David Lister: The Week in Arts - Would you keep your Elvis moment a secret?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A few years ago I wrote a story for this paper about a plaque being placed at Prestwick airport in Scotland to mark the only time that Elvis Presley set foot in Britain. It was a brief stop-over on his way to Germany.

I must apologise. The story I now realise was inaccurate. The plaque should be torn down. And a mountain of pop music literature should be pulped. For, in one of the more bizarre stories of this week, it emerged that Elvis had indeed made another visit to Britain. He had been shown round London by the British rock'n'roll singer Tommy Steele in 1958. But it had been kept secret until now.

Steele apparently gave Presley a guided tour of the capital, pointing out Buckingham Palace and other sights from a car. I strive, but with some difficulty, to imagine the conversation in that car between the cool, sexy American, his lip quivering, his hips gyrating, and our own chirpy cockney, perhaps giving his trademark tuneful whistle. Maybe they duetted, Elvis snarling "Hound Dog" and Tommy whistling along. And I wonder what else they did in their trip round London. It's a chapter of pop history waiting to be written.

I also couldn't help but think how different celebrity life was 50 years ago. Is it conceivable now that the biggest rock star in the world could travel from America to England, without any fellow passenger noticing and tipping off the press? Could he wander round London unobserved? Even back then it was quite a feat.

The story came out in a strange way. The West End impresario Bill Kenwright, a friend of Steele's, let it slip out in a Radio 2 interview. Kenwright has added a fascinating footnote to cultural history. Yet, when a newspaper contacted Steele, the now 71-year-old, currently performing in Dr Dolittle in Woking, seemed coy about the episode.

He said: "What actually happened many years ago is something secret and memorable. It was an event shared by two young men sharing the same love of their music and the same thrill of achieving something unimaginable. I swore never to divulge publicly what took place and I regret that it has found some way of getting into the light. I can only hope he can forgive me."

And I thought, how strange. Why has he been so secretive about this, and why is he so reserved about it now? Being the person to show Elvis round London is something most people would shout to the world – after writing a book and making a film about it. But after a little reflection, I began to see Tommy Steele's point of view. It must in its way have been both sentimental and exciting to harbour such a secret for so long. He must almost have chuckled in the wake of Elvis's death when every newscaster and every newspaper article declared that the singer had never visited England. He must have heard that bit of pop folklore a thousand times over half a century, knowing it was wrong and knowing he was the only person who knew it was wrong.

It was undoubtedly an important moment in cultural history. It was undoubtedly a moment that can now be seen to have made fools out of numerous pop historians, websites and quizmasters. And the journalist and music fan in me would love to know every word that was said between the two musicians.

But it was also a shared experience between two friends. It was probably one of the happiest days of Tommy Steele's life. I can just about understand why he wanted it to remain his secret, and why he wanted to take that secret to his grave.

That's what I call star quality

As interesting as anything that occurred at the Baftas this week was an exchange with one of the award-winners on the red carpet outside. Dame Eileen Atkins, who won best actress for her role in BBC1's Cranford, was asked by an interviewer on her way in to the ceremony what it was like working with so many stars in the series.

Dame Eileen responded sharply: "I am not a star. Nicole Kidman's a star and so is Judi [Dench]."

What a shame Dame Eileen wasn't prevailed upon to stay on the carpet and expand her off-the-cuff remark into a thesis. What exactly are the gradations from an Atkins to a Kidman to a Dench? When does a fine actress morph into a star? I'd like to hear more from Miss Atkins on these intriguing cultural questions. But for the moment, I would maintain that such a rare insistence from an award-winning actress that she is definitely not a star is so refreshing that it makes her, in old-fashioned parlance, a star.

* A disparate crowd was gathered at the Arts Club in Dover Street, London, on Tuesday to salute Nicholas Snowman, once an artistic director at the South Bank Centre and Glyndebourne, and now head of Strasbourg Opera. Mr Snowman has been made Chevalier dans l'Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur in France, and this was a party to celebrate that. A tribute was paid to him by the BBC foreign affairs supremo John Simpson, who formed one-third of a triumvirate of undergraduate buddies at Cambridge with Snowman, the final third being the Duke of Gloucester. I wonder if they had wide-ranging chats about Verdi arias, the Cold War and grouse shooting at Balmoral, late into those university nights.

At the party I found myself talking to the near-legendary English actress Claire Bloom. "What's she doing here?" I asked Mr Snowman. "Oh, she's my cousin," he replied. Who said arts administrators were dull?