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 for long periods? 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 beyond the gates of Windsor and of Buckingham Palace? The huge headlines that have punctuated her reign read like a variation on Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. It was always burning, since the world's been turning ... and inside, a fragile woman, an ordinary mortal, with the most extraordinary story to tell.

What I wouldn't give to read her autobiography. What I wouldn't give to write it. She will all too soon be gone. The dense linings of her heart, her throbbing thoughts, a lifetime of echoes piled and toppling from the groaning shelves of her mind, will soon be gone too. Halted. Silenced. Done. Ninety, ninety-five, a hundred years of precious, priceless memories will be wasted. It is thus for all of us. Unless we write them down. Why didn't she?

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 precisely what Victoria Beckham has gone and done. Not exclusively here, either, either, but right across the European Union. And not only Harper, but also her brothers Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. The whole family is trademarked to the threaded 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, again?
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, right? Wrong. Stable door, horse, legging it. Her own 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, in this context. 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 the firstborn was a tot, I walked away from the chance of banking a million bucks. I wouldn't even have had to do very much for it: simply turn over my child to the system, sit back and watch the star-makers do what they do best.
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.'
Reader, 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? Whom stardom turned into an alcoholic, sex-crazed, narcotic-addicted teen whose own mother disowned her? I'll 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 'at least' shooting some footage in the grounds of the hotel. Mia put on 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. I felt a cringe coming on.
Oh sure, there are child stars who survive to well-adjusted adulthood. Shirley Temple, Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields spring to mind. 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. A Lindsay Lohan. A Miley Cyrus. A Gary Coleman. A Britney. A 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 uncovered in an abandoned New York tenement. The body was not formally identified. The child star who had earned $60,000 a year was buried in a pauper's grave. 

Planet stardom is a precarious place. A parallel universe. Incomprehensible. It is inhabited by the desperate, which is what such folk are, no matter how much money they've got. They all become has-beens in the end. It is not a place for normal people. Thank your lucky stars that you're not them.

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 untimely injury, they falsely announced his death, a full 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 going next door to the BBC Club for a glass of wine or four. Brian declined to join us. His carriage awaited, he said. He had to get home, he added. To Pam? 'To nothing, really,' he replied, mournfully. '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 inside out. She knew to give him room.

We all know the man as a legend. He was also a man of honesty, dignity and integrity, who was so proud to be an important part of our rich industry heritage. He will be forever missed. God rest you, dear Brian Matthew. You were not only the voice of the Sixties. You were the voice-over of our lives. 

Monday, 20 March 2017


I write this almost seven years to the day that 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, right 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 flying, and its steaming contents over everyone present. At least I caught the brunt of it. I spent the remains of the day dripping in apparent vomit.
Vera laughed like a trouper. 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 far-flung, 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 at the time. Her face was beautiful in the flesh. 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 mind doing it. Thus did I kneel at the feet of one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. I think of it to this day.
Divas take note. All those 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 an entire nation's sweetheart, left her toddler at home and suffered unthinkable hardship to sing for servicemen offering their lives in the name of liberty. 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 the likes of 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 has never yet been aired. Out of respect for Dame Vera, it absolutely 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, like Clare and me, is enraged. There are other villains to tackle right now. But 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 some boxes. Phantom's 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, pop pickers. 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 on down 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 all the years, but was always sidetracked by demands on his time and talent. 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 essentially are. Its backdrop is war - in this case, the first and second world wars with the Spanish Civil in 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 extraordinary youngsters, but the talents of rising stars Alice Frankham, Alex Southern and Oliver Bower. As a delicious 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. I am so proud of you. Go, give Hamilton a run for it. I'll be cheering from my front-row seat.

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, garishly ghost-crammed cavern, behind the sound desk, backs to the wall, beer bottles in hand, that old, mouldy carpet glueing itself to the soles of our boots, the dank corridors, the shabby backstage, the unthinkable bogs (that 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 snapped up by Carling, I was tucked up at home with three kids, wistfully wondering. Remembering.
There were countless owners and deals and renovations and glorifications to come... not just for me - (ha: today would have been my twenty first wedding anniversary; imagine) - but for that majestic venue too. Yet whatever they tried to make of it, it was always the Hammy-O. Now that most of the good old live music venues around London have bitten the dust, it is more precious than ever. Where else have we got? it's the Borderline Soho, Ronnie's at a pinch, or a train, boat or plane out to Greenwich Peninsular. The acoustics are exquisite at the Indigo 02, sure. But we who were young once are schlepping beauties and stranded by car park turmoil come the end.
Perhaps I long 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, '64 into '65. I know a few who did. Those old snaps inside the Who's Quadrophenia album tell the tale. Kinda.
Last night, I remembered my first night. 3rd July 1973. Neat little schoolgirls jumping a train from the 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, flat-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 finished off Ziggy and the Spiders that night. Our innocence died with them. We had invested so much, had compromised who we were, had made ourselves a laughing stock in the playground by keeping ourselves only unto weird, strange, shockingly androgynous, beautiful, thin him. It was over.

The whole story is in my book, 'Hero: David Bowie'. The story as I now know it. There was no story back then, that night, that desperate ending. There was only 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 them while you can: to a unique screening, on Thursday 16th February, of the concert film shot by D.A. Pennebaker, of that legendary gig, in the very venue where it took place. This will be the first time the film has been aired for over forty years. And there’s more: DJ duo the Smoking Guns, breakthrough band Animal Noise, and some relevant unpredictables. On your marks …