Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (2019) – A Real Life Review

In the UK Dustin Lance Black is best known for being the husband of Olympic diver and national treasure Tom Daley but anyone expecting this memoir to be an examination of their relationship is going to be disappointed.  Tom barely features (although his importance in Black’s life is both acknowledged and shines through).  The author who won an Oscar for his screenplay “Milk” in 2009 even pushes himself and his career left of centre as this memoir has a different principal character- his mother Rose Anne.

Hers is a story of survival through sheer determination.  She contracted polio as an infant and spent her whole childhood in hospitals, away from home, defying doctors and not allowing anything to limit her life choices.  Medical opinion said childbirth would kill her yet she had three sons and Dustin (Lance to friends and family) certainly inherited similar drive.  Mother found support in the strong community of the Mormon Church but by the age of six, young Lance knew his sexuality would cause a major conflict which he truly believed their relationship would never recover from.

The author’s drive led him to a highly promising film career and that Oscar for “Milk” (If you have never seen this film it is magnificent) yet he eschews this to devote time to activism, becoming one of the leading players in overturning California’s discriminatory gay marriage ruling, developing from a chronically shy, almost mute introverted child to speaking on huge public platforms and dealing with threats and bigotry.

But it is the relationship between mother and son which sparked a whole range of emotions in me – at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.  Time moves on and the boy turns into a man but there’s still the pull of family and mother and it is recorded in a strikingly honest way.  If this was a novel I’d really be praising the author in his skill at getting us to really know the characters.  I have read some memoirs with no great sense of even the person writing it but this is certainly not the case here.

I think it is hard for us Brits to understand the pull of religions like The Church Of The Latter Day Saints in parts of America and some of the workings of the US legal system seem bewildering but the rest of the world is now well used to being bewildered by America.

I thought this was a marvellous book, a little intense and very thorough but I would imagine that would match the nature of the author pretty well.  It is written with great sensitivity and his desire to introduce his mother to the world demands a large readership.  I don’t think this book has yet got the attention it deserves.  Its nature suggests a lasting classic which should continue to inspire generations.  It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize (as have a number of the books I have read “”Life As A Unicorn” (retitled since I read it) and “The Confessions of Frannie Langton for first book awards and “This Brutal House” in the main category alongside this book).  This is an award to celebrate the best in LGBTQ+ writings and “Mama’s Boy” would be a very deserving winner.

Mama’s Boy was published in 2019 by John Murray.

Broken Greek- Pete Paphides (2020) – A Real Life Review

realives

paphides

Music Journalist Pete Paphides has taken me off into a time machine with this memoir of his childhood.  It felt like I was back in the 70’s and early 80’s as he recreates the Acocks Green area of Birmingham so vividly and with excellent recall.  Running alongside his memories (and no doubt enhancing them greatly as there is nothing like music to recreate past times) is what is amounts to a soundtrack of his young life.

Paphides was the second son of Greek-Cypriot parents who had come over to Birmingham and soon found themselves running chip shops.  His father never lost the intense yearning to go back to Cyprus and only listened to music from his homeland which the young Takis found intense and mournful.  (His father shifted a little when Abba and Boney M came along).  His son attempted to make sense of his position in a culture different to his parents but struggled and became an elective mute speaking only to parents, his brothers and the occasional teacher when no other children were around.  His brother introduced him to the telephone Dial-A-Disc service which became a bit of an early obsession with him not quite able to process the magic of hearing The Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” through the phone line.  Lack of self-esteem led him to think his parents didn’t want him and that they would return to Cyprus without him leading him to select Eurovision winners The Brotherhood Of Man as his substitute family.

Eventually Takis starts speaking, calls himself Peter in order to feel more of a part of school life and thus begins his struggle to be accepted by a father too busy with the demands of his business and also by those at school. He used music constantly as his crutch becoming obsessed with Top Of The Pops, chart positions (I can identify with this) and Abba and eventually seeing the gang of outsiders who were Dexy’s Midnight Runners as possible salvation.

I really enjoyed this.  It is enhanced by Paphides’ almost total recall of the era which gets so detailed (I don’t know if this is just memory, heaps of research or a bit of embroidering but it feels totally authentic). A lot of it will resonate to anyone growing up at the time but the author’s cultural and racial background gives it a fascinating slant.  Like all the best memoirs it feels both tragic and funny and oh so honest.  Many works of this era feel like wannabe memoirs, adopting what are now with hindsight seen as highlights of the culture.  You can’t get better than the young Pete’s obsession with pop comedy group The Barron Knights (until he gets to see them live) a section which is so realistic and so touchingly written and says volumes about the times in which we were living.  I have talked to people more about this book whilst reading it than I would usually do which is a good sign of the impression it has made upon me.  Definitely recommended.

four-star

Broken Greek was published in hardback by Quercus in March 2020.

Elizabeth – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2006) – A Real Life Review

realives

taylor

This is the fifth showbiz biography I have read by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Around this time last year I was enjoying his 2015 publication “Becoming Beyonce” knowing that I had this earlier work on my shelves.

Taraborrelli’s study of the life and work of Elizabeth Taylor was published five years before her death at the age of 79 in 2011. Reading this confirmed something I’d always felt about her- it was amazing that she lasted as long as she did. There were so many health scares throughout her life, so many times it was reported that she was teetering on the edge, the first time fifty years before her demise when in London she collapsed from pneumonia and according to the author “thousands gathered in the streets in front of the hospital to hold vigil for her.” She bounced back (until the next major health crisis), a true survivor.

I realised when I started this book that I didn’t know a huge amount about Elizabeth Taylor, I just thought I did because of the amount of publicity she stirred up in her lifetime. Born in England (which was why in 2000 she could be made a Dame) I never knew her American heritage, that both of her parents were American and who returned home with their young daughter as war was breaking out. I have seen a number of her films over the years. I of course knew about her relationship with Richard Burton (recently re-watching the involving “Burton & Taylor” TV dramatization with Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West piqued my interest enough to pick up this book). I also knew about her AIDS work, her jewellery, her perfumes all of which gave her greater celebrity at an age when most actresses would be finding leading roles harder to come by, but to me she was always one of those larger-than-life people who do not seem to function in the real world. I needed Taraborrelli’s work to give me a grounding of her reality, what it really meant to be Elizabeth Taylor.

I never fully appreciated how devoted her fans were towards her, especially in America. In a lengthy film career her movies nearly always made money, no matter how patchy they were (even if it took years to turn a profit like the expensive “Cleopatra”). She was forgiven for breaking up the marriage of sweetheart showbiz couple Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher despite this being a huge scandal at the time. Taylor was still reeling from husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash turning to Eddie, his best friend, with him too rapidly becoming husband number 4 (and the one she had so little positive to say about in subsequent years).

The relationship with Richard Burton was central to Taylor’s life and career in the public eye. Everyone knew of their passion, their turmoil and manipulations of one another during their two marriages. He was the man Taylor could not let go. The section in the book which focuses on their marriage is perhaps the least absorbing. It was the time before, in-between and after the marriages which makes for a far more fascinating depiction of two people who just couldn’t stay away from each other and for whom the other person was both essential and toxic. Taraborrelli is too awe-struck by his subject to really join in with the tabloid frenzy some of Elizabeth’s actions stirred up, her friendship with Michael Jackson is played down as two kindred spirits with troubled childhoods and husband #8 (I’m counting Burton twice) Larry Fortensky, a younger construction worker she met in rehab which provoked an avalanche of sneering is handled sensitively and Fortensky (who died aged 64 in 2016) certainly does not get the ridicule he got at the time.

In fact, Taylor crammed in so much into her life that it’s hard to keep up and this book could easily have been twice its length. There’s a whole section on references and acknowledgements which goes on for 40 pages where Taraborrelli cites his sources. Elizabeth Taylor certainly generated a phenomenal amount of copy in her lifetime and we will never see anyone quite like this unique woman again.

four-star

“Elizabeth” was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in the UK in 2006.

Me – Elton John (2019) – A Real Life Review

realives

shouldhave8

One of my should have read in2019 choices  was this long-awaited autobiography which appeared in many Christmas stockings over the festive period. It also appeared on lots of “best of” year lists with both The Guardian and The Daily Mail heralding it as the celebrity memoir of the decade.

None of this is surprising given Elton John’s stature and celebrity. The focus of many biographies over the years 2019 also saw the well-received “Rocketman” film so this book from Elton’s perspective is very timely. I wickedly cannot resist the observation that the title is short of a few words and that “Me Me Me Me” might have been more fitting!

In the dedication Elton thanks Alexis Petridis, rock music journalist, who has obviously ghost-written the work. I don’t know what the share of the work was between them but Elton must have done enough to be acknowledged as the sole author on the cover and for copyright purposes.

We all know quite a bit about Elton John although the worldwide level of success he has enjoyed makes for staggering reading. I like that he is a chart nerd who knows the positions his records have achieved and lots of statistics about his career. But, also, with Elton it is the things we don’t know that appeals. This, together with his celebrated frankness and fondness for gossip is what made this such a tantalising prospect. I was a bit disappointed that since publication so much of this has been shared within the media and in his TV interview with Graham Norton that it has lost a lot of its power to surprise. I wasn’t quite able to hold with The Telegraph’s opinion that it was “as eye-popping as his wardrobe.”

Where I do agree with The Telegraph’s verdict is how “self-aware” it is and that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived in a mad celebrity world for close to 50 years where you would imagine all sense of reality would be strained. Perhaps much of this sensitive reflection has come about through therapy and treatment for his much reported-on addictions. The great appeal is that Elton knows everyone and has done everything someone in his world can do and luckily he is able to convey much of this to his readers.

The only area of his life he purposely plays down is his inexplicable first marriage to Renate which seems so out of character. Here he respects his ex-wife’s continued determination never to publicly discuss matters to do the same. Other relationships are more thoroughly explored, the “open secret” of his relationship with manager John Reid, at a time when an admission of homosexuality could have damaged his career, with husband David Furnish and their children and perhaps most fascinatingly with his mother who famously hired an Elton John tribute act for her 90th birthday party because she knew the real thing would not turn up. Now, here is a complex, difficult woman who Elton himself could never fathom. Both she and his father were prone to the same explosive temperament as the singer which has made Elton something of a figure of fun in the past as tales of his petulancy became commonplace. Another complex relationship is the one with lyricist Bernie Taupin. I never knew they were as close as they were, at one point, before fame kicked in sharing bunk beds in a bedroom in Elton’s mum’s house. I did know about the long-distance writing partnership this evolved into. This was for me, most memorably lampooned by Matt Lucas and David Walliams in one of their “Rock Profiles” where Matt as Elton turns lyrics Taupin has just faxed over into a song incorporating the “PS: Can you tape “Lovejoy” for me tonight?” That, joking aside, is pretty close as to how this legendary partnership came to function.

I’m no huge Elton John fan, if I was I think I would find this book pretty amazing. For the general music/celebrity bio fan it is a highly memorable, rich, entertaining read and it  livened the early days of the New Year.

fourstars

Me was published in hardback by Macmillan in October 2019

Little Me: My Autobiography – Matt Lucas (2017)- A Real Life Review

realives

littleme

There were elements of the life story of comedy actor Matt Lucas in the 2006 publication “Inside Little Britain” written by Boyd Hilton with input from Lucas and then comedy partner David Walliams. At this point they were probably the top comedy duo around and I really loved this book placing it in the Top 5 of my best books of 2006.

A lot has happened in the 11 years between then and this, particularly for Walliams who has become a phenomenally successful and extremely wealthy children’s author publishing his own autobiography “Camp David” (which I haven’t read) in 2012. Lucas’ work is a less showy affair than either of these two aforementioned books and is an honest, at times raw account in which the author’s voice comes across so clearly it’s like having an audiobook in your head.

Lucas has eschewed the chronological approach to go alphabetically writing sections such as E is for eating, G is for Gay, J is for Jewish which gives him a chance to focus in on certain areas and leave others undeveloped. He has a right to do this, one of the shorter sections K is for Kevin focuses on his ex-civil partner who died 18 months after their split. Lucas has already told us at the outset that he will largely leave this subject alone because of the pain it causes him but because it has had such a significant effect on his life he can’t help but touch on it, especially in T is for Tardis where work on “Dr Who” became overwhelmed with Kevin’s (a huge Dr Who fan) passing. The K is for Kevin section is largely taken up with colour photos of the man who was Lucas’ love of his life and this provides a fitting, touching and thorough tribute.

There is no doubt that this event has influenced Lucas’ life and work since. He has moved to the US to escape memories and rebuild his life in a country where he is less well known. If this sounds depressing it’s not, he handles this appropriately and sensitively but much of the rest is written with his undeniable enthusiasm and vivacity. (There’s even a song with music and lyrics at the mid-way point).

The structure allows us to piece together the events in Lucas’ life and go off with him at tangents. This must be the first autobiography to rate the chocolates in a box of Celebrations in eating order (I’d get round to polishing off those Bountys for you eventually, Matt, but you’d have to do the Galaxy Caramels for me and we’d fight over the Malteser one.) It made for an unpredictable, entertaining read. There’s none of the gloss many autobiographies have which will the reader to like the subject, Lucas is happy to put in things which will no doubt rub us up the wrong way. He has a section I is for Idiot to explain some of his behaviour and often cross-references us back to this section of the text.

“Little Britain” and “Come Fly With Me”, the works most associated with Lucas and Walliams were very much of their time and he admits some elements have not dated that well and he has been accused of racism, trans and homophobia because of some characterisations and the way these were interpreted by viewers and he acknowledges that he would do things differently today. I don’t think he needs to beat himself up over this, the same could be said for his contemporary comedy heroes The League Of Gentlemen and Vic and Bob, who were central to Lucas’ early professional career but at the time we really laughed and we’d also laugh a lot today. In fact, Matt had me if not laughing then smiling throughout from the warmth within this book as well as misting up my eyes on quite a few occasions.

fourstars

Little Me was published by Canongate in 2017. I read the 2018 paperback edition.

America’s Mistress – The Life And Times Of Eartha Kitt – John L. Williams (2013) – A Real Life Review

realives

earthakitt

I very much enjoyed John L Williams’ thorough examination of the early years of Shirley Bassey in his 2010 publication “Miss Shirley Bassey” when I read it back in 2015. Williams, who has written about and lives in Cardiff seemed well placed to offer his perspective on the Welsh diva’s rise to fame. With “America’s Mistress” he’s kept to the theme of the black female entertainer in the white dominated world of the 1950’s yet here the Brit commenting on the life and background of the American performer gives it a different  viewpoint to the one he had in the previous book. Shirley Bassey was a great supporter of Eartha when she visited the UK and both performers had much in common- a rise from poverty to fame; song stylists with a heightened sense of drama unafraid of using  their sexuality in a straight-laced era and their uniqueness as there was nobody else out there like them which gave them an air of the exotic. This helped them achieve a level of fame denied others of their skin colour.

It’s the American background which gives Eartha more issues with her skin colour. Williams portrays her as the woman wealthy white men fell in love with but felt unable to marry- this explains the “America’s Mistress” of the title. These romances led to a backlash from black audiences who saw her aspirations to move in white high society as betrayal whereas, in fact, Eartha did become active within the Civil Rights movement. Eartha often spoke of this dilemma saying that she was too light skinned to be accepted by African Americans and too dark skinned to avoid prejudice and segregation. She wasn’t especially light-skinned. The issue was probably more to do with the kind of performer she was, a feline 50’s glamour puss who became anachronistic and was sure to find herself at odds with society.

It does seem that Eartha could be difficult, not everyone warmed to her. I would have liked to have read more about that. Was this the case or just another maligned woman who showed she did not need men to handle her career and was criticised for it? Paradoxically, despite this career independence she was always on the search for love from a powerful wealthy man (which in this era would largely mean a white man). The asides she made in her songs about wanting material things from her man were not far from the truth. There was a short-lived marriage which produced daughter Kitt, who from then on became the central focus to Mama Kitt’s life.

catwoman

Williams is better on Eartha’s early career. Most of my generation would remember the perfect casting of her as Catwoman in the third series of “Batman” TV show (amazingly only five episodes but which got me feeling so nostalgic that I went and ordered the complete series DVDs off Amazon) yet by this time Williams is hurtling on a bit and this wasn’t given much attention. He takes as his nominal finishing point Eartha leaving the US for Europe in 1970 and that’s a great pity because the Kitt story is far from over and the rest is left pretty much to a hasty epilogue, but actually, it’s the days when the star starts to wane that I find most fascinating.

Eartha was always a real trouper. She was a regular visitor to Britain in the 80’s and I believe my sister saw her perform once in Finland. I saw her completely stop the show when she sang “I’m Still Here” in Steven Sondheim’s “Follies” in the West End. I saw her perform in concert a couple of times and she was terrific. There’s scant mention of her chart career revival which drew her a whole new audience that wasn’t even born when she was at the height of her fame. The high-energy hit “Where Is My Man?” gave her a first UK Top 40 hit for 28 years, there’s no mention at all of the startling collaboration with Bronski Beat on the Divine referencing in-joke of “Cha Cha Heels” a number 32 hit in 1989, nor of her return to a big Hollywood film with Eddie Murphy’s “Boomerang” and that is a shame because these omissions left me feeling dissatisfied. Williams seems to more or less write off the last 20 years of her career which I find surprising for a British writer as she was still a big draw over here who would always make headlines. So not as comprehensive as I would have liked but he does go some way in trying to capture the essence of this unique performer, a woman he describes aptly in his closing words as “the most feline of revolutionaries”.

threestars

 

America’s Mistress was published by Quercus in 2013.

Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On – Nik A Ramli (2012) – A Real Life Review

realives

nikaramli

What is the right thing to do when just as your biography is going to press the subject dies? Do you hold back publication and revise its contents? I think I would probably say yes to this. Do you carry on and publish anyway after all, knowing that not many readers will know when a book actually came out, that’s a possibility. What Nik A Ramli does in his first piece of biographical non-fiction is acknowledge the passing in an author’s note at the start of the book, use the dates of the life (1948-2012) prominently on the cover but does not change the main text one iota. I’m not sure whether that’s appropriate.

That decision leads to a slightly off taste as Ramli focuses on the legendary disco star’s past, present and future in later chapters such as “Still Going Strong: A New Departure” and “Into The Future” when he makes it clear elsewhere that he knows that there isn’t going to be any future.

Now I, like Ramli, who is better known as a Malaysian Interior Designer who specialises in “laid back glamour” am a big Donna Summer fan. I have included four of her albums in my Essential CD listings. I feel that up to now she has not been served well by the printed word. I read an early 80’s unauthorised biography which said little and even “Ordinary Girl” her 2003 autobiography written with Marc Eliot was a disappointment which just skimmed the surface. There is room for a definitive examination of the life and career of one of the most successful female artists of all time whose record sales reputedly exceed 130 million. I’d always hoped that someone like J. Randy Taraborrelli would apply his thorough, analytical eye to her and produce something very entertaining but this hasn’t happened.

Ramli has produced what is very much a fan’s viewpoint which borders on hagiography. I have no problems with that, the whole work comes across as a labour of love and I always admire these. He’s done tons of research and seemingly watched and read everything and has carried out interviews with people qualified to comment on Donna’s career including DJ Paul Gambaccini, fellow disco-diva Gloria Gaynor and her one-time producer and great supporter Pete Waterman. Unfortunately, what he hasn’t done is put this research all together very well. This is a first-time writer in need of support to structure a convincing narrative and that support (and editing) obviously wasn’t there. The style is breathless throughout, which becomes a little overwhelming, there is so much repetition, an over-reliance on listing the same statistics and song titles to illustrate laboured points, a cheesy use of song titles within the text of the she certainly “works hard for the money” type, factual errors even I’ve spotted, non-sequiturs a-plenty and a tendency to go off on odd tangents, but mainly it’s the repetition that wearies.

He rattles through her whole career in the first few chapters and with a considerable amount of the book to go a clearer structure would have helped matters. He’s read Taraborrelli’s superior music biogs according to the bibliography, it is disappointing that from these he didn’t get a clearer idea of how to put together his work.

What Ramili does well, however, is to get a global perspective. He’s more obsessed about listing chart positions than I am, we get to know how Donna Summer’s work performed in many markets together with listings of weeks spent in both US and UK charts. I also like how he has got contributions from Malaysian performers about the influence of this American girl from Boston who found fame initially in Germany.

The issue that affected the performer was how much “Donna Summer” was a creation of her producers and then her record label. She was created to fit in with the hedonism of mid 70’s disco, with an aura of soft-porn chic which captured the zeitgeist of the time. This image was different to how Donna Summer wanted to be seen both in terms of her beliefs and her need not to be pigeonholed as an act of a moment. Her disco days were glorious with some superb tracks, brilliantly performed, but she wanted to see and she had the talent to see beyond that, sensing that disco might not last forever. When it did end in the US with that notorious record burning in a Chicago sportsfield which I’ve mentioned a number of times before (see “Turn The Beat Around” by Peter Shapiro), Donna was ready to move on and embrace rock, new wave and more mainstream pop. Over time chart positions dwindled and an alleged comment about AIDS alienated a large gay fanbase. That disco ball would never entirely go away, however, and the demand for the back catalogue of the Disco Donna Summer, like the Disco Gloria Gaynor, would keep re-appearing over the decades. In latter years Donna began once again to fully embrace this and saw a career revival and a demand for new material in the years up to her sudden and shocking death from lung cancer aged 64.

She should be seen as one of the greatest performers of her era, alongside Barbra Streisand (with whom she famously vocally duelled with on “No More Tears”), Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. The fact that she does not always share a pedestal with these artists critically means she is still due for reappraisal. Ramli’s work provided a welcome opportunity for this but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

twostarsDonna Summer; The Thrill Goes On was published by Book Guild Publishing in 2012.

Becoming Beyonce – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2015) – A Real Life Review

realives

beyonce

J. Randy Taraborrelli is a real guilty pleasure of mine. His biographies seem meticulously researched and are very thorough. There is often a slight tension between his fan worship of his subjects and his need to get as much scandal as he can on them and this tension I enjoy. He tells a story well and I’ve yet to read anything by him which has been approved by his subject- his work tends to be “unauthorised”. He is best known for really changing the public perception of Diana Ross from Motown sweetheart to the Ultimate Diva in his “Call Her Miss Ross” (1989), my favourite of his books although I have enjoyed others on Madonna and Michael Jackson and have a so-far unread one on Elizabeth Taylor on my bookshelves. He also has an interest in powerful American families such as The Kennedys and The Hiltons. The family aspect is also very strong in this book as in the process of “becoming Beyoncé”, the Knowles family were extremely involved.

His works generally focus on larger-than-life characters, those who were no strangers to scandal thus producing a lot of copy Taraborrelli could pore over but here there has to be a slightly different emphasis, as scandal on Beyonce Knowles herself is decidedly limited. What we have instead is the just as fascinating question of how a little girl who participated in talent contests and pageant shows became one of the most celebrated and influential women on the planet. Well, the answer to that, you may be disappointed to know is through sheer determination and hard work. Going from a child in an all- girl musical review, to unsuccessful singing act Girls’ Tyme (which brought family members and investors close to bankruptcy), to stardom with Destiny’s Child, a solo career, marriage to one of the most successful all-time rappers, Jay-Z, to motherhood were all achieved by extraordinary single-minded dedication which meant that there has been really little life outside of the business in her attainment of her goals.

Subtitling this “The Untold Story” might get readers searching for juicy titbits but the perennially image conscious and brand aware Beyonce has rarely ever let her guard down long enough for scandal to occur. Her father, however, is a different matter and Mathew Knowles certainly comes under the microscope. As single-minded as his daughter in pursuance of fame, he gave up a profitable job and sunk a small fortune into drilling the group of young girls, shedding those along the way who couldn’t toe the line, there were extra-marital dalliances and the central event in the book comes from 2009 when Beyonce blows the whole thing apart by having her father audited for potential mismanagement of funds. Another incident which generated much media attention was the extraordinary situation in a lift where her sister attacked Beyonce’s husband behind closed doors and all parties emerged as if nothing had happened. Beyonce’s role in this was strangely detached which stimulated much speculation as to what was going on, the incident suggesting a metaphor for public image versus personal life but under analysis there’s not very much that can be actually deducted from this.

There seems little doubt that the development of a public image has caused difficulties for Beyonce’s own identity. This led to a creation of a dauntless confident alter-ego Sasha Fierce to hide the insecurities. Beyonce’s songs feature “independent women” and “survivors” and even though father Mathew was seen to be positioned at the centre of her existence the book gives attention to a group of very strong women who allowed Beyonce to become Beyonce, including early managers and her mother, Tina and sister Solange.

Compared to some of Taraborrelli’s subjects this is a much more low-key affair but I really enjoyed it. It’s impossible not to be swept up by such professional self-belief, determination and on-stage charisma.

fourstars

Becoming Beyonce was published in 2015. I read the Pan paperback edition. Yes I know there should be an acute accent on Beyonce’s name, but the keyboard is not co-operating with that!

Funny Way To Be A Hero – John Fisher (2013) – A Real Life Review

realives

fisher

I think we readers can always appreciate a book which has become lifeblood for its author. Although this writer and television producer has gone on to write other works, which have largely spun off from this title this will always be his special project and his feelings for this work and the individuals who provided the reason for the work are only too apparent.

It was first published in 1973 as a record of Fisher’s heroes from the world of comedy and variety, the latter still then playing a part of the entertainment industry of the day, but nowhere near as prevalent as it had been in decades past. This is the 40th anniversary edition of the book, which has been reworked and added to with lucid and involving afterthoughts at the end of most chapters. The big difference here is that 40 years on most of the artists accorded their own chapter had died and since publication of this edition six years ago they have all departed, the last survivor being Ken Dodd who left us last year. Of those mentioned in passing I think only a couple of the young pretenders Jimmy Tarbuck and Roy Hudd remain. This makes this work an even more important historical record of what are fast becoming lost days than it was on first publication.

Over 32 chapters Fisher shines the spotlight on those individuals who shone brightest from the Victorian performer Dan Leno (now best known as a title character in a Peter Ackroyd novel and its 2016 film adaptation) to the comedy stars of the 60’s and 70’s who attracted huge television audiences. This book is weighty and is a quality production through and through full of sumptuous photos, often over a whole page and many of which come from the author’s personal collection.

fisher2Dan Leno

The earliest performers will nowadays mean little to the reader (although it is interesting to note the source of some of the catchphrases still in modern parlance). If there is a central character than that is perhaps Max Miller, a comic I know by reputation only. The performers seem to fall naturally into a pre and post Miller division. Comedy is very much of its time. I wonder if anyone today would find Arthur Askey laugh-out-loud funny, some of the artists here remained at or near the top until their (often premature) deaths, some found themselves having to diversify somewhat (eg: Max Wall into serious acting, Max Bygraves into singing and quiz shows) and others found their stars waning (eg: Benny Hill) as tastes changed.

fisher3

Fisher is very good at including personal anecdotes of a lifetime both of admiring many of these performers on the stage and working alongside them in TV production. His first contact with a celebrity was aged 11 in 1956 when he won a competition to meet Norman Wisdom during the interval of “Aladdin” at the London Palladium. This was the encounter which set the seal on Fisher’s future interests. Wisdom was charming and relaxed. How easily it could have gone the other way with an 11 year old descending during the valuable interval minutes for a performer on what was the first night of the run! Many stars both past and present would not have been as accommodating!

fisher4Norman Wisdom

The focus is on comic performers from variety rather than comic actors so no Carry On Gang (apart from Frankie Howerd and “Carry On Teacher” star Ted Ray), no Alastair Sim  etc, although he certainly does not ignore film performers, in fact some of these took their stage characters to become some of the top domestic stars of their day, credited with keeping the British film industry afloat- so take a bow Will Hay, George Formby, Gracie Fields and Norman Wisdom.

Obviously the reader is going to seek out their own favourites. One who certainly predated me but who could silence the near-riot atmosphere of Saturday morning pictures when I was really quite young much better than the more contemporary Children’s Film Foundation offerings was Arthur Lucan, better known as Old Mother Riley. As a young child I was equally thrilled and scared to death of Jimmy Edward’s headmaster character in the TV revival of “Whacko!” In real life he was a man whose struggles with his sexuality led his brother to say after his death in 1988 aged 68 “It all got on top of him at the end.” Later on, my comedy heroes became Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies and I defy anyone who was around at the time to read the chapters on both Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper without hearing the voices and laughing out loud throughout. (Why do I find Cooper’s “Glass, bottle! Bottle, glass!” still so funny?) I’ve actually discovered I have another book by John Fisher on my shelves, unread, his biography of Cooper, so when I get round to it I will certainly have a treat in store with this full-length expansion of the chapter here.

fisher5Tommy Cooper

It’s worth noting that the world of comedy and variety at this time was very male-centric and this is certainly represented here with only Rochdale’s Gracie Fields getting her own chapter. There is another section which groups together women who rose to as near the top as they could get in a difficult profession and here I found another real favourite, Hylda Baker, probably the Queen of the Catch phrase.

fisher6Hylda Baker

Thank you Mr Fisher for this real blast of nostalgia I found lurking on the public library shelves. It brought back the excitement of knowing there was a new Morecambe & Wise, Benny Hill or Two Ronnies show on TV that night and it also taught me a lot about those I dimly remembered or knew just as names from previous generations of comic fun.

fourstars

This edition of “Funny Way To Be A Hero” was published in 2013 by Preface.

Alastair Sim – Mark Simpson (2008) – A Real Life Review

realives

Alastair

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this biography of one of Britain’s most loved film stars of the 1950s is that there’s really not an awful lot to know about him. Mark Simpson portrays him as an intensely private man who shunned anything to do with the celebrity trappings of showbiz, spurning all autograph hunters and rarely giving interviews. Nowadays, it would not be possible to become a household name and demand (and get) such privacy but Alastair Sim’s world was a very different place.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 the young Sim was a keen public speaker and became a teacher of elocution, eventually lecturing at the university. He gave this up to set up his own drama school and ended up coming to London performing verse plays and hoping to become a West End director but instead finding more stage and then film work. Part of his reticence towards publicity, Simpson suggests, might have something to do with his wife, who was 14 years younger than him and who he met when she was a young looking 12 and he a very mature looking 26. There was no evidence of impropriety between the two but the budding actor would have been very aware as to how this would have looked to outsiders, and particularly, sections of the press. In fact, Alastair and Naomi Sim were fairly inseparable until the end of his life.

Simpson is keen to play down any salacious suggestion from his subject. Sim was also a strong mentor to the young George Cole, with Cole living with the family and regularly working with Alastair. Simpson airs the rumours that fluttered around this but doesn’t dig too far or feels that there was anything behind it. Anyone looking for scandal isn’t going to find it here.

alastair2Alastair Sim & George Cole from “St Trinians”

Most of us will know Sim from a run of films in the 1950s which have been regularly shown on television ever since. From this it’s possible to think he was on screen more than he actually was. He was actually more prolific  in long-forgotten films from the pre-war years which were being churned out to fulfil quotas for British films in British cinemas. Such were the lasting popularity of his work in his golden years that I realised I had seen virtually all of them, despite them being from before I was born. “St. Trinian’s”, “The Happiest Days Of Your Life,” “Scrooge”, “London Belongs To Me”, “School For Scoundrels” all allowed Sim to play Sim (even in a dress as headmistress Miss Fritton) and this is just what the British public and I loved. In that sense he is very much the male counterpart of another great British eccentric, also famed for playing variations of herself, Margaret Rutherford, and when the two are paired together it is an absolute joy.

Alastair4Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim

I did feel that Simpson’s biography is a little under-stated but sources are inevitably limited for a man who was said to be “uninterviewable”. I’m actually glad that there wasn’t scandal. I wanted my admiration for this unique actor not to be tainted in any way. He was a complex, aloof man whose dogged obstinacy got in the way of his career and yet was one of the great warm-hearted eccentric characters of mid-twentieth century British cinema.

threestars

Alastair Sim was published by The History Press in 2008.