The Pet Shop Boys on texting Cameron and Russian homophobia

Part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster, the group are apparently too old for radio.

Earlier today, the two middle-aged men before me were sitting in a bus shelter in Acton, west London. The shorter of the two was wearing a hat. It covered his whole head. “It’s a very nice environment inside the mirrorball,” Chris Lowe says. “It’s like an internal disco ball, really . . . So nice. You can wear whatever you want and just plonk it on.”

His colleague, Neil Tennant, wore a matching glittery bowler: not conventional attire for someone who will be 60 next summer. Yet this ordinary/extraordinary scene sums up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys. Take any everyday environment – a central London scene where you’ll find West End girls, dogfilled suburbia, a bus stop on the Uxbridge Road – and this peculiar pair will infuse it with flamboyance, archness and fondness.

Behind the sparkle of the Pet Shop Boys’ music, deeper things have always lurked. First, there is their fascination with both the high and the low arts. In 2011, they put on a ballet at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and they are currently composing a song cycle about the life of the cryptographer Alan Turing; they have also written B-sides called “Sexy Northerner” and “The Truck Driver and His Mate”. Then there are their subtle explorations of big issues in song. In “Being Boring” (1990), Tennant wrote about a friend who had died of Aids. In their 1993 rejig of Village People’s “Go West”, they added new lyrics to comment on life after communism (it was a huge hit in Russia). For the 2009 Bside “We’re All Criminals Now”, they even wrote about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes (“Waiting for a bus in Stockwell/ Cameras on my back”).

Their longevity is impressive, too. It has been 32 years since Tennant, then an editor for ITV Books, and Lowe, a University of Liverpool architecture student in London on a placement, met each other at a hi-fi shop in Chelsea and got talking about dance music while waiting to be served.

Four and a half years later, they went to the top of the charts with their first hit, “West End Girls”, a song inspired by T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, with a new, atmospheric, electronic sound. In the video, they also looked very different from other popular male duos of the time: Tennant strutting around Petticoat Lane in a funereal black coat while Lowe stood behind him, blank-faced,fading into shuttered shopfronts. This dynamic – part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster – has remained their preferred mode on video and onstage ever since.

In the flesh, Lowe is slightly more vocal and funny but Tennant remains the band’s warm, urbane spokesman. This afternoon, we are in the Pet Shop Boys’ white-walled PR office in Kensington and they are in offduty wear: jeans, polo shirts and sweatshirts, no OTT millinery. Lowe has even brought a tub of M&S flapjacks with him. “Posh!” he hams, his Blackpool accent still ringing clearly. Tennant’s Tyneside upbringing is softly present in his voice, too, more pronounced than on the records. The pair drink tea from mugs with single words on them, the kind you get in fancy knick-knack shops. Tennant’s says “God”. Lowe’s says “Whatever”.

We are here because the Pet Shop Boys’ latest album, Electric, is their most successful in years (it reached number three in July, their highest chart placing in two decades). This followed a slew of high-profile activities: a much-praised support slot on Take That’s blockbuster Progress tour in 2011 and a memorable appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony (they arrived on winged rickshaws and wore orange pointy hats).

An upbeat mix of disco, house and pop, Electric is also their first album to be released not by Parlophone but by their own label, x2, in partnership with Kobalt, a new company that allows artists to retain rights over their music (Paul McCartney and Björk are also on its roster). Electric arrived only eight months after 2012’s introspective Elysium and the process seems to have revitalised them.

“I think we’ve learned that people don’t want from us a depressing album about ageing,” says Lowe, wiping flapjack crumbs from his mouth. “People want fun from us, a bit of a party, a bit of irony, with something a bit intellectual thrown in, the odd historical reference.”

All these things are found in their infernally catchy new single, “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”, written about a character in David Lodge’s 1988 novel, Nice Work. The song’s protagonist mills about at home trying to pretend he’s not in love and spends time “searching for the soul of England/ Drinking tea like Tony Benn”. “He’s reverting back to the extreme leftism of his university years and so we’ve mentioned one of the biggest figures of the Labour Party of his youth,” Tennant explains. “I quite like doing things like that.”

It’s not the only such reference on the album, at least according to the Libération writer who told Tennant and Lowe that Electric was the most left-wing album the Pet Shop Boys had ever made, dwelling in particular on its second track, “Bolshy”. The song plays around with the etymology of its title – “bolshy” comes from the word “Bolshevik” – and it includes passages in Russian about starting feuds and hesitating to intrude. “Bolshy” also confirms the band’s long-running interest in Russia: as well as the update of “Go West”, the Pet Shop Boys made a new soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in 2004.

But now there is the new anti-gay “propaganda” law from Vladimir Putin and the Duma, I say. The band has always supported gay rights, albeit sometimes subtly (Tennant came out in 1994, to the surprise of nobody). One of the best-known Pet Shop Boys songs, “It’s a Sin” (1987), was a narrative about growing up gay and ashamed in the guise of a club hit (sample lyric: “At school they taught me how to be/So pure in thought and word and deed/They didn’t quite succeed”).

“Our idea in those days was to be slightly subversive, to say things without really following through,” Tennant says, “which I think is quite a good approach. We never wanted to preach or anything like that, because politics in pop music is a very tricky thing.” The only two songs that have succeeded in that vein while being explicit, he says, are the Specials’ “Ghost Town” and Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” (the former about inner-city deprivation, the latter about the Falklands war).

In 1988, the Pet Shop Boys played a gig protesting against Section 28 and Tennant sees direct parallels between Margaret Thatcher’s and Putin’s politics. Was Section 28 frightening for him? “It felt weird, more than anything,” he tells me. “Like one of those things Thatcher did every now and then to vibe up the Tory right wing. You know, normally you pass a law when there’s a problem – when people are marching in the streets saying, ‘All they do these days is teach the kids you’ve got to be gay.’”

Tennant thinks that Putin’s attitude has much to do with the revitalised power of the Russian Orthodox Church. “It’s regained its position in Soviet society and Putin has schmoozed them as a result. He schmoozes everyone, actually, doesn’t he?” He remarks that if you go to Moscow or St Petersburg, you meet metropolitan, liberal people who find their government embarrassing. The band last played in Moscow in June: “I hasten to add, before this law was passed.”

On Electric, the Pet Shop Boys also tackle war. They do so in a surprising way: by covering Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 album track “Last to Die”. That song was inspired by a question John Kerry asked about Vietnam while testifying to Congress in 1971 (“How do you ask a man to be the last man to diefor a mistake?”). Lowe says that Springsteen’s opening riff is what won the pair over. Nevertheless, Tennant also changed a lyric to make their version more explicitly political.

“I changed ‘a mistake’ to ‘our mistakes’,” he says firmly. “So then the song casts more blame on us, as individuals in a democratic society, and the responsibility that we have for what happens in our name.”

Tennant finds public disillusionment with politics worrying and extends this to the current debate about digital privacy. “The public couldn’t care less about being snooped on and that’s very odd. Imagine a politician saying they were going to open your post before they delivered it to you, photostat it, then deliver it. On the internet, it doesn’t feel like crime because you can’t feel the crime happening. It’s the same way that people think of stealing music, to turn to that hoary old argument.”

Lowe has been quiet for a while. I ask him what he thinks about music being stolen online and he shrugs.

“I’ve sort of given up on it, really. I don’t think we expect to make any money from our music any more, do we? Music is just something that we do because we enjoy doing it. We just make money from touring.”

The Pet Shop Boys shy away from the internet in other ways (they aren’t fans of Twitter) but they do occasionally post messages on their website. Recently Tennant posted one in response to a campaign by the anti-Israel group Innovative Minds asking the band to cancel a gig in Tel Aviv in June. “What bugged me was that this group called Israel an apartheid state. That’s factually incorrect. That position actually does the cause – a cause we would probably to a large extent sympathise with – harm.”

The Pet Shop Boys didn’t play in South Africa in the 1980s, he adds, and tried to stop EMI releasing their records there. “If we’d played a concert there, it would have been to segregated audiences. When someone is buying a ticket in Tel Aviv, there is no segregation.”

The problem with modern political protest, Tennant believes, is that opinions are given precedence over facts. “Politics are too emotional now. Contemporary culture generally is too emotional, really, especially in music. These days, a performance can only be regarded as wonderful if it makes people cry. It’s that X Factor idea – that to properly sing a song, you’ve got to try to stop your mascara running. I’d rather people looked to the truth.”

Tennant and Lowe have other bugbears about the modern music industry. “I’ve realised recently just how ring-fenced pop musicis,” Lowe says. “Pop music wasn’t like that before. It’s now a very closed world.” Their age – Tennant is 59 and Lowe 53 – doesn’t help them, they say; the singles from this album, big, poppy, in-your-face songs, have barely been playlisted.

Tennant leans forward. “Radio people actually say to us now, ‘Oh, we won’t ever play your records, because you’re too old.’” Honestly? “Yeah. They’ve actually said that. They’re quite blatant about it. And someone else – who shall remain nameless – said, ‘If yours was Daft Punk’s next single, we’d have played it automatically.’” He shrugs. “Then again, they’re only 38.”

Why does that happen? “Because the system is unbelievably conservative and enclosed. For us to get played on the radio, we’d have to try a trick, do it under a different name.” BBC Radio 1 also takes YouTube hits into account when compiling their playlists. “These figures are called ‘measurables’. Don’t forget your measurables.” Tennant sighs. “That’s the world we live in.”

Perhaps the band’s next single after this one – “Thursday”, featuring the 31-year-old London rapper Example – will finally tick the boxes that radio producers are so keen on. But for now, there are more pressing commitments. By Christmas, they plan to finish their 45-minute work on the life of Alan Turing, A Man from the Future.

“It’s called that because of the scientific aspect but also because of his attitude to homosexuality,” Tennant explains. “Turing told his sister he was homosexual – she was appalled – in 1946! He refused to be anything other than matter-of-fact and honest about who he was.”

As I leave, Lowe puts the lid on the flapjacks with a wink and Tennant gives me some back issues of the Pet Shop Boys’ fanzine Literally which tell me a little more about the band’s passion for Turing. The fanzine also reveals one of their subtlest political acts yet.

A month after the closing ceremony for the Olympics, the Pet Shop Boys were begged by Boris Johnson and then David Cameron to play at the winners’ parade on the Mall. Despite initial concerns about overexposing themselves and with other commitments overseas on the same day (they were eventually flown back to Britain by the government, by private plane), they ended up playing and enjoying the event.

So Tennant texted David Cameron’s assistant to say so. His message read as follows: “Thanks for asking us – actually it was really worth doing. And sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”

In the week when Electric was released, the government announced that the third reading of the bill pardoning Turing had been tabled for October. Sometimes pop and politics do shimmer together, after all.

“Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” will be released as a CD single on 30 September (x2/Kobalt, £7.99)

Hat trick: Chris Lowe (foreground) and Neil Tennant are still pushing the limits of fashion and going where the air is free

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Alan Bennett: “I hope I’m not being too old-gittish”

At 82, Alan Bennett has lost none of his wit or compassion – nor his anger at the “nastification” of Britain.

“The blond one will have to go,” declared the impresario Donald Albery in 1961, as he considered bringing Beyond the Fringe to the West End. Yet Alan Bennett, looking very much like the clergyman he once intended to be, did not go. In the half-century since, he has proved himself to be the most enduring of the four wits behind the comedy revue. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore died young: the former from alcoholism, the latter from progressive supranuclear palsy. Jonathan Miller, the great polymath, lives on in the revivals of his many theatrical productions but seems to have retreated into retirement.

Now 82 and still somehow boyish, Bennett is easily recognisable from his early photos, as he and his Oxbridge chums found fame in the revue that brought satire to the masses. He is a little slower and stiffer than he was the last time we met, and a touch deaf – Keeping On Keeping On, his new collection of diaries and writings, regales the reader with the inevitable mishearings. He has survived cancer and a stomach aneurysm and has had a couple of joints replaced, but his life seems to proceed largely unimpeded.

“You can’t sort out the symptoms of anything going round from the symptoms of just getting older,” he tells me. “I still go on my bike, because it’s easier to ride than it is to walk, and I try to do half an hour each day. There’s a niggardly bit in Regent’s Park that they allow people to cycle down . . . The canal I always find rather scary, because the rules of the road don’t seem to apply and other cyclists come along at such a rate.”

We are chatting in the lime-washed front room of the Victorian terrace house in Primrose Hill that has been his home for almost a decade, shared with his partner of 24 years, Rupert Thomas, the editor of the World of Interiors. Bennett tells me that the recent Paddington adaptation was filmed in one of the flashier, colourful houses opposite. The walls and shelves bear witness to the couple’s travels and interests – many of the paintings were bought by Thomas – and the effect is low-key and lived-in. Bennett is settled in a Carver chair by the window, beneath a portrait that looks like it’s of Thomas but isn’t. (“He wouldn’t be flattered!”)

This patch of NW1 has long been Bennett’s stamping ground. In the 1980s he lived on the same street as Miller, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Mary-Kay Wilmers (Bennett’s editor at the London Review of Books). It’s a literary cohort captured with comic detail by Nina Stibbe, who was then Wilmers’s nanny, in her collection of letters, Love, Nina. “She’s funny, is Nina,” Bennett concedes, “but the character in the book bears no relation to me as far as I can see, and I didn’t think he was very funny, either. The notion that I could mend a fridge is absurd. I think she just wished that on to me to make me more interesting as a character, which I understand because I’ve done the same thing myself.” He didn’t recognise himself in the TV dramatisation but, he says, “Mary-Kay was happy because she was played by Helena Bonham Carter, so she found that rather flattering.”

Bennett is as active as ever, writing new plays and having older ones transferred to the big screen, most recently last year’s The Lady in the Van – the third film of his work (after The Madness of King George and The History Boys) to be directed by Nicholas Hytner, whom he met while adapting The Wind in the Willows for the stage in 1989. He doesn’t regard himself as a particularly speedy writer but: “Gradually, it gets done. Nick Hytner, at the end of the talk we did at the National [Theatre in London] about The Habit of Art, said the plays were normally four years apart. He felt that was a bit long, and if the audience felt that, too, would they applaud? It was like applauding Tinker Bell in Peter Pan!” He did speed up a little: it was only three years before he was able to pop his next script through Hytner’s letter box. The extent of his work is impressive – more than a score of stage plays and a dozen films, not to mention TV, radio and books. He giggles: “It’s appalling, isn’t it!”

Born in Armley, Leeds, to Lilian and Walter, a butcher, Bennett learned Russian during his national service and then read history at Oxford. He began and then aborted a PhD in medieval history, supporting himself with teaching, at which he insists he was “very bad”. He joined the Oxford Revue, out of which Beyond the Fringe grew, and its success in Edinburgh, in the West End and on Broadway (where President Kennedy attended) changed the course of his life. His first stage play, Forty Years On (1968), was followed by acclaimed plays and television dramas and a series of poignant Talking Heads monologues in 1988. Since 1994, three bestselling volumes of memoirs and diaries, often first published in the London Review of Books, have raised the curtain on the Yorkshire boyhood that has shaped so much of his work.

In 2008, Bennett donated his papers to the Bodleian Library in Oxford – all the diaries, letters and multifarious drafts of his plays. “I can’t believe that minute changes are of interest to anyone at all . . . They made out I was doing them a favour but it was the other way round, really – they were taking them off my hands.” Bennett doesn’t approve of selling archives unless a writer needs the money. “The British Library trumpets the manuscripts it’s bought for such and such, implying it’s philanthropy on the part of the writers – and it isn’t at all.”

To read Keeping On Keeping On is to be in the company of an old friend, one who defies the maxim that we get more right-wing as we get older. At the core of both the man and his work – whether he is writing about the Queen or Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who lived in a van parked on his driveway – are warmth and humanity. Although there may be something teddy-bearish about Bennett, he is never cosy: almost all of his work is quietly unsettling, raising uncomfortable questions about ourselves and about society.

Bennett is moral in the best sense of the word, preoccupied always with unfairness and injustice and thus perplexed by what Daily Mail readers find in his work. “Papers full of Charles Kennedy being, or having been, an alcoholic,” he wrote in his diaries on 6 January 2006, observing that Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith weren’t ­exactly teetotal. “Less perilous, I would have thought, to have a leader intoxicated with whisky than one like Blair, intoxicated with himself.” Later that year, the news that the policeman who shot Jean Charles de Menezes was still in his post made him “ashamed to be English”.

An admirer of Gordon Brown, Bennett told me in 2008 that if David Cameron were elected, it would be “government by estate agent”. Things turned out worse than expected, and his discomfiture and anger are palpable throughout the diaries. “I blame it all on Mrs Thatcher,” he tells me several times during our conversation, regretting the end of consensus politics.

That the Liberal Democrats went into coalition was incomprehensible to him from the outset. “The Tories are not to be trusted. You knew they would just take advantage. When it was plain we weren’t going to get proportional representation, which might have saved the day, that was really the end of it . . . You look back and you think Macmillan was a liberal prime minister. He was prime minister of the whole country, despite the fact that he was aristocratic. [Thatcher] bequeathed the fact that they just govern in favour of a class.” While Blair was “hard to forgive”, Cameron was “contemptible”. As for Theresa May: “We’ll see.”

Shopping in Camden Town on the morning after Cameron’s 2015 victory, he felt a sense of “bereavement in the streets”. He wanted a Labour government so he could “stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well intentioned”.

Were he a party member, he wrote last year, he would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn, “if only out of hope that the better part of salvation lies not in electoral calculation but in the aspirations of the people”. When I ask whether he would have done so this year, however, he equivocates. “I can’t say that, no. Let’s see how things turn out.”

Bennett was surprised by the Brexit vote, “but then so was everybody else. Little England – I hate the notion. The sense of helplessness is new. It seems there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m afraid my reaction is that I shan’t be here much longer.”

Education is the issue about which he is most passionate. That students are “saddled with these enormous debts is just monstrous”, he tells me. “I feel it’s a mockery.” It is, he believes, “the mark of a civilised society that you do not think: who’s going to pay for my education? Mine was paid either by Leeds City Council or by the state, so it didn’t cost my parents a penny from start to finish.”

Leeds Modern School, which Bennett attended from 1945, was “a grammar school, though I always thought of it as just a state school. The grammar was Leeds Grammar School, a really snobbish place, and still is.” He went to Oxford after winning a Senior City scholarship. Had he been required to take out a loan, he would not have gone to university. It is “a standing rebuke” that Scotland still provides free education. When he gained the Freedom of the City of Leeds in May 2006, he said in his acceptance speech, “I feel I was given the freedom of this city more than 50 years ago . . . I was given an education for life and a freedom for life that education gives you.”

“The other thing I’m old-fashioned about is public schools,” says Bennett, who believes that their charitable status should go (“Blair could have done it easily, with the majority he had”) and that public and state schools should be amalgamated at sixth-form level – which would immediately dispense with the “need” for grammar schools. “It wouldn’t be an enormous social up­heaval and, once you’ve merged them at one level, the others would gradually follow.”

The iniquities of private education were the subject of “Fair Play”, a sermon that Bennett delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 2014. “I can understand the Etonians saying they refuse to feel guilty about it, but it’s a waste, that’s what’s wrong with it,” he says. “People are wasted. They don’t reach their full capacities. And not to reach your full capacities because your parents are in the wrong position is dreadful.”

In the King’s College sermon, he suggested that if something isn’t fair, “then maybe it’s not Christian, either”. So is it possible to be Conservative and Christian? “If I said no, the shit would really hit the fan!” he answers, giggling. “I don’t know. I’m not competent to say that.”

Devoutly religious as a teenager, Bennett wrote in 1988 that he had “never managed to outgrow” his religious upbringing, and the diaries are full of references to hymns, readings, religious paintings and churches, about which he is knowledgeable “in a slapdash way”. With Thomas, he likes to visit “tiny churches in the middle of nowhere” – buildings that haven’t been “knocked about” by the Victorians.

There is a sense in which Bennett is an Everyman, quietly advocating for the confused, accused and misused and railing against the “nastification” of Britain. Compassion is evident everywhere in his plays and in his life, although typically he denies that offering Mary Shepherd of The Lady in a Van refuge on his driveway was altruism (she was less of a distraction there than when she was parked on the street, under constant attack from unkindly passers-by).

The diaries reflect his quiet fury at various ways in which standards have slipped. Abu Hamza’s opinions, he argues, are “reprehensible . . . But he is a British citizen and he should not be extradited to the United States.” Watching the Trooping the Colour ceremony, he notes that there are “no grieving mothers, of course, and the deaths that have been mentioned are all noble ones and not due to inadequate equipment”. Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms leave him aghast.

He writes of “ideology masquerading as pragmatism”, as shown in the fate of the East Coast Main Line, which was sold back into private ownership despite turning a profit while publicly owned. Bennett is a frequent passenger and, he tells me, “The people on it, who tend not to change and are funny and eccentric, are its saving grace.”

The BBC, which has been the outlet for so much of Bennett’s work, is similarly short-termist in the way it operates. “It’s to do with the way the whole thing is financed,” he says: another black mark against Thatcher for the damage that she did to the corporation’s management and principles. He is irritated by “the form of the programmes now, where someone is sent home at the end and they’re lined up and told which one it is”. He occasionally watches The Great British Bake Off but The Big Allotment Challenge was a particular affront: “Allotments are co-operative enterprises, not competitive, except for marrows. That business of saying someone’s not as good as someone else – I just hate it.” He and Rupert watch the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory “to fill a gap. The rest is . . .” He trails off. “We don’t watch Scandinavian crime. Too gloomy.”

Bennett is wary of becoming a codger and feels that he should shut up. “I hope I’m saved from the worst of it by Rupert, who’s thirty years younger than I am. He pulls me up if I’m too old-gittish.”

“Keeping On Keeping On” by Alan Bennett is published by Profile Books and Faber & Faber

Liz Thomson edited, with Patrick Humphries, the revised and updated edition of Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan”

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood