Books: Visions Before Midnight — A Living Legend |
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A Living Legend

The New Year came in on great plumed and crested waves of kitsch and camp. Punch the buttons as you might, you were drowning in the perfumed effluent of rotten old Showbiz at its most outrageous. Things took place on the David Frost special (At Last the 1973 Show, LWT) which must remain forever nameless, but principally involved Ethel Merman giving forth with an overwhelming vibrato which could be silenced only by commercials, the enthralled Frost apparently being keen to have it continue.

How can people be like this, you wondered moaning, and for an answer were clobbered with the rerun of A Star is Born (BBC1), a titanically lousy movie whose degrading fragrance intensifies with the years and which enshrines yet another soubrette who never knew how to give less than her All.

But de mortuis nul nisi bonum, and anyway there was another stellar presence on the loose, and very much in command. She was the legendary, indestructible Dietrich (BBC2), appearing for the first time in her very own TV special, entirely shot at Bernard Delfont’s gizmo-laden new theatre in which everything revolves around everything else. As we shall presently see, this ritzy culture-barn’s meandering appointments must include a hot-house the size of the one at Kew, but for the moment let’s rest content with conceding that at first blush it didn’t look a bad test-track for an indestructible legend.

While a Burt Bacharach arrangement of ‘Falling In Love Again’ (complete with sour mutes on the trumpets) sounded longingly from the pit, the house lights went down and the discs of two limes randomly searched the fore-stage. The possibility that Emil Jannings might be about to appear was cancelled by a quick glance at Radio Times: no, Marlene it had to be. Difficult, in that case, to imagine why the lime-operators were having so much trouble picking up the spot at which she must inevitably enter.

Finally she emerged, and the fans did their collective nut. So ecstatic was her reception that it was obvious the performance she was about to deliver had already been taken as read, so there was no real reason why she shouldn’t have turned around and gone home again — especially considering that the tail end of her coat, composed of the pelts of innumerable small animals, had undoubtedly not yet left the dressing-room. But she had much to give, and proceeded to give it, making it obvious from the first bar that forty years away from Germany had done nothing to re-jig the vowels which first intrigued the world in the English language-version of The Blue Angel.

’I get no kick in a plen,’ she announced. ‘Flying too highee with a guyee in the skyee/Is my idea of nothing to do.’ Equally, mere alcahall didn’t thrill her at ol. Any lingering doubts that such sedulously furbished idiosyncrasy might not be an acceptable substitute for singing were annihilated by the tumult which greeted each successive rendition, the brouhaha being reinforced at key points by a lissom shedding of the pelts and a line of patter marked by those interminable coy pauses which in the world of schlock theatre are known as ‘timing’ although they have little to do with skill and everything to do with a celebrity using prestige as leverage.

As the great lady went on recounting the story of her life in song and anecdote, the sceptical viewer was torturing himself with the premonition that there might never be an end. There was, though — although the final number was only the beginning of it, there being a convention in this branch of theatre that the star takes twice as long to get off as she does to get on. It was at this point that the floral tributes started hitting the stage, to the lady’s overmastering astonishment: perhaps she had been expecting them to throw book-tokens. The show threatened to fade on the spectacle of these epicene maniacs bombarding her with shrubbery, but as the curtains closed and the applause dipped she paged the tabs with a practised sweep of the arm and emerged to milk dry the audience’s last resources of pious energy. If she’d been holding a loaded Luger they couldn’t have responded more enthusiastically. They had no choice.

7 January, 1973

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]