Sunday, 31 December 2017


We spent Christmas Eve with best friends in Highgate; saw the kids off at Waterloo to spend Christmas with their father, and zapped home to collect heaving turkey, trimmings and sackloads of sickly delights. We were just beyond Brixton in selfish traffic when the call came: that my father had fallen, my tiny mother couldn't pick him up, and that she had dialled Emergency. When we reached the Wolds maybe an hour or so later, a prickling of snow clouded the headlights as frosty wind made moan.
Paramedics don't mess about. They do the full-body on the spot. They toil to exacting guidelines. With oxygen levels deemed life-threateningly low, they were obliged to convey my father to A&E. With Dad stretchered, wired, cannula'd and 02-ed to within a gasp, I sat, holding his hand ... for eleven and a half hours. I realised that the anything but silent night had turned only when a bacon sandwich of a voice took to the hospital tannoy: 'The Paediatric Department would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas ...' followed by similar from various other hospital departments after that.
Back at the ranch, my mother and elder daughter had long retired. Perhaps not with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, but with what horror they might awake to.
We were waiting for a bed, so that my father could be admitted. No extortionate five-star health insurance policy will help you on this date, in this situation. We'd be lucky. A porter let slip that the only way we'd get one during the early hours of Christmas Day would be if some poor unfortunate up on a med ward should die. Who'd wish that? I dozed in the orange polypropylene chair. Watched the bleeding, the bruised and the battered of the Borough of Bromley and North West Kent being stretchered into bays as if from the battlefield. Back home, Mamma succumbed to norovirus, and spent the day appealing to the newborn Almighty on the white porcelain wall-mounted. The sumptuous feast went in the bin. There is always next year.
The days between Christmas and New Year tend to evaporate. They did this year. The killer germ took me down too, as it was bound to. Dad got the better of his chest infection, and has been allowed home, on nuclear antibiotics. I'll be back there tonight. If we can stomach the thought of champagne at midnight, we might have some.
I haven't been out-out on New Year's Eve for eleven years. We revelled blindly as a couple, and partied annually as a family, our round-the-clock home Party Central. Few would dispute that it's not the best singles' night. Real life does not propel Billy Crystals through freezing New York streets to claim Meg Ryan-sized hearts on the count of twelve. The rictus grin we feel obliged to pull when surrounded by kissing lovers is not the best look. I was once lured along to a singles-only New Year's dinner-dance, only to quit before 10pm, feeling like a chunk of meat on a stick in a lions' den. I was better off at home behind my own knitted cushions, watching Queen with Adam Lambert by myself. Which is not to say that I don't have the best New Year's memories. My favourite? Go on, then, David Bowie's old gaff, Britannia Bay House, Mustique, in 1991.
Resolutions? Well. On Christmas Eve, I saw shadows in the pale blue eyes of my eighty-six year-old father, as he asked me over and over where his mother was. They were him as a fierce young footballer, a debonair globe-trotter, the Richard Burton of Fleet Street, the Voice of Sport. As a child, I saw him on television more often than at our dinner table. He was in so many ways a figure of fantasy to me. He still is. Now a frail, slightly shrunken old man with his best years behind him, he is nevertheless no less than he always was.

The lesson being, if there is something that you have always longed to do, see, experience, be - do it now. Time will not wait. New Year's Eves are inconsequential. Reflect, if you have to, on the highs and lows of 2017 - but then move on. Memories and nostalgia are so time-consuming. Like all those boxes in the attic, they take up too much room. Our eyes are in the front of our heads for a reason.  What's on the cards? 2018, for me, will mark the publication of my debut volume of memoir. May the coming year be a thrill and a game-changer for you all.

Friday, 8 December 2017


I interviewed Suzi Quatro at the Gibson Guitars studio in the West End last night, as part of Found in Music's 'In Conversation With' series for SAGA. The event, exclusive to members, with tickets won by ballot, drew fans from as far as Birmingham and as wide as Portsmouth. One couple told me they were so keen to attend, they'd actually set off from the south coast the day before. It only dawned on them when they'd driven as far as Guildford that they were twenty-four hours too early, and had to go back home ...
People make fun of me all the time for 'hanging out with ageing rock stars'. 'Why do you bother with all these old dinosaurs?', my hip-and-happenin' friends say. The answer is simple: they are more interesting. They've had breathtakingly creative, globe-trotting lives that armchair-theatre-goers can only dream of. They've been everywhere. Met everyone. Seen everything. They've jammed with their own idols. They remain idols themselves to millions who have followed them since they emerged. They have the greatest war stories, the most stamina, the kindest hearts, and they are rocking 'til they drop. Isn't that how we all want to be?
Detroit-born Suzi Quatro was a female pioneer during an age of male rock'n'roll rebellion. Micky Most brought her to London in 1971, not to be 'the new Janis Joplin' (Pearl having died the year before, and every music mogul and record producer was seeking a replacement), but to be 'the first Suzi Quatro'. She wrote with Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, and was massive throughout Europe and Australasia. But she could never really give it away back home until she was offered the role of Leather Tuscadero alongside the Fonz and Ritchie Cunningham in 'Happy Days'. The part was made for her, and she for it. She became a huge star in America and around the world. They offered her Leather's own spin-off series. She declined, not wishing to be typecast. The biggest mistake of her life,' crowed the naysayers. 'What has she ever done since?'
She has sold fifty-five million records. She has written and published three books - her latest an anthology of poetry entitled 'Through My Eyes'. She has starred in a West End musical, 'Annie Get Your Gun' (in 1986, when I first interviewed her). She's acted in 'Minder', 'Dempsey & Makepeace', 'Ab Fab', 'The Midsomer Murders'. She has two new albums: 'Legend', a compilation of twenty tracks, and 'Quatro, Scott & Powell', with Sweet's Andy Scott and Slade's Don Powell, out on Warner's. She's just headlined an arena tour with Hot Chocolate, David Essex and the Osmonds. She still lives in the moated Essex manor house where she raised her two children and now cares for her cherished grandchild. She has twice the energy of a woman half her age. She is sixty-seven, and shouts it. She made it all possible for the female rockers who came after her - Tina Weymouth, The Runaways and Joan Jett, Girlschool, the GoGos, even the Spice Girls - which is perhaps her greatest legacy. She inspired both women and men. She inspired me: I had her poster on my bedroom wall.

How does she do it? 'By being myself,' she says. 'I have never tried to be anyone else. I've always known where to draw the line.' A line that reminds me of cowboy Curly's advice to Billy Crystal's character in 'City Slickers', when he tells him that the secret of life is 'just one thing.' Yeah?' says Billy, eagerly, 'so what is the one thing?' Curly curls a crusty lip, and smiles: 'That's what YOU'VE gotta figure out ...'

Tuesday, 5 December 2017


'There was music in our house, and my mother played the piano,' said the composer of the greatest secular Christmas song of all time.
'We lived in this flat, and I had this tiny room, and there was an asbestos wall, and the piano was the other side of the wall, right up against my ear. I was six. And my mother would play the piano after I'd gone to bed, and it was deafening. And I just used to listen. And she played an A minor waltz of Chopin, and I thought, I've got to play that ... I learned to play by ear and read music all in one go. It never seemed difficult. It seemed the obvious thing to do.'
Howard Blake's disarmingly modest explanation of how he came to be a musician nutshells the words of so many artists I have interviewed down the years. Their charm lies in the fact that they kind of don't get it. The truly organic creative rarely perceives anything special in his or her talent. It just was. Is. It is 'obvious'.
How ironic that this mind-blowingly prolific creator of hundreds of ballets, concertos and film scores - including an orchestral score with Queen, for 'Flash Gordon' - is revered the world over for a children's song. But not just any old children's song. We're talking 'Walking in the Air', the nucleus of 1982's 'The Snowman', which generations have grown up on and which resonates to this day. My own three children are adults now, but we still bunch around the telly together every year to revisit it. Because the animation is without dialogue, it is the music that speaks, taking a little boy on a journey which has become every child's dream: for a snowman he has made in his back garden to come to life, and fly him to Lapland to meet Father Christmas. The relatively recent addition of the snow dog has taken the story up a notch. The themes are poignant and tragic. They thrum with heartache. They seize control of our emotions. They speak silently of the gradual, inexorable loss of innocence, and of the beckoning grave.

There are priceless moments to make the journey worthwhile. Such as last night's: Howard Blake on the Sir Peter Blake 'Sgt. Pepper' piano at the Groucho Club, without warning - playing 'Walking in the Air'. I'm still pinching. Howard, in his eightieth year, retains the wide-eyed innocence of the little child in his story. I was thrilled to meet him. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017


What surprises me is that anybody is surprised.
We know that sex abuse is endemic: in religious institutions, in church schools, in residential care homes. Sexual violence and molestation of pupils and students is on the rise. Harassment in the workplace is rampant: you wouldn’t want your daughter to work in the average bar, would you, facing endless abuse from beer-swilling louts?
We’ve had it in television, in radio and in PR. We’ve had it in football and other sports. Even in politics. And we have long known about the casting couch.
So why was anybody shocked about Harvey Weinstein?
Because he had so much money that they believed he could walk on water?
Because he owned Hollywood?
Because he could do no wrong?Let’s see who else falls out of the woodwork. I'm guessing Michael Winner, for one.
And now Sir Tom Jones, revealing that it was rife in the music industry, and not only against women. It happened to him.
Blow me down. Of course it went on in the music industry. It probably still does.
I remember feeling deeply shocked, during the Eighties, when I worked for a record company, on hearing from my friend at a rival label that the boss of that outfit - a male, for the avoidance of doubt - had slept with every one of his female employees. It was a joke in the industry. He was a legend because of it. It seemed almost expected. You would know who I mean.
I had another friend who was PA to a world-famous British rock star. He seduced her at the first interview. She got the job, yes, and she worked for him for twenty years. He paid her extremely well, but was that right? Well, no.
I was once taken to a party at Dolphin Square, the exclusive residential complex in London, by a household-name DJ. Again, you would know who I mean. I was twenty-two. He was a giant, and I was a slip of a thing in size six jeans. He fed me a lot of champagne and, at the point of no return, backed me through a pair of double doors with the palm of his dustbin-lid hand, pushed me down onto a huge double bed and flung himself on top of me. I was felled, like a tree. I tried to scream, but nothing came out. I grabbed him by the barnet and I’ll never forget it, his hair came away in my hands. It was a wig, complete with bits of double-sided tape and bobby pins. He was so shocked that he jumped up, clutching his raw head, and made a run for it.
Did I ever tell anyone?
I was ashamed.
My mother would have killed me for having gone there in the first place.
I always believed, when such things happened, that it was my fault in some way.
Is it a sex thing? A power thing?
Sometimes one, sometimes the other. But probably both.
We live in the twenty-first century, in the first world, in an enlightened society. Nobody’s asking the thousands of female Muslim victims of military rape in Myanmar what they think about Harvey Weinstein.
Certain types are banging on about the fact that the predators are not always men, and that the victims are not always women. Which changes nothing. it must be talked about. it has to stop.

I can think of a few old-timers who must be quaking. 

Monday, 5 June 2017


I'm often asked 'Who's your favourite rock star?' That's as easy to answer as 'Who's the best person you've ever interviewed?' Where do you start? Many stand out, for all the wrong reasons. But 'best'! You'll get more out of me by asking who was the worst (Richard Gere in Philadelphia, but let's park him.)
I've banged on for decades about John Entwistle, whose fifteenth anniversary fast approaches; about  Jim Diamond, almost two years gone; about Steve Harley who has promised to sing 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)' at my funeral, and who asks me every time I see him if I've got a date; about the artists to whom I have devoted years and about a million and a half words: David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Marc Bolan.
What about Rick Wakeman? He is is hardly ever perceived, as a 'rock star', let alone a Grumpy Old one. But he is one. 'Rock star' less in the sense of international hell-raiser, rebel-rouser, ground-breaker, heart-breaker, risk-taker, music-maker, though he has long been all these. Watching him last night at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre, absorbing his anecdotes (a few of which I knew by heart), I found myself floored.
He'd never claim this, but Rick created the electronic symphonic album concept back in 1972, with 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII'. Having studied classical piano from the age of four, inspired by his father who also played, Rick made it to the Royal College of Music but became sidetracked by rock and pop. He sessioned for many, including David Bowie, Cat Stevens and T. Rex. In 1970 he joined the Strawbs for sixteen months, and replaced Tony Kaye in Yes a year later. He metamorphosed into a keyboard wizard, embellishing the band's at times flatulent sound with flair, technique and classical influence. By 1974 he was out on his own, following up 'Six Wives' with further solo albums. 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', with its vast stage interpretation, was a huge success. 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur' was on ice at the Empire Pool, Wembley, with a forty-five-piece orchestra and a forty-eight-piece choir. It made a ton of money but left him skint. Hardly surprising when you consider the payroll. On with the solo recording, while rejoining Yes for three more years until the turn of the Eighties, when his luck changed. Health, women, money, the usual. It was not until '1984', for Charisma (when we first met) that Rick was back on the yellow brick road. I adored him in 'Listzomania'. Fleet Street coined 'Baroque and Roll'. He was double-handedly responsible for bringing keyboards to the fore in rock. But where's the knighthood? Shabby.

The 'Piano Portraits' album is a collection of favourite pieces, several of which he created the piano parts to. It was inspired by his live performances on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio 2 show last year in tribute to Bowie. Such was the demand that the recordings were released, with all profits to Macmillan Cancer Support. This inspired the album, which led to the tour, which now segues into twenty more UK dates; back on the road with Yes; the band's upcoming fiftieth anniversary; Rick's fifty years in rock. 'After which,' he swore blind last night, 'I'm gonna jack it all in.' Right. 

Friday, 5 May 2017


I was clearing out the recipe cupboard. A recess barely visited this century. I tossed hundreds of torn pages of Sunday Times magazines, pouting Nigellas, gurning Jamies, furtive-looking Lucas Hollwegs, smug Mary Berrys and the rest. Sixteen contradictory recipes for fish pie: out. Too many dramatically different ways to cook a Christmas turkey: dumped. A collect-by-the-week series produced by YOU magazine, of laminated cookery cards slotted into a garish wipe-clean green binder: be gone. What struck me was how much of that food has become unfashionable. I might hurl together a 'desconstructed' (loathe that expression) prawn cocktail now and then, but I wouldn't be seen dead serving a fondue, asparagus quiche or Black Forest gateau.
Among the faded bits of newspaper and crumpled magazine clippings, I found a letter from a boy I can't remember, about a Wham! party I fail to recall, at which something must have occurred to prompt him to write about it (though the actual cutting is long-lost). I have no idea what it might have been. But the fact that he feared legal action (‘Don’t threaten to sue me or anything’) suggests that I ought not to have forgotten it. Which got me thinking about memories.
The letterhead - of a Nottingham newspaper publishing company - made me think that I must have met this chap at a Wham! gig at the Nottingham Royal Centre in November 1984. But the Club Fantastic tour, promoted by Harvey Goldsmith Ents and warmed up by Gary Crowley on the decks, did the rounds the year before. There appears not to have been a Notts gig during the 1984 Big Tour. So the performance and the party we attended must have been somewhere else. Where?
It's so long ago, it probably counts as a childhood memory. But what good is a memory if we can't remember it? We shouldn't always trust the accuracy of long-ago memories, because they will so often have been influenced by others talking about them. Not to mention remembering things inaccurately. Science says that our brains discard half of all new knowledge within the first hour. A month later, we will have retained only two per cent. There are a few who can recount experiences and occurrences from toddlerhood, but most of us tend to have recall only from the age of about seven or eight. Even then, the recollections are patchy. There is rarely continuous narrative. Only the highs and lows hang nebulously in the mind.
I have studied five languages, including English. French and Spanish I took tertiary exams in. There were evening classes in Danish because one of our Paris gang was from Copenhagen. I was once engaged to a Sicilian, and had always loved the lilt of the lingo. So I took up Italian, during my second pregnancy. I can still read a newspaper in those languages. At a push, a book. And I can order an edible dinner in any of those countries, as well as converse to a degree. It's rusty, but it comes back when you're there, as they say. All that grammar and vocabulary, all those clauses and conjugations, are stored in there somewhere. But where? We know that childhood events can continue to affect our behaviour long after they've been forgotten. Everything lingers. But when memories surface, we should be wary of them. Our yesterdays can brim with false memories, of events both great and small that never occurred. It is common to have no recollection of events until we are asked about them. Therein lies danger. As Paul Gambaccini and others know to their cost.
Sigmund Freud was obsessed with the subject he called 'Infant Amnesia', childhood memories that we cannot recall. Did such early-days things really happen, or did somebody make them up? Taking it right back, is it possible to remember anything that occurred before we acquired the ability to communicate in language? Will we ever be able to rewind to the moments of our mothers' labour, and re-experience the trauma of birth? I can't see it. Because our baby brains were not yet up to the task of storing complete memories. 
There is a time and a place for imaginary memories. Without proof, such as the letter I found, which says both much and nothing,I find myself wondering whether we can believe our memories at all. I have always been an obsessive diary-keeper. Not even diaries tell the whole truth.

Friday, 21 April 2017


Our longest-serving monarch celebrates her ninety-first birthday. We pause and ponder. The image that swirls is one of snowy froth and crinkled eyes, a discreetly-slicked lip, trusty pearl and diamond earrings, a triple-rope pearl necklace, a glinting brooch. Robust hat and handbag. The Anello & Davide shoes that somebody else wears in for her. Modest, dedicated, dignified public outfits, as befit a head of state. Sovereign. Mummy. Granny. Great-Granny. Long live our gracious Queen.
What was she like as a child? What games did she play? What did she fantasise about? What scared her? She'd survived a world war and was barely a woman when she ascended, before we were born. She was a mother at twenty-two. How did her pregnancies affect her? How did she really feel when she was forced to put duty before motherhood, and leave her children behind? What about her surgeries, her dental treatment, her menopause, her ninety-one birthday cakes? What did she think about the Munich air disaster, Beatlemania, England winning the World Cup, the assassination of JFK, the EEC, the miners' strikes, Watergate, Concorde, Red Rum, Thatcher, Lady Di, the Falklands, Reagan, the IRA, Live Aid, Fergie, Lockerbie, Mandela, the royal divorces, the burning of Windsor castle, AIDS, the Euro, 9/11, Camilla, Obama, Michael Jackson's demise, William and Kate, George and Charlotte, Blair, Cameron, May, ISIS, Brexit, the relentless crowds of subjects thronging at the gates of Windsor and of Buckingham Palace? The huge headlines that have punctuated her reign read like a variation of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. It was always burning, since the world's been turning. Inside, a fragile woman, an ordinary mortal, with the most extraordinary story to tell.

What I wouldn't give to read her autobiography. To write it. She will all too soon be gone. The dense linings of her heart, her secret thoughts, will be lost. Ninety, ninety-five, a hundred years of priceless memories will be wasted. It is the same for all of us, even queens, unless we write them down. 

Friday, 14 April 2017


'Poor kid,' withered Piers Morgan. 'Brand it like Beckham,' sneered everyone else. 'It is unprecedented to trademark a five year-old,' admitted the UK Intellectual Property Office. But trademark her little girl is what Victoria Beckham did. Not exclusively in the UK, either, but across the European Union. And not only Harper, but also her brothers Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. The whole family is trademarked to the eyebrows now. I'm guessing there's also an American deal in there somewhere. To be fair, eighteen year-old Brooklyn is already modelling, lucratively. Romeo, four years his junior, has been strutting the catwalk and the studio since the age of ten, and fronted Burberry's Christmas campaign in 2014. Cruz launched his 'pop career' with a charity Christmas single last year. What was it called?
It's a family affair. Not that it is going to help David's damage-limitation campaign, hastily launched after his bitter failed bid for a knighthood. This clan is worth some £500 million and counting. The media, as if they wouldn't, have gone for the throat. The Beckhams' excuse? 'Future-proofing'. So it prevents their baby from being exploited? Stable door, horse. Her parents got there first. There's already a Harper fashion blog ( Brace yourselves for Harper make-up, perfume, dolls, books, films, fashion, music and 'entertainment'. Whatever that means. Whatever it takes to spice up a rich girl's life.
Tiny stars pay the biggest price for fame. I've had a little first-hand experience of this. Some years ago, when my firstborn was a tot, I walked away from the chance of banking a million. I wouldn't have had to do very much for it: simply turn over my child to the system, sit back and watch the star-makers do their thing.
I was sitting beside the pool of the Sunset Marquis, West Hollywood. Mia was playing with the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. Bruce Springsteen was reading at a table nearby. Grace Jones was creaming her legs on a sun lounger. The usual. The studio casting director who approached me did not mince his words.
'Take my advice, baby,' he said. Not that I'd asked for it. 'Drop your typewriter in the toilet and get your ass out here on a permanent basis. You are sitting on a million dollars. I've seen cute, and that is as cute as cute gets. Believe me, we are talking Macaulay Culkin's little English cousin in 'Home Alone 3'. She is IT. we'd like her to do a screen test.'
I confess. I considered the offer. Until next morning, when I dialled him to decline. Could I imagine living with a Drew Barrymore in ten years' time? Stardom turned into an alcoholic, sex-crazed, narcotic-addicted teen whose own mother disowned her. I said I'd give it a swerve, thanks. His response: 
'You screw up the kid's life, you'll have the money to pay for the therapist.'
To get them off my back, I agreed to them shooting test footage in the hotel grounds. Mia donned a floaty dress and my lipgloss, and skipped in and out of the flowerbeds. The director swooned. I stood imagining people asking her for her autograph in supermarkets. 

There are child stars who survive. Shirley Temple, Jodie Foster, Brooke Shields. Mara Wilson, the little girl in 'Matilda'. But for each of them, a Macaulay Culkin - who toppled off the rails in spectacular style, and divorced his parents. Lindsay Lohan. Miley Cyrus. Gary Coleman. Britney. Justin. Sometimes, they recover and get a grip. Or they do a Michael Jackson. 

I'm betting Victoria Beckham has never heard of Bobby Driscoll. A movie star at six, an Oscar-winner at eleven. By the age of seventeen he was a junkie has-been, arrested countless times on robbery, forgery and drug charges. In 1968, his corpse was found in an abandoned New York tenement. The body was not formally identified. The child star who had earned $60,000 a year wound up in a pauper's grave. 

Planet stardom is a precarious place. A parallel universe. Incomprehensible. It is inhabited by the desperate, which is what they are, no matter how much money they've got. They all become has-beens in the end.

Sunday, 9 April 2017


Take away the thing a man lives for, and he loses the will to live. Deprive him of the single pursuit that gave shape and meaning to the otherwise bleak process of shuffling heavily towards the grave, and you puncture a person's soul. This is what The BBC did to Brian Matthew when they kicked him off Sounds of the Sixties. They as good as killed him softly without a song.
Not content with the slaughter, they proceeded to make insensitive bordering on callous comments in the press; to re-jig the schedule and appoint successors in a way that clearly left no possibility of an eventual return. Then, to add the greatest of insults to the injury, they falsely announced his death,  three days before he expired. What I've been told is that his family prepared a statement in readiness for the inevitable, which was then passed to the BBC to hold on file. There is nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary about this. When I started out on staff at the Daily Mail, I was regularly placed on 'obit duty', updating the substantial obituaries of luminaries that were kept, ready to roll. I remember rewriting Elton John's and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's on the same day. Which had symmetry, when you think about it. But the blessed BBC stuffed up, and rushed to declare that Brian had already died. The error was unforgivable. They have not apologised publicly for it.
The last time I saw Brian was in the BBC studio where he recorded his show with producer Phil Swern, with whom I was about to go next door to the BBC Club for a glass of wine. Brian declined our invitation. His carriage awaited, he said. He had to get home. To Pam? 'To nothing, really,' he said, sadly.. 'I get up to nothing, and I go home to nothing. I'd live here in the studio if I could.' Which was no insult at all to his stalwart wife. She knew her husband.

We all know the man as a legend. He was one of honesty, dignity and integrity, who was so proud to have played such an important part in our industry. He will always be missed. God rest you, Brian.  You were the voice of the Sixties, and of our lives. 

Monday, 20 March 2017


I write this almost seven years to the day after I almost killed Dame Vera Lynn with a saucepan of soup. Not a lot of people can say that they've washed a Dame's kitchen floor, either. Not that it wasn't spotless when I arrived.
Paul Gambaccini, producer Clare Bramley, a camera crew, make-up artist and I trekked to Vera’s home in Sussex, to film a documentary. When it was time for tea, I volunteered to wash the cups. Just as she was digging out the Fairy Liquid from under the sink, in through the back door beside the draining board came DVL's daughter Virginia (who lives next-door), with soup for Mother's lunch. Startled by the flinging-open door, I jumped, knocked the saucepan out of Virginia's hand, and its  contents over everyone present. At least I caught the brunt of it. I spent the rest of the day dripping in apparent vomit.
Vera thought it hilarious. She turned not a snowy hair. I understood why as I listened to her reminisce about expeditions to Burma during the Second World War, when she endured long, arduous journeys by seaplane and on foot to bring a shred of home to homesick soldiers.
'I slept on a stretcher between two chairs,' she said. ‘There wasn't always water to drink, let alone to wash with. Dinner was most often a bowl of rice with a spoonful of jam. It didn't bother me. Those were the conditions our boys were putting up with. Who was I to demand better? They were the ones who were risking their lives, not me.'
She was ninety-three when we met. Her face was beautiful, like a child’s. There was a poignant moment in her bedroom, while she was dressing for the shoot, when she couldn't bend down to do up her shoes. She asked me if I'd do it. I knelt at the feet of one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. I think of it to this day.
Divas take note. All your backstage demands, all those far-fetched contract riders - piles of fluffy white towels, Smarties with the orange ones taken out, crates of perfectly-chilled Bollinger - you're having a laugh. Dame Vera, a legend and a nation's sweetheart, left her toddler at home and suffered withering hardship to sing for servicemen who were risking their lives. There ain't nothing like a Dame.
There'll Always Be an England. We'll Meet Again. Happy 100th Birthday and God bless you, Ma’am. Everyone buy the record: 'Vera Lynn 100', featuring Alfie Boe and Aled Jones. She becomes, today, the oldest artist in history to release a new album.

Footnote on the doc: thanks to the greed and deceit of its backers, the film we made has never been aired. Out of respect to Dame Vera, it should be. I saw Paul Gambaccini at Mike Batt’s new musical Men Who March Away on Friday night (the lead character, Katherine Grayling, is Vera personified). Paul is similarly enraged. There are other villains to tackle right now. We’ll get there.

Saturday, 18 March 2017


What are the magic ingredients of Musical Theatre? Some cite the first five minutes of  'The Lion King', the innovation of 'Chess', the staging of 'Miss Saigon'. Others maintain it's the familiarity of the numbers in the so-called Jukeboxers - 'Mamma Mia', 'Jersey Boys', 'We Will Rock You', 'Beautiful' - that draws audiences in droves. 'Les Miserables' and 'Wicked' tick boxes. 'Phantom of the Opera' is a favourite. 'Book of Mormon' has done it for millions, but not for me. 'West Side Story', 'Singin' in the Rain', 'Cabaret', 'The Sound of Music' and 'Oliver!' are more my speed. Any minute now, let's hear it for 'La La Land' on Broadway, homeward-bound for a theatre somewhere near you.
If there were a formula, they'd all be cackling their way to Coutts.
There is perhaps no more crucial component than the ten thousand hours. And perhaps no finer example of self-belief and indomitable endurance than the musical I saw last night.
'Men Who March Away', which received its world premiere at St. Anne's church, Limehouse, was not only a masterclass in the art of never giving up on a dream, but also the magic in a nutshell. My friend Wendy Baker, Mrs Danny, holed it in one:
'The songs were amazing because they were all brand-new, but somehow sounded familiar,' she said. I couldn't have put it better.
It's the art of creating something that everyone thinks they've heard before. Something comfortable and resonant, that makes us consider a subject, an era, an aspect of the human condition, that we may not have paused to think about, hitherto - or not in any focused way.
Mike Batt wrote this musical twenty five years ago, when his 'The Hunting of the Snark' left the West End after a brief run in 1991. He toyed with staging it, down the years, but was always sidetracked. He met Katie Melua in 2002, and gifted her 'the one' of the many best songs from 'Men Who March Away': 'The Closest Thing to Crazy'. That hit debut single catapulted her to a multi-million selling career. Mike joked last night that now everyone will think he just bunged the song into this 'new' musical to give it a hit. The irony.
It is, of course, a love story. Musicals mostly are. Its backdrop is war - in this case, the first and second world wars with the Spanish Civil between. War's devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people, its power to throw human relationships into disarray, is handled both brutally and tenderly. We are conflicted throughout, by vulgarity and gentility, cruelty and compassion, love and loss. Every song resonates. Every note haunts. Every lyric is both blunt and poetic. No less could be expected of the composer who gave us 'The Phantom of the Opera' (written with Andrew Lloyd Webber), 'A Winter's Tale' (with Tim Rice), and 'Bright Eyes'.
In this one-night-only staging, Mike conducted the magnificent Docklands Sinfonia - the only symphony orchestra in the East End, which was founded by conductor Spencer Down. He is the grandson of a docker and trumpeter in the working men's clubs. It showcased not only the marvellous musicianship of these youngsters, but the talents of rising stars Alice Frankham, Alex Southern and Oliver Bower. As a taster for a planned touring production, it was an unforgettable start. On your marks, now, guys. They'd better be looking for a West End venue and backers this morning. 'Men Who March Away' is the most musical of all musicals. Get it on, Mike Batt. Proud of you. 

Friday, 17 February 2017


We used to live at the Hammy-O in the Eighties. Night after night, hanging out at the back of the crumbling Art Deco, ghost-crammed cavern, behind the sound desk, backs to the wall, beer bottles in hand, the mouldy carpet sticking to the soles of our boots, the dank corridors, the shabby backstage, the unthinkable bogs (they still are). I must have seen a thousand gigs in what was once the Gaumont Palace, everyone from Kid Creole and the Coconuts to Blondie to Hot Chocolate to Michael Schenker to Duran Duran to Kylie to Bruce to Elton to Mott the Hoople to Japan to Billy Idol to Depeche Mode to KISS to Asia to Pink Floyd to Quo to Genesis to Dire Straits to Ian Dury to Aha to Queen to Kate Bush to Michael Ball to Riverdance. The rest escape me. Labatt's brewers nabbed and Apollo'd it in the early Nineties. By the time it had been bought by Carling, I was tucked up at home with three kids, remembering.
There were owners and deals and renovations and glorifications to come. Not just for me, ha, but for that majestic venue too. Whatever they tried to make of it, it was always the Hammy-O. Now that most of London's good old live music venues have bitten the dust, it is more precious than ever. Where else do we have? The Borderline Soho, Ronnie's at a pinch, or a trek out to Greenwich Peninsular. The acoustics at the Indigo 02 good. But it's car park turmoil come the end.
I have longed to be old enough to have witnessed Buddy Holly's UK shows at the Hammy-O in 1958;  shows that turned out to be his last here. Or to have experienced Ella Fitzgerald and the Duke, Tony Bennett and the Count, or Louis Armstrong. Or a boy named Sue, how do you do. Or Simon Napier-Bell’s prototype Yardbirds, with Eric. Or one of the Fabs' thirty-eight gigs across twenty-one nights there, 1964 to '65. I know a few who did. Those old snaps inside the Who's Quadrophenia album tell a little of it.
Last night, I remembered my first night. 3rd July 1973. Neat schoolgirls jumping a train from net-curtained suburbs, discarding navy pinafores and maroon-and-white-striped ties behind closed carriage doors, emerging in jewel velvet loons and studded platforms and make-up. 'What do you know about make-up, you're only a girl ...' There we were, up on screen, streaming-faced and glitter-weeping, at least versions of us, screeching 'David! David!', a damp, desperate choir, longing to be as one with the one on our bedroom walls.
Consumed by the madness, in life-threatening need of relief and self-reinvention, Bowie extinguished Ziggy and the Spiders that night. Our innocence died too. We had invested so much, had compromised ourselves, had been a laughing stock in the playground after swearing allegiance to weird, androgynous, beautiful, thin him. It was over.
It's in my book, 'Hero: David Bowie'. There was no story back then, that night, that desperate ending. There was bereavement.

Monday, 9 January 2017


Ziggy Stardust may have made David Bowie a star, but the wretch proved Frankensteinian. Eclipsing his creator from the moment he was fully formed, Ziggy subsumed Bowie and might have wound up destroying him, had not David decided to kill him and his arachnids first. Those closest are invariably the last to know.

By 1973, he knew he’d struck gold. Overnight stardom had taken almost ten years, but here he now was, all things to all people: a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic, worshipped as a teen idol, revered as a rock star, lusted after as a bi-sex symbol, hailed as some philosophical guiding light. He’d scuppered them all, this ruthless ransacker, this rag and bone man, this vampire. He had sucked the veins of all in his path, and was now gorging on the ultimate resource: his own self.

The Ziggy Stardust tour rolled relentlessly around Britain, a maelstrom of performances, TV appearances, radio, press, and fandemonium. Then America, Canada, Japan. Come 3rd July, the thriller. The Hammersmith Odeon, west London, staged the final night of the tour now fondly remembered as ‘the Retirement Gig’. The place was heaving with three and a half thousand fans. There must have been as many again outside as were crammed within. A film crew was present, and the stars were out: the Jaggers, the Rod Stewarts, the Ringos. David had finally made it into rock’s upper echelon. He was now one of them. ‘All the Young Dudes’. ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. ‘Moonage Daydream’. Freaky costume changes galore. At one point he emerged with that now legendary astral sphere on his forehead, which we found out later, from the magazines we pored over, had been created by make-up artist, Pierre La Roche. ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’: ‘This one’s for Mick!’ he announced. Ronson or Jagger? Maybe both. Rock royalty graced the line-up, the great Jeff Beck joining them on stage to play along with ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Love Me Do’. ‘Round and Round’, and David on harmonica. ‘Suffragette City’, ever my favourite. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at one point, thank you and goodnight, some upstart leaping onto the stage, a minder chucking him off again. Hammersmith had been heaven. Then, out of the blue, we went to hell.

‘Not only is this the last show of the tour,’ cried David, just when it couldn’t get any better, ‘but it’s the last show we’ll ever do!’

Say what, was somebody, come again, he’s only joking right, wait, did he just go, why? NOOOOOOO! The whole place was screaming, there was a stampede for the stage, I was small, I hung back, I couldn’t find my friend, I wanted the toilet. And the band, wide-eyed, it looked as though it was news to them, played on. ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide.’ You couldn’t make it up. I cried. Most of us did. Hysteria, pandemonium, a throat-cut split-second. However good the show was, and I think it was, I was stunned. I remember only that moment. I recall precious little of the music, not a step of the journey home. I heard later that Kid Jensen confirmed it on air. Read later about the after-show, some crass, jumped-up luvvie-fest they were referring to as ‘the Last Supper’, at the Regent Street Café Royal of all places, where I’d been twice with my parents dressed in the same itchycoo gold lamé trouser suit and matching pumps, for a wedding and a bar mitzvah, which says it all. David and Angie apparently lorded it, pressing flesh with ex-Beatles and Barbra and Britt, with Hollywood legends and Cat Stevens and boisterous Lulu.

Even Keith Moon, not known for his fondness for togged-to-the-nines civilisation. Imagine. My schoolgirl mind boggled. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Had David worked so hard for so long for it to end like this?

‘It was fun while it lasted,’ David said, post-Ziggy. ‘I had a certain idea of what I wanted my rock’n’roll star to be like. I’ve gone as far with that as I possibly can. The star was created, he worked, and that’s all I wanted him to do. Anything he did now would just be repetition, carrying it on to the death.’

But there was a sense of loss in his words only four years later.

‘It soured so quickly, you wouldn’t believe it,’ he lamented, looking back. ‘And it took me an awful long time to level out. My whole personality was affected. I brought that upon myself … and it became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.’

Yet Hammersmith Odeon was the only place to be. Ever. We were there. This was David’s pinnacle, his build-to moment, the culmination of all that he’d slaved to achieve. I have so often thought, what wouldn’t I give to relive that precious moment one last time.

Now, I’m about to. You can too.

Visit and grab while you can. Thursday 16th February, a unique screening of the concert film shot by D.A. Pennebaker of that gig, in the venue where it took place. This will be the first time the film has been aired for over forty years. Accompanied by DJ duo the Smoking Guns, breakthrough band Animal Noise, and some relevant unpredictables. On your marks. …