Essays: Silly songs and fine follies |
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Silly songs and fine follies

THE voting in A Song For Europe (BBC1) was very exciting. The songs themselves couldn’t have been duller, but the voting was a nail-biter from start to finish.

To select the United Kingdom’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, juries from 14 different BBC regions sent in their votes to be recorded on a giant electronic board, referred to by Michael Aspel as ‘the great... board.’ Aspel, his hair sprayed with what looked like model aeroplane cement and sporting a set of matching luggage under each eye, appeared simultaneously primped and jaded, like someone who had compered too many beauty contests — as, indeed, he has, and this was another, only with silly songs instead of silly girls.

The voting took so long that the cast of ‘Ipi Tombi,’ an African musical currently in the West End, had time to stage about half their show during the first part of it. They were terrific — infinitely better than the Songs for Europe — but the voting was more terrific still, going on for ages after they had finished. Right to the end it looked possible that ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ might be nosed out by another song even worse. If the programme had steered clear of songs altogether and confined itself to the voting, it would have been perfect. As it was, ‘Save Your Kisses’ was performed not just once but twice, since it was reprised as a mark of victory. Delivered with drill-squad choreography by a group of singers who keep lifting up the soles of their shoes as if inspecting them for signs of having stepped in something unpleasant, it’s a nothing number which by rights they ought to hate in Europe, wherever that is. Unfortunately there is no justice, least of all in the music business.

Which leads us with deceptive smoothness to the subject of Rock Follies (Thames), a new series about a three-girl rock group. The first episode was a qualified but gratifyingly original success. The originality consists mainly in treating the music business as it actually is — sordid and pitiless. The script’s humour is allowed to emerge from harsh reality, instead of being camped in never-never land. Most situation comedies are set in a specific ambience only as a preliminary to ignoring what really goes on there. ‘Rock Follies’ joins the short list of honourable exceptions. The wit of the writing isn’t always as witty as it might be, but it is never less than literate, and seldom lapses into formula: the nuts and bolts of one of Britain’s most productive industries are rightly judged to be fascinating in themselves.

Concrete detail, then, prevents the show subsiding into the girls-in-a-flat format exemplified at its best by ‘Take Three Girls’ and at its worst by (remember?) ‘It’s Awfully Bad For Your Eyes, Darling,’ with ‘The Liver Birds’ somewhere in the middle. The three girls in ‘Rock Follies’ have a common purpose — to get somewhere in the music business — and consequently don’t need much else to bind them together, not even friendship. So the way is clear for some nicely contrasty characterisation.

Rula Lenska plays ‘Q,’ a doll-faced glamour-puss with a hard-edged personality who shares her bed with a drone. The tough bitch dependent on a weakling is a highly recognisable show-biz type. So is Anna (Charlotte Cornwell), the girl who progresses from the Cambridge ADC to playing Ophelia in provincial rep and suddenly contracts a burning urge to make it as a popular entertainer. But the character who gets beyond being a type, emerging as a full-blown personality, is Dee, finely played by Julie Covington.

Odious as comparisons might be, they are necessary when something different turns up and needs to be identified. The other two girls fit their roles to a nicety and sing well enough to get by, but Miss Covington is something else — her naturalistic acting sets new standards for this kind of television. She observes behaviour minutely, returning it to the world with a strange knack of letting the camera come to her, without falsifying her tone by going to it. As an unlooked-for and enchanting bonus, she has a singing voice of remarkable clarity, sweetness and melodic punch.

A measure of the programme’s truth to life is that several of the tatty scenes Dee moves through have been moved through by Miss Covington herself: she really has been mixed up in doomed enterprises like ‘Broadway Annie.’ I know this for a fact because I have better reasons than most for pushing to the front of the struggling crowd of people who are already claiming to have discovered her. But the songs I helped to write for her got her nowhere, and the shows I helped co-opt her into, whether on stage or television, got her not much further, so I can greet her success with the impartial delight of somebody who has seen justice done where he was unable to do it himself.

A talent like Julie Covington’s can’t be shaped by other people, however sympathetic. It shapes itself, and eventually, given a lot of luck, the right context forms around it. Waiting can take a long time and involve a good deal of suffering: even so real and human a gift can turn neurotic from rejection, blaming itself instead of the world that has no room for it. Nearly 10 years have gone by since Julie Covington arrived in Cambridge as a trainee teacher. Almost everything she can do now she could do then, which should mean that most of the intervening time has been wasted — if frustration were not a kind of experience in itself. A truth which ‘Rock Follies’ incorporates, along with many others.

Mention of Cambridge leads us in yet another glissando to the closing episode of The Glittering Prizes (BBC2), which was considerably better than the five previous instalments, although no less enraging for that. People have written in asking what personal grudge I hold against Frederic Raphael, as if my distrust of the series must be inexplicable except in terms of some long-simmering peeve. But not only do I not know Mr Raphael, I believe that Mr Raphael did not know his own hero, Adam Morris — not to the extent, at any rate, of grasping that the true centre of interest in Morris’s character was his arrogance rather than his brilliance. The brilliance was mainly established by having Morris utter, in a context where everybody else spoke in epigrams, epigrams marginally better than theirs. But he never realised, and I think his creator never realised he never realised, that his cleverness was circumscribed by a notable incapacity to listen.

The Observer, 29th February 1976