Julia And Company
Thames Television, Broadcast on Thames Television, on Tuesday 9 September 1986
Review By Emma Shane
© August 2005
This television special opens with the programme’s Leading Lady, Julia McKenzie, picking up a tuning fork, and using it to start off the opening number It’s Better With A Band. As she sings she weaves her way around the orchestra, who gradually join in on their instruments. She starts relatively softly, but works her way up to a crescendo for the last couple of bars. This is an old trick of hers, which she developed when singing either You Gotta Get A Gimmick or possibly Broadway Baby in Side By Side By Sondheim, to compensate for the fact that though she has a real talent for singing, and can belt a bit, she is not a natural born belter (unlike say Ethel Merman, or for that matter Louise Gold).
Introduction over, we go into Part 1. Julia is on stage surrounded by her ‘company’, but at first the stage is in darkness, save for the spotlight on Julia, who introduces the show, saying they have four performers who are new to television, as well as her three special guests (George Hearn, Anton Rogers, and, Millicent Martin). In fact this was not entirely accurate, since even if the other three were, one of the four “newcomers”, Louise Gold, was by no means new to television (having previously appeared in: BlackAdder, For Four Tonight, and Rachel And The Roarettes, had a major role in Laugh...? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee, not to mention having puppeteered on both The Muppet Show and Spitting Image)!
On with the show, Julia launches into Company, and one by one spotlights over the others light up to reveal the performers, starting in fact with four “newcomers”, Then it is on to the Special Guests, each lit up with their name. Then with the text “And introducing” with which we get the four “newcomers” with their names. The subtitled names are clearly each taken from the performers’ own signature. Julia is dressed in a royal blue trouser suit. Indeed, at this point all four ladies are wearing some blueish shade. Millicent Martin is in black trousers with a blue and silver jacket. Sophie Winter is in a pale purple (almost blue) evening frock), and Louise Gold is in a turquoise dress, with thigh slits, which actually suits her very well, as when she is dancing it shows off her legs, and the colour suits her too. Her chestnut hair is styled loose (but not untidy). Although nearly thirty, she looks a good bit younger.
Onto the next segment of the show, Anton Rogers in front of the drapes, sits on a chair and narrates his way through a bunch of old photographs of Julia (at various points in her life), including at least three of her as a bridesmaid, or as Anton says “Julia seemed to spend her early years at a number of weddings. Again and again she was a bridesmaid. In the first eight years or her life, Julia held up more trains than Jesse James.” The photographs go on to show Julia in her early stage work, and include newspaper clippings about her adventures as an understudy (in Maggie May and another show). There are several pictures of Julia with a variety of leading men, including one of her with Jerry Harte. At the end of the montage Julia herself enters, in a white dress (rather Art-deco looking), and shows the audience a photo of Anton, as a boy (apparently supplied by his sister).
We then get the classic TV comedy variety show thing, in which the host (in this case Julia) has to persuade a supposedly reluctant guest (in this instance Anton) to perform a song and dance routine. The joke was wearing a little thin by 1986 (it had its heyday in the 1970s thanks to such great ATV variety stars as Morecambe & Wise and The Muppets), however, there is some life in the old joke yet, and it does just about come off, but seems a trifle dated. The pair make a good job of They Can’t Take That Away From Me, even down to Anton pretending to do it badly, its obvious that really he can sing and dance rather well.
Part Two opens in a cinema lobby, four unidentified persons just walking into the cinema auditorium, I’ve tried and tried when playing this clip to identify them, and have not been successful. Remaining in the lobby, Anton Rogers, Millicent Martin, and, Julia herself who, dressed as ushers, promptly sing a pretty enthusiastic rendition of I Love A Film Cliché (Because A Film Cliché Is The Best Entertainment I Know). All three certainly have some pretty good talents for singing, dancing and doing imitations, and give this number pretty much everything it deserves. In fact if you like show business cliché list songs, this special is quite a treat, since this is just the first of three.
Inside the cinema auditorium for the next number, marching along the back row singing Just Go To The Movies, And Smile, come the four “newcomers”, also dressed as ushers, led authoritatively by tall commanding Louise Gold. She looks very smart and beautiful in a tight fitting usher’s uniform with her hair up. Her powerful voice dominates, even if this is meant to be an ensemble number. I say “If” because there is one moment in the song where she does get a real solo moment, a scream (something she had already proven her worth at, on The Muppet Show and BlackAdder). For the rest of the number she is absolutely excellent, but has a tendency to dominate the number; not necessarily a bad thing, only one gets the sense it is supposed to be an ensemble piece.
An organ rises, and sitting on it is Anton, introducing The Dolly Sisters, played by Julia and Millicent, with Nashville Nightingale. Both are excellent, and almost convincing as identical twin sisters, though it is easy to spot Julia in the purple hat and petticoat, while Millicent’s hat and petticoat are shocking pink. It is also noticeable that Millie is the better dancer of the two. It is pretty good fun, though also looks a little dated.
Next up, a parody of Joan Crawford, played by Millie, smouldering sexily. She starts off with what I take it was meant to be a bit of a French accent. The number, which one initially presumes to be about sex, turns out, on the punch line to be about subscribing to Good Housekeeping magazine, so in that sense it is actually rather amusing.
This is followed by a French solo sung by George Hearn, which did not do anything for me. I don’t know if it was the song or his performance, but I found it rather dull.
Things improved with a parody of Shirley Temple, played with a great deal of spirit by Julia, this must get ten and out of ten for shear enthusiasm. It also features Erik Ray Evans as Diango, Erik proves to be an excellent tap dancer, unfortunately he is a bit too good a dancer for Julia, and her dancing didn’t look too great next to his, though it was not bad, but he would have been better off partnering a different dancer. Robert Meadmore also appeared in the number, as a gendarme (possibly on stilts).
Part 2 concluded with most of the company, Julia, Millie, Anton, Louise, Erik, Robert, and, Sophie singing a reprise of Just Go To The Movies And Smile. This time the four “newcomers” are left distinctly in the chorus, all the solos going to Julia and her guests, and Millie is the most memorable, since she is just about the only one of them whom no one can overshadow.
Part 3 opens with the four “newcomers” getting their very own moment in the spotlight, with the third showbusiness list song, There’s No Tune Like A Showtune. And it is here that Louise, stops being gawky and, comes into her own. The number opens with the quartet striding on stage to perform it. Right away, as she strides into shot, Louise (back in the turquoise dress) looks full of confidence, as though she knows exactly what she is doing with this number. The other three follow her lead, and look pretty sure of themselves too, but let her be their leader. The verses of the number largely consist of medleys of various show tunes, which seem to have been divided amongst the quartet whichever way suits their talents best, but there is one brief magical moment, a couple of lines of lyric, where Louise suddenly lights up the screen with her sparkle. It is occurs in a verse of lyrics about Broadway and rhythm. This starts with Robert singing a excerpt from Broadway Rhythm. And then it’s Louise’s turn, with the line “There’s no business like show business like no business I know” in a flash a shining golden spark sets the screen alight, she slots right into her niche, as a British answer to Ethel Merman. It’s such a striking moment, that good though he is Erik coming on immediately afterwards with “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” has a hard job getting the audience’s attention, not least because for the first bit of his line, the audience can still hear Louise holding the last note of hers. Sophie following Erik might have a slightly easier time, except for the fact that her piece is an excerpt from I Got Rhythm (another Merman number), she does it pleasantly, but after Louise’s flash of a piece de resistance it’s rather tame. The number continues with all sorts of other bits and pieces, Sophie and Erik do a good job with Who?, while Louise and Robert also pair up nicely, even if pairing them up produces the one point in the number where Louise again looks a little awkward, when Robert turns her in the dance routine, although he is quite tall, Louise in heels is very nearly too much even for him. While they look comical (with Louise being so tall) Louise and Sophie also pair up nicely for an enthusiastic, giggling excerpt from All I Do Is Dream Of You, those two former Arts Ed girls really look like they’re enjoying it. The number concludes with the quartet in a line, Louise to the far left of the screen, singing Swannee. I found this funny, not least because I can’t hear this number without thinking of The Muppet Show’s South German Penguins (especially not on this occasion, when one of those Penguins’s puppeteer’s happens to be in this number). However, talent will win. The quartet sing it very well, and end with some great arm movements in their dance routine. Louise is particularly noticeable, because her arm movements are so sharp and strong, ones eyes are drawn towards them.
Julia enters, and the music starts up with Broadway Baby, the energy level drops sharply, and the quartet (led by Louise) walk quietly and sedately off stage (to the right of the screen). Julia’s little burst of Broadway Baby does not last long, soon she is introducing Millie “Home for a little while.”, who sings I Don’t Remember Christmas. This is one of the truly stunning highlights of the show. A tour de force demonstrating that when it comes to great revenge songs Millicent Martin is up there with the very best of them. In fact I can think of very few revenge song performances that could possibly match this one of hers (the only ones that spring immediately to mind are Louise Gold’s rendition of So Long Dearie, and, Louise Plowright’s take on The Winner Takes It All).
The next number, again introduced by Julia with a burst of Broadway Baby, is such a come down, George Hearn singing I Am What I Am. I daresay this may well have worked quite well when he actually did it in context in the musical La Cage Aux Follies. But taken out of context (with him in his dinner jacket), it does nothing for me. In fact the first time I heard it I thought it was dreadful. I have since come to appreciate the song (thanks mainly to a certain versatile puppeteer who sang it in a cabaret act), but I am afraid that I was not all that convinced by Mr Hearn’s rendition of it. I Am What I Am is one of those songs, which can work out of context, it can work very well; but when taken out of its original context it needs a more convincing performance (and possibly performer) to give it meaning and sincerity. It is a great song, however it is one which needs a vivacious extrovert of a performer, who can truly inhabit it as though it had been written for them, someone who can apply the lyrics to their own life. Or someone who can act it as though it applied to them.
Things improve with the next number, I Got Lost In His Arms, a solo for Julia. It’s a lovely Irving Berlin song, and what Julia McKenzie does best anyway, is sing something really nice like this song. Halfway through the quartet come in as her backing singers. It is noticeable that Louise’s rather strong plummy voice dominates the quartet (in much the way that she dominated many a musical number on The Muppet Show). She doesn’t mean to dominate, but she does have rather a powerful set of pipes. Still, all in all it is a pleasing number.
Time for the grand finale, One Step, involving everybody. Julia starts it, soon joined by the quartet, then Anton, and then Millie and George together. The stars of the show each have their own verses to sing, well Millie and George do one together (which works surprisingly well mainly thanks to the wonderful Millie. Finally all of them come together on the stage, with the four stars in the front and the quartet of “newcomers” behind them. Not a good place for Sophie Winter, whom being short hardly got a look in. Louise, being so tall, was quite noticeable, at least when ones attention wasn’t on Millie. Somehow, with Millicent Martin and Louise Gold around, it was a little difficult for Leading Lady Julia Mckenzie to actually get that much attention at the end of this number. Millie stands out because she is such an all round excellent performer with a pretty strong presonce. Louise Gold also has a strong presonce (intentionally or otherwise, she just sort of almost can’t really help it), she’s so tall and striking, especially with her arms (in this number they are all holding hats). But overall, even with the almost scene-stealers, its a great ensemble piece to end the show on.
It only remains for Julia to close the show with a reprise of It’s Better With A Band and to wish the audience “good night”.
Overall this television show is a very mixed bag. It is good to see quite a number of notable stage performers being given the opportunity to strut their stuff on television, preserving some kind of record of their performance (this is particularly true of Sophie Winter, and Erik Ray Evans). The only trouble is, there are several instances where the material and the performers seemed a bit mismatched, thus it may not be such a great record of their talent. A particular example being George Hearn, who seems rather out of his depth trying to be funny in his dinner jacket, as a kind of version of himself, rather than all dressed up as a character. By complete contrast, Louise Gold’s performance seems to suffer from the fact that she is hardly given the opportunity to get into her depth. A lot of the time she seems to look a bit awkward; A combination of her height, and of being far too talented and experienced for the role she is playing, at least in comparison to the rest of the quartet of “newcomers”; unfortunately good though Sophie Winter, Robert Meadmore, and, Erik Ray Evans are, they do not come over as strongly as Louise Gold. Nevertheless Louise makes the best of it, leading the quartet in Just Go To The Movies, And Smile and especially in There’s No Tune Like A Showtune, where for a brief moment she finds her niche and fits right into it, like a perfectly formed star. It’s good to have her on this special, at least to capture something of her brilliance as a performer, even if she isn’t used quite to best advantage. Another performer who is an absolute star in this show, is Millicent Martin, especially in her solo I Don’t Remember Christmas, it is wonderful to have such a tour de force of a revenge song captured on television. There is a steady performance from Robert Meadmore, and also from Anton Rogers, who actually can sing and dance, but spends much of the show being a foil and narrator. As for the billed star of the show, Julia McKenzie; by and large her performances are good, but one does wonder, why Thames Television choose her as the name to head a TV special (why not say Millicent Martin?). Still at least they did the show. And however uneven and dated it looks, buried in there are some good performances captured on television.