Tuesday, June 26, 2012


At the weekend, I sent a letter to The Observer via email. So sure am I that the paper will not run it this coming Sunday that I breathe life into it by reproducing it herebelow:

“Dear Sir,

It may be churlish to contest the consensual applause for Clive James as television reviewer, but it would be cowardly – which is worse – to delay until he has gone. For a year in the 1970s, I shared a page of The Observer with James, contributing previews alongside his review. I considered myself a champion of television practice, trying to mediate on the medium's behalf and to help build a valhalla of practitioners. I felt myself to be in an earlier tradition of Observer writing on television, that of the splendidly encouraging Cuthbert Worsley, now wholly forgotten.

Worsley's charming autobiography: pix of him are not to be found

I thought then and still believe that James led the opposite tendency, throwing rocks at the box (‘bad sight of the week’) to please the crowd. Donald Trelford declared last week that James ‘had almost the whole of modern life as his canvas’ and that was exactly what I deplored. It seemed to me that James was much more interested in developing a view of the world than of television. What's more, scoring his easy points inevitably led to a career as an on-screen pundit, phrasemaking about aspects of modern life that caught his eye.

The man himself

I went (back) into television too, but as an unseen producer in drama. My kind of writing about television (also espoused by Peter Fiddick in The Guardian and Séan Day-Lewis in The Daily Telegraph) was overwhelmed and killed off by those who preferred to follow James and use television as an aunt Sally: AA Gill, Charlie Brooker, Grace Dent. I suggest that it is no coincidence that British television's decline has marched in step with the rise of the telly reviewer as humorist.

Yours faithfully”

Why am I so convinced that the letter will not be published, or at best that it could only appear in a highly truncated form? Because, in my long experience of writing to the newspapers, letter editors carry correspondence critical of contributors and editorial policy relatively infrequently. And in this particular case I am having the temerity to demur at the canonisation of an Observer scribe who has passed into legend.

Donald Trelford was the editor who appointed me as television previewer on The Observer, which at the time (1977) was greatly expanding its coverage of television … to a whole broadsheet page! Clive James, already in place as reviewer, shared the page with my selection of programme previews, a news and comment column about the industry (also by me) and an opinion column that alternated between Melvyn Bragg and Russell Harty.

Trelford himself had no more interest in television than editors (including arts editors) generally do, which is to say that he was exercised by the politics of broadcasting (particularly as it impacted on Westminster) and by its structures, but only distracted by actual programmes when they made their presence felt on the news pages or through the enthusiasm of the chattering classes.

Trelford, whom Private Eye habitually accounted "small but perfectly formed"

Clive James largely wrote about such programmes, so that Trelford found himself naturally on James’s wavelength. I was much more interested in the programmes that defined and extended the warp and woof of the output: single documentaries, one-off plays, strands about science and culture and history and witness. I wrote primarily about producers, writers and directors, seeking to describe how a programme-maker’s craft (in the architecture of the programme, the editing, the montage, the camerawork) shaped the impact of the ideas on the viewer.

Much influenced by the writing on cinema of the great American critic Andrew Sarris (who died last week), I aimed to contribute to an auteur theory of television, whereby a pantheon of practitioners – the likes of Denis Mitchell, Tony Garnett, Ken Russell, Grace Wyndham Goldie, James Cameron, Dennis Potter, Philip Donnellan, Rudolph Cartier, John Berger, Galton & Simpson, Verity Lambert, Alun Owen, Ken Loach, Antony Thomas, David Mercer, John Pilger and so on – might come to be recognised as such.

Andrew Sarris

James had little time for such stuff or, I suspect, for me – I don’t recall him ever addressing more than a sentence to me during my time on the paper. He knew little about – and didn’t care to learn about – the techniques of live transmission, videotaping or film processing and editing. One time, he accused the documentarist Angela Pope of faking some footage in a film about schooling because he didn’t imagine she could have got such steady or concentrated shots of children in class. If he’d had the humility to ask what I thought, I could have warned him off such a charge in print. Pope duly issued a writ. James rampaged around the open-plan Observer office, denouncing this “cunt” to anyone who would listen. To be fair, his use of the word was nothing special. I had learned that James’s generic term for women was “cunts”, used, he perhaps thought, with affection. Such was the charm of the man.

Admirers are writing about James now because he is terminally ill. I cannot deny that he has a great many admirers, including people of whom I expected more. The effect James seems to have reminds me of a remark by a much greater Observer critic than James, the late Ronald Bryden, whose theatre reviews were always pitched at the highest level of perception, generosity and wit. Bryden wrote that, while he could always engage critically with Shakespeare, he became helpless when confronted by a play of Ben Jonson’s and would find himself just rolling over and purring. James’s column seemed to have a similar effect on quite a lot of intelligent people.

Ronald Bryden

The day after Trelford’s encomium in his old organ (http://bit.ly/Mr6rFj), Charlie Brooker wrote James a love letter in The Guardian (http://bit.ly/OqxO6i) – the paper thought so well of it that it was flashed on the front-page strap. Brooker cites only one example of what he admires in James’s television reviewing. Here is how he introduces it: “He has a way of gliding through sentences, effortlessly ironing a series of complex points into a single easily-navigable line, illuminating here and cogitating there, before leading you face-first into an unexpected punchline that makes your brain yelp with delight. He can swallow images whole and regurgitate them later as hallucinogenic caricatures that somehow make more sense than the real thing. He famously described Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like ‘a brown condom full of walnuts’. That's just brilliant. Every TV column I ever wrote consists of me trying and failing to write anything as explosively funny as that, for 650 words”.

Schwarzenneger: "You wanna say that in my hearing?"

This provokes me greatly. Leave aside the question of its “just brilliance” – if you laugh at that gag, then that is the sort of gag at which you laugh. But let’s look at the nature of the gag. It’s unarguably disobliging, personal, even unpleasant. I could say that Brooker’s face looks like a duck’s arse that has just farted what it thinks is a joke, but I don’t go in for that kind of material (even though the resemblance is unmissable).

DA Brooker

The subject of the gag is someone whom a metropolitan smartie-pants would then have considered low-class; remember that, when James wrote this, Schwarzenegger had yet to marry into the Kennedys or embark on a political career. He was just a small-time movie actor and – oh, my dear – a body-builder. In more recent times, James would certainly have been pleased to smarm up to him “in the library”. Besides his assumed insignificance, Schwarzenegger was never remotely likely to see the column, so he could be safely insulted from thousands of miles away. And finally – and this is the clincher for me – what the fuck has he got to do with a television review? Why is a London-based television reviewer straining to come up with a self-serving phrase about an Austrian muscleman who’s getting started in Hollywood?

Of course Brooker adores James. James gave Brooker the licence to write the same kind of scoffing, arrogant showing-off that James pioneered. The nascent attempt by serious critics to establish a tradition of respectable writing about television has been snuffed out by the howling mob. Another piece I submitted last weekend that has no hope of being published – this time to The Guardian – was in response to a feature in Saturday’s Guide section. The paper has a facility called Response that I used on this occasion for the first time. Sending one’s Response does not guarantee any response, I discover.

The original article may be read here http://bit.ly/OqJYvZ. This is my response:

“One demurs at the sneering orthodoxies of Twitter at one’s peril, of course. I did have a Twitter account for six months last year but gave it up after a novelist accused me of ‘dig dig dig’. I had no wish for tweeting to turn me into that person. (That she had previously tweeted that I was ‘a moron’ rather reinforces my case, I venture).

According to The 5 Rules of Hate Watching (Guide, June 23), the ‘dross’ that presently exercises the scorn of the twitterati is Theresa Rebeck’s television drama serial about the mounting of a Broadway musical entitled – rather hopefully, perhaps – Smash. This is screening here on Sky Atlantic, not, as the inattentive reporter had it, on Sky1.

Over some sixty years, I have seen several dozens of Broadway musicals and many hundreds of teledramas, yet I have failed to remark the present serial’s alleged but unspecified ‘missteps’. By any measure of realism, myth-making, stock characterization, plot contrivance and breezy over-confidence, Smash suffers comparatively little if set beside 42nd Street, Kiss Me Kate, Top Hat, The Band Wagon, A Chorus Line, The Producers, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Merrily We Roll Along or the Garland/Rooney puttin’-on-a-show movies.

Smash: here comes the inevitable album

It is arguable that the ingenue of Smash does not give the season’s most compelling performance – my own major misgiving about her is that her singing voice is of an inappropriate style – but only a cad retreats to disobliging and subjective remarks about the cast. In any case, after Ruby Keeler in the Busby Berkeley movies, every musical performer looks like the child of Apollo and Aphrodite.

But as a whole, Smash is smart and well-turned. Compared with the absurdly overpraised Glee, indeed, it is little short of a masterpiece. Nothing in Smash is as puerile as the token gay character in Glee suddenly revealing a hitherto undiscovered ability to kick a ball like a pro, a miraculous talent that allowed him to become acceptable to the other characters and, by inference, to the audience. This passing-for-jock moment was patently never to be called upon again, having served its purpose.

The Glee actor taking the gay role certainly has a lovely voice, but after he was not permitted to sing the whole of the exquisite Bacharach/David number ‘A House is Not a Home’, I gave up watching. Thus far, there are at least four gay characters in Smash, though even that is unrealistically restrained for the milieu of musical theatre.

Glee: multiple albums so far

Unlike Glee, Smash has a largely original score, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman whose credits include Hairspray. Their new songs tread a deft line between pastiche and hommage and the scripts deploy them with considerable shrewdness – a number staged on the wing in Times Square at night was especially rousing.

That the reporter who drew my unwonted attention to the supposed phenomenon of ‘hatewatching’ is not a reliable guide was confirmed by his description of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as a ‘bloated one-season wonder’, as though network renewal is the only measure of worth. That serial was certainly a failure, but a considerably more interesting and chancy failure than many a safely conventional show that racks up multiple seasons. Better two runs of Better Off Ted than eleven of My Family, after all.

The larger point here is that conventional wisdom appears to dictate that Thumper’s time-honoured advice is turned on its head into: ‘if you can’t say something nasty, don’t say nothing at all’. Perhaps this is as it should be, as we prepare for the last hurrah of Clive James, the writer who pioneered scoffing at the box as a crowd-pleasing substitute for truly engaging with it as an art form”.

As you see, I was already primed to bite back at Clive James before our one-time employer went in to bat. I know of course that mine is a lone voice and an unregarded if gallant one. But that, I reckon, is just what permitting responses is designed for.

Monday, June 18, 2012


What a relief never to have had children. So many eventualities are routinely accounted “every parent’s nightmare” that I imagine every mum and dad must pass their lives suffused with dread.

The latest outing for this cliché was conducted by Sami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, on Any Questions?. The panel were contemplating the occasion – now fairly ancient but only revealed this last week – when David and Samantha Cameron were having Sunday lunch at a country pub with friends (the Charlie Brookses, perhaps, in which case their preoccupation would be quite understandable). When they got back to Chequers, it was noticed that one of the children was missing. Mrs Cameron phoned the pub, ascertained that the child had been found in the ladies’ convenience and drove back to retrieve her.

The Camerons shrug off security

The neglectful father has received a wave of public sympathy or at least of empathy. What parent – it seems – has never left a child behind, sometimes even in a foreign country, only noticing the lack a few weeks later? The lapse evidently makes Cameron seem human. It can only be a matter of days before his opinion poll rating bounces back into the black and the Tories go on to win a landslide at the next election.

Even the left has been in forgiving mode. “Actually, I don’t think Cameron did anything terribly wrong,” wrote Suzanne Moore in The Guardian. “Nothing happened to the child”. Oh well, that’s all right then. But you’d think Moore would be old hand enough to notice the implication of her words. A lapse is a lapse, whatever the upshot. Drink-driving, for instance, is not rendered ok because you happen not to plough into somebody.

In any case, Cameron is far from being “every parent”. I don’t imagine Moore goes to the pub of a Sunday with a detail of security guards as well as her children in tow. The chance of one of her brood being kidnapped and held to ransom must be considered relatively low. The chance of this happening to one of Cameron’s children is surely at the top level of consideration when contingency strategy is being planned for the Cameron family movements.

Cameron downs another pint

So what the hell were Cameron’s security officers doing on that Sunday jaunt? Don’t they, as a matter of course, do a head count every time the family makes a move? “Oh, I thought she was in the other car” may be good enough for parents with little other than their faces to lose. For Cameron, it could be the difference between a news story that makes him seem a (loveable?) putz and a major terrorist incident that ends in a tragedy.

It’s hard not to feel that security around the government and the establishment errs on the lax side. On the Any Questions? panel with Chakrabarti was John Whittingdale, chair of the parliamentary select committee on culture, media and sport. Had I been a panellist that evening, I would have made a connection between the security lapse at the pub and the one last summer that allowed politico-comedian Jonnie Marbles close enough to Rupert Murdoch to pie him while he was giving evidence to Whittingdale’s committee.

Jonnie Marbles pies Murdoch

Then last month a man crashed the Leveson Inquiry and had leisure to denounce Tony Blair as a war criminal before being apprehended. In the time it took him to deliver his diatribe, an uninvited guest could have killed Blair one of several ways or indeed detonated a bomb and killed everyone in the room. Lord Justice Leveson ordered an immediate investigation of the security breach, the results of which, you may be sure, will not be made public.

Jonnie Marbles apprehended by Mr Plod

Three such lapses in a year are enough to make anyone with evil intent against the PM and/or the legislature rub his hands in glee. How hard would it be to nab a member of the royal family and demand the release of convicted terrorists? Could a suicide bomber get into the chamber of the House of Commons during prime minister’s questions when the maximum carnage could be inflicted? Could a mole be embedded at number 10 Downing Street?

The tenor of these matters is set by the top man. A lackadaisical approach to potential danger is all of a piece with Cameron’s attitude to government, which has given rise to the horrible coinage “chillaxing”. He seems to wish to temper his impersonation of his political idol, Tony Blair, with the laid-back, not to say bibulous, style of Charles Kennedy. That’s where coalition politics leads you.

Blair's assailant

Serious security wallahs must be tearing out their hair. After all, Cameron has already committed a colossal breach of vetting protocol by allowing his then director of communications, former Murdoch editor Andy Coulson, to attend security briefings for which he had not been cleared. To my eyes, this constitutes a prima facie breach of the law governing state security committed by the prime minister himself, surely a unique situation.

It is all well and good for Cameron to play fast and loose with his own safety and that of his family. Perhaps he would imagine it a neat and desirable summation if, exactly two hundred years after the only other assassination of a British PM (Spencer Perceval), his own career should end while he has his boots on.

But modern assassins spare no thought for the fate of innocent bystanders – what the brutish military jargon calls “collateral damage” – and Cameron needs to heed the danger to others, let alone the danger that the state itself might totter in such a circumstance.

Spencer Perceval

A much misquoted and misattributed sentiment comes in fact from the 18th century Irish lawyer and orator John Philpot Curran: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”. It seems inevitable that David Cameron’s downfall, one way or another, will derive from an inability to keep his eye on the ball.


Since my last posting, we in Britain have been wrung out by the conclusion of two great American teledramas. Desperate Housewives ran out of road after eight seasons. The show had its idiocies, particularly its murder subplots which could not be made credible even by such classy guest actors as the wonderful Alfre Woodard. But led by four strong roles for women – well, three out of four ain’t bad – it kept up a lively and sometimes satisfyingly surprising plot development and often enough put together something quite magical.

Certainly, after the near-climactic pull-together of strands central to continuing drama – birth, marriage, death – in a perfectly conceived and paced montage to the hauntingly creamy 1957 number ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’, I shall never again hear that first hit for Johnny Mathis without thinking fondly of this show.

Writer-producer Marc Cherry caught my eye by frequently giving episodes of Desperate Housewives subtitles there were song titles of Stephen Sondheim’s or otherwise related to Sondheimiana (the second episode of Season 1, after the inevitable ‘Pilot’, was titled ‘Ah, But Underneath’, which even some mainstream Sondheimians might not recognise). The last episode was called, very properly, ‘Finishing the Hat’. Had Cherry anticipated that Channel 4 would push successive episodes of the eighth season further and further down the schedule until ‘Finishing the Hat’ went out at 12.00, he might have called it ‘The Last Midnight’.

Kathryn Joosten was herself terminally ill as she played Karen's death in the last episode of Desperate Housewives

Dexter ended a couple of nights later, though it will be returning for at least a seventh and an eighth season. Like Desperate Housewives, it maintains a high standard of writing and direction and is able to attract guest cast of distinction. One might imagine that the premise of a police department blood analyst who moonlights as a vigilante serial killer would offer limited scope for sustained interest and development, but the compelling nature of the tension between these two roles has been remarkably consistent. Series 6 ended on a beautifully revealed crisis that will doubtless dictate the major pattern of the succeeding episodes. I can’t wait.

The last of the three-parter God Save the Queens (the first two parts of which I dished last time) revisited the notorious remark that knocked the career of Julian Clary off course almost twenty years ago. Coming on to present an award at a show broadcast live on ITV, Clary was asked by the host Jonathan Ross what he’d been up to, whereupon, plucking from the air the name of the most unlikely of his fellow guests (the then Chancellor of the Exchequer), Clary replied: “I’ve been fisting Norman Lamont”.

Sky transmitters go in for a lot of censoring – Joan Rivers’ potty-mouthed show Fashion Police is frequently bleeped – but it made a nonsense of almost every reflection on Clary’s outrage given in the programme when the word ‘fisting’ was obliterated. What possible rationale would there be for such nannying? Anyone likely to suffer a stroke on hearing the word would have long since switched off the programme in disgust. A word transmitted on prime-time ITV in 1993 can surely be permitted in the much looser environment of minority satellite broadcasting in the multi-channel age.

I like to think that, in the utterly unimaginable event that I were a guest on a chat show and the present Chancellor were another guest, I would have the gumption to pay a graceful tribute to the national treasure that is Julian Clary and reply to the host’s question about my recent activities: “Well, naturally, I’ve been fisting George Osborne”.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


After two decades of rounding up as much sport as possible and rebroadcasting the televisual and cinematic efforts of others, BSkyB has, over the past couple of years, made a substantial commitment to original programming. I use the term “original” in the narrow sense of premiere screening. Sky’s channels are certainly not exploring any untried genres. Indeed, the programmes are often clad in the modes of a forgotten age. So Starlings, its rural domestic saga on Sky 1, is a throwback to such ancient stalwarts as HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May, first (very loosely) dramatised for the box as The Larkins as far back as 1958.

In some ways, though, the commissioning decisions are surprisingly heartening. Perhaps the most unexpected ingredient in Sky’s menu has been a modest revival of the short-form, one-off play. Responsibility for supplying this has largely been given over to that Jill of all trades Sandi Toksvig who, as far as I am aware, hitherto had no particular track record in drama. Toksvig produced and introduced a bunch of new plays for Sky Arts, broadcast live with a studio audience, a couple of years ago, a run which thoughtfully foregrounded the writers. The present series of Playhouse, featuring 25-minute dramas recorded on location, buries the identities of both writers and directors in favour of the “star” actors cast. Even going on-line, I found it taxing to scare up the creative identities, not excluding those of the play that was written by Toksvig herself.

Kenneth Williams & Hugh Paddick

This emphasis on celebrity is of course the prevailing television flavour of the age. It infects every genre of programming, whether appropriate or not, and it is one of the main reasons why Sky’s latest documentary series is such a disappointment. This is a most unexpected project, a three-part series for Sky Atlantic called God Save the Queens. I have watched the first two episodes; the third will be first transmitted on Thursday June 14th. The series attempts to sketch the history of mainstream British entertainment emanating from gay performers. For such a “straight” (and US-orientated) channel as Atlantic, this is something of a psychological breakthrough.

Nonetheless, the programmes are terrible. Every advance in perception, the programmes made out, was the work of a single performer making bricks without the straw of either a writer or a tradition. And, as Sue Perkins’ script had it, each of these stars “has been touched by genius”. I’m gagging just a little on the idea that John Inman or Village People might belong in a sentence including the word “genius”.

Though director-produced by a woman (Rosalind Edwards for Two Four Productions), there is no hint that there might ever have been a lesbian tradition in showbiz. Much emphasis is placed on drag for men, but where are the besuited women? The music hall threw up a succession of greatly loved male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley, Ella ‘Burlington Bertie’ Shields and Hetty King, the last of whom was still performing (I remember her well) almost up to her death in 1972. Long before their time, women sang opera en travesti throughout the Baroque era and continued to play occasional trouser roles in such lushly ambiguous works as Der Rosenkavalier.

The long history of men performing in frocks – boys playing women in Shakespeare; Charley’s Aunt, the record-breaking Victorian farce; Arthur Lucan’s hugely successful act as Old Mother Riley – seems not to have informed the programmes. The British pantomime tradition involved two contrasted kinds of cross-dressing: the woman as principal boy (an unmistakeably female, even voluptuous take on the heroic leader, usually with high-cut breeches, wide-mesh stockings and heels) and the older man as comic female character known as the dame. The comedy style of panto, both at a professional and at a local amateur level, has always been of the kind that later informed the Carry On films and several of the camp comedians: bawdy, physical and packed with sexual innuendo. None of this appears in the series.

Charles Hawtrey: a characteristic sidelong ogle

The first part of God Save the Queens leapt straight into the tradition of the gay parlance known as polari and its use in the radio comedy Round the Horne. By far the most popular of that show’s regular characters were the “resting” chorus boys, Julian and Sandy, a development of the fey young blades Rodney and Charles who had featured in the show’s predecessor Beyond Our Ken. Both these couples were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. I have always imagined that Julian and Sandy were named for Julian Slade and Sandy Wilson, respective composers of the two campest retro musicals of the 1950s, Salad Days and The Boy Friend.

This sequence in the Sky series strongly implied that the Julian and Sandy phenomenon was entirely invented by Kenneth Williams. Hugh Paddick was not even mentioned – glimpsing him in passing in photographs, the innocent viewer might have taken him to be Kenneth Horne, the show’s straight man. Also absent was any acknowledgment of the writers, Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Though steeped in showbiz banter, neither Took nor Feldman was gay and it is reasonable to suppose that Paddick and Williams (who were both gay) had considerable input in the Julian and Sandy scripts. A couple of howlers appeared in the sequence. Round the Horne was a wireless series, produced from Broadcasting House and recorded at the Paris Theatre in Lower Regent Street. This was represented on screen by a shot of BBC Television Centre. And among a montage of Julian and Sandy sound clips was one of Kenneth Williams as the po-faced folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, whose doubles entendres were of a wholly heterosexual nature.

Moving on to the Carry On films, the programme tried to suggest that some bad feeling grew between Williams and Charles Hawtrey over billing and bragging rights as resident queen, but left out Williams’ advantage in being ever the life and soul of the party and Hawtrey’s demons: chronic alcoholism and compulsive cottaging.

Rex Jameson, the legendary Shuff

The next star to be credited with rather more ground-breaking than he himself would have recognised was Danny La Rue, “one man who took [drag] from the gutter and made it into an art form”. La Rue’s contemporary Rex Jameson may have ended many a night in the gutter but his wonderful character Mrs Shufflewick contained as much art as any music hall invention (as, to his credit, La Rue – a famously kindly and generous man – would have been the first to acknowledge). La Rue certainly added a big star level to the costume budget of his shows and the level of sophistication achieved at his own club made him more fashionable among a mainstream clientele than could be replicated by his no-less-glamorous fellow drag artists who worked the cabarets, pubs, clubs and drag balls: Douglas Byng, Jean Fredericks, Regina Fong, the Disappointer Sisters, Marc Fleming, Lee Stevens (who acquired all Alma Cogan’s old gowns), Hinge and Brackett.

On to Frankie Howerd: “Howerd’s heterosexual, sex-mad alter ego was even given his own show in 1969” said the commentary. That is not quite how Up Pompeii! came about. Howerd had enjoyed a personal success as the slave Pseudolus in the West End run of the Roman farce musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove based on the writings of Plautus (my Mum took me to see it). Howerd’s character Lurcio in the television comedy series is exactly the same character, customised for Howerd.

Cilla Black was a chum of Howerd’s and apparently this makes her an expert on gay entertainment, so her two-penn’orth was cut in every so often. She essayed that Howerd would have been outed by modern media, as if that weren’t already happening long before Howerd’s death in 1992. The programme might more productively have explored why notorious sex pests like Howerd and Hawtrey were left alone by the tabloids while discreet dabblers were harried.

Frankie Howerd as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing

Black also managed to mangle a renowned quote from Liberace, whom she called Libbie – I have not encountered that nickname anywhere else. When Bill Connor, writing as Cassandra, offered an excessively disobliging description of Lee (his actually nickname) in the Daily Mirror, making his homosexuality abundantly clear, the flamboyant entertainer sent him a telegram: “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank”.

In Cilla’s version, “he was the first person to coin the phrase ‘You can say what you like about me, but I’m laughing all the way to the bank’.” Apart from Liberace’s original being wittier and more apt, it was not his coinage – it had been doing the rounds as an expression of triumphant disdain for at least twenty years.

Liberace relaxes at home

Lee was a resourceful and shrewd performer. I covered the press launch for an appearance of his at the Palladium, surely his last. He fielded the impertinent questions of the hacks with endless aplomb, good humour and good grace and then mingled with them confidently in the bar. When my five minutes came, I happily shared them with Keith Howes of Gay News. “Oh my”, exclaimed Lee when Keith introduced himself. “You know, I was just looking at those small ads in The Advocate – have you seen those? And they were so interesting, I thought I might reply to some of them myself”. And he roared with laughter, presumably secure in his libel victory over Cassandra all those years before. Nobody ever had any doubt that Liberace was a big fairy – though Cilla, remarking that “he would come on like the King of England, but we all knew he was the Queen of England”, may have misheard his Milwaukee accent as the cadences of the Wirral.

Larry Grayson at that door

Some idiot from “reality television”, who can’t have been born when Liberace died, reckoned that “he was like a male Shirley Bassey” – oh purleze – and that “he was just an amazing pianist”. Really? Go and listen to Richter, Horowitz, Argerich, Gould, Rubinstein, Uchida, Lupu, Larocha, Andsnes, Perahia, Gulda, Curzon, Hough, Ashkenazy, van Cliburn, Cortot, Jablonsky, Lipatti, Anderszewski, Pollini, Schiff, Hamelin, Mewton-Wood, Serkin, Kovacevich, Jacobs, Gilels, Pletnev, Bavouzet, Cherkassky, Brendel and Paul Lewis and then tell me what an amazing pianist is.

A sequence on Larry Grayson failed to mention the obvious prototype for his kind of slow-burn timing and prissy manner: Jack Benny. A continuing thread in the programme surfaced again here, the notion that “the public never realised what it was” as Grayson’s producer put it. “They just thought this was a funny man”.

Later, that reliably unreliable commentator Grace Dent reckoned that “the majority of the British public did not put two and two together and think that [Freddie Mercury] was gay”. I guess she’s based that on market research. But, you know, the public are a lot more wised up than these showbiz types imagine. Some of us may perhaps choose to tune out the possibility that an entertainer that we like prefers same to opposite sex. Or we may accept it and not be bothered. What noisy god-botherers claim and what everyone else says to market researchers is not necessarily the whole story.

Further pieces of misinformation turned up in part 2. Nicholas Parsons – why was he on the programme? – declared that “it was the Wolfenden Report which made homosexuality legal”. No it wasn’t, it was the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (not 1966 as an on-screen journalist dated it). Of Kenny Everett’s disc-jockeying career, his biographer David Lister said “None of these things had ever happened before on radio. No DJ had comic characters. There were no jingles”. I refer you, Mr Lister, to one Jack Jackson. If he was before your time (which actually I doubt), all the more reason to do your homework before pontificating.

Jack Jackson, anarchic DJ

Indeed, it is the lack of rigorous research that hobbles this series and so many other contemporary television documentaries. The philosophy that allows any inanity onto air if it emanates from the mouth of a celebrity is a lazy and self-defeating philosophy. If your expensive interviewee promulgates a piece of bollocks, it is your job to put him right and gently suggest that the interview be reshot. In the end, the amour propre of some tuppenny-ha’penny individual who sometimes appears on television should be less of a consideration than the making of a programme that has intellectual merit and authenticity.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


As is my wont, I found plenty to occupy me over the grossly extended half-week holiday and never felt sufficiently at a loose end to find myself tuning in to any of the blowsy and noisy shenanigans somebody thought might be welcome to Her Majesty the Queen to mark the sixtieth anniversary of her accession.

Of course, these things cannot be wholly avoided. The news on BBC1 on Monday night, delayed longer than even I had anticipated, was equally predictably dominated by a digest of what had clearly been comprehensively covered on the same channel for the preceding three-and-a-half hours. Seeking enlightenment about the state of the world is futile on days like these.

The snippets on the bulletin gave more than enough sense of what I had missed, especially its unendurable length. Such ritualistic events can only be borne if one is an actual participant, and even then there are always hours of standing around feeling useless unless one is, as it were, the bride, the bar mitzvah, the Nobel laureate, the convicted murderer, the new pope, the corpse to be buried or (as in this case) the monarch. Beyond the guest list, everyone – whether halfway down the Mall or watching on telly – is in the position of Stella Dallas: nose pressed up against the window of a party to which she is not invited. I have never understood the appeal of rubbernecking the pleasures of others. I don’t scurry to see the aftermath of a car-crash either.

A fraction of the Jubilee river pageant

It further beats me why anyone imagines Elizabeth Windsor would want a pop concert in her honour, especially one in the street right outside her front windows. She has never revealed the remotest interest in or liking for music, or indeed culture of any kind, popular or haute. She skipped the Royal Variety Performance the past two years – even though patron of the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the show’s beneficiary – and she alternates with her eldest son at the Royal Film Performance these days.

But nothing about the bean-feast makes great sense. Its universally used description – Diamond Jubilee – is a misnomer twice over. The earliest appearance of the term ‘jubilee’ in English is in the Wycliffe Bible: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you” [Leviticus 25:10]. The word derives from the Hebrew yobel, which is a ram, indicating that the ceremonial blowing of a ram’s horn marked the celebration of jubilee. Gradually -– as was generally the way with the spoken language and with corruption in translation – the meaning migrated from its primary sense of being a half-century event.

Meanwhile, among the precious metals and gemstones signifying the passage of time – sapphire for five years, ruby 15 and 40 years, silver 25, pearl 30, gold 50 – a diamond traditionally signified ten or 75 years. It was only because Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary in Salisbury’s Unionist government, proposed that Queen Victoria’s waning esteem among her subjects be bolstered by a public celebration of the longevity of her reign (now the longest in British history) along with a salute to the extent of the British Empire (at its high-water mark) that what would have been the Diamond Jubilee due in 1912 (had she lived) was brought forward fifteen years.

Queen Victoria: the official Diamond Jubilee photograph

Chamberlain’s perception was triumphantly vindicated and his monarch died twelve years shy of what would properly have been her Diamond Jubilee, yet withal full of years and greatly beloved of her hitherto indifferent subjects, both in the British Isles and in the vast Empire. Since then, the diamond has additionally (if incorrectly and lazily) been attached to 60 years, to the extent that I have been unable to discover which gemstone or metal hitherto had represented six decades.

The enthusiasm for the throne is ever in flux, at least in these islands. Elsewhere, a certain amount of nose-holding may often be detected – the sourpuss expression of Julia Gillard as she lit the Canberra beacon on behalf of Australia was unmistakeable – but, if opinion polls may be believed (and I habitually doubt that they can be), the Queen is held in wide regard just now, the anni horribiles being long set aside.

The republican cause – intellectually perfectly understandable – has always faced difficulty gaining much traction, for the simple reason that the throne is, for all practical purposes, merely ceremonial and therefore only a source of urgent debate in the rarest of circumstances. As the nature of British society has changed – and changed extensively – over Elizabeth II’s reign, so the argument that her family sits at the apex of a repressive pyramid weakens. Formally, Britain is a constitutional monarchy managed as a representative democracy. Informally, one might characterise it as a class-based oligarchy in 1952 that has metamorphosed into a plutocracy (of international capital) managed as a celebritocracy now. The monarchy is marginal to this movement of history.

Victoria's landau arrives at Mansion House

There is pitifully little to be said for removing the throne and replacing it with a presidency, because the monarchy is no longer surrounded by an hereditary aristocracy with power or influence or indeed wealth. The House of Lords is gradually being democratised and in any case has no more than delaying power over an elected Commons. If the throne were abolished, the Queen or the Prince of Wales would be the favourite candidate to be elected head of state. The former royal family would remain relatively wealthy, well-connected and of continual interest to the media. The republican movement must know that theirs is a forlorn hope.

And the odd carping about the BBC’s coverage and its supposed sycophancy seems misplaced. As I say, I only have news bulletins to go on, but I have heard three interviews with avowed republicans during the course of the four-day celebration and that seems very reasonable. Besides, the BBC was established by royal charter and is the national broadcaster of a kingdom: it would be a curious stance, not to say lèse-majesté, for it to project hostility or even indifference to the institution of monarchy. Its correspondents have diligently remarked the fact of republicanism. That seems to me to be sufficient.

Meanwhile, those pesky public opinion polls have muddied the water again by finding a majority in favour of Elizabeth II being succeeded directly by William V. This is a bizarre opinion and it is a pity that the pollsters did not have the gumption to ask supplementary questions in order to elucidate the source of this fancy. Is it imagined that William would make “a better monarch” than his father and if so in what way?

The route of Victoria's Jubilee procession

All we seek in a ceremonial head of state is someone who can read the government’s clunking prose at the State Opening of Parliament without a palpable tone of disdain, get through a garden party without asking someone in a motorised wheelchair if they’ve “come far”, and play host at a state banquet with the head of some god-forsaken dictatorship somewhere a long way away without keeling over into the crème brûlée or goosing any of the said head’s wives. These are all cogent reasons why neither Russell Brand nor Boris Johnson would be first choice as head of state in a republican UK.

Prince Charles is of course in some ways a dismaying testament to in-breeding and private education, but he has gamely survived as Prince of Wales – than which there is no more resonant “number two” designation in the history of the world – for more than half a century, having been handed his title a decade before his formal investiture at Caernarfon Castle in 1969. Princes of Wales have, from time immemorial, behaved as licensed fools, and Charles has been afforded an inordinate amount of time in which to do this, having waited longer than any previous heir apparent, when he overtook the impatient apprenticeship of his great-great-grandfather, who eventually became Edward VII. All things considered, he has not let his mummy down all that much.

Elizabeth II is not going to abdicate, you can bet your boots, just to give her eldest son a better run at it. If she lives to 105, which seems perfectly feasible, she will have been the longest-reigning queen in the history of the world by more than fifteen years and her son (if he outlives her) will be 82 or 83, a good age for a new career. It seems unlikely that Her Majesty will exceed the longest accredited male reign, however. That daunting record belongs to King Sobhuza II of Swaziland who retired to join his ancestors in 1982, having reigned since the last December of the previous century.

Ahead of being presented, Sir Elton frets that he may be underdressed

Prince Charles has been a public figure for sixty years and, for good or ill, he has a fairly well-defined public profile. No doubt like anyone else in the public eye, his actual persona is very different in many crucial ways from the public perception. I do not know him personally, so I cannot say. (I stood in for his mother once, but that’s a matter for another day).

Charles has many firm views, not all of them completely batty, and he has had the temerity to express them. I should have thought that on balance his public expression of notions has probably done a bit more good than harm. I am also quite sure that he knows enough to know that, if and when he does ever become king, he will need to keep his views to himself thenceforward.

Prince William, on the contrary, is pretty much a closed book to most of us, I would suggest. Can you think of five adjectives to describe what you perceive to be his character? Neither can I. He seems to be merely a polite, quite presentable young man who is losing his looks even faster than most of the Windsors are apt to do.

But see here: those who advocate the succession skipping the present Prince of Wales profess themselves supporters of an hereditary monarchy, even while they make this exception. As Marie-Antoinette might have remarked: “let them eat their cake and have it too”. There is no coherent, consistent or respectable argument for Prince Charles standing aside. That the Queen asked the Duchess of Cornwall to sit beside her in the laudau (Charles facing the rear) on the return ride from St Paul’s on Tuesday is as explicit and minatory a gesture as she can ever have offered about anything. “This woman is the wife of my successor, and she and he are my anointed” the gesture announced. “Get used to it”.

Royal fireworks

Later, on the balcony, it was impossible to resist the implication that the chosen group was the inner core for the rest of her reign: the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Cambridges and Prince Harry who will certainly, on the death of his uncle Andrew, become Duke of York. The present Duke – along with the Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex – are suddenly as supernumerary as the Gloucesters and the Kents.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Edinburgh – whose title Wessex is to inherit – had absented himself from the events of Monday and Tuesday, perhaps not entirely involuntarily: five minutes of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ would certainly have been five too many for him. It was Prince Edward and his brood who were the Duke’s family visitors in hospital on Tuesday. I can just hear him barking: “Bloody hell, are you the only one they could spare?”

There was a deal of speculation about how much the Queen was missing her husband’s presence in the latter half of the celebrations. I imagine she coped. After all, she had half a century to observe the example of her own mother, who spent almost exactly half her life as a widow. The key to all things to do with the throne is the long game. Durability, in the end, is one of the virtues people most admire.