Books: Visions Before Midnight — Larger than life | clivejames.com
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Larger than life

Selling untold millions of pop records on the Continent and now starting to break big in this country also, Demis Roussos — fat, shaggy, rich, dynamic — is a Phenomenon. This was proved by the title of BBC2’s show about him, The Roussos Phenomenon.

‘What is the appeal of this larger than lifesize entertainer?’ the commentator asked himself worriedly. ‘Does it lie in the man himself, or his music?’ This was no easy question. Common sense dictated that the Phenomenon’s appeal could not lie in his music, which is derivative to the point of putrefaction. But it seemed even less likely that the appeal could lie in the man himself, since the larger than lifesize entertainer was quickly revealed as one of the least attractive showbiz Phenomena since Jimmy Boyd, the delinquent who saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus. His wealth, however, coupled with the hysterical devotion of his fans, argued that one must be wrong on both counts.

Described as ‘an avid collector of precious metals’ and as having ‘a pension for furry robes’, the Phenomenon ‘surrounds himself with the trappings of luxury’ at his home in France. But really he is beyond materialism, enjoying things only for their spiritual essence. ‘My bathroom can bring to you a certain atmosphere,’ he explained, clomping around in silver platform boots behind a larger than lifesize stomach.

His stage manner reflects the opulence of his domicile. There is an immense reserve of inner warmth, as in a compost heap. ‘I would like to tell you a beautiful story now. A story about myself ... and a very beautiful friend of mine — the wind.’ The band starts up, and while his guitarists are sorting out their chords the Phenomenon does a bit more talking. ‘I meet my friend the wind, and he is telling me beautiful stories.’ Then, when his musicians are finally all heading in more or less the same direction, the larger than lifesize entertainer stops talking about his friend and starts to sing about him, or her.

The singing is done in an unrelenting yin-tong tremolo which would curdle your brains like paint-stripper if you gave it time. I did not, but switched off too late to avoid hearing the Phenomenon’s valedictory sentiment: ‘I think the most important thing in life is to be loved.’ The people you most hate always do.

Bill Brand (Thames), a new series about a young Labour MP written by Trevor Griffiths and starring Jack Shepherd, will inevitably be compared with Arthur Hopcraft’s The Nearly Man, but it already looks like surviving the comparison well enough. Running out of things to say about a mature Labour MP with a debilitating pension for the high life, Hopcraft, to fill his scripts, was forced to rely on his friend the wind. (From this point I will eschew all further references to the Phenomenon, who got to me like hepatitis.) Griffiths is unlikely to run out of things to say about Brand, an immature Labour MP, fresh from teaching liberal studies at the local tech, whose tastes run in the other directions, towards Clause 4 and the kind of principles which will undoubtedly bring him under heavy pressure from his own party whips. Disinclined to be mere lobby-fodder, Brand will attempt to turn a grim visage against compromise.

Jack Shepherd was ideal casting for the title role, since visages come no grimmer — possessing the only pair of sunken pop eyes in the business, he has always appeared to be just back from a long season in the Inferno. He is a very good naturalistic actor and Griffiths writes very good naturalistic dialogue, so the central performance is in the bag. Luckily, because on the evidence of the first episode, the drift of events could well be more than slightly towards the monochrome.

Like the Nearly Man, Brand is equipped with both wife and mistress, but since Brand’s mistress is fully as disillusioned as the Nearly Man’s wife, and since his wife is correspondingly twice as disillusioned as the mistress, it will be appreciated that Brand comes in for a lot of flak. ‘You’re an egotistical swine of a man,’ Mrs Brand informs him helpfully on election night, ‘you make me puke.’ When Brand gets in with a reduced majority, the fact is registered in a reaction shot of the mistress watching television. She is underjoyed, presumably realizing that she must now see even less of him. Thus it is that Brand makes the big stride from Manchester to London, hung about with scornful women and burdened with an active conscience. ‘He’s trying to be a good man,’ his wife says in a radio interview. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

13 June, 1976