There is no shortage of wig-lifting memories about my days as a rookie hack on the Showbiz desk at the Daily Mail. This was a Golden Era, mid-Eighties, of veteran writers, star columnists and killer reporters, when the paper's showbusiness coverage was second to none. Its theatrical reviews, which never failed to appear on page 3 the morning after the show and for which the title was legendary, were the finest on Fleet Street. Surrounded by names I'd grown up on, I was there to learn. Much of my education was imparted the old-fashioned way.
Across the table from me sat Jack Tinker, the Mail's pint-sized but formidable theatre critic, who invited me on many a first night - it was because of Jack's dog-with-a-bone campaigning that theatre owners agreed to change opening night start times to 7pm, so that reviews could make the edition and be fresh enough to interest the paper's theatre-loving readers. In those pre-mobile days which seem so unfathomable now, Jack taught me how to file copy straight from my head to a copy-taker at the other end of a pay-phone. His first night verdicts, penned at the speed of light, could make or break. But if he slaughtered a show, he did it with such wit and style that even those wiped out by his critiques remained devoted to the man. I was a sucker for him.
I was a sucker, too, for the TV critic who sat next to me: a gentle South African-born giant by the name of Herbert Kretzmer, who had long been engaged in musicals, but whose claims to fame until that point were that he had won an Ivor Novello award for the Sophia Loren/Peter Sellers comedy hit 'Goodness Gracious Me', and had written, for the voice of French crooner Charles Aznavour, the English lyrics to a wonderful song called 'She'.
Herbie was not in the office all that much. He came in to write his columns, and to tot up and file his expenses - he did them once a year - and he once let me sew a button back onto his blazer, which was woefuly ill-advised. I did the job so incompetently that the front of the jacket puckered like a cynic's smile when he was allowed to put it back on. Herbie grinned graciously, said nothing at all, and still treated me to a boozy Joe Allen's lunch. While we were there, and revealing my complete and utter ignorance, I couldn't resist asking him how he fended off the boredom, confined as he was to watching television at home and doing little else, most of the time. Sweet Herbie was not offended. On the contrary. He simply made modest mention of 'something that he had up his sleeve', but said no more. It would be a couple years before we discovered that he meant that he'd been writing the English lyrics for 'Les Miserables'.
The problems began with the opening of this magnificent take on French social history, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, at the RSC Barbican. 'The Life and Hard Times of Les Glums', ran Jack's headline, in October 1985.
'To pack all this, or even a portion, into three and a quarter hours of non-stop operatic treatment, encompassing such grandiose themes as revolution, human degradation, spiritual retribution, obsessive guilt and the triumph of true love might seem like attempting to pour the Channel through a China teapot', Jack wasped.
Putting the boot into the directorial efforts of Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and memorably dubbing the musical 'The Glums', Jack at least had praise for the guy across the table at the Mail - who also happened to be a former drama critic himself, having attended more than 3,000 first nights for the Daily Express.
'No one is more deft at pinning a French tune to an English ear with appropriate lyrics than my esteemed colleague Mr. Herbert Kretzmer', Jack conceded. But the damage was done. The frost which settled on their personal friendship would never quite melt. Eleven years later, Jack was dead. Sixteen years after that, 86 year-old Herbie still lives. So, too, does the incomparable and longest-running musical in West End history to which he lent his immense talent and with which his name, now known around the world with endless accolades, Tonys and Grammys attached to it, will always be synonymous.
I am reminded of all this because I was recently introduced to the recordings of an extraordinary artist whose debut solo album is presented by none other than Cameron Mackintosh at London's Cafe de Paris tonight. Ramin, an Iranian-born Canadian hailed as one of if not THE greatest Phantom for his performance in the 25th Anniversary production of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall, has recently assumed the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
Ramin is no stranger to the show. He excelled previously in the roles of Fueilly, Marius and Enjolras. He also originated the lead in the sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies. He has won numerous Best Actor awards, and landed an Olivier Award nomination. Millions all over the world have seen him perform. Commanding a stage like the fiercest rock front man, his arm wired with tattoos, he is an unforgettable presence in a firmament of fine artists. He is here to stay.
'Ramin' the album is released by Sony Music on 5th March. Produced by Tom Nichols, it features Ramin's own songs juxtaposed with great elegance alongside the work of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Bryan Adams and Muse. It's astonishing. That's it. Order it now.