Until recently I was one of those insufferable prigs who proudly announces, ‘Oh, I never watch television, it’s all rubbish these days.’ But there was little virtue in my self-restraint, and I had no idea whether there was anything worth watching or not. The fact is that when you are out at the theatre four, five and sometimes, curse it, six nights a week, watching stuff begins to feel like work. My smoking habit also meant that whenever I did want to watch something I’d have to keep nipping out for a quick drag, Mrs Spencer having instituted draconian smoking bans long before the Labour government. Much easier and pleasanter to sit in my chair in the study (the only room in the house where smoking was permitted), roll up the blessed Golden Virginia and drift off into a reverie to the music of my choice.
Since giving up the weed however — and, 16 months on, I still sometimes miss it with a craving that cries to the soul — I’ve become a bit of a TV junkie, at least on Saturday nights. I grumble about the BBC as much as the next man, and can no longer bear to listen to the Today programme, thanks to the long-windedness of Naughtie and the self-defeating aggression of Humphrys, but have to admit that the Beeb’s Saturday-night telly is at present a blast. Curries duly ordered and fetched from the local Indian restaurant, what a pleasure it is to settle down first to the inventive wit and thrills of Dr Who, followed, and here I must blush a little, by Any Dream Will Do.
I suspect most Spectator readers will have failed to catch this show but, like How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? which preceded it, this is a talent contest in which the winner gets to star in a West End musical. Last year the delightful Connie Fisher won the lead in The Sound of Music, and this time a dozen likely lads have been competing to perform the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
As you would imagine with a show hosted by Graham Norton, the whole thing is as camp as it comes. Even Denise Van Outen is beginning to look like a man in drag. But the strange and touching miracle of the show is that Andrew Lloyd Webber — who sits on an absurd throne and has a Roman emperor’s power to decide which of the lowest scoring contestants survives to sing another day — has suddenly become a cult hero. For years people flocked to his shows but seemed to dislike the man, but here his ability to combine self-mockery with a manifest passion for musical theatre proves hugely endearing. ‘The Lord’, as Norton often calls him, has somehow, finally, become a superstar in his own right. But I do hope Keith — a grinning, toothy, hugely self-satisfied youth who makes Tommy Steele look like Frank Sinatra, doesn’t win. Indeed I urge all ‘Olden but golden’ readers to vote for Lee. Together we can swing it.
All of this was excitement enough, but then my son Edward and I chanced upon a third programme, on BBC2, called Seven Ages of Rock, a documentary series that treats pop music with the same seriousness that Kenneth Clark once brought to Civilisation. The splendid Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead has attacked the series because the makers have decided that rock music began in the late Sixties, and have entirely ignored the great rock’n’rollers of the Fifties and early Sixties.
‘The best era is the one that’s been left out,’ he wrote passionately in the Radio Times, ‘which is the first era right up to the Beatles. And to forget it is ridiculous. At a stroke the likes of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran and a thousand others dismissed — brilliant, eh? That’s the era that made rock’n’roll.’
He’s right, of course. To ignore the early rockers is like doing a series on English literature and leaving out Chaucer. Nevertheless the two programmes I’ve caught, one featuring ‘art rock’ from the Velvet Underground to David Bowie, the other punk, with some wonderful footage of Johnny Rotten, shouting, snarling and sneering like the malign lovechild of Richard III and the Artful Dodger, were pure joy. The contributors’ comments are intelligent, the live footage thrilling and potently nostalgic. What a pleasure it was to see Peter Gabriel preposterously dressed as a flower again, and dear Syd Barrett looking so beautiful and young.
This Saturday the programme focuses on heavy metal, a rockumentary that I suspect might prove as hilarious as that vintage film spoof Spinal Tap. Mrs Spencer will be gratifyingly appalled by it all, and Ed and I will be glued to the set with the volume turned all the way up to 11.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.