whatever the thespian equivalent is (Grease Is The Word, perhaps?) -- Whishaw is classical acting talent more in the vein of Laurence Olivier than Zac Efron.

Only 29, he's already been this decade's most lauded Hamlet, played screen versions of Bob Dylan and Keith Richards that make the real deals pale by comparison and is now Oscar-nominated director Jane Campion's favourite muse.

It takes a moment to pinpoint the source of his magnetism. He does not cut an imposing physical dash when he enters a room. His thin frame, swaddled in an oversized sweater, almost disappears into the sofa. He twitches with nervous energy, looking out the window for long stretches as he grapples with a question he finds uncomfortable. (Anything about his personal life, for example.)

We are sitting in the front drawing room of a house in Hampstead where the young Romantic poet John Keats actually lived for a spell towards the end of his life. Whishaw plays the tragic Keats in Campion's new film Bright Star. It's an intense exploration of Keats's relationship with his 18-year-old neighbour Fanny Brawne, the source of inspiration for his most beautiful sonnets. Their love affair was thwarted, first by social disapproval and later by the onset of his tuberculosis which saw him carted off to the more clement climate of Rome, where he died at the age of 25.

It is easy to picture Whishaw as the consumptive Keats. He has a face made to express pain: hooded, mournful eyes and cheekbones that cast gaunt shadows on his thin face. (Apologies -- the romance of sitting in the room where Keats once wrote poetry with his friend Charles Brown can get to a girl.) Even his thatch of dark hair -- ruffled into the 19th-century quiff that he sports as Keats -- seems to weigh too heavily on his fine head.

But the eyes have it. They pin you to the seat the moment he first appears in Bright Star, the intensity behind them striking Abbie Cornish's normally ebullient Fanny Brawne dumbstruck. Move over Bette Davis -- there's a new set of peepers in town.

"I keep my head down from all that kind of talk," he says softly, when I suggest that he's being touted as the Next Big Thing (his portrayal of Keats is already being talked of as a possible Oscar contender next year). He's heard it all before. Barely out of his teens, at RADA, he was awarded a "most promising newcomer" award for indie movie My Brother Tom in which he played a brutalised young man. At 23, his Hamlet at London's Old Vic had theatre critics swooning as they described him as "electrifying", "stunning" and compared him to Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Peter O'Toole.

He was then riveting as the amoral killer Grenouille in Perfume, a role that had originally been earmarked for Leonardo DiCaprio. Unphased by acting against the likes of Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger as one of several Bob Dylans in I'm Not There, he also took on Keith Richards in the biopic Stoned. For all his outward frailty, he is puzzled by the thought that he should have been intimidated by portraying real-life icons.

"For me, I don't get too bogged down by it," he says casually. "It's exciting to have those people as launch pads for something but even this character ... I don't know if Keats was anything like this, but it's the sum of me and Jane and the whole energy of making the film. It's not good to be driven by too much fear. It's good to jump in."

There doesn't appear to be room for self-doubt, at least not where his craft is concerned. When he explains how "Keats has this line in the film that if poetry doesn't come as naturally as leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all", he could as easily be talking about himself.

Remove him from this domain, though, and he begins to wonder if he shouldn't go have some "real experiences" instead of wrapping himself up in the fictitious lives of others.

"I had a picture of a short film that I did on my wall, where I was dressed as a Hare Krishna," he remembers. "Someone was around my house, a friend I didn't know that well, and she saw it and said, 'Oh my God, so did you study yoga or go to India or something?' I could see her eyes light up, thinking, 'Oh you've had this amazing life experience', and I had to say, 'Oh no, that was a film'. And I had this crushing feeling that all my experiences have been fictional."

He did manage to take some time off earlier this year after four jobs back-to-back playing "pretty unhappy characters of one kind or another". So did he climb Everest, wrestle polar bears, sail solo to Australia? Well, no, but he spent some quiet time painting and hanging out with friends and family. And, in a nod to how consumed his life normally is by his various acting masks, he learned something basic about himself.

"When you have time off you have some time to focus on how you feel. What I recognised was that my energy is unsteady. I swing from ... I'm up and then I'm down and all in the course of a single day, although sometimes the periods can be longer than that.

"I think acting is all about a release of your emotional energy or something or a direction to put it in. It was interesting to me to realise that is some of the reason why I did it."

He's evidently a sensitive soul "of the earth and the ether", as he describes Keats. He found Campion's famously maternal style of direction a nurturing force. She has a track record of coaxing stunning performances from her cast, with Anna Paquin, the Oscar-winning child star of The Piano the most famous.

Although Bright Star forces Whishaw to jump through some fairly painful and emotional hoops as the dying Keats, he remembers it as a "fun" time.

"I've loved working with women," he says enthusiastically. (The cast of Bright Star is female-dominated, as is Campion's long-time production team.) Then, desperate not to generalise, he stares out the window for the right words. "I don't get on so well with, um, sort of, sometimes when it's a load of men. I think I would rather be with a load of women in a room on a film set. I think with men, I don't think it's always very creative -- other things come into play."

What those things are I never find out, because Whishaw seems embarrassed to have put across anything like a forceful opinion. And if he's reticent about that, he's even more so on the subject of anything outside the sphere of acting. Raised in Bedfordshire, his mother is a cosmetic salesperson, his dad in IT, both very supportive of his acting ambitions but not in the least bit luvvie. He has a twin brother James who is in finance -- "Or he was. Um, yeah."

Okay then. Moving swiftly on, press profiles always seem to mention that Whishaw once owned 13 cats. "Yes, that's true," he confirms. He had two cats who simply went on to have kittens. "The thing is it's not a lie, it is the truth, but it gets out and it becomes a dominant thing," he says, baffled.

I suggest that the fact that he reveals so little about himself means that celeb watchers obsess about whatever little detail that they have on him. He doesn't want to agree. "I know that I'm not the sort of person that they would have any interest in. I'm not the kind of person that sells papers." But if he continues flashing those magnificent eyes about the place, he'll certainly sell out the box office.

Bright Star opens in cinemas today