MY BEAUTIFUL LOON
Cleo Rocos was only 15 when she became Kenny Everett's TV muse, and they were inseparable until the comedian's premature death. Now she's written a book about it all. Marcus Berkmann listens to their strange and enduring laughter
Kenny Everett, of course, was not a heterosexual man. Although he once asked her to marry him (and she accepted him), their relationship was entirely chaste. When he finally emerged from the closet in 1985, his revelation was probably a surprise only to himself. (People always know. Cleo says in her book that she knew pretty much immediately. You don't doubt her.) But their friendship, though fully clothed, seems to have been as intense as any love affair. Cleo mourns him still, a widow in all but name.
Showbiz being what it is, an intimate memoir of their time together was probably inevitable. Even so, Bananas Forever is a delicious book: tender, perceptive, very funny and, for a showbusiness biography, unfeasibly well written. Rocos wrote it "with Richard Topping", but the voice is unmistakably her own. She is clearly a character to be reckoned with - even if, according to virtually all previous accounts, she is as barmy as a can of peas.
I meet her at PJs in Covent Garden, the sort of soigne eaterie in which fat businessmen are only too happy to watch glam comediennes being interviewed by faintly shabby journalists. She has already arrived, but has gone downstairs to make a phone call. A glass of champagne sits on the table. This is a good sign. Her book is awash with the vats of fizz she and Kenny consumed over the years in the unfashionable pursuit of having a really good time. Three o'clock in the afternoon is not a traditional time for drinking champagne in huge quantities, but it's all right by me. I order a glass for myself, and settle down to wait.
In her book Cleo frequently alludes to the disparity in height between herself (tall, strong, Amazonian) and Kenny (short, thin, hairy). In fact, when she arrives, she is nowhere near as tall, strong or Amazonian as I had expected, which just goes to show how tiny Kenny must have been. She is slender, quite small-boned, with neater features than photographs suggest, and only her magnificently spiked red hair brings her up to my height (5ft 9in). Her hair, like everything with Cleo, is a story in itself. Earlier this year she had a role in the American television series Highlander, as Roger Daltrey's wife (either he was standing on a box, or she was in a ditch). For this she had to dye her long dark hair a sudden shade of blond, whereupon it all snapped off and she was left with an inadvertent image change at precisely the moment (publication of memoirs) she least needed it. If she carries it off well, it's partly because you get the impression that she would carry anything off well.
Obvious question first. Why write the book?
"Well what happened was, as Kenny was beginning to wilt, as it were, we would have lunch, somewhere like this, and Kenny wanted all the loose ends tied up, to round everything off and say goodbye to everyone, and he was a bit worried that somebody might, you know, jump out from behind the bar or somewhere and write things that weren't true about him, or not completely flattering. He said, 'Cleo, you won't let anyone write anything awful about me, will you?' And I said, 'Darling don't worry about it. I'll kill anyone who does.' In fact the press didn't ever want to know anything bad about Kenny, didn't go looking for bad gossip or anything. But there was a man who wrote a book, who had tried to contact me and contacted everyone else who knew Kenny. And I have never met him, so I'm sure he's probably very nice, but I just thought, how dare he? And then I read the book [David Lister's biography, published last year], I made myself read it, and because he didn't know Kenny, he didn't know why anyone was saying one thing and not another thing, what was true and what was not true, so there were quite a few mistakes in there, which would have mattered to Kenny. I mean anybody else reading it, it might not have mattered so much, and not all of them were serious mistakes, but to Kenny there were some things that would have made him go red and burst."
Everybody told her she would write a book. "But I said, 'I can't, it's too early, I can't even begin to think about it, it all hurts so much.' And then people were asking me to publish a book and they thought I was ... not being difficult but, you know. Then suddenly last Christmas something happened and I thought, I can write it now, I can do it."
That was quick, I say. "I started writing it in February and finished it in June," Rocos confirms. "I needed to get it out and get it over. And once I started writing it, it was so hard. When you remember things, you don't only remember the person in your life you most adored, and spent most of your time with, and laughed with from edge to edge, but you remember the smells and you remember the looks and the way you ... everything, so it's very very hard, and I wept like a loon, and I'm not a big crier. But it does do that to you, I think. Unless it hurt, it wouldn't be different from any other book."
Meeting her in the flesh, you can see why photographs never quite capture the best of Cleo Rocos. She is a ball of fire, who probably generates enough nervous energy to power a small town. Although she clearly takes care of herself physically, I suspect she is one of those people who could eat three pizzas every day for breakfast and never put on a pound. If she talks too quickly - and she does - it's because she thinks too quickly: there are always seven new ideas queuing up to displace the previous six. It's not hard to understand why she and Kenny were drawn to each other: two highly intelligent misfits with fundamentally kind natures and an overdeveloped sense of the ridiculous. (She frequently refers to them, in both conversation and the book, as "Martians".) Her impersonations of him during these streams of consciousness are uncanny.
"One thing I never forget about Kenny is the way his hands moved - in everything he did in life, in the [radio] studio, setting up one record after another. And I remember him playing this record and he said, 'We like this record, Clee,' and I said, 'Yes it's really nice,' and he said, 'I'm going to play it loads and loads, but don't tell anyone.' And then he played it six times in an hour! Those days are gone now, because everything's computerised, and you go to jail if you play anything more than once ... "
I suggest that Everett must have become very bored in the last days of his career, at the strictly programmed London oldies station, Capital Gold. "He did. He became bored with the ways things were changing, inevitably as business takes over things, and it was harder and harder to find that buzz within the building. It was the same with the TV show. Everyone became used to it. He didn't want that. He had done his job. They wanted us to do a series in America, they wanted 75 episodes, and that terrified him. He said, 'How can we possibly come up with ... ?' If he didn't love it he didn't want to do it."
Possibly the strangest revelation in the book is that Cleo was only 15 when she auditioned for the television shows, although she pretended to be 18. So at the very peak of her fame, when she and Kenny partied as if there were no tomorrow (probably a wise move), she was still only in her teens. Everett was 22 years older. "Kenny and I used to sit and talk and because we never talked about age, we used to talk as though we were the same age. And we'd talk about the one thing that really was paramount, and what everyone sadly underrates, and that is humour above all else. Before he was ill he said to me, 'Clee, when we are both 99 and we are sitting in our bathchairs and we are all gnarled up and we haven't got the energy for anything else, we'll still be able to laugh.' Laughter is beyond any embrace, it's like wrapping your spirits around each other, and nobody can interfere with that.
"He always looked at everything as if it was the first time he'd seen it. He never lost appreciation of, particularly, anything to do with nature. One thing he would always do was carpet the atmosphere with the most perfect fumes. When we were driving to a friend's house in the country he would put on a cassette, and he would time it so that as we drove up the driveway the last chord of the last bit of Brahms would resound, and I never knew how he did it. Even that he timed perfectly."
Do you think he might have driven round and round in circles beforehand? "Now you come to mention it ..." she laughs. "But we'd always be chortling like loons anyway so I would never have noticed."
In the book they come over, finally, as two reticent, rather formal people who loved to play and perform but valued their privacy above all else. Even at his most poorly, Kenny never cried in front of her. (Did she wish that he had? "No.") And in all the years they knew each other, he never saw her without her make-up on. Such facts, printed baldly, may sound a little strange, but at the end of her 200-page book they make perfect sense.
It's clear that Kenny has been a hard act to follow. At 32 Cleo lives with her mum, although she would love babies. Her career, not surprisingly, has never hit the same heights, although she has remained steadily in work, and is shortly to film a series of (almost certainly bizarre) reports for the ITV travel show Wish You Were Here. But then, as she has known all her life, long before she met Kenny, she is a misfit, and misfits have to wait for the world to fit in with them. Perhaps Bananas Forever will show a few people what they are missing.
! 'Bananas Forever' by Cleo Rocos is published by Virgin Books (pounds 14.99)
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