BANDWAGON by RICHARD COBOURNE
THURSDAY, ELSTREE STUDIOS
The rehearsals had not been going well. They had been at it from nine o’clock each morning until six in the evening for three weeks, six days a week. In the old days, two weeks together and the show would have been reasonably tight, leaving the remaining rehearsal time to polish and sprinkle on the fairy dust.
But today, tempers were frayed. They did not have a show that the paying public would feel justified the £95 upwards a ticket, never mind the grand or more for the VIP golden circle tickets that some were bidding for on secondary market websites and the black market.
One of the lifts that were to carry the thirty dancers high above the crowd had failed, jammed under the massive stage, spraying sticky hydraulic oil across the floor of Elstree Studios’ George Lucas production space. The routine could not continue with a hole the size of an articulated trailer where the thrust stage should have been. The rigging team were on it. Everyone else waited, drinking tea, coffee, water and Coke. Some outside smoking.
Martha, the star of the show, dozed in her oversized custom trailer with the extended sides. She was bored. Stop. Start. Wait. Go again. She sipped still water directly from a glass bottle – especially imported from springs somewhere in west Wales.
The lighting designer, Andy, normally calm and who could be relied on to keep the rest of the crew together had had enough. ‘We are all wasting our time and pissing away the rehearsal budget.’
James ‘Jimmy’ Patrick, the tour manager, privately agreed with his long-time friend. But Jimmy was being paid a premium to make this enormously complicated tour deliver not only a spectacular show but also return a big profit. ‘Martha doesn’t have her old spark back yet – but she does still have a massive loyal following. We’ll make this work.’
They were joined by some of the other technical and creative crew. Andy spoke for them all: ‘Let’s have tomorrow as a day off. Today’s Thursday – let’s all start again on Monday.’
Jimmy thought about it – the idea had some appeal. It took the pressure off the hydraulics engineers and riggers, giving them three days to ensure everything was ready for the final push. The challenge would be persuading Stanislaw Nowak – who trebled as The Management and unusually also the producer and the promoter of the tour.
‘I suppose Martha can rehearse to playback with the dancers on one of the empty stages,’ mused Jimmy. ‘Yvie, her vocal coach says she is nearly ready to go – just a bit of help to hit and hold the high notes is all that is needed. She could also use some extra sessions with her personal trainer, the choreography team don’t think she is fit enough to make it to the end yet without losing her breath. There are some pretty vigorous dance moves during the encore.’
There was muted agreement. Criticising the star of the show isn’t the accepted norm, but amongst friends, Jimmy thought it pointless hiding what everyone tacitly thought.
‘I’ll get back to you.’ Jimmy went off to find a quiet spot in one of Elstree Studios’ drab backstage corridors to call his boss, Stanislaw Nowak.
Martha – real name Jenny Johnson – hadn’t had a song in the charts for over seven years. She hadn’t had a number one for ten years. Sales had fallen off a cliff. At her height she was one of the world’s biggest recording artistes. This forthcoming UK, European and North African comeback tour, announced just four months ago, had rekindled the madness, affection and emotion.
Back in the day just saying the name ‘Martha’ would have whipped up crowds into a frenzy, busied local police forces and had the media in a feeding pack that outclassed any famished piranhas. The paparazzi could sell a decent off-guard picture for several thousand. One lucky snapper had caught Martha topless on a private beach in Ibiza – the pictures made a major splash in virtually every UK and European tabloid, funding the photographer’s forthcoming retirement. Some say he was tipped off. Martha had just had a boob job.
Danny Owen, celebrity and music reporter at Starshine 98.2 FM, arrived at Elstree’s gatehouse twenty minutes early for his exclusive interview with Martha. He was shown up to the door of the studio by one of the show’s runners – he passed through the maze of alleyways and corridors; the BBC’s temporary production cabins; and avoided several stacked scenic flats and tables of props ready to take their own starring roles in the various film and TV productions in Elstree’s other studios.
The PR, Daisy deVilliers, saw Danny waiting at the vast, open, soundproof door. She looked at her watch. Bugger, he’s bloody early, she thought, but then brightened at the thought of seeing Danny again. Daisy had been told by Jimmy that Martha was ‘resting’, not to be disturbed until the riggers had fixed the faulty staging.
Daisy smiled brightly and waved for Danny to come on in.
Danny paddled through the sticky hydraulic oil without at first noticing. He cursed – his off-air language was legendary. His on-air language occasionally fell afoul of the regulators. His deck shoes were ruined – they weren’t exactly pristine before he arrived. The walk from Elstree and Borehamwood station, along Elstree’s high street with its kebab and greasy fast-food outlets was littered with the trappings and effluent of last night’s excesses.
‘Wardrobe will probably have some shoes your size?’ offered Daisy. Danny and Daisy knew each other of old from the circuit, as many in the industry do. They kissed three times – once on each cheek and then a little more lingeringly on the lips. A few years ago, they enjoyed a bit-of-a-thing during the UK tour of The Sound of Music, sparked by Connie Fisher being told that she might never sing again. Danny was the first celebrity journalist to interview Kirsty Malpass who was deservedly thrust into the role of Maria.
Danny and Daisy didn’t work out then, not for any real reason other than they both worked in the personally antisocial business of show. They had together struck up a working unholy alliance that marks the relationship between journalist and PR, PR and journalist – sometimes based on mutual respect, not always, but as in their case followed by exchanges of bodily fluid. They had got over that, mostly. It could start again in the right circumstances. Or maybe not. There was certainly a latent chemistry between them, Daisy silently admitted.
Daisy’s long, dark hair tied in a loose ponytail swished as she turned. Her willowy frame made the best of her jeans and plain white blouse. She was one of those people who always managed to look perfect whatever the time of day – or whatever had happened the night before. She had made a little extra effort knowing that she was seeing Danny today – she kidded herself she wondered why. Had Danny noticed? Probably not. Bloody men. She humphed out loud.
Over the years they had worked and played together, Danny and Daisy had seen a parade of hot new things come and go, many dropped by their management and labels far more quickly than they had been wooed. A few survived – survived until they could no longer provide a lavish income for the varying-sized entourage that hang protectively on the tailcoats of ‘The Talent’.
Daisy led Danny to the wardrobe area. ‘Daphne, have you got a spare pair of trainers please?’
Daphne ran the wardrobe and costume department like a military operation. She had to – after each show everyone’s sweaty clothes had to be cleaned and pressed. On the forthcoming ‘Martha Movin’ Out’ tour, she had five sets for everyone so she could leapfrog. With some of the dancers making five changes per show and Martha herself with eight, her empire was going to fill at least three articulated trailers, two for clothes neatly arranged on hanging rails and one for laundry and running repairs. The security on these trailers is always tight – some fans get very excited about dirty clothes.
‘Don’t talk to me about trainers, the whole front end is full.’ Daisy wondered if Daphne was having a go at her. Daphne’s role as tour costume designer and wardrobe mistress – frocks and socks – was sometimes eschewed by the rest of the crew, yet adored by fashionistas, gossip magazines and the artistes.
‘Nike have donated a range of their latest products for the after-show parties,’ Daisy explained to Danny. ‘And for Martha and the band to wear during interviews.’
Daisy was proud of bringing in the lucrative Nike deal as part of her role generating sponsorship, however she knew she trod on creative sensitivities and alleged integrity on the well-worn path between art and profit.
‘Size elevens I reckon?’ Daphne said, peering at Danny’s oily deckies. She held up a sparkly multi-coloured pair embattled with purple sequins. They all grimaced. The Air Max black ones with the distinctive Nike tick fitted perfectly.
‘Let’s get a coffee. Martha won’t be rehearsing again until the staging is fixed.’ Daisy led Danny over to catering. ‘I’ll fill you in with the background.’
Danny knew he had to listen to the PR-spurt, it was part of both their jobs – and to be fair Danny knew he wouldn’t be fed the bullshit that more inexperienced tour PRs would offer as the truth.
As they walked over, Danny marvelled at the location catering. ‘Starring-Meals-on-Wheels’ was up there with the best. Carbs for the stage crew. Protein for the performers. Haute cuisine for The Management. Salads. Wheat-free. Vegan. Vegetarian. All had to be given equal attention. The Talent, Martha, had her own special menu. All had to be ready within thirty minutes of arriving on site and capable of serving the entire touring crew and hangers-on of well over a hundred within forty minutes – all prepared and served from a modified 7.5 tonne van.
‘Two cappuccinos please Shirley.’ Daisy ordered for Danny. Danny nodded with a smile.
The normal frothing and bubbling sounds could soon be heard. Decent coffee was important for cast and crew morale – no instant here.
‘Do you want something to eat?’ offered Daisy, hoping he would say yes. All helped to cover the delay whilst the technical problems hopefully were sorted. Danny had been promised that he could see the rehearsals of one song before he interviewed Martha.
The blackboard menu offered the obligatory bacon sandwiches, and halloumi for the non-meat eaters – the foundation of the morning ritual of any crew on the road, be it music, film or TV. ‘Morning’ always came late in the night-time focused world of performance.
Danny realised he was hungry. At just gone nine-thirty that morning, he had struggled from Leicester Square, central London against the last of the morning rush hour, then caught the Thameslink from London St Pancras to Elstree. He had finished his early shift on the Starshine Radio breakfast show – his alarm had ‘exploded’ earlier that morning at four-thirty. Danny wasn’t the main DJ, but one of the regular on-air team that added extra sparkle acting as a foil, or fall guy, to the monstrous ego of the main man, Gordon.
Lynne (traffic), Phil (sport), Alan (news) and Danny shared a mutual loathing of Gordon – well hidden on-air. Sometimes it bubbled over off-air especially if anyone had, in Gordon’s insecure mind, stolen the punch line or upstaged him. Gordon told anyone and everyone who would listen he was ‘The Main Man’ and the rest of his colleagues were just lucky to have a job on the radio.
‘Location catering always amazes me.’ Danny’s coffee arrived across the high stainless-steel counter in the branded ‘Martha Movin’ Out’ mug.
‘You can keep the mug.’ Shirley had two thousand. ‘This is the easy bit.’
Shirley was happy to chatter as she grilled the bacon. ‘During rehearsals only the odd visitor, the performers and tech crew to feed. Loads more when we get on the road – some days over two hundred I’m told. Never heard such a thing. No one will confirm how many. How am I expected to cater without knowing how many? No doubt, all starving and not much in the way of local supplies on some legs, so we’ll have to take most with us. Lots of plant-only menus too – far more than normal. We’ll be taking a self-powered refrigerator truck. Honestly, never heard such a thing. Bollocks to Greg Wallace – cooking really doesn’t get tougher than this.’ Shirley emphasised the word ‘this’.
They all laughed. Shirley continued, ‘Now go and sit down in the sun and I’ll bring the sarnies out to you.’
Daisy quickly ushered Danny away. They could both hear Shirley’s repeated mantra over the sizzling, ‘never heard such a thing’. She happily admitted she could talk the hind legs off a donkey; nevertheless Shirley was a calming maternal influence for many of the cast and crew. She was told she had a ‘bus-stop face’ – people would tell her their innermost secrets. Shirley was very good at keeping secrets.
The production design team had set up some trendy sea-side deckchairs, comfortable polyrattan chairs, tables and umbrellas outside, behind Elstree’s George Lucas production stage, to take full advantage of the early spring sunshine – and to get everyone out of the artificial indoor world, full of tension that was beginning to turn to frustration.
Danny munched the thick organic bacon in the soft, white crusty bloomer. Butter dribbled down his chin – without being asked, Daisy wiped it off with a paper serviette.
‘Weren’t you and Martha in school together?’ Daisy enquired. Jealous, she wondered, or professional interest? She thought she knew the answer. It was good to see Danny again.
Danny was an attractive guy; tall, short blond hair, the heavy-rimmed glasses made him look studious – and although he didn’t look as if he worked out, he was certainly fit enough. His piercing blue eyes had melted many a heart. Daisy wondered what he would look like walking out of the sea in her own personal Poldark moment. At thirty-eight he was still resolutely single after a failed marriage – his latest girlfriend had moved out a couple of months ago. Apparently, Danny wasn’t home enough.
‘Martha and I were in secondary school together near Birmingham. We helped each other out revising – we both took English, Art and Music. Although clearly Jenny, sorry Martha, was absolutely the best in music the school had ever had. We sort of went out together for a while. Nothing too serious then, just a bit of snogging and fumbling at the youth club. We met up again a few years ago and dated for a while.’ Danny vacillated. ‘But then things got in the way as they do. You know what it’s like.’
Danny decided not to say more. The relationship had developed a sinister third partner as Martha’s career declined – she had returned to booze and drugs. He had tried his best to get Martha to see someone, but in a massive state of self-denial she refused. They argued about it until Danny could take no more and he had ended it. They hadn’t seen each other since.
Daisy nodded – she knew about some of Martha’s problems.
‘You were just starting in music and celebrity, weren’t you?’ She gently probed a bit further. ‘You were less critical of Martha’s later music than many others?’
‘I actually liked it – it had a certain honesty. Probably too complex and self-indulgent for some of Martha’s adolescent fan base. Made for good late-night radio play.’ Danny sipped some of his coffee.
‘It wasn’t commercial.’ Daisy paused, cup in mid-air. She hoped she wasn’t obviously interrogating Danny. ‘Did you know her brothers and sisters?’
‘I knew her twin sister Vikki, but not as well as I knew Martha. I went to their house many times when we were in school. Homework. Shared love of music. But Vikki and I never really got on, nothing serious, just didn’t click I suppose – she was a wild child. I didn’t hang out with Martha’s other brothers and sisters either, two sets of twins too – they were younger. The house was chaotic most of the time. Six children in three pairs all within four years of each other!’
‘Wow!’ Daisy looked askance. ‘Were Vikki and Martha identical?’
‘They looked similar without make-up when they were younger. But Vikki cut her hair short and dyed it as Martha became more known. She always tried to distance herself from Martha – jealousy, I guess? Must have been difficult with a talented twin sister, even at school Martha was always the star, top of the bill at concerts and events. They were never that close, but when a few other kids tried to bully them both, they did stand up for each other. Only thing they did do together – if the going got tough they were a formidable pair supporting each other. Definitely a love-hate relationship. Vikki could be vicious and spiteful. Martha was always the more naïve and friendlier of the two.’
Danny’s mood changed and sadness spread across his face, the elephant in the room now released. ‘The accident was terrible.’
‘What was it, twelve, fifteen years ago?’ asked Daisy.
‘The minibus driver was stoned. He lost control in thick fog on the M1 north of Watford. Everyone was killed – the children and the parents. It was an awful time for everyone. Neither Martha nor Vikki were on the bus.’ Danny reflected on how that night changed his life. He was surprisingly more affected than he thought he would be – death and mourning takes everyone differently. Some of the emotion welled up now. Daisy reached across and gently held his hand in an unexpected moment of intimacy.
Neither knew what to do or say.
The moment passed.
Danny tried to pull himself together by engaging professional mode. ‘Martha was clearly going to be a star even back then. The five of them in the group were just beginning their music careers as a family. They called themselves Solihull Soultrain. Naff name, but they had a couple of minor hits and a lot of determination. The parents were managing them – they were incredibly ambitious and controlling. Vikki wasn’t in the band – she wasn’t good enough. Probably that’s what made her rebellious? Obviously both Vikki and Martha were devastated, to lose your parents and siblings in one go is unimaginable.’
Daisy nodded. ‘I remember. The vultures circled – any number of allegedly sympathetic management companies offered to take Martha on, sensing a commercial opportunity based on the media potential of the accident. It did ensure a bit of airplay and led the news for a couple days. And it did launch Martha’s stellar rise to the top. Her chosen management company, gone long ago, made a killing.’
Danny gave Daisy a wry smile at the accidental faux pas. They sat in silence for a while, reflecting, while finishing their coffees.
‘Martha and I discussed whether we would bring the accident up again now. She said she would answer if anyone really pushed but we weren’t to include anything in the press releases.’ Daisy was insistent she controlled the message.
‘Fair enough, I won’t go there. I suppose it might reveal where Martha was – out of her skull at a party with Vikki. Martha always said it was Vikki who had introduced her to drugs?’ Danny’s unasked question was now out there, awaiting an answer.
‘She’s clean now,’ Daisy obliged. Danny might be a trusted friend, but she still had her PR job to do. ‘Martha told me she didn’t know about the accident until the following morning. She switched on her phone – it didn’t stop pinging. She had over two-hundred messages. Off the record she had several counselling sessions for PTSD. Couldn’t shake off the guilt.’
‘Probably the beginning of the end of the sisterly relationship too?’ asked Danny.
‘For a while neither Vikki nor Martha spoke to each other – I don’t really know how their relationship stands now. Only hearsay.’ Daisy made a note on her iPhone – possibly a loose end. ‘I have been told they are back on reasonable speaking terms.’
Danny waited for Daisy to finish tapping away. ‘It’s an ill wind and all that. The deaths certainly did catapult Martha’s solo career – didn’t her first CD and single go straight to number one?’
‘I wasn’t working with her then – she had an uncompromising management company that pushed her too hard. They didn’t give a toss about her emotions, just cynically leveraged every opportunity.’ Daisy’s freelance life hip-hopped between music and celebrity clients. ‘Martha’s “Missing You, Loving You” was the Christmas big one. Stayed at the top for seventeen weeks. You couldn’t switch on daytime TV without finding Martha being interviewed and talking about the accident – and then shedding a tear, magnificently timed to coincide with the last fifteen seconds of the interview.’
They both laughed at the pre-planned machinations of the world of show business. The mood lifted.
‘Even Private Eye had a front cover suggesting she cried because the interview was over, and she could see the floor manager winding them up. It was a miracle she managed to get it together when asked to sing.’
‘You have to admire her – she knew how to work an audience.’ Daisy put on a face. ‘The last big close-up with a tear just beginning to form kept the emotional sell going.’
‘I was surprised to get the email from Martha with the invitation to come up here for an exclusive one-to-one – especially after all this time…’ Danny hesitated ‘… And our past. I listened to some old tapes last night and to the documentary I made just after the release of her final album. Brought back memories.’
Danny omitted to mention the blazing row that was their final straw and the acrimonious split. Luckily for them both, their former relationship and Martha’s recreational habits were overlooked by the media.
‘I’m looking forward to seeing her again.’ Danny was obviously not that enthusiastic – he was a professional and the interview would make good radio. ‘I do wonder, why me? There seemed to be something more though. It was weird. Martha had emailed “We NEED to speak. I MUST see you.” Need and must in capital letters.’ Danny finished his bacon sandwich, wiped his hands on another recyclable paper serviette and threw it in the bin.
‘Martha absolutely insisted you were the only person she would give an interview to during rehearsals. Helped me a load.’ Daisy was curious, but Danny’s loyal following on Starshine Radio did make PR sense. ‘I’ve only been working on this tour for a few weeks.’
‘Maybe I’m being paranoid? Reading more into the email than there is – celebrity histrionics?’ Danny and Daisy had seen it all before. ‘Attention seeking?’
They got up and walked back into the studio to somewhere quieter. Danny had pulled out from his tan Billingham bag, with the distinctive leather straps, the Yellowtec iXm recorder microphone, the staple of most radio reporters. He popped a single earpiece into his left ear and hit the red record button – a signal to them both that, from now on, it was on the record.
‘So, tell me about the tour. You seem to have a sure-fire success.’
Daisy switched to work mode. ‘The forthcoming world comeback tour has rekindled the madness, emotion and love for Martha. We’re thrilled that CD re-issues and downloads are doing well. Tickets have already sold out for many of the gigs.’
‘You left many fans disappointed when the web-site crashed,’ Danny demanded.
‘Martha is really sorry about that. The back-room team have increased the bandwidth and number of global servers, so it shouldn’t happen again. The tour’s initial ticket run was oversubscribed in just a few minutes – showing how much Martha is loved. For more tickets go to www.MarthaMovinOutTour.com. Remember no G.’
Daisy had persuaded the creative team to parody Steve Wright’s Serious Jockin’ as part of a strategy to win an invitation to appear on BBC Radio Two’s influential afternoon show.
‘We have already announced more dates,’ she continued, getting into her stride. ‘We will be releasing even more soon, and the tour is being extended across even more countries. Martha loves her fans and she wants to see as many as she can. Please keep visiting www.MarthaMovinOutTour.com. Remember no G.’
‘Will Martha be singing new material or relying on her back catalogue?’
Daisy was about to pitch the story when she was interrupted by a carefully contrived verbal explosion from behind the massive stage.
‘What the fuck do you mean, give the crew some fucking time off?’ Stanislaw Nowak was not taking Jimmy’s suggestion well. ‘If they want some fucking time off, they can fucking fuck off for good. They are here to fucking well get this fucking show fucking perfect. If they can’t hack it, fucking get in someone else. What the fuck do I pay them for?’
Stanislaw Nowak waddled across the studio floor as fast as his corpulent bulk would take him – his shirt untucked and already wet from the exertion.
Daisy ran over to the source of the outburst, hoping to prevent an incident in front of Danny. ‘The music reporter from Starshine is here to interview Martha. I was just giving him some background whilst we were waiting for the stage to be fixed and Martha to restart rehearsals.’
Stanislaw Nowak knew Starshine Radio was important. His attitude changed instantly – as if he had never had the outburst. He tucked in his shirt, checked his hair in one of the many back-stage mirrors, and seemingly serene, walked around the corner. ‘Mate, how are you… ?’
Danny was utterly silent. The blood drained form his face. Shocked. The bile catapulted up into his throat.
Seeing Stanislaw Nowak again after all this time was an appalling surprise. He rushed outside where he explosively threw up onto one of Shirley’s gaily striped deckchairs.
Memories of ten years ago flooded back.
Stanislaw Nowak left Daisy and Danny to it. Fucking journos, thought Nowak.
Daisy stood there, wondering what had just happened.
The smell was appalling.
The microphone continued recording.