John Walsh: Tales of the City

Let Old Blue Eyes rest in peace, and don't con us with crooning from beyond the grave
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The Independent Online

We all know about the after-life of art, the immortality of the work that lives on long after its maker has snuffed it. But are we now trying to immortalise the creator as well as his or her creations?

I only ask because of the news that Joshua Rosenblum, the American producer, is planning to bring Frank Sinatra back to the stage of the London Palladium, seven years after his death. They will contrive this rather ghoulish feat by projecting hitherto unseen footage from the crooner's glory days on to a 20-foot-high screen, and surrounding it with back-up singers, energetic hoofers and a 24-piece orchestra.

It might sound to you nothing more than a musical documentary with added Pan's People routines but, weirdly, New York audiences flocked to it. They saw nothing strange about there being a bit of a gap in the front-stage line-up - the gap where a living human being should have been emoting through "All of Me" and "I've Got You Under my Skin," instead of a two-dimensional, celluloid version of him.

I saw this stage illusion happen before, a few months ago. It was the first reunion concert by Queen, using the voice of Paul Rogers to sing in place of the late Freddie Mercury. Rogers coped with it all manfully, but it was evident that he didn't possess anything like Mercury's range. So when they commenced "Bohemian Rhapsody," we found ourselves gazing at Freddie's face on a screen, as he intoned the opening lyrics. The crush of Queen fans fell silent, worshippingly, even though they were merely watching a video they'd seen two million times before - but not, I concede, with Brian May, the Queen guitarist, standing 10 yards away from it. You could hear them saying afterwards in the Brixton Academy foyer, "It put shivers down my spine. It was like having Fred back again." No guys, it wasn't. It was like being conned.

How long before this noisome development is everywhere? After the poison-ivy spread of tribute bands, after the deadly-nightshade efflorescence of West End shows based around the collected hit singles of Blodwyn Pig or Kathy Kirby, after the cross-hatching of Elvis with breakbeat, we're now going to get Virtual Crooning, with Full Orchestra and Razzmatazz.

It won't stop there, of course. The release by the British Library of The Essential Shakespeare Live, a two-CD set of recordings of classic RSC performances - a sort of Classic FM reduction of Shakespeare to bite-sized chunks -- has been greeted so warmly, we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable: a future Coriolanus in which Olivier's voice, in the title role, is dubbed onto whichever poor schnook is miming the part on stage. Unless, of course, they can find some footage from his 1959 performance and project it on a 20-foot screen, to loom over the rest of the cast ...

Time out of joint

The great British tradition of eccentric strike action is not dead, not in Staffordshire at least. Encouraged by local tourist industries, the Stafford Chamber of Commerce spent the last few days refusing to put its clocks back for the end of British Summer Time. The ostensible reason is to stop the increase in road deaths occasioned by the dark nights; but in reality it seems a commercial move by local visitor attractions which can't extend their opening hours because the days are too short.

Whatever the reason, one can only applaud the stubbornness of the participants. Putting themselves on a different timescale from the rest of the nation has an Ealing-comedy genius about it, ensuring you'll always be an hour early for appointments, always have to hang around for scheduled flights, buses and train journeys, and park yourself on the family sofa a whole hour before the start of whatever you wanted to watch on television. "Bloody-mindedness" is, I am informed, a national characteristic often thrown at the British. And here is a perfect paradigm of it.

This be the verse

Stephen Fry is the Samuel Johnson of our time - so wise, so erudite, so polymathic, so omni-competent - but I wonder if he was entirely well-advised to launch an attack on modern poetry alongside his new book, The Ode Less Travelled? His book is a guide to the various forms of poetry, the classic arrangements of rhymes, metrical beats and stresses into sonnets, ballads, odes, villanelles and the like.

But he has been using the occasion to dismiss the whole universe of living poets - from the Poet Laureate onwards - for producing incomprehensible, formless twaddle. A big fan of strict versification, he concocted his own version of a "modern" poem and judged it to be "arse-dribble", as though that somehow proved his point. With fathomless condescension, he suggested that too many contemporary poets published stuff before it was "ready". What, you mean before they'd managed to find a decent rhyme for every other line?

But how is this reactionary stuff going down with the London poets - by some way the most combative, fractious, neurotic, jealous and back-biting body of men and women in the nation (and yes I am including the Conservative Party)?

"The word you hear again and again is 'wanker'," my spy on Mount Parnassus whispers in my ear. "It would be very useful to have a good, modest technical manual of poetic forms. But these idiocies and pontifications are just no good because Fry clearly doesn't read modern poetry. He wants to freeze-frame poetry back in 1820. And he seems to have forgotten that Paradise Lost is in blank verse, and The Prelude and Tennyson's "Ulysses". And anyway," my friend concluded, a shade less academically, "I don't go around telling him how to act ..."