Nick (Lock, Stock...) Moran’s currently involved in two West End shows that couldn’t have more different subjects. At the Criterion, he’s (implausibly) playing 19th-century critic John Ruskin in The Countess, a play about a scandal that rocked Victorian artistic society. And now Telstar, which he’s written with James Hicks, comes in after a tour, telling a story that’s part-Phil Spector, part-Joe Orton, and all true.
If you didn’t know that this play is based on real-life events, you might find it hard to believe what’s shown. This is partly because the exposition is occasionally too clunky for comfort, but mostly because the truth about pop producer Joe Meek is so extraordinary. He really did create Britain’s biggest-selling (pre-Beatles) single ever – Telstar by The Tornados - in a flat above a handbag shop on Holloway Road.
Meek would record the band in his living room, vocalists in the bathroom (for reverb), the “orchestra” on the landing and so on. He’d assemble tracks from separately taped segments, and put stuff through weird homemade echo units to get his trademark big, spacy sound. He was also a gay man with a taste for cottaging, and believed he was in touch with Buddy Holly from the other side. All the stuff of drama, and more.
On 3 February 1967, the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, Meek shot his landlady dead and then killed himself. He’d long been in decline: the hits had stopped coming, his speed-freak taste for slimming pills had turned into an addiction to prescription uppers and downers, and there’d been an ugly break-up with his failed protégé Heinz. At the end, he was a paranoid wreck.
Writers Moran and Hicks cram in all the highs and lows, although they sometimes have to resort to clumsy announcements on a radio to fit in basic information. There’s a bit too much knowing humour to lines such as “Rolling Stones? No, they’re just a little warm-up act.” Though I liked the manager saying “We could all do without your vulgar music-hall comments, Hodges” to a muso who would later become Chas of Chas & Dave!
At the preview performance I saw, Linda Robson was a bit too EastEnders as landlady Mrs Henson, but Con O’Neill was on terrific form as Meek himself. This is not a cosy nostalgia musical: we see the songs being put together, but never hear more than snatches. I think it’s all the better for taking this approach. As long as you don’t come along expecting something else, it makes for a fascinating evening.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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