Oliver Cross: Dolly Parton might be Country & Western but she’s got soul

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LAST WEEK, I made my first visit to the Leeds Arena, which, because everything about arenas is inescapably corporate, I must call the Leeds First Direct Arena.

I arrived early so that I could notice how unattractive the unadorned, brutally functional concrete building was, how cheap and crammed-together the seating was and how ludicrously over-priced the merchandise was – a routine Dolly Parton mug, produced to honour the star of the show, cost £15.

On the other hand, as the arena filled up, I realised that I had misread what arenas are about. They are blank spaces to be filled with paying customers. Earlier theatre architecture was concerned with making the customers feel pampered and privileged; modern arenas are all about throughput.

Which the arena managers are impressively good at. About 13,000 people entered the arena on Friday night and, without pushing or shoving, vacated it about half an hour after the close of the show. The building, unlike the friendly staff, was soulless and charmless - but it works.

And the key to humanising the dull grey spaces of the arena was, naturally enough, humans. The Dolly Parton fans, bonded by a common appreciation of a remarkable singer, took the place over and made it, regardless of corporate sponsorship, their own.

This was clever of the arena owners; it meant that things they hadn’t built into the arena package, such as hearts sand souls, were donated to them free by paying customers.

The fans were of all sorts, although probably most of them were younger than Dolly, who is 68 but skipped around like a woman who has devoted as much effort to maintaining her joint mobility as to cosmetic surgery.

There were only a few teenagers there but otherwise Dolly was everybody’s favourite, which is why she’s headlining at Glastonbury this year ( not that the words ‘headlining in Glastonbury’ would normally appear in this column; it’s just that Dolly Parton, in all sorts of different ways, breaks down barriers).

I was near the very top of the arena, so that I couldn’t see the real Dolly except as a lit-up, bright-haired leprechaun many metres down, but the enlarged shots of her on the big screens were a better substitute than I thought they would be.

Obviously, it would have been better to have a front seat so I could have seen Dolly direct rather than a photographic reproduction of her, but arena stars have to sacrifice a degree of visibility or they would be playing down the pub.

And watching, in situ, a film of somebody performing live is quite different from watching it on a remote screen because it’s done in time to the people around you, so there’s stomping, swaying, standing -up, singing along and (although this is mainly for alliterative purposes) solidarity. This is a community effort which can’t be reproduced on YouTube.

And how good was Dolly? Well, since she is, like the best country artists, a folk singer at heart, I might have preferred to see her in an acoustic, small-theatre format but still, it’s hard to imagine anything more thrilling than hearing her most striking song, Jolene, sung by its author.

It’s not, despite its driving tune and irresistible refrain, a natural stadium anthem; it’s more of a dramatic monologue, or possibly a lesson in morality.

And it touches everybody.

I’m sure that when her fellow southerner, Bill Clinton, reflecting on the Monica Lewinski scandal, said “I did something for the worst possible reason - just because I could”, he had the refrain from Dolly’s country masterpiece in his mind.

Bennett knocks us sideways with unexpected plot lines

I WENT to Alan Bennett’s play Untold Stories at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last week and laughed more than I ever have at a comedy club.

Which wasn’t a lot, given that I don’t like comedy clubs and that Bennett’s play is a sombre meditation on his relationship with his late parents, turning darker as his mother declines into depression and dementia.

But there are still very good laughs, as when his father, who never took to drinking, suddenly announces that he’s at last found an alcoholic drink he enjoys – bitter lemon. A theme of the play is his mother’s dream of breaking into society. The Bennetts are quiet, private, they don’t drink and they don’t like coffee but Mrs Bennett has an ambition to host coffee mornings and cocktail parties.

So when Alan comes to clear out the family home, his most poignant discovery is an unopened tube of cocktail sticks – an example of how Bennett can knock you sideways with a small detail.

I suppose all families have interesting stories, but parents are not to know the child sitting quietly in the corner might be mentally taking notes, ready to pin them down for posterity. If they did, they’d probably leave home. In a recent lecture, Bennett attacked the unfairness of private education and criticised writers who, unlike him, move to the right as they grow older.

As Untold Stories tells us, Bennett’s father, a butcher, was a moderately successful small businessman living above the shop – just like Margaret Thatcher’s grocer father. It’s odd how their off-springs progressed in such different directions.

Filey seems to have resisted the march of time

LAST WEEK, for the first time in about 30 years, I went to the seaside town of Filey on Yorkshire’s east coast.

During the gap between visits, there have been all sorts of social, political and cultural earthquakes but Filey remains unrocked by any of them; its most radical innovation, so far as I could see, being a church hall zumba class.

The rolling East Yorkshire countryside around the town, on a bright day and with the broad acres looking even broader and greener than usual, again gave little indication that we are well into the 21st Century.

Most of the cars on the quiet roads seemed to be heading for a classic car rally in Beverley.

There were meticulously-polished Rileys, Humbers, Bentleys, giant Volvos and even 1970s Ford Cortinas, which struck me, because I’m getting old, as far too recent to be of historic interest.

It was as if we had slipped into either a time machine or a period TV drama, with only the sight of my partner Lynne’s rather scruffy Fiat Punto to recall us to reality.

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