Tom Sutcliffe hits the streets


I have been struggling with letterboxes in Streatham. In the run-up to Christmas and Easter, St Peter’s, Streatham (which is my church—though we are a few yards outside the parish boundary) has every year since I started going to it in 1984 organized volunteers to put a greeting on a folded small sheet of paper through every letterbox in the parish with details about upcoming services: the Christmas Midnight Mass or the Triduum. We don’t explain (as we perhaps should) what kind of Christian tradition we belong to. Being articulate about religious notions is not quite done—except I suppose by missionaries or would-be Billy Grahams.

This year there’s the election as well as Christmas. And as I am keen on Remain, I’ve been helping the Lib Dems in Streatham. I don’t recall anyone from my family delivering leaflets for a church or a political party though I remember my grandmother being an active Conservative in Portsmouth South in the lead-up to the 1950 general election. As a floating voter, I worked in the 1960s for Harold Wilson in Fulham, and then after joining The Guardian turned to Ted and the blessed Margaret inevitably (I regretted how Jim Callaghan’s Labour conservatism had put paid to Barbara Castle’s trade union reform, In Place of Strife).

Politics and Christianity both need volunteers to get the message out. Decrepit old letterboxes are frankly much more welcoming for leaflets and stuff on scrappy paper. New smart front doors with modern draught-proofed letter-boxes are a nightmare. Even delivering something on cardboard is not easy to push through and drop on the mat—quite apart from the dog problem if tasty fingers can be seen or smelled. One may even get reprimanded by irate recipients that it’s junk mail. For them, though not for us. Not that one can pretend candidates for Parliament are all Good News, though surely democratic choice is.

At the splendid Theatre Royal, Nottingham I caught Opera North’s autumn production of The Greek Passion, based by Bohuslav Martinu on Nikos Kazantzakis’s Christ Recrucified. Jules Dassin’s 1957 film Celui qui doit mourir is also based on it. There are two quite distinct versions of the opera which were turned down by Covent Garden, which had commissioned it. I think the revision Martinu completed before dying in 1959 is the better. But this was the last performance of the original. Charles Edward’s design was simply ramps of bare wooden seating sometimes shifted into different alignments and lacking atmosphere. The story is about a Greek village Passion play where the peasants taking roles get to seem inhabited by the reality of the Passion itself. Also there are refugees arriving from another village under threat from the Turks to add to the drama.

The matinee at the Nottingham Playhouse the same day was a really good and well-acted production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, which I had never seen. It is about people who killed American presidents or tried to do so. Everybody old enough can remember where they were when they heard of the death of Kennedy in 1963. I was in a pub in Emsworth with my dad, where we’d stopped off on the way home after closing my parents’ antique and oriental carpet shop in Havant. I knew very few Americans until my ‘freshman’ year at Oxford where my ‘neighbor’ on my Magdalen staircase was a little guy called Jerry Congress who had been at Princeton and came from Pittsfield, Mass. His enthusiasm about Kennedy’s election in November 1960 was palpable. Sondheim’s musical is very entertaining, which may seem improper. But it’s the assassins not their victims with which we are concerned. And they are a rum bunch.

What I loved most about this show was the glowing commitment of the cast and the multiple skills they displayed accompanying the singing on various musical instruments. Acting is one thing, but how often does one see actors and actresses who can actually play an instrument decently—or at all? This was just one show starting life at the Watermill, Newbury for two weeks before travelling north—and the performers’ blogs really show just how tough it is now to follow a career as an actor.