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23 January 2019

Great Lives: BBC Radio 4’s marvellous, witty tribute to Freddie Mercury

It is a joy to hear Matt Lucas and Matthew Parris delivering facts about Mercury fast and openly, without side or line or pomposity.

By Antonia Quirke

Rarely have I heard a more accurate one-line review than the journalist Lesley-Ann Jones, official biographer of Freddie Mercury, on the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. “Rami Malek did a good enough job and the film put bums on seats.” Ouch.

A long-time friend of Mercury’s, she was talking to Queen fan Matt Lucas and Matthew Parris on a series-best edition of Great Lives (22 January, 4.30pm), devoted to the frontman. But despite Jones’s misgivings, at the time of writing Bohemian Rhapsody has made £618m globally (for comparison, the uber-juggernaut A Star is Born is at a mere £315m). More than anything, it’s a figure that proves the sheer likeability of a band that was 99.8 per cent Freddie Mercury and 0.2 percent good-humoured backing guys (to suggest otherwise is akin to the insane idea that Liam Gallagher would be nothing without his brother. Without Liam, Noel would be a Beatles copyist in a pub.)

Most producers only dream of the dynamic of this marvellous, witty programme; three people delivering facts fast and openly, without side or line or pomposity (I loved the story that at boarding school a 15-year-old Mercury casually referred to all his teachers as “darling”). Lucas said, “I do relate to the idea that Freddie wasn’t an Everyman,” and recalled his own experience as a stand-up unable to just saunter on stage with a pint. But he wasn’t comparing his talent to Mercury’s. Lucas knew his place. Mercury: the world’s greatest children’s performer. The Persian elf with an overbite singing coloratura to truck drivers (who loved it). The guy in a unitard trilling “Politician with senatorial pipe/He’s a dilly dally oh!” to a stadium of headbangers. Who else could have come up with that? I’m bringing Verdi to the masses, darling. Way too much is made of Ziggy Stardust. He’s a comprehensible, entirely era-appropriate creation. The journey from Farrokh Bulsara to Freddie Mercury is further than David Jones ever was to David Bowie.

Later, Lucas and Parris talked about how lucky they had been when younger to escape HIV infection. “If I were better looking I’d be dead,” admitted Parris, with absolute certainty. When’s the last time you heard that on Radio 4? 

Great Lives
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?