Pictures at an exhibition evoke memories of a Sixties few people saw, while the stars come under scrutiny in a trip to Broadcasting House
Saturday 24 April 1999
These happy memories came flooding back at the Barbican the other day when I saw the new David Bailey exhibition. The very first snap is a handsome likeness of the twins, looking sharp in some classy threads, accompanied by their pet snakes, Gerrard and Nipper. People often ask me how you could tell them apart. Simple. The snakes are the ones with the warmer eyes.
Not that I ever had the pleasure of meeting R and R myself. But, about a quarter of a century ago, I once worked for a publisher on a book of Bailey's photographs. No, I didn't actually meet him either, if you must know. But I was given a signed print as a souvenir. It's a moody landscape, only slightly marred because someone smudged the signature with a wet finger to find out whether it was real. On these slender grounds, I see myself as something of an authority on the great lensman.
Entitled Birth of the Cool - a title borrowed from an album by Miles Davis, who also appears in one of the photographs - the Barbican show is mainly devoted to Bailey's work in the Sixties. Like lots of other people, I seem to have missed out on the more celebrated aspects of that decade. Who was it who said that their Sixties consisted of standing around in a car park, waiting for the rain to stop? I'm sorry to say that I never glugged Moet et Chandon with Penelope Tree or strolled with the Rolling Stones at Avebury (the ludicrous green shades worn by Keith Richards slightly detract from the mystic nature of the scene). My Sixties were more like the dingy East End shop-fronts photographed by Bailey, which could have come straight out of Dombey & Son. (One establishment boasts of its speciality in "Surgical Boot Repairs", which might have come in handy after a meeting with Ron and Reg.)
In his Harry Palmer persona, a Disque Bleu dangling from his lips, Michael Caine looks the epitome of Sixties cool, which is more than can be said for David Puttnam. Leaping zanily in 1965, he is a spit for Gerry of the Pacemakers.
One wall of the show contrasts portraits from that era with more recent studies. Ollie Reed looks absurd yet dangerous in 1965, while Noel and Liam look plain absurd in 1995. Naomi Campbell is rather impressive decked out as Josephine Baker in 1990, but PJ Proby is somewhat less convincing in a Christ-like pose from 1965.
But the undisputed star of the show is Jean Shrimpton. Has ever a model drawn better work from a photographer, or vice versa? Whether clad in a battered trenchcoat at Tower Bridge or smiling gorgeously on a tropical beach, her hair still wet from the sea, she is incomparable. In 1964, she even managed to look magnificent beside Hank B Marvin. (At the time, the strummer was essaying a goatee beard along with his trademark horn- rims, a combination that became fashionable only 35 years later.)
Though Bailey never saw fit to photograph the adolescent Weasel in close proximity to the Shrimp, I may have had a fleeting encounter with her in later years. Sensibly ditching the world of fashion, she became a successful hotelier in Penzance. A couple of years ago, I had to pass the night in this Cornish resort and made my way to what I thought was her establishment. A striking-looking woman behind the counter apologised and said they were full up. Just like the Sixties all over again.
BRIEFLY DISCARDING his fur mask, the Weasel makes his radio debut next week as a contributor to a series of 15-minute programmes called Naming the Universe (Radio 4, Monday-Friday, 3.30pm). I wouldn't be so vain as to mention it, except for the strange experience of my first-ever visit to Broadcasting House (or BH, as we old pros call it) where I was interviewed "down the line" from Glasgow.
This is what happens. After you enter, under Epstein's notorious sculpture of an anatomically correct Ariel, a security guard gives you directions on a slip of paper. These are a bit like the instructions on a treasure map, but instead of taking "12 steps to the north, then 30 to nor' east", you pass through a long white corridor which echoes to the Smashy and Nicey gibberings of daytime Radio 2, then you go up an escalator, down one floor in a lift, and along a corridor to a locked door where you pick up a phone to gain admittance. A young bloke directs you to a "self-operating studio", in fact a claustrophobic cubicle containing little more than chair, table, microphone and earphones.
Except that my studio was already occupied. An old geezer had obviously set up shop for the day in there, with books and papers scattered over every surface. He was not best pleased at being disturbed. "Are you in here? What, now?" With some reluctance, he gathered up his library into several plastic bags and lurched out. In the midst of the kerfuffle, he knocked the earphones on to the floor and I promptly trod on them. The device was in several bits when I picked it up. A wee Scottish voice was tweeting from the earpieces: "Hello, Mr Weasel. Are you there?"
I imagine the completed programme will omit the grunting and cursing that accompanied my on-the-spot repairs to the head-set, but I doubt if the producers will be able to transmute my panting contribution into the soigne delivery of an Alvar Liddell. One final point may be puzzling you, as it has puzzled most of my friends. Viz: what the blue blazes is the Weasel doing on a programme about astronomical nomenclature? Regular readers of this column may recall my delighted discovery that on Venus there are places called Christie (after Agatha) and Sayers (after Dorothy L). Mystery solved.
THE CENTENARY of the birth of Noel Coward has prompted the publication of his revues of the Twenties, such as On With the Dance and Sigh No More. "A sketch for a revue must be sharp, funny and to the point, with a good, really good black-out line," insisted the Master. "Whether the performers are naked or wearing crino- lines is beside the point; the same rule applies."
I'm pleased to see that the art of the revue is still alive and well at the Albany Theatre in Deptford. Admittedly the treats on offer, which include "local legend" Rubber Johnny and "Lewisham-based freakshow" Shagnasty, do not sound much like Sir Noel's blithe triumphs. But, as long as they have a really good black-out line, I'm sure he would approve.
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