Alan Plater, jazz and Ronnie Scott

June 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm (BBC, comedy, good people, jazz, literature)

‘He’s dead? (pause) Is it serious?’

Alan Plater is dead, and it is serious. It’s another loss to that tradition of serious, thought-provoking drama on mainstream TV. Drama that challenged you, but was popular and accessible. The Wednesday Play, anything by Dennis Potter, Coronation Street at its Chekhovian best and anything by Plater – even an episode of  ‘Midsummer Murders’ or ‘Lewis’: the sort of TV now under mortal threat from the bosses of the BBC and ITV and the lash of Simon Cowell. Jimmy McGovern’s ‘The Street’ was a brave attempt to maintain the tradition, but was, of course, cancelled.

Plater adhered to a gentle and rather romantic sort of socialism ( I say “gentle” -but an early stage play had a string of British prime ministers shot dead on stage), and was a keen and knowledgeable jazz fan. Jazz featured in much of his work (‘The Beiderbecke Affair’, ‘ Doggin’ Around’ and ‘The Last of the Blonde Bomshells’ as well as projects with musicians like Kenny Baker, Bruce Adams and Alan Barnes): he once said, “My approach to dramatic structure is to play Duke Ellington’s 1940 version of Harlem Airshaft, which contains all you need to know about dramatic structure, if you have ears to listen.”

In later years Ronnie Scott’s Club in Soho became almost a second home, and Ronnie himself a close friend. Here’s what Plater wrote about his relationship with jazz in general and with Ronnie Scott and the Club in particular:

Ronnie The Actor

There’s a well-worn line that runs: drummers and banjo players are guys who hang out with musicians. You can add writers to that list. Most of us wanted to be something else – in my case, Raich Carter in the winter, Bill Edrich in the summer, Jimmy James twice nightly and Duke Ellington after midnight. Nobody under fifty will know who the hell I’m talking about, the Duke aside; but writing plays was strictly a fifth best career choice.

The irony is that over the last couple of decades I’ve made a better living writing drama related to jazz than most people do playing the stuff: The Beiderbecke Trilogy, Rent Party, Misteriosos and of course, the BBC film, Doggin’ Around, starring Ronnie at the Club.

It was one of his few acting jobs – maybe the only one.

He accepted it on condition that he wouldn’t take his clothes off – ‘unless, of course, the part demands it.’

His performance, as himself, was an object lesson. It included an impeccable piece of telephone acting. His dialogue ran, from memory, something like this:

‘He’s dead? (pause) Is it serious? (pause) Does that mean he can’t play the tour? (pause) So tell me the bad news.’

The central character in Doggin’ Around, a sardonic American pianist, played by Elliot Gould, says later in the movie: ‘Life: that’s just a fancy word we use for filling in time between gigs.’

There was a lot of that in Ronnie, the way he stood at the mike, insulting the audience, the food and various ethnic minorities, saying to the world: take it easy. Folks, none of it is very important, apart from the music. And jazz by definition is a thing of the moment. If your ears blink, you miss it, and miss it forever. That’s why we don’t talk when the band is on-stage.

The jokes were crucial. All compulsive joke-collectors (and it takes one to know one) are busy keeping melancholy at bay. ‘We laugh lest we cry.’

There are dozens of moments to treasure. On an afternoon chat show, the ntotally admirable Mavis Nicholson commented on the fact that Ronnie was smoking. His immediate response was : ‘My doctor says I need the tar.’ Back in the 1970’s he played with his quintet (the band with Louis Stewart) at our studio theatre in Hull to a 200% capacity audience. Somebody must have been chucking them in. It can now be revealed that over 300 people crammed into an auditorium with 150 seats; the fire officer probably retired long ago.

That night Ronnie explained that the seagulls flew upside down over Stockton because there was nothing worth shitting on. I recycled the gag, substituting Gateshead for Stockton, for a play in Newcastle in 1995. It still works. That’s the way to maintain our British heritage.

(From ‘Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Farrago’, ed: Jim Godbolt, pub: Hampstead Press, 2008)

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