Simon Hoggart

Sinatra and the Mob

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The height of summer is celebrated by the television networks telling us things we already know. Such as, Frank Sinatra was in hock to the Mafia. Actually, Sinatra: Dark Star (shown on Thursday, BBC1, though made as a co-production with American, German and French money) was a perfectly entertaining trot round a familiar block — the Mob threatening Tommy Dorsey with extreme violence if he didn’t release the young Sinatra from his contract; the promise to prevent From Here to Eternity being made if Sinatra didn’t get a part. I hadn’t known that his family came from the same street in Sicily as Lucky Luciano, nor perhaps realised how near the end his career had been — thanks to his links to organised crime — just before he won his Oscar, in 1953. Nor the humiliation the gangsters visited upon their star — for example, making him quit his bed to gamble with a big winner at a Mob casino so that the man would lose his money back again. At one point when he was felt to have failed, they had the shaven head of a lamb sent up by room service. ‘That was a symbol of death for the Mafia,’ someone told us gravely. Well, it certainly didn’t symbolise ‘romance beckons...’

My problem with the programme was personal. We were supposed to contrast Sinatra’s mellifluous singing with the Mob mayhem all around us, so that a shot of Bugsy Siegel’s missing head or a gangland funeral were interleaved with ‘Night and Day’ or ‘The Lady Is a Tramp’. We can all agree that Sinatra was a tremendous technical stylist, but I can’t go along with the notion that he could squeeze a world of emotion into a single quaver. Whatever the song, his tone struck me as arrogant, even vainglorious, implying to the listener ‘get out of my sight’, or else ‘get into my bed’. One of his rare forays into vulnerable was ‘Something Stupid’, a pretty enough song but a bizarre recording. Some girl threw out Sinatra? And the girl he’s singing with is his daughter Nancy, which makes it just weird.

And more, much more than this, he popularised ‘My Way’, which some of us will never forgive. The song is a karaoke anthem for people who’ve spent their lives being ordered around by others — as proved to be the case with Sinatra. There was a sad coda; after the Kennedy family had used his Mob connections to get JFK elected, they cut him dead. Then the Beatles and the Vietnam War combined to finish off his career. I can’t say I felt particularly sorry, then or now.

Something else we knew was that both Stalin and Hitler were very bad men, and stupid, too. Warlords (Channel 4, Sunday) is a series about the four great leaders of the second world war, and how they spent their time trying to fool each other with psychological trickery. Or, rather, plain common or garden trickery. So we saw the old familiar newsreels: the Battle of Britain, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler doing a little jig in his mountain eyrie. Most of the revelations were of this order: Hitler thought the Red Army would not fight, Stalin believed that Hitler would not invade. But David Morrisey’s voice-over was firm, urgent and never over the top.

Next month, the Adolf Hitler Vegetarian Cookbook. ‘As the Wehrmacht marched into Poland [cue stock footage] Hitler was eating a nut cutlet in Berchtesgarten. By the time his armies had seized Paris [more stock footage] he had moved on to a lentil and roast pepper bake. When news of the D-Day landings [yet more footage] reached Berlin, Goebbels recorded in his diary: “The Fuhrer and Eva Braun shared a dish of cauliflower cheese.”’

There is a sub-genre of television which you might call nerd TV. The master practitioner is Jon Ronson. You need to look like a lonely schoolboy, not good-looking enough to have a girlfriend, and you must have an awful haircut. Glasses help. You need an affable, slightly breathless, na