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Radio reviews: Blackout Ballet; The Actors’ Gang; Neil Tennant’s Smash Hit Christmas

Life seems so much about self-promotion nowadays that one forgets there still exists a creative community that puts artistic vision before celebrity status. In most cases, however, those who break new ground in their respective fields end up finally with some kind of public profile – or do they?

In BBC Radio 4’s Blackout Ballet, critic Ismene Brown didn’t simply describe an interesting episode in dance history, she attempted to correct an injustice. In May 1941, 22 year-old ballerina Mona Inglesby left her job as an ambulance driver during the Blitz and created the International Ballet, a successful company that toured full-scale productions to large audiences throughout Britain during the Second World War and for 12 years beyond.

Perhaps if the life of the company had been brief, or its contribution to the history of British dance insignificant, then it wouldn’t be surprising that Inglesby’s name has been long forgotten. But, as Brown eloquently explained, this was not the case. Former members of the International Ballet, the ballerina’s son and various archivists and historians were on-hand as we discovered how committed this remarkable young woman was to taking ballet to the masses and at an accessible price. Not only that, but for much of the time she managed to run a fully self-supporting company, only having to ask for a small subsidy in 1953, which the arts council actually turned down.

While critics appeared to like the work of the International Ballet during the war, their notices in the following years left Inglesby describing their reaction as “utterly cruel”. The programme suggested it was likely that some prejudice existed about the company’s mass appeal and the staging of performances at an array of British venues, such as cinemas, holiday camps and dog tracks. It was, of course, a world away from the glamorous London settings where the De Valois and Rambert ensembles tended to be based.

Impressively, Inglesby also played a major role in preserving what is now regarded as the Rosetta Stone of ballet art, left in her possession by her mentor, Nikolai Sergeyev – the last director general of the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet – renamed the Kirov in the Soviet era. When he fled his country in 1918, Sergeyev took with him notations of the entire repertory as choreographed by renowned choreographer Marius Petipa. Inglesby eventually succeeded in having the documents housed at the Harvard Theatre Library, where they were rediscovered by the Kirov Ballet in the late 1990s.

Brown finally caught up with Inglesby when she was residing in a Sussex care home, and it was moving to hear how overwhelmed the former ballerina was when the critic arranged for a group from the Kirov to visit her before her death at the age of 88 in 2006. Let’s hope the critic and the remaining International Ballet dancers who worked with Inglesby are successful in rewriting history, so that her contribution is finally recognised in the record books.

It’s well documented that the arts in all its many forms can be a positive force, but could acting classes really help prisoners convicted of drug dealing or domestic violence turn their lives around? Well, actor Tim Robbins, who famously portrayed an innocent man convicted of murder in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, passionately believes just that, and runs prison theatre workshops in the hope of contributing to offenders’ rehabilitation.

In The Actors’ Gang, presenter Rajesh Mirchandani joined Robbins and his team as they began a three-month programme – influenced by the commedia dell’arte – with segregated inmates from Norco prison, situated just out of LA in the Californian desert. What made the piece fascinating was the way Mirchandani appeared to have decent access not just to Robbins, but also to several of the inmates, and he wasn’t afraid to ask questions the cynics listening at home were desperate to ask.

On a lighter note, a recommendation for my contemporaries would be Neil Tennant’s Smash Hit Christmas, in which the Pet Shop Boy recalls his time as a journalist on the pop magazine Smash Hits. That brings back memories of my very first taste of work experience there in the 1980s, packing rubber chickens into jiffy bags and making endless cups of tea for the editor. There was no better training for the career ahead…

Blackout Ballet, R4, Monday, December 10
The Actors’ Gang, R4, Saturday, December 15
Neil Tennant’s Smash Hit Christmas, R4, Thursday, December 20

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