Harry Mount

Diary - 11 August 2016

Also in Harry Mount’s diary: Highland Games, secret beaches and the uses of Latin

Diary - 11 August 2016
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Walking along the Brighton seafront, I was struck by posters advertising endless tribute acts; among them Suspiciously Elvis, the Small Fakers and The Kinx. The Edinburgh Fringe is much the same. Shows this summer include Dirty Harry: The Ultimate Tribute to Blondie and Billie Holliday: Tribute to the Iconic Lady Day. Or how about Gary Bland’s Mr Romantic: A Tribute to Johnny Mathis — ‘an insight into Mathis’s career, and how Mathis’s music has been a big part of Gary’s life through love, heartache and laughter’. The theatre at Edinburgh, too, is full of remakes. Fancy Dan Choo-Park’s The Song of Beast (after Hamlet), where the Prince of Denmark is teleported to a South Korean slaughterhouse? Or Dead Awaken, a new version of Ibsen’s last play, set to a concept album of neo-soul and hip hop music? Me neither.

Brighton and Edinburgh are only reflecting the vast pastiche that is the British arts scene. The BBC is making new episodes of Are you Being Served?, Steptoe and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour, Porridge and Up Pompeii! All marvellous sitcoms — but they were rare combinations of the right cast and the right writers at the right time. To recreate them, 30 or 40 years on, can only be a diminution of the original. Just look at this year’s film version of Dad’s Army. Or the Coen brothers’ woeful bash at The Ladykillers. Hollywood is also in love with sequels — witness the new Ghostbusters. Publishers are doing the same, with post-mortem sequels to James Bond and Jeeves and Wooster. Once something’s a hit, it can be squeezed dry in any number of forms. Tim Minchin’s musical of Groundhog Day opens at the Old Vic this summer. The play version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is now on in the West End. And then there’s the biggest theatrical hit of all, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The author credit on the cover of the book of the play reads: ‘Based on an original story by J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany and Jack Thorne.’ But it’s Thorne who actually wrote the play. I can understand why people prefer a pale imitation of greatness rather than risking new rubbish. But where has all the originality gone? Fifty years ago, people weren’t doing tribute acts to Noël Coward and Fred Astaire; they were creating new things.

At last weekend’s Mey Highland Games in Caithness, near the Queen Mother’s old castle, Prince Charles showed how adroit he is with the press. While sitting down, he always crossed his ankles or kept his knees together, to stop snappers getting a shot up his kilt. One old boy at the Games wasn’t so savvy. In the background of a photo of Charles, this kilted fellow sits, legs akimbo, without a care in the world. Luckily for him, the weak Caithness sun doesn’t reach the parts that southern suns reach. Still, a lesson to all Scotsmen — all men — not to manspread.

I’ve just had an esprit d’escalier moment, on the Today programme. I was being attacked for teaching an internet Latin course for the Idler Academy by Donald Clark, an online learning guru. Clark ticked me off, saying: ‘It seems almost absurd to use these sort of ad hoc words like “magical” and “universal” about a dead tongue.’ I wish I’d said that Latin will never die, as long as its critics go on using irreplaceable expressions like ‘ad hoc’.

My old friend and former Daily Telegraph colleague, Tom Utley, used to take against the Christmas drinkers — the amateurs — who took over his lunchtime pub during the festive season. I feel the same about tourists who find the hidden coves of Pembrokeshire in the summer. From September to July, I have them to myself. This week one of the most secret was packed with half a dozen surfers. Selfish, I know. But how hard it is to share one of the few empty corners of a crowded Britain.

I did find an empty beach in the end but still had another quibble. I always feel a little unnerved leaving my phone, keys and ice-cream money behind as I swim (not because of thieves, but for fear of the incoming tide). Might some Dragons’ Den genius develop trunks with an in-built, waterproof, unembarrassing pouch?

Harry Mount’s Odyssey — Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus has just been published in paperback.