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5 February 2009

She’s a celebrity, get me out of here

Beware: this hour and a half of luvvie talk is only for the bravest of listeners

By Antonia Quirke

If there’s a more terrifying 90 minutes on national radio than Elaine Page on Sunday (weekly, 1pm, Radio 2) then I’d like to hear it. Single-handedly perpetuating the stereotype that there are no people like show people, the diva’s slot opened this week festooned with a burst of EP singing fruitily over the soundtrack to The Boy Friend. “Tuum tum teee . . . and that was from the marvellous 1971 version of the musical starring Twiggy and directed by the marvellous – d’you know what? I’ve had a thought! The marvellous Barbara Windsor was in that! Why don’t we get Barbara in some day! Better write that down, Malcolm, else I’ll forget . . .”

Malcolm is EP’s producer/gimp, who occasionally pipes up from beneath the mountain of Matt Monro to confirm that Elaine is indeed being marvellous. “I’m just writing it down,” hurries Malcolm, “what a marvellous idea!”

Elaine laughs. How to describe the deep, deep unconscious aggression of this laugh? A laugh that would doubtless describe itself as “appreciative” or possibly even “lushly upholstered”, it believes it’s simply drinking in all the marvellousness of the world, but actually throws up an image of Elaine lying back on a cream sofa in a Wimpole Street mews and opening a Blockbuster-Night-In-sized pack of Maltesers, then proceeding to make a series of extremely violent crank calls. The merest hint of this truly shivers the timbers, and whenever it bursts forth, one senses an electricity in the room, the stunned determination of other people in the vicinity to just see it through, that it will end soon.

After several long, extraordinary moments Elaine now welcomes this week’s guest, her dear friend Don Black, the most successful lyricist of all time, who has written songs for Lulu, Michael Jackson, and, of course, her. “Hello, Don, marvellous to see you.” “Marvellous to see you too, my darling.” “Don, let’s talk movies.”

Elaine is particularly keen to get under the skin of what makes a good Bond theme song. Are there special demands made on the composer, for instance? “Oh, yes,” allows Don, “it’s got to have irony and the whiff of the boudoir! In my opinion Shirley should sing all of them.” Elaine lets this pass and sharpens her voice, determined to whip up an intellectual storm in Don’s cortex with a really tough question: has the style of the Bond theme songs changed at all? Don pauses. “I think they’ve gone more contemporary . . .” he says perspicaciously, “. . . with Madonna and what have you. But ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ still gives you such a tinkly feeling!”

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EP cedes Don’s radical theory by permitting Malcolm to play a burst of Shirley being marvellous, but she was clearly keen to get to the bit where she could reminisce about her own turn as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, “the role that first took me to Broadway”. “And you were marvellous, darling!” confirms Don. “Your opening in New York was stunning.” Elaine sighs. “That was a night to remember, wasn’t it,” she nods triumphantly. “I was sitting next to Ruthie. . .” continued Don, warming to his task (“Dear Ruthie,” murmurs EP) “. . . and there were just tears running down our faces. . .” And so on, until Elaine was simply forced to commit the uncoolest crime on radio and play herself singing something. Sort it out, Malc.

Pick of the week

Jon Ronson and the Quest for the Aryan Cow
10 February, 11am, Radio 4
The peerless Ronson investigates a Nazi zoo.

The Essay: Darwin’s Children

9-13 February, 11am, Radio 3
The link from Darwin to online social networks is pure chimp.

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