How the real Rock Follies came back from hitting rock bottom
Annabel Leventon and two friends formed 1970s girl band Rock Bottom, but had their dreams of stardom crushed when an original idea to star in their own show was snatched from under their noses by a TV station. She tells Nick Smurthwaite about the unhappy saga and the lawsuit that followed, as recalled in her new memoir
While not unusual for men in bands to keep on rocking into their 70s, it is rarer for women to do the same. Annabel Leventon wants to challenge that. The actor and singer, who played a leading role in the original West End production of Hair, says she would love to revive the 1970s all-girl band Rock Bottom she started with Hollyoaks actor Diane Langton, and actor-singer Gaye Brown.
“If I wanted to reform Rock Bottom, what’s to stop me?” says the striking 75-year-old defiantly when we meet. “I can’t accept these restrictions and prejudices we have about age. I refuse to be held back by other people’s assumptions.”
As if to prove her point, Leventon has just published her first book, The Real Rock Follies. It is a racy account of how she, Langton and Brown took Thames Television to court in 1982 for stealing their idea for a TV series about the travails of an all-girl rock band.
Thames called their version Rock Follies (1976-77) and it was one of the most successful series of its time, winning three BAFTAs and becoming a cult hit in the US.
The idea for Rock Bottom was conceived by Leventon, Langton and Brown in association with Leventon’s then boyfriend, composer Don Fraser, who wrote a lot of their music. As the women were all actors as well as singers, they also consulted a writer friend, Howard Schuman, about the possibility of making a spin-off TV series.
“The band is a heightened version of ourselves,” writes Leventon, who uses the present tense throughout, making it more in-the-moment. “Raunchy, confident, rude, funny, bold, off-the-wall outrageous, it’s never been done before. We’re on the road.”
Their first gig, in the same theatre on the King’s Road, Chelsea, where The Rocky Horror Show played, was sold out and they had no difficulty securing a record deal with RCA.
Thames TV expressed an interest in making a series based on their success. Everything appeared to be coming up roses. The problem was they had nothing in writing to prove that the idea was theirs and theirs alone. “We were naive,” says Leventon 40 years on. “I never wrote anything down, which was a mistake.”
So certain was Leventon about the future success of Rock Bottom that in 1974 she turned down the lucrative female lead in Billy, the West End stage musical version of Billy Liar, starring Michael Crawford, because it clashed with the release of Rock Bottom’s first single. The decision cost Leventon her agent.
She had absolute belief in the onstage chemistry of the three women. “We were like greyhounds being released from their traps,” she explains. “As soon as we came on stage the audience couldn’t help but respond to us.”
But it wasn’t long before storm clouds were gathering above Leventon’s showbiz dream. Having discussed the TV project further with Schuman and producer Verity Lambert,
she heard that it was proceeding without the original trio.
In the book, she bumps into her friend Julie Covington in Soho, who tells her she has been cast as one of three female singers in Rock Follies, along with Rula Lenska and Charlotte Cornwell, and that the producers were trying to persuade them to do live gigs as well.
Leventon understandably felt Thames had not only stolen her dream but undermined any chance Rock Bottom may have had of establishing itself in the future.
She writes: “If Thames is a liner, it towers over our fragile little skiff, threatening to annihilate us. How can we continue as Rock Bottom if they keep our appearance, our backgrounds, our whole story? Our ship is sinking fast.”
Five years on, after much legal wrangling and hand-wringing, their case against Thames finally reached the High Court. Lambert, producer of Rock Follies, was so confident she would win the case that she prevented Thames from settling out of court.
Thames was found to be in breach of confidence “in using the idea, in making and screening the two Rock Follies series”. Leventon and her two colleagues were awarded substantial damages, which went some way towards compensating them for lost earnings.
However, Leventon still feels her career would have turned out rather differently had Thames decided to harness the talents of the original Rock Bottom girls, as was originally mooted.
“I’m not bitter but I can’t ever forgive them for what they did,” she says. “The betrayal hurt a lot and even after all this time I cried as I was writing it all down. But I’m incredibly proud that we stood up for what was right and just. It gave us back our self-respect and it brought about a change in the law about protecting intellectual property.
“Writing the book was painful and cathartic. It poured out of me because my recollection of it all was so vivid. I thought writing would be too solitary because I’m so used to working with other people. But your characters keep you company. I wrote a novel once that was never published. I think now I might have the confidence to look at it again.”
The Real Rock Follies: The Great Girl Band Rip-Off of 1976 by Annabel Leventon is published by NW1 Books