My blog has, from time to time, reminisced with tales from my past of exploits I had undertaken in the world of the arts. Watching a recent televised Prom from the Royal Albert Hall made me remember when I embarked on one of the worst experiences in my life.
In 1975 I had been producing a unique musical documentary on Bahrain, with Herbert Chappell of the BBC as director. This came about through a brief association with Yorkshire Television when I acted as a consultant on their series The Arab Experience by Anthony Thomas, a follow-up to his universally acclaimed trilogy The Japanese Experience. The atmospheric music for the soundtrack to The Arab Experience had been provided by a group of local street musicians in Cairo, and the result had a fascinating sound.
It occurred to me that it might be given a Western flavour to make it more appealing to listeners worldwide. The appreciation of ethnic forms was far more limited then than it is today. The music industry had yet to introduce ‘world music’ as a whole new genre. What I had in mind for the Bahrain film was a score which would give rise to an album capable of capturing a small corner of the record market.
When the publisher Alexander Macmillan, now Viscount Stockton, came to have lunch with me one day in my office at Wellington Court, I mentioned the idea en passant. His immediate reaction was more positive than I expected, and he suggested approaching the composer David Fanshawe, whose album African Sanctus had recently been released and attracted a lot of attention. In this Fanshawe had treated the sounds of Africa in much the mode I was describing.
And so it came to pass: I commissioned Fanshawe, who readily accepted the challenge. EMI produced the record, Arabian Fantasy, in association with Namara Music, and it hit the shops at the same time as the documentary film, under the same title, was screened by BBC 2. The success of this project put me in a state of euphoria which fuelled a moment of utter folly. I had a sudden grandiose vision of how Arabian Fantasy might be staged in the Royal Albert Hall as an extravaganza featuring Arabian music and dancing, with all the exotic sights and sounds of the Middle East, from harem girls to real camels.
No sooner did the thought occur to me than I went into action. A lead dancer, Ludmilla Nova, was engaged, the hall was hired and a performance date was set for 2 April 1976. Only a few days before the performance, on 24 March, The Slipper and the Rose received its première at the Odeon, Leicester Square, having been selected as the Royal Command Performance film for the year.
As I stood waiting to be presented to the royal patrons, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, the press-camera lights flashing all around, I felt I had entered a new world. What a journey I had travelled since the early days of my marriage, when we lived in a small flat in Holland Park that did not even have its own bathroom. There, in sheer frustration, with my life still going nowhere, I once wrote a fan letter to my hero of the time, Marlon Brando – hoping to find a way into the film industry. Of course, I received no reply. But here I was now in this select line-up, among stars and show-business celebrities. The Sherman brothers, being American, were every bit as elated as I was to be waiting to meet the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The Queen Mother took everything in her stride. One of the brothers had a girlfriend in tow – a stunning blonde, dressed to kill and exhibiting a most impressive cleavage. The Queen Mother didn’t bat an eyelid.
Afterwards, along with David Frost, Bryan Forbes and Stuart Lyons, we partied till well beyond midnight and sent out for the morning papers to read the press notices and comments. Critics hailed The Slipper and the Rose as a shining example of what the British film industry was capable of achieving if given the chance. The Evening Standard emphasized the fact that it was a British musical with British stars and a British director, which had provided four months of much-needed work for Pinewood Studios. All the excitement and acclaim was probably the reason why, in my eagerness to keep the impetus going for the Arabian Fantasy production, I never paused to reflect on the possibility that I was attempting to transform the Royal Albert Hall into a bizarre circus that the music alone could never sustain.
I was convinced that the enterprise was going to make a star of our lead dancer, Ludmilla Nova. Baroness Ludmilla von Faiz-Fein of Lichtenstein was a twenty-four-year old beauty who was quite entrancing and came with impeccable credentials. We had developed a close friendship since I had first got to know her many months before. She was often to be seen cycling to my office at Wellington Court for afternoon tea. Ludmilla introduced me to her mother, and to her stepfather, the novelist Paul Gallico, who worshipped Ludmilla and dedicated several of his books to her. He even inscribed some to me, writing on the title page of one, ‘To Naim, the character I wish I had invented.’
The mistake I made with the Arabian Fantasy extravaganza was that I depended too much on the leading professionals I had hired to oversee the entire production and did not allow enough time for proper rehearsals. The focus of my efforts was to fill the Royal Albert Hall through the show’s promotion, and I very nearly brought it off; but the result was an audience that was probably out of its depth with such a production. There were many there from the City alongside those from the world of show business, and a large number of celebrities whose presence was merely cosmetic.
From the very start the night was destined to be the most embarrassing of my entire career. It was obvious that everything about the show was a shambles. It lacked coherence and was badly choreographed. Both David Fanshawe and Ludmilla gave it their best shot, but they were defeated by the sheer implausibility of the exercise. The whole concept was wrong and its execution amateurish. I felt too ashamed to emerge from my box in the interval as I saw members of the audience leaving by the score.
The critics had a field day panning the show. A scathing piece in the Guardian concluded, ‘Naim Attallah, the entertainment financier who commissioned this expensive joke, is also a director of Asprey. I enjoyed his associates moaning in the bar that they didn’t dare leave before the end.’