Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bliss = wine, pizza and Andrea Marcovicci singing Johnny Mercer

My friend Anthony sent me this the other day, from the dear old Times:
Closing 6 Music while leaving Radio 3, its expensive classical counterpart, untouched would be seen as an “illogical and perverse” act of cultural elitism, the music industry has told the BBC.
In a submission to the public consultation on the corporation’s strategy review, which closes tomorrow, executives caution that Mark Thompson, the Director-General, appears to be placing “a greater cultural value on classical output over popular output” in his decision to close 6 Music.
A greater cultural value on classical output over popular output?
Heaven forbid!
Now, if you have the good fortune not to live in Britain, you may need it explained to you that '6 Music' is a radio channel - paid for, like all BBC radio and television, by a non-optional license fee, demanded on threat of criminal prosecution from everyone who owns a television, whether they use any BBC channels or services or not. (We drive on the left, as well.) Like the vast majority of BBC channels and services since the corporation, drunk on our money, went expansion crazy a few years back, it is listened to by almost literally nobody and serves up the same diet of pre-notational pop music that 99% of all other channels offer.
Radio 3, by contrast, is the corporation's one beacon of hope, the only channel that has compromised its remit hardly at all in the last twenty years, and still clings doggedly to a bill of fare that embraces classical music, opera, religious music, documentary and a nice bit of jazz on Saturdays, all served in a prevailing atmosphere of seriousness and the assumption that the listener is able to walk and talk at the same time without falling over.
One of the things I like most about Radio 3 is that I learn something new every time I listen to it. This never, ever happens on any other radio station (certainly not Classic FM, which is a weird hybrid channel that plays snippets of classical music as if it were pop music, with yammering DJs and chart rundowns) and is but a dim distant memory on BBC television, which once put a prime-time roof over Jacob Bronowski's head but now aspires no weightier than Stephen Fry.
For instance - and may I briefly pause here to welcome readers just joining us at this point, who know my work well enough to be familiar with the 'five paragraph rule', which predicts that I will finally get to the point of what I was intending to write about around five paragraphs into the piece itself - if I hadn't been listening to Radio 3 the other day I would never have learned:
a) that Andrea Marcovicci, an actress I associate with tv cop shows of the late 1970's and - problematically, it turns out - with Woody Allen films is also 'the queen of cabaret',
and b) that she's in London, doing the Johnny Mercer songbook at a lovely venue called Pizza in the Park.
She talked a bit about Mercer, a bit about the venue, a bit about the American popular songbook generally, and sang a hauntingly subtle, brilliantly inventive arrangement of 'That Old Black Magic'.
It takes a lot to get me out of the house these days, but plainly this was a must, so we went last Sunday, and wow! What an evening!
Pizza On The Park, near Hyde Park Corner, is one of those classy cabaret clubs where you sit at a table, tuck into some top nosh (rather than pick glumly at something that, were it put in front of you in your own home, you'd actually get up and move to another part of the room to get as far away from as possible), drink red wine like it's going out of fashion, and enjoy some boffo entertainment. All dead sophisticated; far too swanky for the likes of me, but I put a smart jacket on and they took pity on me. (If you like the sound of it you're out of luck: it's closing for good in a fortnight's time, after 28 years.)
And Marcovicci is the business. She's amazing. Amazing voice. Amazing songs, but it's Johnny Mercer so that goes without saying. And all interspersed with her potted history of his life and work. Incredibly natural performer, oozing old-style professional ease and sophistication.

Movie-wise, it seems she's done less than I'd have thought. I've always thought of her as a Woody Allen star, as I said, and was convinced she played his friend's wife in Manhattan, but it turns out that was Ann Byrne. She is, however, his co-star in The Front, and plays the wife of his sometime sidekick Tony Roberts in an adorable tv movie called Packin' It In that I must have seen about a gazillion times. (Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss sell up in New York and move to a backwoods community of hicks, survivalists and oddballs where their friends Tony and Andrea have rediscovered the joys of authentic living: comic misadventures ensue. There's no television, much to the horror of their children, one of them Molly Ringwald, but once a month they do show a movie against a wall at the local provisions store. "That Vera Hruba Ralston's something else!" says the proprietress at the end of one screening.)
Most of her other films, oddly, have been schlock: Airport '79 (that's the one with Charo and Sylvia Kristel, in the unlikely event you need reminding), Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (a pervy 3-D space oddity, again with Ringwald), The Stuff (Larry Cohen's horror-satire about marshmallowy gunk discovered beneath the earth and sold as a snack food that turns people into zombies) and The Hand (a fun update of The Beast With Five Fingers and one of the few films Oliver Stone directed without a bug up his ass).
She's fine in all of these (and, refreshingly, affects no desire to disown them: amusing interview here where I got the pictures from) but it's still odd she never drew more high-end offers, as she really is quite strikingly beautiful in them, and obviously many degrees classier than her surroundings. (She looks a bit like Sarah Jessica Parker.)
And she's in loads of Kojak and Murder, She Wrote and Magnum PI and such, but somewhere along the way she decided to do less of that and more nightclub stuff, saluting the great tradition of American popular song-writing and becoming the queen of cabaret.
She's in her early sixties now, and works a room just the way the books tell you they used to do it back when they knew how. She does a lot of talking to you, and singing to you, and she leans right over your table and stares right into your eyes for ages, but it isn't in the least unsettling, or insincere-seeming, and it actually gets quite addictive after a while, because the rapport seems genuine, and you find yourself believing all that hooey about the reciprocal bond between the audience and the performer. I'm not an habitual gusher when it comes to showbiz folk, but we really did leave the place somewhat awed.
I also watched Packin' It In again, and added to my already bulging store of favourite lines the one where she excuses herself because she has to go back to her cabin and salt some pork.