by Bill Monson

September in London was unseasonably warm. Descending into the Underground was like riding the down escalator into Hell, the lower the hotter. I halfway expected to see Dante and Virgil sizing up the crowd on the platforms at the Warren Street Station.

My wife Polly and I were on the first leg of a six-week holiday that would take us across middle Europe before a return to Galesburg for Knox Homecoming. This first part would concentrate on theater, dance and music as London's fall season got into gear.

The current hit of the West End is ''Chitty Chitty Bang Bang''--a musical based on the 1968 movie MGM made from Ian Fleming's book. All the Sherman Brothers movie songs are there; and Chitty actually flies out over the audience in the best special effect since the falling chandelier in ''Phantom of the Opera.'' Look for the show to cross the Atlantic to Broadway within a year.

''The Lion King'' is still going strong, but it's easier to get tickets now. A third popular musical is ''The Full Monty''-- an American import based on a British movie which crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction. The weird thing about it is that for Broadway, the story was transplanted to Buffalo--and now the American cast has been replaced by Brits who affect American accents in order to fit the script. And yes, the leads do ''the full monty''--full frontal nudity--for the big finish- but you can' t see a thing because of a special strobe effect behind them.

Woody Harrelson (''Cheers'') and Kyle MacLachan (''Twin Peaks'') are two more popular American transplants, co-starring in ''On an Average Day.'' MacLachlan nearly walked right over me in the lane outside the theater as he excitedly told a Woody anecdote to some visiting friends.

Star British playwrights Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourne both have new trilogies playing--but they received mixed reviews. Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical--''Bombay Dreams''--got poor reviews and was not doing good business in September.

The anniversary of 9/11/01 was commemorated in serious fashion in London with Prince Charles and son Harry attending a special service at St. Paul's Cathedral and a minute of silence at 1:46 p.m. all over the city. Local TV carried coverage of it as well as that of the U.S. Even the cast of Shakespeare's ''Twelfth Night'' at the Thames Bankside replica Globe Theatre observed a moment of remembrance at their matinee which we attended.

At Finsbury Park mosque in North London, however, there was a Muslim ''conference'' to commemorate the day which raised quite a hue and cry in Parliament and the newspapers because the posters advertising it showed a picture of the second plane about to crash on a ''Towering Day in History,'' as the wording went. Tight security prevented any serious trouble.

Polly and I picked that day to walk the Millennium footbridge across the Thames from below St. Paul's to the Tate Gallery on our way to the Globe. I can happily report that the bridge is beautiful, popular and stable at last. However, so is the new Hungerford footbridge near Waterloo--even with trains running on a nearby bridge.

London is a town always full of music, and we took in everything from a BBC Promenade Concert at Albert Hall (from the top row yet!) to a string ensemble in the ''actors' church''--St Paul's, Covent Garden. For dance, we attended ''A Play Without Words'' at the National Theatre- a ballet based on the 1963 movie ''The Servant'' but with each of the four major characters danced by three dancers--usually at the same time! This was performed by the same creator who gave the world an all-male ''Swan Lake'' and the Bizet-based ''Car Man'' which came to the U.S. with great success. This show was a sleeper, however; and the National wants to re-run it in the spring before letting it go to the States.

Polly and I also did some touristy things--like the Tower of London (which we saw on a day with gusting rain), the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Imperial War Museum. (At the latter, now modernized and inter-active, we were especially impressed by The Blitz Experience-- where you join a small group in a bomb shelter that recreates the sense of a World War II bombing raid--including the smell of burning wood!)

The Eye of London Ferris Wheel is still running and popular; and Covent Garden and Leicester Square still draw young people and other tourists by the hundreds. Weekends there are jammed!

The American influence is everywhere, with MacDonald's (despite the Mad Cow Disease), Haagen-Daz (two sundaes $12), Starbucks, and other American franchises nearly everywhere you go. I didn't get enough time in the bookstores--but anything I bought had to be carried thousands of miles, so what was the use? Someday, I'm going to take an empty suitcase just for souvenirs!

Despite a room cooler which overflowed and puddled up our room in a fawncy Edwardian hotel and the lack of short-sleeved shirts for temperatures in the low 80s, we enjoyed our two weeks in London and decided to leave Britain in high style-- on the Chunnel Train!

Next: The Chunnel and Paris

Uploaded to The Zephyr website November 6, 2002

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