Speaking ill of the dead

Photo: Courtesy of Jackie Vance
Brian Attwood was editor of The Stage from 1994 to 2014.
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In a showbiz career lasting decades, my old friend Charles Vance never managed a date in the West End - until this month when he achieved a celebrity packed house.

It’s unfortunate the great man didn’t live to see the spectacle but, given the occasion was his memorial service at the actors’ church, St Paul’s in Covent Garden, it was somewhat essential he wasn’t there in person.

An odd venue for a Belfast Jew (original name Goldblatt) you might suppose but I suspect Charles had been planning that date for most of his professional life.

Doubtless he wouldn’t have been surprised by the tone taken by the substantial cast including Messrs Bill Kenwright, Paul Elliott and Tim Brooke-Taylor, that did not so much as border on the irreverent as park itself squarely there.

[pullquote]You couldn’t have a tribute to Charles Vance that treated the subject with po-faced solemnity and hope to get the measure of the man.[/pullquote]

Like the best impresarios (and he’d love to be so-described) a sizeable part of Charles was bombast and illusion, so the comedy potential was ever-present.

Chief ‘offenders’ were the double act of Messrs Elliott and Kenwright. Their performance was a difficult one to pitch; while the other tribs mostly owed a part of their career to Vance, our grey-haired Ant and Dec were his more successful peers, so ribbing could have looked easily like condescension. Fortunately delivery and material were first class.

The point stands though – you couldn’t have a tribute to CV that treated the subject with po-faced solemnity and hope to get the measure of the man.

Memorial services are easier to gauge by and large, as the chances are the speakers will be on message throughout.

But here’s three notable transgressors: the late Noel Botham ‘outing’ Hughie Greene as the father of Paula Yates; Danny La Rue focussing on his own glorious career when he should have been paying tribute to my predecessor but one, the much-loved Peter Hepple; and of course Earl Spencer’s more excusable fulmination at Diana’s service.

When it comes to the written rather than the spoken word, mistakes are more easily made (as Mrs Bercow reminds us) because one is detached from the end result. But do we want hagiography or a touch of warts and all?

Such dilemmas arose when Richard Anthony Baker wrote our obituary for Mary-Jane Burcher – a much–loved figure who nonetheless achieved notoriety when she was convicted for stealing money from one of her showbusiness clients. That didn’t go down well with her friends who made their feelings known in the pages of The Stage.

Richard’s predecessor on the obits page was my very close friend Patrick Newley – who coincidentally died himself four years to the day (Wednesday May 29). Pat had a few notable scrapes of his own – outing one actress to the fury of her daughter and accusing another of shooting up.

By and large I treat obits like a review; I don’t need to agree with the writer so long as they keep within certain parameters.

Only once did I backtrack on one of Pat’s: when he roundly slagged off Richard Harris’s poetic attempts during a report on the late actor’s memorial.

His former wife Elizabeth Harrison Harris wrote a very dignified complaint. Of course you can’t libel the dead, so I could have ignored it but on reflection it had been a bad call on my part – Pat wrote it but I chose to publish. I apologised and to this day I’m glad that I did so (and received a very courteous thanks).

Mind you, there’s a few things I could have mentioned about Pat in his obit…