About to turn seventy, Blondie’s recent BBC Four documentary, One Direction’s cover of ‘One Way or Another’ and her performance last summer on the Other Stage at Glastonbury, just goes to prove that quality always lasts.
I have adored her and her music for many years and all this recent brouhaha has reminded me of when I knew her briefly many years ago.
The theatre has always exercised a hold over me. Seeing Trafford Tanzi, Claire Luckham’s wrestling-ring marriage allegory in a pub theatre in Islington, I loved it instantly for its originality. It had a rough edge that made it simultaneously dramatic and entertaining. Howard Panter, the impresario, with whom I had earlier collaborated on J. P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, agreed we should join forces to bring the play to the Mermaid Theatre and ensure it an extended run. It ran to capacity houses for nearly four months when in March 1983, Toyah Wilcox took over the lead, ensuring a new lease of life. She had to spend several weeks beforehand in training to cope with being pummelled, arm-locked, sat upon and thrown around in the ring. The following month it was scheduled to open on Broadway, with Debbie Harry reprising Toyah’s role. Debbie was being trained by Brian Maxine, who had been responsible for instructing the London cast in the ungentle art. With a deluge of unanimously favourable critical comment behind it, there was every reason to anticipate an equal triumph for Tanzi in America.
The British critics were fierce in their appreciation and their superlatives, and with the public flocking to see the show, Quartet rushed into print an illustrated paperback containing the history of the production and an unabridged script. It went on sale in the theatre and to the wider book trade. The success of Tanzi made it one of the highlights of my theatrical career. Through it I learned a great deal about the theatre and what makes a production click with the public. It was also very timely, with feminism becoming such a burning issue.
Then the curtain went up on the Broadway production and I travelled to New York to attend the first night. There was a vast contrast with the London experience and it failed miserably in seducing either the critics or the public: as the saying goes, it closed as soon as it opened. Everyone had agreed at the time that Debbie Harry would make a most refreshing choice in the casting, but in fact she looked uncomfortable in the role. There seemed to be none of the rapport between performers and audience that was the key to its success in London; no sign of the zing and vitality that characterised the Mermaid production.
Fortunately we had sold the American rights outright. Trafford Tanzi’s failure on Broadway did not involve us in any financial responsibility, nor did it lessen my admiration for Blondie who, I was told, was having a difficult time in her private life. Hence, her lack of verve at what was clearly a destabilising moment for her.