THE BARON AND THE SHOWGIRL

Two men influenced the early part of my life; one was Adolf Hitler, the other was Hugh Hefner. Hitler did more than just influence my life, he did his best to end it. Although he failed in that respect he succeeded in breaking up our family, forced me to spend my first four years sleeping in an air-raid shelter and was responsible for my food being rationed until I was fourteen. Long after his mortal remains had been incinerated, Adolf’s shadow loomed over the land. Many of London’s bomb sites, more exciting playgrounds than the swings and roundabouts provided by local councils, persisted into the mid fifties. At school meals our Housemaster, who had spent three years in Colditz, employed salt and pepper pots and cutlery to daily reconstruct the Wehrmacht’s flanking movement that had deprived him of his liberty. Without the benefit of any serious study I can identify the shapes of most WW2 military aircraft. I still hear the wail of the air raid siren and the all-clear.

In 1953 a new leader came out of the West, a mild, pipe smoking hedonist who ran his operations, dressed in silk pyjamas, from a round bed that revolved and vibrated. His name was Hugh Hefner and he came, not clutching a copy of Mein Kampf, but a magazine called Playboy, which would prove to be just as revolutionary and more popular, with a monthly readership that was to reach seven million in the 1970s. ‘Smut’ decided my mother, writing to tell me she had burnt what she called a ‘substantial collection of pornography’ found in my wardrobe. But among the naked lovelies, there were short stories by Norman Mailer and John Le Carre, articles on fashion and sports cars and Hef’s support for progressive social causes.  Black guests were invited to the Playboy Mansion when Jim Crow Laws still operated in many US states and the magazine was used to campaign for the decriminalisation of marijuana and for abortion rights in an age when doctors refused contraceptives to unmarried women. In 1961 the first Playboy club opened in Chicago and when the London club opened at 45 Park Lane in1966, I was one of the first members through its doors.  Hitler once wrote that the world was made of ‘Gods and beasts’; Hef changed that to ‘Gods and breasts’. The bare breasts in the centrefold of the very first Playboy issue belonged to Marilyn Monroe; it is entirely fitting that Hef now lies beside her in a Los Angeles cemetery.

If Adolf launched a V2 or a couple of Doodlebugs at London while my mother was wheeling me in the park then she would have taken shelter in the Underground.  Apart from safety there was often a cup of tea and a sing-along perhaps organised by Joan Littlewood, a belligerent, chain-smoking impresario in a woollen cap. Under surveillance by MI5 for association with the Communist Party, Joan led a collective of left-wing leaning actors who performed in the street and outside factories to working class audiences as well as conducting sing-songs for those sheltering from the Blitz. In 1953 Joan and her group, now calling themselves the Theatre Workshop, found a permanent home in the derelict Theatre Royal in London’s East End. The Company lived and slept in the theatre, redecorating it between rehearsals, deprived of government grants on account of its communist ideology. Joan was saved from sleeping in squalor by Gerry Raffles, an affluent, public school runaway who joined the company as theatre manager, fell in love with her and took her into his luxurious home in Blackheath.

The next years were a battle between East and West. It was Joan’s mission in the East to create plays that stimulated and entertained, be both popular and serious, completely divorced from the polite, drawing room dramas of the West End, what Joan called ‘daffodils up arses’. She liked plays by and about working class people performed for working class audiences and found success with Brendan Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ and Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’.

The battle also raged within the East. Creditors had to be kept at bay and there was a continuing fight with the BBC who refused to show or air Theatre Workshop productions and with the Arts Council who refused grants.  Meanwhile Joan, foul-mouthed, unwilling to listen to advice, nasty and aggressive, humiliated actors and crew alike. ‘You can’t act’ she told Michael Caine, ‘so you might as well fuck off up to the West End or get a job in films.’ ‘Best bit of advice I ever had’, said Caine. Only Raffles stuck by her.

The East End – land of Jellied eels, music halls, costermongers and pearly Kings and Queens with its unique and colourful dialect of thieves cant and rhyming slang –  is no more, gone in a single lifetime, a victim of German bombs, closure of the docks, multiculturalism and gentrification. It was always going to be harder to conserve than the giant panda and the snow leopard, although Joan did her best to keep its memory alive with two brilliant ‘cockney’ musicals, ‘Fings Aint Wot They Used T’be’ in 1958 and ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ a year later.

Her masterpiece ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, an anti-war satire focusing on the folly and incompetence of England’s WW1 military commanders, opened at the Theatre Royal in March 1963. Using a backdrop of distressing facts and statistics of the Great War, documentary footage, marching and music hall songs of the time and actors wearing Commedia dell’Arte costumes and tin helmets, was an instant hit, transferring to the West End in the same year, to Broadway a year later and to the cinema in 1969. The film’s last scene, when the camera pans across the South Downs sown with rows of white crosses, is as moving a hymn to pacifism as you are ever likely to see.

When Raffles died in 1975 while sailing his boat up the Rhone, Joan walked out of the theatre never to return. Her destination was Vienne, a small town thirty miles south of Lyons where she kept vigil on the banks of the river close to the spot where Gerry had died, her only companion an adopted mongrel she called Jacques Tati.

How Baron Philippe de Rothschild knew of her whereabouts or even knew of her we do not know. He had certainly lived a world apart from Joan’s East End. His youth was spent at the wheel of a Hispano Suiza, skiing in Gstaad and sipping champagne from the slippers of high-class tarts.  At the age of 22 he inherited Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 222 acres of Medoc vines in the village of Pauillac, which became his home and where he introduced the concept of ‘Chateau bottling’ and the idea of using famous artists, including Picasso, Miro and Dali, to decorate his wine labels. He would certainly have known of Littlewood. He had an interest in drama; briefly managing a theatre owned by his playwright father and translating plays by contemporary English writers. He may have seen one of Joan’s Paris productions, for her work was acclaimed in France long before being accepted in England, partly because the French have always championed the Left ever since Camille Desmoulins jumped on a cafe table and called for a physical resolution to the French Revolution.

In May 1976, only two months after the death of his wife, Baron Philippe motored alone from Paris to Vienne and found Joan, dressed in clogs and slacks, outside a small whitewashed hotel not a hundred yards from the river. He records Joan as being reticent at their first meeting, even a little hostile, until they found common ground in the Baron’s translation of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. A mutual interest in theatre and the Elizabethan poets soon overcame distrust; when the Baron returned to Mouton he took the pocket Marxist with him. There she became Jeanne Petitbois and lived platonically with the Baron whom she called ‘the Guv’, for the next ten years. The Baron involved her in his activities, designing the gardens, organising the Queen Mother’s visit and helping write his autobiography, the embarrassingly titled ‘Milady Vine’. It was not a perfect alliance but it suited both parties; she called her benefactor ‘spoilt, selfish and rude’, and her irreverence was not always welcome especially when she introduced the Baron to her friends as the fourth Marx Brother. When Playboy came to write an article on the Baron she came down to a grand dinner wearing floppy rabbit ears and a fluffy pompom on her derriere.

The Baron died in 1986, the showgirl in 2002. For all Joan’s Marxist principles and contempt for privilege she owed her life and legacy to Gerry Raffles and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, two members of a class she despised. Perhaps love trumped her contempt in the first case, companionship in the other, but it is common taste that reconciles strange bedfellows.

Dio li fa e fra di loro si accoppiano.

PS  A Royal Shakespeare Society production of a new musical, ‘Miss Littlewood’ is scheduled to open in 2018.

THE FACE OF WINE

I don’t know about you but I’m addicted to the graphic image and the printed word. As a child I ate quietly and obediently, absorbed with the nutrition charts on jars of (my) baby food and later with the marketing drivel on the backs of cereal packets. My first instinct on visiting someone’s home is to scan the walls for literature and, if that’s all there is, I will settle for a framed Lord’s Prayer in crotchet. There is a small library in our toilet where I am reading Herodotus in bathroom instalments and I cannot enjoy a new bottle of wine without reading both front and back labels. In fact, when it comes to the overall enjoyment of wine, the label seems to play a not insubstantial part.

THE GOOD

THE GOOD

If I’m looking at a choice between two previously untried, similarly priced wines, I let the label decide. Is the front label a thing of beauty, with the gravitas that signals a noble drop or has the design work been given to the winemaker’s niece who is in her first year at TAFE? Worse, are you looking at an excruciatingly poor attempt to appear cool and funky.

THE BLAND

THE BLAND

 

‘Avoid any wine with an Australian animal on the label’ says top Sydney sommelier Tim Watkins. Good Food.com goes further, advising us to shun any wine with a label bearing pink goannas, holograms, fuschia, animals smoking or wearing glasses, PowerPoint clip art, bananas, wedding invitations and any using the font types, Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curiz and Chiller.

AND ...THE UGLY

AND …THE UGLY

These are the labels of the counter-culture, a reaction to what is still sometimes perceived as the domain of the cultured and the elitists. It’s easier to break down elite doors than to become part of the elite. Defenders of the pink goanna will simply tell you it sells wine.

Then there are the so-called celebrity or Rock and Pop wines. Some are serious winemakers and label accordingly. Top of the list is Queen Elizabeth II with her conservatively labelled Windsor Estate sparkling chardonnay. The label on Francis Ford Coppola’s Californian cabernet sauvignon is also in classic style. Brad and Ange’s Mirval Rose (shortly to be sold in halves) comes in a display-sized Eau de Toilette bottle while Sting spoils some fine Tuscan reds by naming them after his songs – ‘Sister Moon’ and ‘When we Dance’. Very naf, but positively restrained compared to ‘Chateau Madge’, Madonna’s Napa Valley winery, which, in 2006, produced ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ showing the producer, hand-painted, dancing under etched disco lights.

CHATEAU MADGE

CHATEAU MADGE

Celebrity Cellars, a wine company owned jointly by Barbra Streisand and her manager, Marty Erlichman, takes a different approach, partnering with celebrities to market etched or labelled bottles using the stars’ logo and imagery. Apart from Barbra herself there are bottles etched or labelled with the images of KISS, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, or rather Mick’s tongue which sticks out on the particularly grotesque ‘Glitter Tongue’ six-pack.

THE ROLLING STONES SIX PACK

THE ROLLING STONES SIX PACK

‘We are not selling what’s in the bottle but what’s outside’ says Marty, adding that ‘only one in five buyers actually drink (the wines)’. Yes, better they remain unopened on display in the den where, if they remain there long enough, they may appreciate in value like the 1995 ‘Frank Sinatra’ cabernet, seen recently on sale on e-bay for US$540. It was a very good year.

1995 FRANK SINATRA EDITON

1995 FRANK SINATRA EDITON

At the other end of the spectrum are the labels of Chateau D’Yquem, Romanee Conti and the other great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, which only change in respect to the year of vintage or to accommodate new wine regulations; then, why would you pay for new art-work when your wines are retailing for US$1,000 a bottle. There is one Grand Cru Bordeaux however that changes its label annually. In 1924 Chateau Mouton Rothschild first used a well-known artist to illustrate its label and, since 1945 has continued the practice for every vintage. Paintings by Jean Cocteau, Braque, Dali, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon have all been featured on the label. In 1965 Dorothea Tanning was chosen over her husband Max Ernst and, as a ‘special’ in 2004, Prince Charles contributed an incredibly dull effort to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale, currently being extinguished by Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

DAVID HOCKNEY 2014

DAVID HOCKNEY 2014

 David Hockney’s 2014 label salutes the passing of his friend the Baroness Philippine Rothschild, while the 1989 label by George Baselitz, with its two upside-down rams, is a reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Druben sein jetzt hier’ he wrote, ‘Over there is now over here’.

Dining alone with Scarlett (Johansson) in a private room at Antoine’s last week, I chose a bottle of 2010 Celebrity Cellars’ Honeymooners Collection Edition.honeymooners Our waiter, Chuck, holding the bottle as if it was the infant Jesus in his white-gloved hands, complimented me on my choice. ‘I think you will find the wine focused but unobtrusive, supple yet intense, sir’, he added, and unscrewing the capsule, poured a tiny sample into my glass, which could have accommodated a dozen goldfish. The wine had almost evaporated before it reached my lips, but I could already tell that the acidity and tannins were beautifully balanced. ‘I think you’ll like this’, I told Scarlett, ‘it’s fruit-forward with some aggressive notes of spring’. Chuck loaded both glasses and watched with disinterest as Scarlett tasted the wine. Still holding her glass she leaned back against the red velour banquette and closed her eyes, savouring, inhaling. ‘There are definite notes of graphite and pencil shavings here. I think I can detect cigar and tiger-balm too, perhaps even a hint of cappuccino’. I took another sip, trying hard, to no avail, to pick up the pencil shavings, but as the malic acid reacted to the air, my taste-buds suddenly detected additional, intense notes of incense, sea-weed, saddle-soap and chocolate. And, yes, the wine was elegant, enticingly layered, with a buttery nose and a velvety finish. Meanwhile Scarlett had found something else in the inky cabernet. ‘O my God’! she said, after dipping her petite, retrousse nose deep into the goblet, ‘I’m getting childhood summers in the Catskills!’