I can clearly remember watching the first episode of Doctor Who at Douglas Yexley’s house on November 23rd 1963. It was his turn to host a class party and at 5:15 we all sat down to watch. It wasn’t especially scary but it was very different. Originally intended to be an educational programme, explaining about historical events which the time travelling doctor could journey to, it developed into one of the first science fiction series on mainstream British TV. I watched every episode until it was cancelled in 1989. When it was resurrected in 2005, I had never heard of Russell T. Davies but when interviewed, he was a humble and engaging and it was clear from his role as the new executive director, that he was a real Doctor Who fan. When he passed the baton to Stephen Moffat, there was no obvious deterioration in the imagination on display. Despite Jodie Whitaker’s excellence in the role, I’m not a fan of the direction that Chris Chibnall has taken the show in but it’s still watchable.
At some point, probably around 2010, Roo and I watched “Queer As Folk”, a 10 episode programme about three gay men living in Manchester. Although some of the explicit nature of the depiction of gay sex was shocking (to me), it was a really entertaining programme and it was clear that Russell T. Davies’ writing ability was extraordinary. In both Doctor Who and Queer As Folk he was able to interweave great story telling with well rounded and believable characters.
Susequently, Russell T. Davies wrote the screenplay for “A Very English Scandal” about the Jeremy Thorpe affair. In 2019, he wrote “Years And Years” which described a dystopian future under the rule of a celebrity businesswoman turned Prime Minister (played with much glee by Emma Thompson). It was very entertaining, brilliantly created and deeply disturbing as all our worst fears about the future were portrayed with shocking realism.
Yesterday, Roo and I watched all five episodes of “It’s A Sin”, Russell T. Davies’ latest series. It’s about a group of gay men living in London during the time of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. It was deeply moving, brilliantly scripted and acted and very thought provoking. Living as we are in the grips of a pandemic which affects everyone on the planet, it was disturbing to watch the fear and disdain of people inside and outside the gay community about a deadly virus that could be transmitted between humans. Obviously, AIDS also killed many heterosexuals as well as homosexual people, although this issue wasn’t addressed in the series. Keeley Hawes was wonderful as the mother of one of the leading characters who was seemingly pleasant until she discovered the truth about her son at which point all her prejudices and lack of empathy came to the fore.
The key to the success of all of Russell T. Davies’ programmes is the characterisation and human interest. All of the content is important (maybe not “Doctor Who”) but the TV would not be as gripping if we didn’t get so involved in the people portrayed. In “It’s A Sin”, the heartbeat of the programme is a girl called Jill Baxter who was based on a friend of Russell T. Davies called Jill Nalder who appears in the series as Jill Baxter’s mother.
It goes without saying that tolerance of other people’s lifestyles is a mark of a civilised society. As I was watching the final credits yesterday evening with tears rolling down my cheeks I was reminded of “Red Hot + Blue”, an AIDS benefit CD which was released in 1990 and has sold over a million copies worldwide. Twenty different acts recorded songs by Cole Porter and most of them released an accompanying video. These videos were shown on TV one evening as part of an AIDS awareness TV project.
Cole Porter wrote hundreds of songs for Broadway productions and films between 1920 and 1958. Although married to Linda Lee Thomas for many years, he maintained a gay lifestyle which came to the fore when he moved to Paris in 1917 to help with the war effort. In J. Bell’s biography of Cole Porter, he wrote that his parties contained “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians and a large surplus of recreational drugs”. On his return to the USA, he began writing songs and some of these are covered on this album.
“Well, Did You Evah!” was originally in Cole Porter’s musical, “DuBarry Was A Lady”. It was also sung by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in “High Society”. The song is sung as a duet with each person describing a trivial incident with the other person shrugging off its importance and suggesting that they concentrate on having a good time in the current “swell party”. The version on this album is sung by Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop and is sensationally hilarious. Debbie Harry’s spoken piece at the end of this video in which she confirms that she “really loves sex” is unmissable.
“Miss Otis Regrets” was first sung in “High Diddle Diddle” which opened at the Savoy Theatre in 1934. In the song, an aristocratic woman is lynched after she murders her unfaithful lover. This is a clever reversal of the usual racial stereotypes. On the “Red Hot + BLue” album, it is sung, deadpan, by Kirsty MacColl with The Pogues playing behind her and some traditional dancers performing in front of her. After two minutes, a drunken Shane MacGowan staggers on stage and starts singing “Just One Of Those Things” at which point, the tempo increases and the dancers become more animated. It’s fantastic. “Just One Of Those Things” was written for “Jubilee” but has been covered by many other acts in other films, including Doris Day in “Lullaby Of Broadway”, Peggy Lee in “The Jazz Singer” and Frank Sinatra in “Young At Heart”.
“It’s All Right With Me” was written for the 1953 musical, “Can-Can”. The film was re-made in 1960 and Frank Sinatra sung the song to Juliet Prowse.
On “Red Hot + Blue”, the song is unrecognisable when sung by Tom Waits. I’ve written about the imagination of Russell T. Davies earlier but Tom Wait’s ability to re-imagine a classic song and make it uniquely his, is incredible.
“So In Love” was written for the musical “Kiss Me, Kate”. It was originally sung by Patricia Morison and has been covered by many other artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey, Chick Corea, Bing Crosby and Placido Domingo. kd lang’s version on this album conveys a deep feeling of loss. It appears that the singer is still in love but the object of her affection is not around. When she sings “Even without you, my arms fold about you” as she does her washing, kd lang’s thoughts are elsewhere, sadly reflecting on what has happened – in the context of the AIDS epidemic, it’s tempting to think that her loved one has died. As always, kd lang’s vocals are powerful beyond description.
I’m not a huge fan of Annie Lennox but her performance and the video of “Every Time We Say goodbye” is the highlight of this album, for me. It appeared in a musical revue called “Seven Lively Arts” in 1944. It’s another song about loving someone who is not always there, for an unspecified reason. A clever feature of the song occurs in the melody that accompanies the line “There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor” at which point the key changes from “A♭ major to A♭ minor”. As Annie Lennox stands in front of a screen showing home videos of children playing in the sea or in a garden, the sadness is overwhelming. This interpretation turns the song into an account of the death of a loved one.
Death, AIDS, the pandemic. I’m preparing for Boris Johnson’s roadmap this evening at which point the future will be so bright, I’ll have to wear shades (as Timbuk 3 put it).