The Singer, August/September 2008
I can't play tennis. I just can't. A reasonable jumpy-uppy serve will, after ten grumpy goes, launch the acid green furball somewhere towards the unsuspecting net. I can't play tennis. So… I don't. My inventory of can'ts also includes backgammon, football, sudoku, algebra of any kind, changing a wheel, ice-skating, press-ups and tequila (my head fuzzes, knees buckle and I start to recite poetry). I am a singer, a producer and an occasional actor and broadcaster because, funnily enough, I feel strangely confident and (I think and hope) intelligent enough to fling my goodish self at these activities.
I remember many years ago appearing on a fundraising bill at The Hackney Empire, alongside a veteran blues singer of some considerable thrust. I'd been a fan of hers since my dad used to bring home fabulously mysterious cardboard boxes of old records (he was a removal man who specialized in house removals). I asked Ms Blues Legend what she was proposing to sing that night as she was thousands of miles away from her regular Mississippi band. "Oh, anything dear – I'll wait for a chord and see what happens." And with the aplomb of an overly confident be-jeweled large sheep, Ms Blues Legend jumped the fence-of-random-improvisation. Not a lyric learned or melody inserted. Pure magic. The Hackney Empire audience rose to it's doc-martened feet and the earnest and dully intoned politicised comics that followed in her jetsam fell headlong into dead-comic hell.
Such bravura and invention has surely eluded much of what we are spoonfed on telly these days – not only can we witness the weekly Saturday night train crashes – Starfactor, Britain's Worst Talent, Bone Idol and half-a-dozen other TV junkyard atrocities – but surely some sort of talent is meant to be at the core of these shows. With a second rate actress, an ego-ridden pathetic red-top ex-editor and an orange pop Svengali as the "experts" we can see it all again – edited, blooped and re-analysed on a network sister channel later that night. We are hooked.
And then we have the jewel in this rusting crown of neo-light entertainment. How Do You Start A Car Like Chitty Bing Bong? overseen by the irrepressible Sir Something Something-Somethinger. (How am I doing for libel so far, Ed?). The said Sir's reactions to the ever decreasing gaggle of gurning Nancys or (how surreal and wonderful this would be!) Chitties (line up all you budding Skoda Starlets!) are made somewhat more ghoulish by the two second delay from Los Angeles. Marvellous. Addictive. Awful.
So it seems that anyone from sunny Sunderland to glitzy Gateshead can BE A STAR. Then when they've won – hurrah – they can star in the West End of London, making a mountainous mockery of the countries' drama colleges, and dim the aspirations of hard-working hopefuls, who, God forbid, have played the training game, draining their parents savings only to end up selling theatre tickets over the phone, while Nadine The Nurse from Newcastle ("She's ever so good") goes on to play Sharon Osbourne in the new musical Sharon Osbourne The New Musical.
I have often wondered how much genuine talent we all are wasting. I have recently converted to Raw Food, having fluctuated in weight since my early twenties – every fad diet have I plundered. From the milk and bananas and cabbage soup diet to Atkins (eurgh) and powdered shakes. My friend Guy Barker, the alarmingly talented trumpeter and composer, has been raw since February. Hitting half a century (prompted by his beautifully raw wife Davina) he decided to go raw for six months. He now arrives at soundchecks with pocketfuls of Brazil nuts and a tupperware oozing with raw agave and chocolate pudding, craftily prepared by Davina. My knowledge and interest in this area, as befits a homosexual Gemini, is comprehensive and all consuming. I could be a raw expert and open up RawShaw's, an alternative diner's delight, somewhere in Covent Garden. Talented? Moi? I think so.
My mother (72) can still speed-type – talent. My manager Charlotte is a superb singer – talent. My partner Johann is a great photographer and designer, although he is a computer science student – talent. My friend Claire Martin (jazz singer) can also play the drums and tap dance – talent. So Britain does have talent after all. But is it only the self-aware, the reserved, the – dare I utter it – intelligent who are NOT desperate for empty fame and cheap recognition and therefore keep it hid?
So can talent only exist on prime-time telly? Can it only bear fruit if it has been means-tested by a mean lucky old millionare? Can it continue to flourish only if it has been emotionally challenged and pulverised weekly by judges who's talents are seemingly scant by comparison. Let's not even consider our cousins over the pond, whose parallel shows exhibit such a deeply disturbing probe-fest, panel-led by the most preposterously untalented judging trio. The naming, shaming, maiming and if this ex burger-flipper with four octaves eventually gets through &– the taming is all fodder for tantalizing TV at its very best… or worst.
Oh, and just to further my over-40 talent rant, as a child of the '70s, I was brought up on a diet of The Shirley Bassey Show, Victor Borge, Noël Coward, Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Morecombe and Wise, Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers, Sooty… the list goes on – these performers worked hard at their art (especially Sooty), honing and sharpening their skills in the clubs and provincial theatres, studios and bandstands – until Logie Baird's magical eye allowed them a wider audience.
CHARISMA. No, this ain't a duo from Bexleyheath that does Simon and Garfunkel in matching maroon leotards with fire batons. This is that mysterious, sinewy quality that shoots straight from the heart, sparkles and disturbs, jostles and caresses. Sometimes shabby around the edges but with the sheer bloody talent at its core, it never coasts or disappoints.
Ah, my manager just called. I have been shortlisted for Prancing On Turf: The Celebrity Tennis Open. New balls please.