Life, death, whatever - it's all a bit of a game

How would they like the pain of their lives to be written up as fiction and put on stage?
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The Independent Online

Sometimes it seems that the easiest way to understand public life in Britain is to treat the traditional division between fact and fiction, reality and marketing, as essentially meaningless. Showbiz is what matters; the play's the thing. When a proposed poster for the Labour Party presents Michael Howard in Shylock/Fagin mode, the point is not just the knowing, anti-Semitic nudge that it contains but the way it reduces all political life to stagecraft, to just another show.

Sometimes it seems that the easiest way to understand public life in Britain is to treat the traditional division between fact and fiction, reality and marketing, as essentially meaningless. Showbiz is what matters; the play's the thing. When a proposed poster for the Labour Party presents Michael Howard in Shylock/Fagin mode, the point is not just the knowing, anti-Semitic nudge that it contains but the way it reduces all political life to stagecraft, to just another show.

And when the great creative talent behind that advertisement, Trevor Beattie, jokes that the group U2, having invited Salman Rushdie on stage at Wembley to show solidarity at the time of the fatwa "should have killed him on stage, instead - that would have been much cooler", it is not enough to marvel and despair that this crass yob is being paid to market Labour's message to the electorate; such things have somehow lost their power to shock. It is the debased world view that Beattie represents that is more depressingly significant. For him, a campaign by religious fundamentalists to murder a writer is best defined by a pathetic joke about what might be cool on stage. Performance, life, death - it's all a bit of a game.

In this context, the news that a group of people are to put the life and travails of David Blunkett to music and bring their production into the West End - curtain up this April - seems almost predictable.

Why not? After all, musicals have been going through something of a boom period recently. They accounted for 7.3 million of the almost 12 million seats sold in the West End in 2004. Jerry Springer - The Opera has proved, with its wild mixture of trailer-trash life, TV celebrity, rude words, a quasi-religious theme and deployment of operatic conventions that there is artistic life for musical theatre beyond song-and-dance routines and toe-tapping numbers.

Producers of musicals have taken to plundering other media - notably film and rock music - for material that can be turned out with a few songs and high production values but usually with any kind of complexity or ambiguity ironed out. For reasons that remain unclear, it seems to be accepted that the process of adding music to drama is a token of artistic seriousness. Excited by the profitable meeting of high and low culture that is Springer, the BBC has commissioned Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, the writers and composer of the show, to write six mini-operas for TV. Their theme, of course, will be TV.

In the competitive theatrical world, it was surely only a matter of time before it occurred to an enterprising producer that there were stories to be had from another kind of medium: the newspaper. David Blunkett - The Musical will, apparently, be a tragicomedy. It will be "sensitive, not judgemental", according to the man behind it, Martin Witts, whose own sensitivity and lightness of touch can perhaps be best judged by his summary of Blunkett's life - "He was born blind, lost his father at the age of 12, and broke his legs and arms more times than he can count."

The play's writer, the journalist Ginny Dougary, has interviewed all the main protagonists in the course of her work and has included the affair between Boris Johnson and Petronella Wyatt as a breezy sub-plot to the main action. The musical numbers, written by a "well-established New York songwriter" called MJ, will embrace rap, R'n'B, jazz and opera. In the frame for the lead role is the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. The northern accent might be a small problem but Andrea has other qualifications: he is blind.

The press, naturally enough, has been tremendously intrigued by all this. Over the past few months, the same cast of characters - tragic David, bouncing Boris, saucy Kim, pouting Petronella - have provided copy, gossip and fun. Now there is to be a full reprise, set to music.

Somewhere along the line, the fact that these dramas involved real people and the unhappy mess in which they found themselves has been lost. The affairs, the marital misery, the revelations and allegations about paternity, betrayal and abortions are matters of the recent past. In the individual lives surrounding these two marriages, nothing has been resolved; the future of at least one child is unclear. How would Martin Witts, Ginny Dougary or the mysterious MJ like the pain of their own lives to be written up as fiction and then put on stage for reasons of financial gain?

The familiar excuse, often deployed by journalists or publicists going about their mucky business, is that the private life of public figures deserves a level of scrutiny, but that will not wash on this occasion. Whatever one's views of Blunkett's tenure as Home Secretary, or of his moral position toward his former lover and their son, what happened to him was a genuine personal tragedy. The unhappiness caused to the Quinns, the Johnsons and others caught up in the events so gleefully reported belongs to the recent past and, in all probability, lives on.

Only a coarsened, brutal culture in which basic values of sympathy and decency have been forgotten would take the stuff of private misery, set it to music and put it on stage for the enjoyment of the theatre-going public.

terblacker@aol.com

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