How I scored with Sir Tim

He is terribly English. He is passionate about cricket but he can' t talk about himself. He loves queueing, and he doesn' t inhale. He is awfully buttoned up, but I think I got through in the end. After all, how could he resist my rendition of 'Joseph'?

At 3.55pm I arrive at Sir Tim Rice' s house. It' s a big, beautiful 18th-century job in Barnes, overlooking the Thames and covered in a magnificent Virginia creeper just on the turn to that glorious red. His' n' hers BMWs are parked in the drive. A kind-faced woman in popsocks - the housekeeper? - lets me in. I am going to accompany Sir Tim on his drive to the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I' d been told by Eileen, his secretary, not to arrive "even one minute early". I think they think I might snoop or something, which is absurd. I don' t snoop. I have never snooped. I am known as "No-snoop" Ross. I glimpse a Pre-Raphaelite painting in the drawing-room. It' s nice.

At 3.55pm I arrive at Sir Tim Rice' s house. It' s a big, beautiful 18th-century job in Barnes, overlooking the Thames and covered in a magnificent Virginia creeper just on the turn to that glorious red. His' n' hers BMWs are parked in the drive. A kind-faced woman in popsocks - the housekeeper? - lets me in. I am going to accompany Sir Tim on his drive to the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I' d been told by Eileen, his secretary, not to arrive "even one minute early". I think they think I might snoop or something, which is absurd. I don' t snoop. I have never snooped. I am known as "No-snoop" Ross. I glimpse a Pre-Raphaelite painting in the drawing-room. It' s nice.

I' m meant to be here by 4pm. However, I have broken the agreement and have arrived slightly early because, frankly, I am rather desperate to make use of Sir Tim' s toilet facilities and, therefore, can no longer pace about outside. Popsocks passes me over to Eileen. Eileen says the one thing that Sir Tim hates is people who arrive at the house saying "they are dying for the loo". I say Eileen, unless you allow me access to a certain plumbed area I will... I will... sing the entire score of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Sir Tim on our journey and blame YOU! I begin: "Way, way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began..." Eileen thinks that, in this instance, Sir Tim may not mind so much. There are framed gold discs and things in the guest toilet. They' re nice. By the time I come out Sir Tim has appeared. I am still humming happily. "...Jacob lived in the land of Canaan/ a fine example of a family man..." I tell Tim that once this tune gets in my head, I can' t get it out again. "...Jacob, Jacob and sons, depended on farming to earn their keep..." Sir Tim looks a little frightened. I think I' ve got him where I want him. There is a Tellytubby helium balloon tied to the arm of a chair in the telly room. It' s nice.

We get into the car; a Vauxhall Omega with a driver laid on by Hodder & Stoughton, publishers of his autobiography, Oh, What a Circus. "Are we nearly there?" I ask as we pull out of the drive. Tim is a big man with a round head and wispy hair. He sighs. I think he thinks this is going to be an excruciatingly long journey. I know! I' ll talk about cricket. Tim is mad about cricket. Tim sleeps with a copy of Wisden by his bed. Tim runs his own team, Heartaches CC. In the book, Tim can recollect scoring 208 against his brother in 1956. I, too, am a big fan of cricket. Indeed, as I say to Sir Tim: "How can a game go on for five days with no side winning? Boring, boring, BORING!"

Tim doesn' t get agitated. Tim just sighs again. Tim doesn' t seem to have much of a fiery, artistic temperament. Tim later cadges a cigarette off me. Tim smokes only occasionally. Tim doesn' t inhale. Tim is the most useless smoker I' ve ever met. Tim may even be an embarrassment to all serious smokers everywhere. He seems to lack a certain passion. Still, he patiently tries to explain the point of cricket to me.

"It' s a metaphor for life."

"Oh?"

"Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose," he explains. "Mostly, though, you' re lucky if you come away with a draw."

"Oh."

"And there is nothing more reassuring for a cricket fan than starting on a long journey and knowing there' s a match on the radio, because you then know you won' t be BORED!"

"Oh."

No, we are not bonding especially well. And, yes, I am saddened by this. I am a big fan of Sir Tim' s lyrics. I know I' m not meant to be. I know a lot of people are sniffy about his and Andrew Lloyd Webber' s collaborations. I know I' m meant to think it' s all rubbish. I know that if you do like it, you are considered irretrievably low-brow. But I like it, and I' m not low-brow. I like opera, too. I went to one once and found it massively impressive. It started at 7pm and after three hours it was still only 7.02pm. That impressed me rather a lot. Now I think about it, if my brow were any lower it could double as a foot.

Yes, I do know the entire score of Joseph by heart. Indeed, as I tell Sir Tim at some length, my little sister and I spent a huge chunk of our childhood playing the cassette and acting out all the parts. Being older, I was always Pharaoh, of course, while she had to do the "bub-she-waddy-waddys" in the background. Occasionally, she would protest, but a few choice Chinese burns would quickly bring her back into line. Would you like to hear my Pharaoh, Tim? "Well, I was wandering along on the banks of the river when a seven fat cows came right out of the Nile, ah ha ha." I think Tim thinks he' s been trapped in the back of an Omega with Kathy Bates from Misery. Tim wonders if I' ve arranged my own transport to get back after tonight' s event. "Because I am not sure, you know, quite what my plans are."

Tonight' s event. Tim does not seem to be especially looking forward to it. "It' s one of those things you agree to in June." He' s not sure what it even entails, in fact. We read the festival bumf and discover that he will, apparently, be discussing "the fascinating and complex relationship between words and music" with Michael Berkeley, "who is currently writing an opera based on Jane Eyre ", and Marina Warner, "who has explored lullabies in her recent book, No Go the Bogeyman".

"Bloody hell," Tim sighs. I say pecker up; it says there will be complimentary sandwiches afterwards, and complimentary sandwiches are always nicer than those uncomplimentary ones which shout: "Piss off you fat bastard." Tim laughs. This is good. Worryingly, I haven' t arranged my own transport back. I tell him I liked his book. I tell him I adored his book. I tell him I can' t think of a better autobiography. I think about telling him it' s marvellous he can remember scoring 208 against his brother in 1956, but decide that might be over-egging it rather.

The book is, in fact, quite engaging, although hardly revealing. It is mostly about how his and Lloyd Webber' s biggest hits - Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita - came about. It doesn' t go into his break-up with Andrew. It doesn' t go into his 11-year vacillation between his wife Jane (mother of their two children, Donald and Eva, now in their early twenties) and his mistress Elaine Paige. It doesn' t go into his latest relationship with a young interior designer, Nell Sully, by whom he has a daughter, Zoe, aged 10 months. None of these things appears in the book, but there are a lot of facts in it. And numbers. Tim loves numbers. Tim has always loved numbers. As he writes: "By the time I was five, I was writing out endless strings of multiplication tables." He could also name all the moons of Saturn, all British cars from 1946 to 1956 and all 50 American states, in less than two minutes. He can still name all 50 American states in less than two minutes. He reads books on mathematical theory for pleasure. He is certainly better at numbers than he is at feelings.

Only the very occasional personal meditation is ever allowed to intrude. For example, under a photograph of Jane pregnant with their first child, he has written: "Why am I reminded of the Bob Dylan song ' I threw it all away' ?" I say I found this startlingly sad. He says it' s not something he especially wishes to discuss further. "I said it, and there it is." I persist. When did you realise you felt like this? When it came to captioning that particular photograph? "Oh no, I' ve always felt it." Always felt it? "I think we' re approaching the Headington roundabout now."

He is spectacularly English in this way. He says that once, when he was feeling low, a friend recommended he visit a therapist. And? "I just clammed up. It wasn't for me." He may, even, be spectacularly English in most ways. There's the cricket, of course. Plus he loves the English countryside. Each year, he and a couple of friends spend two weeks walking some part of it. Once they walked from Lowestoft in Sussex to the Lizard in Cornwall. Lowestoft is the most easterly part of England, apparently. "But the council had done nothing to mark it, so I wrote to them afterwards."

He even loves queuing. He has made a great comeback of late with Disney - Oscars for Aladdin and The Lion King, which opened on stage here last week. He can go to any Disneyland anywhere and get VIP treatment, jump all the queues. He did that once in Florida, but didn't like it, "because queuing is part of the fun, isn't it?"

We are approaching Cheltenham now. He has softened a little towards me, I think. He cadges another fag to smoke in his rubbish way. A quick drink in the hospitality room, then he's on stage. It's all as you'd expect until Michael Berkeley says that pop and rock can never express what opera and classical music can. Thrillingly, Sir Tim gets almost riled. He says: "I think you'll find Abba mean more to most people than Benjamin Britten."

Michael starts talking about Berg's opera Lulu, for some reason. "Don't you even like Lulu?" he asks Tim. "Yes, I loved her 'Shout!'," he says. His eyes meet mine in the audience. We both start to giggle; it's a great bonding moment. I wonder whether he might be able to drive me back, after all.

He does. He is easier company this time. He talks about his children. Eva has a novel coming out shortly. He shows me the book jacket. Yes, he is still friendly with Jane. He's seen Andrew's Sunset Boulevard and "you knowÉ there are some nice things in it". He can't imagine ever doing another musical with Andrew because "if it was terrible, everyone would say they'd always known that we were crap".

I ask him who hasn't yet covered any of his songs, and who he would like to. He says that's tricky as there have already been 288 separate cover versions of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina". Still, "Frank Sinatra would have been nice. And Dolly Parton would be nice." What, not Terry Wogan who, if I recall rightly, once did the most brilliant version of "The Floral Dance"? "Well, if Terry wanted to do it, that would be fine with me, too."

We get back just before midnight. He orders the driver to drive me home. He does not invite me in for a nightcap, which is a shame, because after a few brandies I am known to do a very good "Any Dream Will Do" with a tea-towel on my head. Maybe next time.

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