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Thirteen going on fifty: Julie Burchill finds her teenage self in Jackie the Musical

People can be sniffy about jukebox musicals but in my opinion they are infinitely preferable to overblown and pretentious middlebrow stuff.

Stepping inside the Theatre Royal, ­Brighton on a frisky Friday night, I swear I got an ­immediate contact high from the fumes of Prosecco and HRT: I don’t think I’ve been to such a thoroughly good-natured gathering since the opening night of Banksy’s Dismaland last summer. About 90 per cent of the audience were women of a certain age – old enough to know better, but young enough to throw caution to the Aqua Manda-scented breeze should the fancy take them – smothered in sequins, lathered in Lurex and out for a good time recalling their Fruit Salad chew days through the medium of the era’s toppermost of the poppermost. I was proud to be one of them.

Though Jackie was launched in 1964 – by Gordon Smart, an ex-RAF engineer, for “go-ahead teens” – and folded in 1993, its golden years marked the time of my teens, from 1972 to 1979. At the start of the decade I was a shy provincial child who saw the sooty-eyed, storm-haired girls of the cartoon strips as unimaginably sophisticated; by the end of it, I was a leather-clad teenage reporter who saw them as hopeless hicks.

My colleagues at the IPC-owned NME delighted in telling me that Jackie was the product not of fevered London-flat-sharing teenage girls’ imaginations, as we readers had somehow convinced ourselves, but rather was cobbled together by a bunch of bitter, middle-aged men at IPC’s rival publisher D C Thomson. But cynicism can be a real buzz-kill, and for one night only I was happy to be wearing my short-sighted head.

People can be sniffy about jukebox musicals but in my opinion they are infinitely preferable to overblown and pretentious middlebrow stuff such as Sunset Boulevard, where the only slightly memorable refrain turns up every 20 minutes and you’re so desperate for a tune, you’re grateful for even a slight respite from the ongoing tedium. The songs here were a cracking selection, beautifully driving the plot – in which a divorcee, Jackie, is given advice from Jackie magazine by her teenage self – from the opener, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, to the closing number, “I Can See Clearly Now”. Janet Dibley, who plays the eponymous heroine, can really sing, has a wonderful face that would be equally at home smoking a cigarette through an ivory holder or suffering over a kitchen sink, and was totally believable here as both the wined-up ex-wife and the starry-eyed senior sexpot. She is familiar from EastEnders (playing Lorna Cartwright), and the casting of the one-time Walfordian Nicholas “Dr Trueman” Bailey as her internet-dating love interest lent a pleasing air of parallel universes to the proceedings.

There were just one or two numbers – 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love”, to be precise – that had Dibley and Bailey looking briefly baffled, the puzzlement on their faces indicating perchance that they were wondering whether death by strangulation or shotgun might be more suitable for their agents. However, the dirge soon died a merciful death and we were straight into the evening’s crotch-grabbing, air-punching, show-stopping number, T Rex’s “20th Century Boy”.

It was during this astoundingly lively routine – largely performed by a dry-humping youngster atop a bar – that the evening caught fire, and the sheer immortal, visceral power of the very best pop music made ­itself known in the building.

We were suffering something of a collective hot flush after that and the evening soon came to a satisfyingly non-syrupy close. You know you’re having fun when having your seat kicked rhythmically by the overexcited matron sitting behind you fills you not with annoyance, but rather with a further intensifying of that oceanic feeling. Looking at the gangs of happy, statuesque, singing women around me, wigging out in the aisles with my two bezzie mates, shouting back at the ensemble the words of “Tiger Feet”, I felt as though I really was living the teenage dream.

I always found it freaky to think that my grandmother was alive in Edwardian times, but the world before the internet and Islamofascism – rocked in the bosom of Cold War security – seems equally foreign now. I’d expected there to be a somewhat maudlin mood among the audience, but detected none at all; instead, the overweening feeling was one of relief, not just that we’d made it this far, but that we weren’t young now, in these desperate days. I left the theatre quite tipsy on just two gins, pleased I’d come through and looking forward to more. For inside this fat, fiftysomething, much-married matron, the go-ahead teen survives. 

“Jackie: the Musical” is on tour across the UK until 30 July

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

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I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game