Russell Davies

Russell Davies is the Sunday Times’s television critic.

Rising above it

Russell Davies, 2 December 1982

You may not like the book, but you will be impressed by the index. There’s Bette Davis and Joe Davis and Sammy Davis Jr. There’s Basil Dean and James Dean, Jack Warner of Dock Green and Jack Warner of Hollywood. Jayne Mansfield lines up alongside Mantovani, and Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery is discovered between Maria Montez and Dudley Moore. Kim Novak and Ivor Novello are neighbours, but then so are Mozart and Malcolm Muggeridge, and the French sandwich of Arletty and Yvonne Arnaud contains Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The name of Neville Chamberlain seems to set off a nervous chain-reaction of theatricality, for he is noisily succeeded by Gower Champion, Coco Chanel, Carol Channing, ‘Chips’ Channon (by no means out of place), and Charlie Chaplin. All the Coopers are there: Lady Diana, Duff, Gladys, Gary and Tommy. There are Douglases, from Lord Alfred to Mr and Mrs Kirk; here are the Nicholses, Beverley and Mike; and you must distinguish, if you will, between Elizabeth Taylors one (actress), two (novelist) and three (friend of Gladys Calthrop). Wilde, Wilder and Wilding mark the beginning of the end; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor make 22 appearances: and in a trickle of Zanucks, Zinkeisens and Zolotows, the torrent ends. It must be one of the most astonishing cast-lists ever appended to a diary. For readers with the autograph-hunting temperament, it is the treat of the year.

Southern Belle

Russell Davies, 21 January 1982

My newsagent is currently selling a publication called Elvisly Yours. There’s everything here for the Elvis Presley cultist. He is offered a £369 package trip to Memphis (‘Free Trip to Tupelo – Welcoming Elvis Party with Close Elvis Friends’); or the more distant economic possibility of a ‘life-size cold-cast bronze or copper statue of Elvis’ at £25,000. Pure white hand-polished busts of Elvis come in beautiful ‘marbelene’. Item G21 in the list is the Memorial Elvis Pillow, a tasselled affair inscribed in Victorian homily-Gothic lettering,

Coe and Ovett & Co

Russell Davies, 1 October 1981

At the same moment, in the same events, in what is by some standards an athletically underdeveloped country, a combination of propitious circumstances has brought forth two world-beating runners. Nobody can hope to account for this, but the luck is worth glorying in. It embraces even the principals’ names: Coe and Ovett – as snappy as trademarks, and eminently saleable on the vowel-happy continent of Europe where the pair’s records have mostly been set. One thinks of them as a pair not on account of their resemblances, of course, but because they seem to have agreed so precisely and comprehensively to differ. Each action of the one, on the track or off, apparently helps the other to define, by opposites, the way he wishes to present himself. They match in the same way that a plug matches a socket. And which is which? Difficult to say until a fuse blows in one of the parties, and it hasn’t blown yet.

From Papa in Heaven

Russell Davies, 3 September 1981

To POSTERITY, location unspecified (over Key West? Rancho El Paradiso?)

Dear Pos:

How the hell are you? A stupid damned question as you will be rolling along pretty much as always, my reliable friend. You will be surprised to get a letter from me but not half as surprised as Papa is to be writing a letter. I have not written a letter in twenty years. But I guess not many of my friends have...

Self-Extinction

Russell Davies, 18 June 1981

There is nothing very mysterious about the interest we take in self-destructive personalities. To be callous about it – and we are all callous when it comes to disasters relived on the printed page – their lives make excellent biographies. Not only do they suffer in a dramatic way: they do it more purposefully than the rest of us, with our dull sense of un-satisfactoriness, can manage. Sequences of chaos and catastrophe in the life of an artist maudit, which to an eye-witness must appear so messy, pointless and wasteful, are revealed by the historical assessor as deliberate strides towards the goal of oblivion. Death becomes, unmistakably, an achievement, if only in the sense retained by that useful French word achevé, meaning both ‘brought to completion’ and, in a more brutal tone, ‘finished off’ or even frankly ‘killed’. Linguistically, the French are well-equipped to examine these morbid processes, and with perplexing modern exemplars like Artaud and Simone Weil to go at, they need to be.

Lennon’s Confessions

Russell Davies, 5 February 1981

‘I always wrote about me when I could. I didn’t really enjoy writing third-person songs about people who lived in concrete flats and things like that. I like first-person music.’ We didn’t enjoy hearing this in 1970, when John Lennon said it in the course of Jann Wenner’s ‘Rolling Stone’ Interviews. It was bad enough that Lennon had left the beloved Beatles to work with a Japanese-born conceptual artist, living in beds and bags and producing minimalist packages of photographs and recorded shrieks. But that he should seem to be promising more songs on the pattern laid down by the Plastic Ono Band album, a collection which had proved morbid, hectoring and pathetic by turns – well, this represented a doomier start to the decade than we felt we deserved. Besides, the allusion to songs about people in concrete flats seemed an unnecessarily explicit rejection of Paul McCartney, whose favoured vein that had sometimes been, in songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Penny Lane’. McCartney’s compassionate tableaux and jaunty ballads, to be sure, were usually light and occasionally trite as well, but they were at least articulate. Lennon had turned away from verbal play into the Primal Scream therapy of Dr Arthur Janov – seen by Lennon’s public at best as a fashionable bolt-hole for the rich hysteric, and at worst as a profiteering alliance between phoney art and phoney medicine: Yoko and some quacks bleeding our John. It was an uncharitable attitude, but the evidence that informed it survives. The John/Yoko courtship albums are as vacuous as ever, and even the Plastic Ono record, it still seems to me, is emotional detritus barely shovelled along by music.

A Life of Its Own

Jonathan Coe, 24 February 1994

‘Many people would say – there stands English comedy,’ David Frost is reported to have declaimed, as Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams stood side by side on his doorstep....

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