Good Luck! November 2017.

Dear Rowley,

What to make of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle? Much has been written about the serendipity of Harry’s choice ergo an American mixed race actress of independent means and strident opinions. The inference is that the Royal Family has somehow kept up with the tempo of public opinion. Even more backslapping about how far the monarchy has come in welcoming a divorcee into the fold eighty years after the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s marriage in France was boycotted by the entire family.

Well for one the then King Edward VIII had a lot of public support in his love for twice-divorced American with strident opinions Mrs Simpson. He was hugely popular amongst the people and ultimately stymied into Abdication in a pincer movement between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the Colonial powers and, allegedly, the Duchess of York and Queen Mary.

Equally popular was the love match between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend. The divorced Townsend was substantially older than the fairytale princess but the country was more than ready to let love win. It is rather a mercy that Princess Margaret wasn’t alive to see Miss Markle being paraded like a multi-cultural turkey. I’d imagine the lady was incredibly beady about the divorces of Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew.

Perhaps Mrs Simpson and Peter Townsend’s true crime was to be too old to fit the picture of a dashing royal consort. The monarchy thrives on new blood – as it initially did with the late Diana, Princess of Wales – and had to use every art of spin and suggestion to ease Mrs Parker-Bowles into the family album.

What do you make of Miss Markle? She entirely dominated the engagement interview while Prince Harry practically had hearts circling his head and a dazed, goofy smile on his face. It must be love and love is just the ticket in this period of constitutional uncertainty as the Brexit negotiations sputter like the exhaust pipe of an old banger. Apparently Prince Charles is dancing a jig, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge adore Meghan and even the corgis melt to her touch.

Announcements from The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are never effusive but I detected a whiff of ‘let them get on with it’ as the old regime drifts serenely to an inevitable if hopefully still distant end. What surprised me most about the engagement was Miss Markle’s seeming eagerness to forsake her career as an actress to become (odds on) Duchess of Sussex and become a full-time member of the royal family.

There is a precedent in history. Princess Grace left movie star Grace Kelly behind to marry Prince Rainier and become Her Serene Highness. Apparently Princess Grace was keen to accept Hitchcock’s offer of the lead role in Marnie: an awful, twisted plot as it happened but evidence that the princess was keen to work again. There was a melancholy about Princess Grace having to be serene in the tiny principality of Monaco after being an Academy Award-winning queen of Hollywood.

Forgive the presumption but I would have thought Prince Harry would have been happy to walk away from royal duties and, like his cousin Lord Frederick Windsor, go and live in LA with his actress wife. I can’t imagine the new Duchess being contented with a life of charitable activities, waving and tiaras as feisty as she is. Then again, I’ve never met the lady and she appears to be playing the role of duchess-in-waiting rather brilliantly.

I do wonder whether the Duchess of Cambridge is going to relish a genuine A-list star joining the family; particularly one who is not dissimilar to she in looks or age. To quote The Valley of the Dolls, ‘there’s only one star in the Helen Lawson Show and that’s Helen Lawson’. I did find the engagement interview was a deft performance and that was quite unnerving. Both Diana and Kate were understandably nervous when they announced their engagements. You’d have to be very sure of yourself to give an Oscar-winning performance as ‘Miss Breath of Fresh Air’.

Looking back on the Abdication Crisis, I wonder whether it wasn’t Edward VIII that was the object of loathing within the royal family and Mrs Simpson was simply the scapegoat. King George V positively cursed his son in his dying days saying the boy would ruin himself within a year of the old man’s death. As it happened he did and King George’s other wish – that Bertie become King George VI and Lilibet follow him as queen – also came true.

When he was Prince of Wales, the Duke of Windsor was the closest the royal family ever came to movie star mania until Diana’s arrival in 1981. His clothes were copied, his travels endlessly reported and his penchant for jazz, cocktails and married mistresses made him a ‘Modern’. His mother Queen Mary clearly disapproved even more than King George V. When Duchess of York, the Queen Mother was clearly beady about the glamorous ‘David’ while she was married to the stuttering Bertie.

What nobody’s brought-up yet is the thought that Meghan Markle could be rather like her late mother-in-law. I don’t get the impression she will be a blushing flower or a shrinking violet and will become a major part of the national debate from now on. The privacy Prince Harry wished for her is now over. Time will tell how both adjust to life as a full-time royal couple.

 

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Rose’s Turn. November 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Can you remember that scene in Gypsy when Mama Rose has been deserted by both her daughters, actress June and stripper Gypsy, and takes to an empty stage to sing the ultimate eleven o’clock number Rose’s Turn?  As you know, the eleven 0′ clock number is a belter towards the end of Act 2 when a character delivers a rip-roaring ‘down in flames this is me’ anthem. All the pent-up frustration as a failed performer combusts with Rose’s bitterness at her girls’ ingratitude  explodes from the mouth of the stage mother to end all others. The number is quite simply electrifying.

So it is not coincidental that divas of a certain age demand the role of Mama Rose as a rite of passage. Gypsy must  be the most revived show in Broadway history. In addition to Rose’s Turn, the character is given the manic rant in song Everything’s Coming Up Roses that closes Act 1. I had the great good fortune to see Patti Lupone’s Mama Rose on Broadway. I don’t think there’s another performer more in tune with the human wrecking ball that is Rose even though many have triumphed in the role including Ethel Merman for whom the piece was written.

I have the Tyne Daly recording which matches Lupone for brass but lacks the visceral quality of a Patti performance. I also have the Bernadette Peters Gypsy whose Mama Rose is deluded and sweetly manipulative rather than a barn-storming monster in a cloche hat. But she’s got a show voice that is amongst the best in the business hence replacing Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! next year.

Miss M had a very good go at recreating the old Ros Russell film musical as a television special. I think she smashed Rose’s Turn but one did get the feeling it was Bette Midler performing the song not Mama Rose. The Rosalind Russell film looked absolutely stunning in Technicolor but it is a turkey. Merman was robbed although Nathalie Wood gives a definitive performance as Rose Louise who transforms into Gypsy Rose Lee.

Purists will say Gypsy is the most complete Broadway musical with the best overture ever written. Gypsy was one of Sondheim’s first jobs as a principal lyricist. The music was by Jule Styne and the book by Arthur Laurents. Each element of the team brought their A-game to Gypsy and I would say You’ve Got to Get a Gimmick sung by strippers Miss Electra, Miss Mazeppa and Tessie Turah is one of the finest, bawdiest comedy numbers ever staged.

Who else played Gypsy? The last cab off the rank was Imelda Staunton at the Savoy theatre who had the lungs and acting chops but I am afraid she didn’t make the spine tingle like Lupone. I thought Angela Lansbury was far too nationally treasured to play Rose until I remembered her playing the monster mother in The Manchurian Candidate. Nothing is beyond Angela Lansbury’s range.

I have played Mama Rose many an evening. My caterwauling Everything’s Coming Up Roses caused the Chinese lawyers downstairs much consternation. One asked if I was auditioning for a show. I lied and said I was in cabaret at the Crazy Coqs. Look well if she tries to book tickets.

Perhaps the only tribe more enamoured of Gypsy than the divas is the gays. As a card-carrying homosexualist I’d like to nominate Judy Garland as the greatest Mama Rose that never was. I’m not sure she even recorded the anthems perhaps in respect to her friend Ethel. Imagine Judy channelling her own stage mother Ethel Gumm to bring Mama Rose to life. As the all-time greatest belter, Judy’s timbre would have been sensational for Rose’s Turn.

I do think Rose’s Turn appeals to me on a personal level because I’ve reached Rose’s age and, despite moments in the sun, still want the attention and the applause. The number conceals hope with rage (know how she feels!) and is one of those songs that is a musical equivalent of a Hamlet soliloquy. Rose changes gear from bitterness to anger and ultimately on to belief that there’s life in the old girl yet. Again, know how she feels.

The launch of Jewellery for Gentlemen is in many ways my change of gear. Though I have worked for myself for the best part of thirty years, actually focusing on a self-invented project takes major discipline. In the recent past publishers or newspaper deadlines came with their own sense of responsibility. Now the person I am responsible to is me and the project is J4G. I think the website is looking sharp. Have a butchers at www.jewelleryforgentlemen.com and let me know what you think.

This is definitely the opening of my Act 2 in many ways. There is so much to reassess not least in matters of amour. It has taken me forty-six years to work out that some people are much better suited to being a mistress than a wife. This realisation frees-up an awful lot of guilt about not joining in the gay Haj that is the rush to the altar. I wouldn’t mind being taken up the aisle (no comments please) but have had so much more happiness as something of a tart with a heart of gold than I ever did cohabiting.

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Funny Girl. November 2017.

Dear Rowley,

There are few performers who can trade under one name and be instantly recognisable. There are the divas – Liza, Barbra, Bette, Cher – and there are the pop queens Madonna, Beyonce and Rihanna who didn’t bother with a surname in the first place. It is rare for a television personality to achieve that status. Cilla did it first and now ITV has blessed Sheridan Smith with a special simply billing her as ‘Sheridan’.

I have been a fan of Sheridan Smith since seeing her absolutely own the role of tart with a heart Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. More from luck than judgement I saw her play a psychedelic Woodstock Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where she acted David Walliams off the stage. I also saw Sheridan play the lead in Legally Blonde: a commercial success but not a musical I warmed to or remembered a note from the score.

I was longing to love Sheridan as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl but happened to be in the audience at the Savoy theatre on the night the curtain was brought down mid-show. I was with Miss McCarthy that night and, from the opening number, we had concerns that all was not well. We didn’t know whether it was the singer or the song but the star was woozy and off-key. The curtain went down when Sheridan performed a number that involved lewd gestures with chorus boys that surely was not developed in the rehearsal room.

To be fair to Sheridan Smith, her father had died during the run of Funny Girl and I would have said that she could have given herself (and her understudy) a break. The stage manager clearly agreed and bought the curtain down due to technical difficulties. This would have been easier to swallow had we not been invited to have a drink in the bar for an hour before the jig was up and the show didn’t go on.

Watching the ITV special, I was rather disappointed that Sheridan Smith has become the cliche she always avoided. It takes a gifted actress to hold her own in The Royle Family and I thought she gave a bravura performance as Brandy (surely Brandi?) in Benidorm displaying comic timing that would have left Fanny Brice in the shade. She defied expectations again playing both Hedda Gabler and an Olivier Award-winning role in Rattigan’s Flight Path. Her string of leading roles on TV including Mrs Biggs and Cilla - where she sang better than the original – were nuanced and at times raw.

I have had a couple of brushes with the late, great Cilla Black and remember her being as hard as nails. When asked if she would have made it without her only love, Bobby, Cilla said ‘Yeah’. I would imagine that Sheridan would have answered exactly the same. She is a natural star and absorbs attention and applause with that combination of gratitude and entitlement and that’s not a critique.

Watching the Sheridan Smith special on ITV, a comeback in all but name, I wondered how she had got to that point in her career so early. The oleaginous Alexander Armstrong never asked anything more taxing than ‘why were you so fabulous in…’ and completely ducked the opportunity to go for tears (crocodile or not) about the breakdown in 2016.

Sheridan is 36 and that’s a bit young to be playing a Diana Dors character with wobbly bosoms, double chuckling chins, peroxide hair and a bizarre array of tattoos on full display with a gold lamé evening dress that even Di Dors would have considered a bit bold. We all love a knowing, brassy diva and forgive an awful lot if the artist has had a long life of struggle.

One hopes Sheridan is just getting started. The mannerisms when singing employ all the old tricks of broads who can’t reach the high notes but vamp like crazy to cover up technical imperfections. Covering short notes with a ‘Hah!’ or a ‘Yeah’ is OK for Dorothy Squires but not for the first actress to tackle Funny Girl since Barbra Streisand originated the role.

I suspect the lady might be manic depressive but you name a performer who isn’t. Was it wise to throw Crazy into the repertoire to give  a bit of a nod and a wink to last year’s troubles? As anyone with manic depression knows, it never pays to be flippant. I also suspect Sheridan has not been lucky in love but that would go for any female performer since the year dot.

Listening to Sheridan crucify Mad About the Boy all I could hear was a Northern club singer who’s seen rough times returning to her roots. As for Marilyn Monroe’s national anthem Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, covering that is a case of fools rushing in. Sheridan Smith is a star. She is loved. She is talented. I also happen to think she’s far too good for the blowsy album tour. Still, I bet she wins another fist-full of Oliviers and puts this behind her.

 

 

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Ordeal by Innocence. November 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I had a minor fracas on Twitter about actor Ed Westwick who has been accused of – and strenuously denied – two rapes. As a result, the BBC has cancelled showing an Agatha Christie adaptation called (with no little irony) Ordeal by Innocence this Christmas. The lady who I corresponded with said it was right to erase this man from the schedule with the reasoning that it would be distressing for the victims to see this man on television.

Well, first and foremost the man is innocent until proven guilty. That is the bedrock of British justice. Secondly, if the women allegedly assaulted by the actor chose to watch a programme featuring Westwick then I would question their judgement. Thirdly, what about all of the actors and crew who worked on Ordeal by Innocence? Should they suffer because a fellow cast member is under suspicion?

I did note that Ridley Scott had replaced Kevin Spacey in his upcoming film and decided to reshoot Spacey’s scenes with another actor. The evidence against Spacey seems to be much more conclusive and yet he has not been arrested, charged, tried or found guilty as yet. I am very uncomfortable about erasing people from history. It smacks of Nazism. Should we never watch House of Cards, The Usual Suspects or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ever again because Kevin Spacey tried to seduce a fourteen-year-old when he was in his twenties?

I am from the generation when if someone squeezed your bum or touched you up and it was unwelcome you’d simply politely decline. I am also of the generation that believes young people acquiesce with predatory older men or women if careers can advance. This is not an excuse for the predator but neither is it a good reflection on the young person. My major problem with the tsunami of sexual assault allegations is that they are historic. The time between the deed and the whistle being blown makes it terribly difficult to justify why the victims didn’t speak out immediately.

What we have is a new blackmailers’ charter. Nobody who made a pass and works in the public eye over the past thirty years is going to be safe from blame. There seems to be little doubt that Kevin Spacey was an arrogant, predatory man who took advantage of his success to pounce. The fact some of these men went home with him is more morally problematic.

There appears to be a number of men and women who are reporting historic abuse in the spirit of ambulance-chasing layers encouraging the public to take a punt on compensation. I can hold my hand up now and say that at the age of fourteen I was totally sexually aware and very keen to explore. I was actually gagging for an older man to make a pass and would have responded enthusiastically.

The victim culture in society today is worrying. Rape is rape and must be exposed and prosecuted. A pinch on the bum and a sly pass is something entirely different. If we were all on guard for inappropriate touching the world would walk round with their hands plastered to their sides. I don’t find Spacey attractive but had I been fourteen and propositioned by George Clooney I think I would have been grateful rather than appalled.

Who knows where this witch hunt will end? I suspect more careers will be ruined as Spacey’s has. It troubles me that Ed Westwick has been tried and convicted before the British laws have been allowed to weigh the allegations in the balance. Whether right or wrong, actors are by their nature glamorous, attractive creatures. People do tend to be dazzled in their presence and grow weak in the presence of beauty. Only a sharp legal mind will be able to assess whether Westwick took advantage or took for granted.

What has surprised me is that the allegations are centred only on Hollywood and fashion. It appears to me that football will be the next hotspot. Of course it already has been targeted with allegations of gang rape. Footballers are gods to certain young men and women. They are hunted by fans and I wonder whether they can be blamed if – like pop stars – they sleep with groupies.

I am sure that British law is incredibly cut and dried about rape and so it should be. It is more perplexing that men and women in their teens and twenties claim to be traumatised by a hand on the knee or a few dirty words whispered into an ear. And all this happening decades ago. An assault to me is violent, it might be smoothed by the administration of a date rape drug and it is nothing less than an attack. I have been slipped a doctored drink twice: on the first occasion I managed to get out of the club and into a taxi thanks to friends. On the other – done with malice rather than intent to attack – I found myself in hospital.

There are some nasty people out there and constant vigilance is needed to keep out of harm’s way. But if you do have the smarts and know how to take care of yourself, dangerous people can only get so far. My worry is that rape victims who feel shame and blame themselves might stay silent while those seeking attention by blaming someone in the public eye shout from the rooftops. This is a horribly complex subject but one that cannot be allowed to become an ordeal by innocence.

 

 

 

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Deep in Vogue. November 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The much-anticipated December issue of Vogue under the captaincy of Edward Enninful hit the newsstands today. If nothing else, the amount of media – both print and social – generated by the issue has given glossies a shot in the arm. I was enchanted by the cover star Adwoa Aboah with her maximum make-up, killer diamond chandelier drops and Stephen Jones psychedelic turban.

Aboah is fashion royal family being the daughter of Camilla Lowther and also ticks the boxes as a mixed-race beauty who has been vocal about her mental health issues. The accompanying Steven Meisel shoot styled by Mr Enninful reaches back to Bea Miller’s Vogue in the 1970s and features joyous fine jewellery of which the new editor is a great supporter.

I haven’t enjoyed British Vogue since the departure of the late, great Liz Tilberis. It was she who delivered a string of covergirl pearls in the early 1990s that fed my love of fashion. Every issue it was a new Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer or Naomi Campbell painted for the gods and dressed in fashions for Olympus. Who can forget Linda in Chanel couture shot by Patrick Demarchelier wearing a towering birdcage hat designed by a young Philip Treacy?

Don’t you think fashion has rather got above itself of late and forgotten that a magazine’s content should be about fun, frivolity, excess and eye candy rather than arty/ugly edge? I’ve never understood the Venetia Scott/Juergen Teller aesthetic so don’t see the point of a fashion spread featuring three women in ballgowns staring at a nude woman riding a cow. If I were Mr Enninful I would spare the readers shoots that make their noses bleed with perplexity.

Neither an I terribly taken by child star Millie Bobby Brown tootsed-up in Gucci and Giambattista Valli looking like a Wednesday Adams Lolita. Child stars are rather unnerving and her combination of knowingness and youth is not a comfortable fit in Vogue. Still, you can’t help falling in love with Joe McKenna’s shoot with Bruce Weber inspired by Mona Bismarck gardening in Balenciaga couture. It’s a barminess that Vogue lacked under former editor Alexandra Shulman.

I do think Mr Enninful missed a trick by not deploying the great Grace Coddington to shoot a fashion portfolio for his debut issue. Instead, Grace ‘styled’ illustrations by Michael Roberts of a gorilla called Gingernutz in the season’s couture looks. How was it? Pointless. Imagine what glories could have been achieved had Grace and Michael styled a fashion story? I recall one of Michael’s Tatler shoots with Tina Turner and Eton schoolboys titled Don’t Thigh For Me Ardent Tina. It was magical.

Race is clearly important to Mr Enninful. One hopes Vogue doesn’t look like a 1980s Benetton advert going forward. Naomi Campbell has scored many a Vogue cover in her career so I think it unfair to say that the magazine was too white and too posh. There’s still a bit of posh in there with features on Annabel’s and Matthew Freud. Zadie Smith writes a pointless essay about HM The Queen that is patronising, pert and bordering on intellectual snobbery.

There are flashes of genius in the new Vogue not least Pat McGrath’s balls-deep make-up story. The advertising department needs shooting for breaking-up Pat’s fabulous story with ads for Aussie shampoo and Gillette Venus razors. How low rent! Vogue should have taken a leaf out of Elle’s book and cleaned-up the crappy ads at the back of the magazine as a declaration of intent.

Most disappointing for me was how textbook the flow of features was throughout the book. I want to see those glorious fashion stories way ahead of the last quarter of the magazine. I can do without the bitty little nothings at the front of book with cut-out pictures and rather old-fashioned copy. Vogue can afford the best fashion writers so can we please be spared little shopping features titled Pigment Politics, Night Shades and (ugh!) Bow Wow. There are also far too many Vogue Partnerships (read advertorials).

Of course it is far easier to criticise than to praise. Much was expected of Mr Enninful and I suspect his nerves of not being a words man got the better of him. He scored Glenda Jackson for a feature but why not make her a model in a strong fashion portfolio to show that as well as racial diversity, Vogue loves women of all ages? The ‘back to their roots’ feature could have been better focusing only on J W Anderson and not Galliano, Christopher Bailey and Victoria Beckham.

I am very unsure about Vogue’s new contributing editors. Did Kate Moss giving her recipe for cheese on toast add anything to the national debate? As for Naomi Campbell’s ‘brilliant’ interview with Sadiq Khan, it was hardly groundbreaking. Whatever next? Cara Delevingne grills Kim Jong Un? Lily Cole deconstructs Brexit with Jean Claude Junker?

Looking at the Adwoa cover again it strikes me that the photograph could just as easily have been of Rupaul. Now that would have been a revolutionary cover for a fashion magazine.

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