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19 November 2015

How the man fans believed was Elvis removed his mask

Orion: the Man Who Would Be King tells the story of Jimmy Ellis – and how his act ended. Plus: The Great Pottery Throw Down.

By Rachel Cooke

“Celebrity,” said John Updike, “is a mask that eats into the face.” But what happens if a person’s fame is literally built on a mask? Does this mean they get off lightly, being able to opt in and out of fame according to mood? No. The rot just takes a different form. The game among the paparazzi is to capture you unmasked. In future, you will not be able to leave your house, or even open your front door, without first pressing that silly confection of plastic, sequins and velvet across the bridge of your nose. In the end, you have no choice but to look like the Lone Ranger everywhere but in front of your own shaving mirror.

This is the pitiful lesson of Jeanie Finlay’s remarkable documentary Orion: the Man Who Would Be King (16 November, 10pm, BBC4), screened in the BBC’s Storyville strand after a brief cinema release this year (the corporation was among the financial backers). Orion was Jimmy Ellis, a man from Orrville, Alabama, who sounded astonishingly like Elvis, and looked a little like him if the room was half dark and the audience had consumed enough bourbon. But what to do with such a singer? How to cash in?

In 1977, in the months that followed the death of Elvis Presley, there came an idea. A novelist called Gail Brewer-Giorgio had invented a character called Orion, who lived in a big white house that went by the name of Dixieland, and whose extreme fame had grown so intolerable to him that, in the end, he had faked his own death to escape it. No doubt you see where this is going. Couldn’t Ellis become Orion, and feed the lustful necrophilia of those still in mourning for their idol? Yes, he could – though if the plan was truly to work, his management insisted, he would have to wear a mask.

So, that’s what he did. For a time it worked, too, with the gigs selling out and the fan club swelling to 20,000 members, some of whom slept in their cars in order to stalk him. In the end, though, it was futile. Ellis hoped with all his heart that the “mystery” of his true identity would be “solved” and his career as a singer would proceed miraculously from there. When no one obliged, he began to feel the crowd was “applauding a ghost”. One day, unable to bear it any longer, he ripped off his mask, mid-gig. It was as if a spell had been broken. Now he was just a guy. Before too long, he was back in Alabama, running the pawn shop in which, in 1998, he would be murdered in a botched robbery. Indeed. As parables go, this one has everything, and Finlay told it bewitchingly well. If you missed it, watch it on catch-up – especially you, Victoria Beckham, imprisoned as you are by your vow never, ever to be caught smiling.

And now, a few thoughts on The Great Pottery Throw Down (last episode in the first series airs on 24 November, 9pm, BBC2). Unlike some, I think this show is going to be big – possibly huge – somewhere down the line. The numbers are going to build and build. Yes, its similarity to The Great British Bake Off is obvious but this is also irrelevant, for the simple reason that, unlike the other rip-offs – dressmaking, painting, allotment management, and on and on – there is something beautiful at its heart. The marriage of form and function achieved by a good potter, let alone a great one, is a more than ordinarily powerful and happy-inducing thing.

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What a lovely lot they are, these vets and soldiers and teachers, and what skill they have. Most of us, at a push, can bake a cake, but how many of us know how to throw a vase or bowl, let alone glaze it so it resembles the sea on a rough day or the moss on an ancient stone? It has the wrong presenter. The former ladette Sara Cox, with her endless double entendres, has no feeling at all for the craft at hand. It’s just a gig for her and her insincerity is obvious, a blot. She has been chosen, this is crystal clear, for her Lancashire accent, so as not to make the proceedings seem irredeem-ably middle-class (all the more unnecessary given the diversity of the cast). But otherwise The Pottery Throw Down is close to perfect. Matthew the Yorkshire school-master to win! 

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror