Saturday, 16 September 2017


Situated on Waterloo Road in Lowestoft, Richard Toombs’ café is a much-valued community and cultural drop-in.

The best place to stop near Lowestoft sea front.

I don’t care what some people may say, but Lowestoft is slowly changing for the better. Unlikely as it may seem to some residents and visitors, a mini renaissance is currently taking place around London Road South. There’s Desmonds, the coffee house and impressive pizzeria, that offers such delights as Curried Goat Night. Local character Desmond Baldry has livened up the pop culture-themed interior by having his image inserted into the vintage memorabilia on display, where he can be seen opposite entertainment luminaries from times gone by.

Elsewhere, there’s the Honey Bee Vintage shop, a vegan deli, The Beach Hut vintage furniture shop and, on Waterloo Road, The Coconut Loft. This establishment, run by Richard Toombs, in a way sums up the Lowestoft approach to the bohemian and the arts. First and foremost, The Coconut Loft has become something of a community hub, as people have been brought together by the delicious Italian coffee and choice menu, as well as by how attentive and friendly Richard’s engaging staff are.

The success of the café side of the business – and its deli – has enabled Richard to expand the Loft’s horizons, to the point where it now hosts exhibitions by local artists. It’s not just Suffolk landscapes and coastlines, either: if Richard likes the work of an artist who produces more conceptual and avant garde art – something that could become a local talking point, say – he’ll consider that too, and that’s to be applauded.

One of The Coconut Loft's galleries.
I only discovered The Coconut Loft two weeks ago. After a long, informative chat with Richard, he revealed that the establishment also holds a knitting group – not really me, I have to say – and, on Thursdays and Fridays, #Writers’ Corner. In search of like-minded creatives, I went along, met the effervescent Suzan Collins who runs the group and, before I knew it, I was a guest at the Meet the Authors event, part of the East Anglian Festival of Culture, which ran over 9 and 10 September. Not a bad result for a chance meeting in a café.

It’s very useful and encouraging, if you spend a lot of time on your own writing, to have somewhere to go during the day to be able to work alongside and chat with people of similar interests, the more so if it’s in a convivial environment where coffee and cake are on tap. #Writers’ Corner has been so friendly and inspiring that in the last fortnight I’ve stepped up my writing output, to the point where I’ve done three blog posts after a major slump when, for various reasons, I didn’t do much for nearly a year. Another nice thing about The Coconut Loft is that your books can be exhibited in the charmingly named ‘Book Nook’, one of the two beach huts set up as creative spaces in the café, this one in Ipswich town colours (no booing, please).

Groups and businesses like the #Writers’ Corner and the Loft are to be valued and supported, particularly in towns like Lowestoft, because they’re part of the cultural life blood of the community.

If you haven’t been in yet, pop in for a coffee and say ‘hi’ to Richard. It’ll be a pleasant eye opener.

Friday, 15 September 2017


A detective series free of angst that’s reassuringly old-fashioned? 
Strike will do nicely.

"Fancy a drink, guv?" (Image copyright: BBC)

No doubt about it, JK Rowling is a modest writer. In 2012, The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first novel in her Cormoran Strike detective series, was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, named after one of the writer’s personal heroes, Robert Kennedy, as well as a make-believe name she devised for herself when she was young, Ella Galbraith. Free of the hype that would have surrounded Rowling’s crime writing debut, the public had no preconceptions about her first foray into crime fiction, and the book was variously and positively described as “a stellar debut,” “laden with plenty of twists and distractions” with “a delightful touch for capturing London and evoking a new hero.”

That’s one of the appeals of the TV series. If Sam Spade was made for the glamour of San Francisco and Philip Marlowe couldn’t be separated from the ambience of the Los Angeles underworld, Cormoran Strike and the multi-cultural London of the 21st century are made for each other.

As played by Tom Burke, Strike is an amiable, charmingly rumpled outsider in the obligatory long coat of the PI, a former soldier who lost a leg in Afghanistan. On his return from the war he started a detective business with a loan from his rock star father (a very modern touch), but is on the verge of bankruptcy and has moved into his office as his girlfriend has thrown him out. Despite this, Strike wears his problems lightly, apart from getting really drunk after finding out his ex-girlfriend is getting married. Even then, he comes across as a mildly grumbly teddy bear. Throughout, he remains humane and empathic.

There are as many grand houses and photographers’ studios in Strike’s London as there are dingy backstreets – his investigations take him to all of these locations of high and low living – and, fittingly, like him his office sits between these two worlds, on Denmark Street in WC2H.

At the start of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike is joined by the knowingly first-named Robin Ellacott (the appealingly fresh-faced Holliday Granger), recently moved to London from Yorkshire, who becomes Strike’s temporary secretary, but is more interested in becoming a detective. Granger’s perky but believable performance is the ideal audience identification figure, and paired with the optimistic, if slightly world-weary Strike, the duo make an appealing double act. By the end of the first TV adaptation, they’re the sort of ideally matched duo, like Holmes and Watson, Morse and Lewis and Regan and Carter that you’ll tune in to see regardless of the quality of the story.

Away from the engaging protagonists, the emphasis in The Cuckoo’s Calling is on the question of whether the apparent suicide of a super model, Lula Landry, the ‘Cuckoo’ of the title, was in fact a murder. This allows the story to pull in suspects from all over the social spectrum, from the suave but threatening lawyer Tony Landry (immaculately played by Martin Shaw), via the model’s bad boy, on-off actor boyfriend Evan Duffield (Bronson Webb), Lula’s homeless friend Rochelle Onifade (Tezlym Senior-Sakutu) to the other super models Lula worked with. The characters are to the fore and the three-part story stays well clear of the more salacious and grisly aspects of other detective TV fiction, such as Silent Witness (1996- ), Wire in the Blood (2002-08) and Whitechapel (2009-2013). In short, Strike is the sort of thing your mum could watch and enjoy. There is violence, but it’s deployed sparingly.

By the end, it’s slightly predictable that Strike’s money problems have been solved and he’s taken on Robin as his full-time secretary, but that only adds to the promise of what cases these two will-they-won’t-they, yes-they-probably-will like-minded souls will tackle in the future.

Strike and Robin are a perfect match.

Thursday, 14 September 2017


Batman prequel Gotham returns on 21 September 2017. Here's why the first three series were such a rewarding watch.

Dangerous nightlife... (Image copyright: Primrose Hill Productions)

I love Gotham. When you initially think about it, it shouldn’t work: a prequel to Batman starring one of the saga’s less colourful supporting cast, Jim Gordon, as a rookie cop – long before he was promoted to Commissioner – while Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne is still a boy. On the face of it, that’s like making a prologue to Doctor Who starring the blokey but dull Sergeant Benton, or a prequel to The Prisoner starring the silent, diminutive Butler.

One of the show’s attractions is that Gotham itself is pitched as a lawless town in the vein of 1930s Chicago, full of territorial gangsters and corrupt public officials, ready for taming by the future Dark Knight. The retro approach informs the production style too, so that the city exists in its own timeless space, where modern elements (such as mobile phones and rocket launchers) sit alongside vintage ones (like the 1930s-style uniforms of the beat cops and the décor of Wayne Manor).

Ben McKenzie (who also voiced the caped crusader in the animated version of Batman: Year One) portrays ex-soldier Gordon as dependable and resolute, “the last honest man in a city full of crooked people.” He does, however, have his problems: finding a way to enforce the law in an almost ridiculously corrupted city – most of the Gotham Police Department are on the take, including the Commissioner – and trying to maintain his romantic relationship with the damaged socialite Barbara Kean (the Welsh but-you’d-never-know-it-because-of-her-authentic-American-accent, actress Erin Richards).

Gordon’s stoic, uncompromising moral stance during the first series, together with his partnership with the cynical Harvey Bullock (bewhiskered, rumpled Donal Logue), quickly develops into a double act, anchoring the series firmly as a police procedural in style. Things start to get more interesting when villains like the Penguin appear, and Gotham slowly mutates into a nightmare film noir able to accommodate outlandish and operatic villains.

(Image: Primrose Hill Productions)
The evolution of the characters of Penguin and The Riddler is emblematic of the way Gotham as a whole develops. The former, Oswald Cobblepot (a preening and highly strung Robin Lord Taylor, left), begins life in the series as a sycophantic thug in the pay of club owner and criminal Fish Mooney (sensual and lethal Jada Pinkett Smith), initially the kind of low life that would have been at home in The Wire. When first seen, Edward Nygma, the future Riddler, is a socially inept forensics officer for Gotham PD, interested in puzzles and full of unrequited love for records keeper Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack).

As the series progresses, Cobblepot earns the nickname Penguin because of his crippled walk, the result of a beating administered by Mooney, and murders his way to the top of Gotham’s underworld to the point where, by the end of the third series, the flamboyant, vintage dresser is part of an “army of freaks” with the hypnotic Poison Ivy (Maggie Geha) and the sci-fi, comic strip villains Mr Freeze and Firefly. By this time, Nygma has degenerated to murder, firstly stabbing Kristen’s bullying boyfriend then, in a fit of rage, strangling Kristen herself. Driven completely insane when a jealous Penguin kills a woman who is the perfect double of Kristen, Nygma becomes the green-suited Riddler and starts a very public battle of wits with Gordon and the police department.

By the time the Riddler has Bullock tied to a chair and suspended over a stairwell, threatening to drop him if the answers to his puzzles are wrong, you can see how far Gotham has moved from its original, slightly more conservative basis. It’s to the credit of the series’ writers, directors and actors that you’re so bound up in the evolution of the characters that you don’t notice.

For long term fans of the DC Comics, it’s interesting how the characters are handled. Bearing in mind the ‘police procedural’ foundations of the show, it’s almost as if the thinking of the writers was to make super villains as realistic as possible; writer/producer Bruno Heller admitted “I don't really know how to write about people with super powers” and that “in all those superhero stories I've seen, I always love them until they get into the costume.”

(Image copyrightPrimrose Hill Productions)
Because of this approach, threats like The Riddler, the Penguin, Mr Freeze and the Joker (left) are given credible back stories and motivation. The latter’s introduction is deceptively low key when he's first introduced as Jerome Valeska, the bewildered son of a promiscuous circus performer. Once it’s revealed Jerome killed his mother, his mask drops and the actor, Cameron Monagahan, reveals a truly stunning combination of Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson’s interpretations of the Joker, also drawing on the facial expressions of Batman’s nemesis in the graphic novel The Killing Joke.

The Joker is only in one episode in the first series, and he doesn’t adopt his famous title, something that doesn’t happen in Series Two or Three either. With this character in particular – arguably the most famous villain in the Batman canon – the production team have a lot fun wrong-footing the expectations of the audience. If you haven’t seen Gotham yet, I won’t spoil things, but there are some great twists in store.

The thread that binds all of this together is, as in the comics, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and Gotham starts at that exact point. As the (very) young proto-Batman, David Mazouz has a pleasing maturity and intensity beyond a lot of child actors. He’s complemented by the sassy Camren Bicondova as the teenage street thief Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman. As one’s a criminal and one’s from Gotham’s rich privileged class, the sparks fly between them from almost their first meeting, tantalising those in the audience who know that the grown-up Batman and Catrwoman will have an on-off, The Taming of the Shrew-style relationship.

Keeping them in order is the unsung hero of Gotham, Sean Pertwee as “Master Bruce”’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. As well as a liking for immaculate three-piece suits, he dispenses cockney slang and worldly advice to Bruce in equal parts; he also has a shady past in the Special Air Service and, consequently, is as skilled in throwing a punch as he is with firearms. The part is an absolute gift for the charismatic Pertwee, who can dominate a scene simply by standing still and folding his arms behind his back.

A glance at the DVD cover of Gotham Series 2 reveals a rather crammed montage of all the show’s many and varied characters. It’s almost Dickensian in its complexity, and that, in the end, is the nub of Gotham’s appeal: following the journeys of so many fascinating, amusing, flawed and grotesque personalities in – as the name of the series implies – a kind of gothic soap opera.

With a lot of violence, obviously.