Reviewed: Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea

Oh my Darjeeling.

Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea

BBC1

 

So you decide to send Victoria Wood, national treasure and professional Alan Bennett-alike, off to do a travelogue-cum-documentary about tea and the British (10 and 11 April, 9pm). Good plan. Everyone likes Victoria Wood. And everyone likes tea, too – except for those people who like lattes but that’s fine because they’re all watching E4 and Sky Atlantic. OK, this project will be expensive. You will have to splash out on airfares to Shanghai and Boston, plus a couple of swanksville over­night stops in Assam and Kolkata, not to mention travel insurance and the cost of limitless supplies of Imodium, Dioralyte and extra-strength Sure for Ms Wood and the crew. But consider the result. If she turns out to be the new Michael Palin, this could be the start of a whole new franchise.

Then . . . disaster! Wood and her director return to HQ with a couple of souvenir chai cups, a comedy straw hat and a film that is dull and predictable and patronises foreigners for their tendency to look foreign, talk foreign and put condensed milk in their Darjeeling. Oh, dear. Wood is not the new Palin, after all. She is not even the new Caroline Quentin.

What to do? Do you: a) put her film on ice indefinitely and get on the phone to Alan Titchmarsh to see if he is interested in making a series about leeks, a venture that would necessitate only a trip to Wales?; b) hide it on BBC4, somewhere between the repeats of I, Claudius and Timeshift: the Golden Age of Coach Travel?; or c) simply butch the whole thing out and daringly screen Wood’s film on BBC1 in hour-long segments over two consecutive nights?

Personally, I would have gone for the second option and then swiftly disappeared for a long trip abroad myself. As you will no doubt have guessed by now, the commissioning editors went nuclear on this one and Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea – a title so rubbish, not even Craig Brown could spoof it – screened on BBC1 and lasted the full 120 minutes. Was it really as bad as all that? Oh yes, it was. The travel bits were like Blue Peter circa 1976, with Wood meekly learning to pick tea (in India), to taste tea (in Harrogate) and to talk nicely to toffs about tea (at Woburn Abbey). Wood is either very shy or very gauche, with the result that she found it impossible to meet the eye of any of her interviewees or even to look at the camera half the time. Weird.

The anthropology and social history bits, meanwhile, were like The One Show gone wrong. Various random celebrities – Graham Norton, Dr Who, Morrissey – tried (and mostly failed) to explain why they and people in general love tea so very much as Wood gazed on, looking vacant and a little bit twitchy.

Yes, you did read that right. Morrissey met her in a beige American hotel room, where he served her a cup of weak Ceylon from his personal teapot, a lime-coloured metal job with red beads dangling from it. In exchange, she produced a tea cosy knitted by her friend Norah. Yes, a tea cosy – which he accepted, albeit with a certain camp truculence.

It was so painful to remember, watching this excruciating scene, that I used to think Morrissey was the most stylish and beautiful and poetic man who ever lived. For here he was playing Dame Hilda Bracket to Wood’s Dr Evadne Hinge. Were they flirting? I think they were, a little bit. And it killed me. Sic transit gloria Morrissey. I think I’d better stick the kettle on, quick.

Victoria Wood and Matt Smith enjoying a nice cup of tea. Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser