Tonight's theme: Jools and the caterpillar
Phil Johnson checks in for some olde English rhythm 'n' blues
Sunday 14 February 1999
The music comes in two flavours: blues or boogie. After first asking us which we want, Holland tickles the ivories of the baby grand piano into action with a little foreplay in the appropriate register, then stamps his foot to cue the massed horns of the 13-piece Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. As the chugging rhythms and riffs of the band's engine start to warm up, any critical doubts about the geography of the blues, or even about Holland's voice, disappear in a beery cloud of good-time, Saturday- night, steam. Whether it's blues or boogie, Holland and his band have created a glorious, heritage theme park of bygone, American modes. As the climax to the evening approaches - when Holland will go into the wings to receive his pounds 20,000 fee - the atmosphere becomes suitably uproarious. The irony is in-built - inscribed in Holland's voice, his humorous, naughty- schoolboy persona and maybe even that moustache - but a further layer is added by the venue, which really is a theme park, of sorts.
Last Saturday, Holland and the band may have been playing in the nondescript cabaret room of a purpose-built bar and restaurant complex, but just outside the door lay Merrie England, in the shape of the Elizabethan hall and gently rolling landscapes of Littlecote Manor, Wiltshire (or maybe Berkshire, for the boundary line crosses the estate). Jools Holland was the star attraction of a (deep breath) Warner Holidays Premier Star Break at Littlecote, and 400 people had paid at least pounds 168 each to see him, and to spend three nights in the splendours of the estate.
The weekend was part of Warner's Heritage Hotel programme (there are also Character Hotels and Classic Resorts, although the distinctions seem a little arbitrary to an outsider). The theming of events for already- themed locations is a growing trend. Later this month you could see Leo Sayer at Sinah Warren on Hayling Island, where in March there are also weekends themed around Tamla Motown, rhythm and blues and jazz. Today, guests at Sinah Warren will be enjoying a weekend entitled "Stars From Vegas", which is appropriate because Las Vegas is where hotel-theming as we know it began.
Next month in Vegas, the latest and biggest of the resort's theme hotels will open. The theme is a real lulu: nothing less than a reconstruction of Venice, complete with Grand Canal. Historical themes have been big in Vegas for years now, from Caesar's Palace to Excalibur, but although you have to admire the grandeur of the developers' aspirations (and as hotels now make far more money than gambling, the grandeur is understandable), the reality often falls woefully short of the mark: even if you can watch jousting while you eat, Excalibur remains low-rent. Its joke wears off after five minutes. In contrast, the attractions of a themed hotel in the English countryside, which has already been carefully themed through centuries of selective breeding and exploitation, are numerous.
At Littlecote, when not watching Jools Holland, you could pretend to be a nob by having a go at fencing, archery or shooting, or by walking around the manor and grounds as if you owned them. There's even a Caesar's Palace on the estate, a Roman Villa whose beautiful mosaic floor features a Jools Holland theme, with Orpheus playing a lyre while men on horses gallop round him in an ancient Dionysian rite. All that's missing is the saxophone section. I may scoff at some of the gauche trappings of the heritage experience, like the tat in the gift shop and the Butlins- type entertainers who occupy the stage when Jools Holland isn't there, but even they are educational. I learnt that Camilla Parker Bowles jokes now constitute the bulk of club comics' acts.
The Littlecote heritage experience also provides a metaphor of English country-house life. Although the Elizabethan manor near Hungerford remained in the hands of the Popham family for hundreds of years, retaining its character while all about it was being forced to accommodate the modern world, now the house is nearly empty. The previous owner, Peter de Savary, sold off most of the furniture and paintings; the unrivalled collection of Civil War armour has gone to the Royal Armouries in Leeds; and the interior has been much knocked about. Only the ghosts remain.
The ghosts provide a kind of cabaret turn, even if no one actually gets to see them. There's even a sign on the wall directing you to the "Haunted Bedroom". Littlecote's marvellously theatrical butler, James Drummond, does a tour of the hall for guests in which he points out sites where the phantoms have appeared. These include the Long Gallery, where, during a fashion-shoot a few years ago, the image of a woman in white is said to have materialised in a Polaroid photo of the model.
When it comes to questions about the de Savary regime, Drummond's eyebrows rise so high that they seem to disappear into his hair, and you gather that they never really got on. Although one of the hall's most popular legends is that Henry VIII courted Jane Seymour here, they apparently never spent the night, while in the de Savary years, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall did. Drummond reveals that de Savary's study is now a snooker room. It's also said that the entrepreneur preferred Berkshire to Wiltshire as the hall's address because the "Royal Borough" honorific made Berkshire sound classier.
Back in the cabaret room, Jools Holland and the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra are nearing the end of their set, which has been programmed to last for exactly one hour. Within a few minutes, those dancing to the disco that follows have to manoeuvre around roadies dismantling the extra blocks of the stage required by the band. After a couple of post-gig frames of snooker in Peter de Savary's study, it's time to go back to the four- poster in the themed bedroom, and listen to the calls of the heritage owls and, perhaps, the boogie-shuffle footfalls of the woman in white. Just before falling asleep, I think that somebody should really slap a preservation order on Jools Holland's moustache, before it's lost to the nation for ever.
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