I CAN’T stand musicals myself – all that testosterone flying around – but I know I’m in the minority. Ticket sales in London’s West End top half a billion pounds annually.
The Sound Of Musicals
Channel 4, Tuesday, 9pm
Strange Days: Cold War Britain
BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm
BBC4, Saturday, 9pm
How many singalonga divorcees, call-centre exhibitionists and chubby American students is that, exactly? In the new series The Sound Of Musicals, The Book Of Mormon was packing ’em in for a show which bites the limply held hand that feeds. It satirises musical theatre and maybe I’d enjoy this one. But the real focus was Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, hoping to swamp the opposition in huge vats of brown gloop.
The doc took us from rehearsals through to first night. Exclusive access, we were told. But fly-in-the-greasepaint programmes are familiar things – overfamiliar I’d say. The Charlie extravaganza is admittedly high-grade greasepaint. Sam Mendes was the director, right after Skyfall. Would this be a case of Skyfall coming before a pratfall? Mendes’s name on the posters was no guarantee. Not when you factor in, as he put it, “a ten-year-old and unproven technology”.
Every musical needs a socks-knocking special-effects whomper. Les Mis had the chandelier, Miss Saigon had the helicopter. Charlie was going with the “great glass elevator”, but the stagecraft was proving problematic. Then there was Tom, the lad picked to play Charlie. Only previous experience: school plays. “This boy’s magic,” said Mendes, “but can he carry a West End show?”
The kids were terrific. For me, they saved this from being even more simperingly self-regarding than an episode of Smash. There was Luke, whose voice tragically broke and who was replaced in a beat. And there was Jenson, whose dad Rob would drive him to auditions and rehearsals, always sure to bring a copy of Gas Engineer magazine to while away the time, and you wondered if he’d have preferred his son to be playing football but, no, this was what Jenson loved.
Tom didn’t make it. At the last minute, Mendes drafted in Jack, a sort of 12-year-old Red Adair of musicals, a junior-lead rescue service. Rehearsing late into the night, Tom had been put up in theatre digs. “I’ve never had a sleepover so this is a massive step,” he said. By his bed were his cacti and photos of his family. “They tell me they miss me, but I don’t know.”
The show? They got the escalator to work. The critics rated it three and four-star. A musical can cost £15 million, said an old West End hand, and “a bunch of people who don’t know much better” can say it’s rubbish and it’ll close. For no other reason – honest – than newspapers are having such a tough time, that’s incredibly reassuring.
I enjoyed Dominic Sandbrook’s The 70s and so was looking forward to his latest flick through recent history, Strange Days: Cold War Britain. Initially I thought I was back in The Sound Of Musicals. Who was this camp baddie, declaiming loudly in a carefully knotted scarf? “Armageddon!” he snarled. “The Russians are coming!” And what were they like, these Ruskies, in the shape of the Moscow Dynamo football team, touring Britain in a post-Second World War show of peace and friendship? “Secretive, surly, suspicious,” said Dom, who loves a bit of alliteration. But once you got past that, and his funny Hughie Green hand gestures to emphasise his most doom-laden pronouncements, there was much to enjoy.
The archive footage – Blighty at work, at play, huddled round the wireless for news of Commie muscle-flexing in Korea and elsewhere – was fantastic. The suspicion that TV networks are careless with old clips, or don’t employ enough good researchers to lift up the right stones to find the best of them isn’t borne out here. As in The 70s, it’s pretty obvious what Sandbrook’s politics are – Russians are portrayed as the bad guys – but I guess you have to take a position in these series, and Strange Days remains a cracking tale. Already we’ve had Charlie Chaplin, George Orwell and the Cambridge spy ring.
The episode ended with national rejoicing. “Today Britain is GREAT again,” boomed the Daily Mirror. We’d just got the atomic bomb. A virility symbol, said Sandbrook – “Atomic Viagra to restore our political manhood”. The next instalment should bring the Space Race, Sputnik vs Apollo, but as you and I know, these were also-rans. The race was actually won by Fireball XL5.
Borgen is back, hurray! After a hard day forming a new political party, it seems you unwind by snogging a Scotsman. I’ve interviewed that Scotsman, Alastair Mackenzie, elsewhere this week, so I’ll restrict myself – boy, this is hard – to repeating one of the funny lines. Looking round the derelict building chosen for the HQ, one of Birgitte’s defectors remarked: “It looks just like the beginning of that Coldplay video.”