Olivia Chaney

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Franco Zeffirelli: ‘I had this feeling that I was special’

Recalling a two-day audience at the home of the great maestro, who has died aged 96

From THE ARTSDESK

“I am amazed to be still alive. Two hours of medieval torment.”  Franco Zeffirelli – who has died at the age of 96 – had spent the day having a lumbar injection to treat a sciatic nerve. You could hear the bafflement in his heavily accented English.

It was a warm Roman evening in Casa Zeffirelli in September 2009. The grandest old man of the arts — who worked with Callas and von Karajan, Tennessee Williams and Toscanini, Burton and Taylor and Olivier, who had the ear of popes, princes and prime ministers — was now visibly in the deep winter of a lifespan that began in 1923. “Il maestro”, as they all called him at home, had been decanted from the car at the front of the villa onto a solid-looking buggy. He sat side-saddle and, when one of the servants started to push, jutted his chin imperiously upwards and fluttered a wave. Even in jest, there was no misinterpreting the gesture. “I am Zeffirelli still,” it declared.

In his blue eyes and chipmunk cheeks, in the flamboyant theatricality of his gestures, there was indeed still the ghost of the pretty cherub this Methuselah once was. The stupendous career he will be remembered for includes, in opera, the great Tosca with Callas; in theatre, the Italian flavours he brought to productions of Shakespeare with the National Theatre in the 1960s; in cinema, his sexy, tempestuous Romeo and Juliet; on television, the epic Jesus of Nazareth. Away from his work, Zeffirelli blissfully ignored the contradiction between his conservative politics and profound faith, and his ultraliberalism when it came to the pleasures of the flesh and the aesthetics of the male body. Thirsty for sexual adventure as a young man, in later life he was the model for the predatory old fruit Uncle Monty from Withnail and I.

At this point in his life an underlying ailment had afflicted Zeffirelli for more than a decade. Some ill-considered post-operative care in California after a hip replacement deprived him of his balance. Not that he has any difficulty finding people to lean on in the court of King Franco. No Zimmer for Zeffirelli. “But my mind is as sharp as ever!” he declaimed down the phone from Italy when I called to request an… it’s hard not to call it an audience.

When I was granted access, there was a valedictory flavour to the conversations we had over two afternoons at his villa on the southern outskirts of Rome, down a private road just off the Via Appia Antica — the Old Appian Way. This was his home since the end of the 1960s. Evergreen vegetation — cypresses, palms, ferns — enveloped the verdant garden in shaded privacy.

It may seem strange that, in a house so well defended against intrusion, Zeffirelli was prepared to put up a journalist. True, I had previously met him and, presumably, gained his trust. He was also generous, and he liked an audience. But such transactions did not always run smoothly. The writer Anna Kythreotis enjoyed his hospitality for months on end as they worked together on a biography. But when Zeffirelli read an early draft he withdrew his authorisation. Kythreotis continued undaunted, and in 2008 Bloomsbury announced a biography whose warning shot was enshrined in its title: Allegedly. I flew out to Rome knowing that Bloomsbury had already postponed it twice. When I got there I discovered that Zeffirelli’s lawyers had further delayed it. Perhaps it may resurface now that he is no longer in a position to sue.

Deep into his 80s, Zeffirelli believed it was work that was keeping him alive. “It is the only thing I have,” he said. “I don’t have love.” Several big projects kept him going. One involves securing his professional legacy. His native city of Florence has allocated him a sizeable building in which to set up a foundation and museum for the performing arts. The Fondazione Franco Zeffirelli eventually opened in 2018. A decade ago there was a splendid accolade from Verona. The city’s famous annual festival of opera in its vast Roman Arena had been haemorrhaging audiences with experimental updatings of the classics. Zeffirelli, withering in his contempt for iconoclastic directors, was not surprised. “There were really disastrous examples of bad taste. If you begin Traviata with Violetta washing her **** naked, the audience does not enter this magic world. That’s the trouble with new readings.”

It gave him another chance to stand before an audience and take the applause. The last time it happened was in 2008 when the Metropolitan Opera in New York held a gala to celebrate Zeffirelli’s many classic productions. Halfway into a performance of La Bohème, the seas onstage parted to reveal the maestro stumbling slowly downstage towards his loyal audience, supported either side by his adoptive sons Pippo and Luciano. The room rose to greet him. “I could not say anything,” he told me in a voice so short of breath it seems to be disappearing. “I could not speak.”

At table his talk cantered off every which way. He ranged around politics, history, royalty, childhood, sex, old friendships with Chanel (“I was very fascinated by her”) and Callas (“a personality that made everybody breathless”).

Because I was there, the conversation was in English. “I don’t understand,” he said meticulously, “how you lived in Florence for a whole year and yet you don’t speak a f***ing word of Italian.” This is his way of flirting. I do speak some Italian, but Zeffirelli relished the chance to revisit the language. His favourite expression was “And how!” Surprisingly for someone who has directed three Shakespeare plays on film, his English is idiomatic.

His English was the one great gift from his father, who sent Zeffirelli off to thrice-weekly English lessons with an elderly spinster called Mary O’Neill (played by Joan Plowright in his autobiographical film, Tea with Mussolini). He still recalled her tiny bedroom “in an old medieval street, on the first floor: it was never light enough”. A lifelong, career-enhancing Anglophilia was born in that room. (Pictured below: the young Franco Zeffirelli in Florence)

His balance may have gone but his gift for mischief was unimpaired. What, I asked him, did he make of the earthquake in L’Aquila? After all, he once made a fundraising documentary about Florence when it was similarly afflicted by flood in 1966. “I don’t give a damn,” he snaps. “It’s a city I don’t like.” The conductor Riccardo Muti, with whom he famously clashed at La Scala, “was always disturbed by the success of a director: he hated anybody that took the attention”. The neorealist directors Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti “were not very important movie-makers at all. Death in Venice is a terrible film”. (No matter that Visconti discovered Zeffirelli and they lived together as lovers for several years from the late 1940s.) Even the then Pope Benedict — Zeffirelli was very devout — wandered into his gunsights. “He’s not exactly the image of a pope for me. He looks very much like an old lady.”

He had strong views on the then premier Silvio Berlusconi. He seemed to see him as a lovable buffoon with a Falstaffian lust for life. “He has always liked f***ing women behind doors,” he says dismissively over dinner one night. Then, “It is quite an achievement to become a multimillionaire without having killed anyone.” (Zeffirelli was always firmly on the right, and in 1994 became a Forza Italia senator.)

I wonder whether his preoccupation — it was almost a fixation — with Berlusconi was in some way connected to the indelible imprint of another charismatic Italian leader. Zeffirelli remembered the day the Führer and Il Duce saluted through Florence in an open-topped car. It was still peacetime — 1938. At 15, he was a uniformed member of the Mussolini Youth who lined the streets in welcome. “We woke up at three o’clock in the morning to parade,” he recalled. “We were absolutely groggy. They were in the middle of the street but it was not wide and you could see them. Florence was all covered with flowers and flags. Hitler was enchanted.”

More than 70 years later, Zeffirelli still saw himself standing to attention holding a bayoneted rifle. He held his hands rigidly vertical, as if in prayer but one above the other, and bisected his face with the imaginary piece of steel. “I see these two characters split with the blade,” he said. “I see it like in a film.”

Only a few years later, in Milan, he saw Mussolini’s bullet-riddled corpse hanging upside down, abused by a vast crowd. More graphically still, an American journalist who had enlisted him as an interpreter took him to a morgue to see the corpse laid out. Zeffirelli distinctly recalled the arms set rigid above the dead Duce’s head, pinging back every time they tried to straighten them. “It was very frightening to see. In my imagination he was the supreme character of my childhood.”

By anyone’s standards, Zeffirelli’s was a life full of operatic terrors and wonders, and he will happily revisit it all. But there is one area where his outspokenness was traditionally  muted: sex. Of his two memoirs — the first in English, the updated version in Italian — neither finds him being open about his inclinations.

Yes, he was homosexual — he hated the word “gay” — but like a decorous 1940s director he tended to close the bedroom door on that part of his life. In conversation he was much freer. When I asked him about the neorealists’ taste for casting actors off the street, for example, he said: “I only liked the popular people in bed, not to work with.”

The Scots Guards, for whom he was an interpreter during the war, were mentioned often, each time with a twinkle: 65 years on, the memories of going through the regiment like a dose of salts were still warm and fresh. He particularly recalled being wrapped in the arms of one of them as, from a garden looking down across the city, they both watched the Wehrmacht’s detonation of Florence’s historic centre in August 1944.

“It was suffocating,” he remembered, “and I see in the darkness a figure leaning on a bench. I thought he was sleeping. He grabbed my hand and made me sit next to him. For a strange moment I felt the man was really upset or very much in need to communicate and I had a precise feeling that he wanted sex. Instead he held me close to him. And finally one after the other the bridges blew up.”

In another conversation he said that “you have to be ruthless with sex. You have to be nasty. And the same time violent. It’s flesh, it’s blood.” From the maker of the definitive film about teenage love, this seemed a brutal statement. But then the circumstances of Zeffirelli’s childhood, where all these things are determined, were in their own way very brutal indeed. (Pictured below: Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Romeo and Juliet.)Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet

Because his father’s family came from Vinci, he liked to claim kin with Leonardo. “Can’t you see it?” he said, camply presenting his still-cherubic profile. His more immediate lineage cast a longer shadow. His father, Ottorino Corsi, worked in textiles. An invalided lothario, he spent the great war impregnating lonely Florentine wives. “God knows how many brothers or sisters I came across, because my father wouldn’t tell me.” His mother, Alaide Garosi, was conquered after the war. Already the married mother of three children, she was a designer Corsi met professionally. During the ensuing pregnancy, her husband died of tuberculosis. In 1923 she duly gave Corsi the son that his own wife could not. The wronged woman once waited at the school gates for the young Gianfranco, to screech “bastardino!” His mother was obliged to invent a name for her illegitimate son. She chose Zeffiretti after zephyrs in an aria from Le Nozze di Figaro, but it was misspelt in the registry. “It’s fresh and springy,” he said of his unique name. I asked him how important it had been to his success. “Well, I could have been memorable as Corsi.”

Corsi was a remote figure who took the boy out for walks on Sundays. He also visited Alaide for romantic liaisons. It was hard to credit, but as a young man Zeffirelli had heterosexual encounters. He linked them firmly to early memories of watching his parents copulate as he lay in the same bed. “An inner voice sounded to me that an adult lady was my mother. My first sexual experience I transferred an image into this woman opening her bosom and having sex with me. I saw my mother do this with my father.” Years later that affinity with women helped him, he believed.

When he was taken under Visconti’s wing as a promising young designer, the more meteoric his rise, the more jealous his patron became. “He didn’t take it well. Just couldn’t accept it. He thought that he’d taught me everything, and what he should have achieved, I did.” Zeffirelli ascribes some of his success to his greater rapport with the actresses and divas who became his stars — above all, Callas, the subject of his final film Callas Forever. “With women my love was connected with the mother I lost, so the chapter remained open. I opened my heart and helped them when they needed it. All women need it, even if they are beautiful. There is an area of panic,” he opines, “in every woman.”

Alaide died when he was six. He was taken in by a cousin of his father, whom he called Aunt Lide. She in effect became his family. It was Lide’s lover who introduced him to opera. As he progressed through school, and his gift for drawing and acting developed, he became gradually aware that it wasn’t just being an orphan born out of wedlock that made him different.

He had a terror of doing sports with other boys because of the feelings it stirred in him. “It was much more disturbing to think about sex with a man,” he remembered. “I wanted to be the best in the class, to be respected. I was afraid that the fact that I was not normal would become used as a weapon against me.”

He seemed to belong to a pre-Freudian era. He dismissed the idea that the circumstances of his childhood set him up for a life of romantic longing, of searching for love to replace the mother he lost. Quite the reverse, in fact. His superstitious belief was in an invisible guiding hand. “I never needed more love than I received,” he said. “I had plenty. Even too much sometimes. I was always very joyful, never tormented. My destiny since childhood was a sign that I would have not an ordinary life, that something great and important would happen to me. I had this kind of feeling that I was special. The facts of life helped me idealise what happened to me. I was in front of the firing squad twice: the story of my brother who was ready to shoot me. So you begin to say, ‘Wait a minute, what is it?’”

Those two brushes with death came during the war. On both occasions it was sex that saved him. The first time, he was rounded up by fascists as a partisan and destined for the bullet until it was revealed that his would-be executioner was a half-brother he’d never met. He was saved, in short, by his father’s inability to keep his flies done up. Having survived the firing squad once, at the end of the war he was rounded up by Communists as a suspected fascist. He could still picture the scene in a school courtyard in the Apennines.

“They killed two groups. First five, then six. It was terrible. I heard people imploring. Bradada! Bradada!” He mimicked the sound of machinegun fire. “This little nasty-looking intellectual called the names of the prisoners, who were brought to the school and shot. But he was also a queen. Every time he came he left me in the last group. Finally he said, ‘We will kill you tomorrow. Come.’ He brought me to his family villa. And I had to accept his offer. I was so exhausted I didn’t even know what I was doing. I fell asleep and said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ He did a blowjob, I think. I woke up and went to Florence.”

Franco Zeffirelli will finally return once more to the city of his youth. A newly purchased family mausoleum awaits at one of Florence’s most beautiful churches, but Pippo asked me not to ask questions about it because Zeffirelli found the whole subject of death too upsetting.

The lure of reminiscence, however, had him in its thrall. Under the awning on the terrace Zeffirelli talked, on and off for hours, about the kind of life that people just don’t lead any more: the proximity to the most powerful people on Earth, the frantic couplings in the age of innocence before Aids, the limitless artistic funding that permitted his imagination to run wild across centuries and continents.

Towards the end of the second afternoon his voice began to falter, his sentences to shorten, and Pippo stole in to say it was time to stop. He had been talking for a lifetime.

Il Maestro was helped from the terrace to a sofa indoors. It was festooned with cushions featuring dogs’ faces. Canine statuettes lined the shelf above it. The old man, supine, insouciantly tucked his hands behind his head. By some miraculous trick of the light, he suddenly could have been 16 again.

“Buona notte,” I said.

Kate Rusby: Philosophers, Poets & Kings 

If there’s one name that needs no introduction on these pages, it’s Kate Rusby. With an audience that spans all generations and all musical tastes; and a repertoire that’s as rich, imaginative and, at times, adventurous, as any performer taking to studio or stage, Kate Rusby is one of our most talented and popular folk singers. Confirmation of just why that broad appeal has sustained for over twenty years is her latest studio album, released via her Pure Records label on 17th May, Philosophers, Poets & Kings.

The album’s opener, Jenny, is as typical as it is delightful. Kate takes the ballad of Creeping Jen, moves the eponymous horse to Yorkshire, and adds a chorus along with her own, perky, melody. From an understated opening, Kate’s clear voice rings out, before beats and brass build from a singalong chorus. Further enriched by the added voices of Ron Block’s banjo, and Damien O’Kane’s soft backing vocals, it’s a classic Kate Rusby approach to song that reaps wonderful rewards. Yorkshire Jenny is a joy. Deft programming from Anthony Davis, a big bass drum, and an irresistible backbeat make wonderfully light work of a remix (aye, a remix) later in the album too.

Philosophers, Poets & Kings pays melodious homage to Kate’s home, her family, and those who’ve inspired and encouraged her music, in a 12 track album of traditional and self-written songs – with a brace of well-chosen cover versions for good measure. Damien O’Kane’s production masterfully brings together the talents of the large gathering of usual suspects: Duncan Lyall (double bass, Moog), Nick Cooke (Accordion) Josh Clark (percussion) Gary Wyatt (cornet), and Rich Evans (Flugelhorn). Ron Block and Michael McGoldrick add their own inimitable contributions to Jenny, and there are even more guest appearances to come.

 

Kate celebrates the fruit of the vine by adding her own melody to another fine trad song, in the album’s title track, Philosophers, Poets & Kings. Driven, initially, by Damien’s acoustic guitar, there’s added impetus from Josh’s percussion for a song where Diogenes, Aristotle and Plato are held aloft as examples of the truth, laughter and, of course, cognitive dexterity that can be attributed to wine consumption. There’s another drop of something warming in The Farmer’s Toast, which Kate dedicates to the farming family who host the annual Underneath the Starsfestival at Cinder Hill Farm, Cawthorne. There are so many slight variations on this song out there, it’s a joy to hear Michael McGoldrick and Ron Block join Kate & co enjoy the song with such cheer. ‘The Lark is my daily alarmer‘ is easily my own favourite rhyme for ‘farmer.’

 

On a more sombre note, Bogey’s Bonnie Belle is a popular bothy ballad Kate recalls from her childhood. It’s a sad tale, sorrowfully told, and sparsely augmented by Damien’s electric tenor guitar, Duncan’s Moog, and typically elegant whistles of Ross Ainslie.

The first of the two cover versions on the album has been with Kate since she used to join her Dad at festival sound desks. No one takes on an iconic Richard Thompson song like Crazy Man Michael lightly, but one of Kate’s first solo tours was as his support, and this has been a favourite song since her childhood. Josh’s percussion adds an ethereal feel that’s enhanced by the dream-like, insubstantial vocal and Ross’s mournful whistle. It’s an absolute triumph, of course, but the far bigger surprise was Noel Gallagher’s Don’t Go Away. With just Kate’s voice and Damien’s electric tenor guitar, the song is superbly soft, beautifully sparse, and with an edge of plaintive appeal in Kate’s voice for the chorus. Seventeen albums on, there are still times when Kate Rusby’s voice gives me goosebumps.

 

Kate’s own songs for the album remind us that her gift for pairing fine lyrics with an enchanting melody never diminishes. Until Morning sparkles like starlight; a beautiful song of togetherness, of a bond that brings strength and solace; sung from the heart, with Damien’s soft harmonies. Until Morning finds its perfect partner in another song of comfort, As The Lights Go Out, where Sam Kelly’s mellow voice works beautifully alongside Kate’s, and Chas Mackenzie’s haunting electric guitar contrasts perfectly with Damien’s unobtrusive banjo.

 

The first of two locally inspired songs is a comic tale, The Squire And The Parson, based on an old story that Kate’s been singing with her Dad, Steve, for years; and they’ve finally decided it’s ready for a public outing. As Kate displays her usual winning way with a good story, Nick Cooke’s accordion and Michael McGoldrick’s whistles help animate the tale. In contrast, informed by Kate’s awareness of Alzheimer’s, The Wanderer is a beautifully gentle song, and perfectly unhurried.

 

To close the album, Kate takes us back to 1838, and a song written to commemorate the 180th anniversary of the Huskar Pit disaster, where twenty-six working children lost their lives trying to escape from the mine during a freak storm. Halt The Wagons was written as a lullaby to the 15 boys and 11 girls, aged 7-17, whose deaths led to reforms prohibiting underground working for children under 10 years old. Among the shivering sadness of the song, there’s warm brass and, far more evocatively, the voices of 26 members of the Barnsley Youth Choir. The choir, 15 boys and 11 girls, aged 7-17, joined Kate and the musicians underground at the National Coal and Mining Museum to record the song. Kate doesn’t sing this to break our hearts; she sings it to tell a story that has to be told, that we must never, ever forget. Nonetheless, tears will flow – and so they should.

 

It comes as no surprise that Kate Rusby’s 17th studio album should be such an impressive work. She continues to apply her exquisite voice to a meticulous selection of songs, including her own; and she maintains her drive to make tangential journeys into new territory while maintaining that unshakeable bond to her musical heritage. Philosophers, Poets & Kings doesn’t see Kate Rusby channel her inner prog to the same extent as we enjoyed on Life In A Paper Boat. There is, though, a rewarding balance between the comforting warmth of her acoustic performances, and the sonic opportunities offered by modern electronics, and those who wield them so effectively. Philosophers, Poets & Kings is an utterly delightful album; I begin to suspect that this is one of Kate Rusby’s finest albums. So far, anyway – the next 17 are sure to be full of surprises.

 

Source: Kate Rusby: Philosophers, Poets & Kings | Folk Radio

Sir Michael Palin ‘will probably be only knighted Python’ 

Michael Palin has predicted he will be the only Monty Python member to become a sir after being dubbed a knight by Prince William at Buckingham Palace.

“I’ll probably be the only one,” he said, adding that fellow Python John Cleese had turned down the chance.It is not known if Cleese rejected a knighthood, but he did refuse a CBE in 1996 and a peerage in 1999.Sir Michael also said he had managed to suppress a joke while speaking to the Duke of Cambridge on Wednesday.

“He talked about where I was going next, any parts of the world I really wanted to go that I hadn’t already,” revealed the broadcaster.

The 76-year-old said he normally answered “Middlesbrough” when asked the question but on this occasion opted for Kazakhstan.

Sir Michael did in fact visit Middlesbrough, for the first time, in 2015.Speaking after the investiture ceremony, the Pole to Pole presenter also spoke about the BBC’s decision to scrap free TV licences for all over-75s.

He said the BBC had done “a pretty bad deal” in agreeing to take on the cost of free licences in 2015.”I hoped somehow that would somehow go away and it hasn’t gone away,” he continued.”I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of the people who now have to fork out for their licence.

“Sir Michael was knighted in the New Year Honours for services to travel, culture and geography.Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones are the other surviving members of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Graham Chapman, the sixth member, died in 1989.

Source: Sir Michael Palin ‘will probably be only knighted Python’ – BBC News

6 reasons why women aren’t funny

Women can’t possibly be funnier than men and here’s why.

1. Being funny is the main way men attract women; we can’t take that away from them.

There’s nothing better then a man who makes you laugh – it’s a quality women value highly and one used to describe every successful date and suggested set up. If women were funny it would be unfair, I mean we already have the gloriousness that is breasts, what more do we want! It’s why male peacocks have colourful feathers, why lions have manes. Women have to tone it down because, without the upper hand in the humour stakes, what do the unfairer sex have?

2. There’s nothing funnier than a man’s appendage

There’s a reason we don’t spend our adolescence covering notebooks with sketches of vaginas and why we were all accidental members of the Pen 15 club  (if you don’t know you weren’t bullied enough in school). Women are lacking the one body part that is guaranteed to crack a smile out of any male in the vicinity.

3. Gross is funny

The most knee slapping, head rolling, chuckle making moments involve disgusting, unappealing, dirty anecdotes and women just aren’t gross. Women are pretty and delicate. Their number twos smell of Chanel No. 5, their sweat makes them glow, and they only ever break wind odourlessly in hidden corners of empty rooms.

4. If you’re funny, you’re funny for a girl

Being funny is like being good at sport or good at acting: it’s split by the genders, so no matter how hilarious you are, you’re still only FFG (funny for a girl). This way there’s no need to directly compare and no egos need to be hurt. Be glad – it’s really impressive to be funny for a girl (just not as impressive as being actually funny obviously).

5. Name five funny women

No not her, she doesn’t count, or her, she’s a lesbian so obviously not representative. No that one died, that’s unfair. I personally don’t find that other one funny. Yes that film may be the highest rated comedy on Rotten Tomatoes, but I bet there were a ton of men involved. And I cant judge that new one because I don’t plan on watching it. Anyway, the point is there’s way more funny men, so they’re the funny sex.

6. This article

This article was clearly written by a woman, and while it was trying to be a funny satire, it bombed miserably. By looking at the failure of one woman to make you laugh, you can accurately deduce the capabilities of the rest of the gender. Don’t argue with me, it’s science. There you have it, definitive proof that you’re not a raging sexist if you think all women aren’t funny, you’re right.

Source: 6 reasons why women aren’t funny | Spectator Life