The road outside the cinema was busy, dualled, and on these wet nights its blacktop dazzled and fizzed. British filmgoing was not quite at the end of its VHS-inspired sag, but it wouldn’t be long, and the buildings on either side of the Odeon were empty and derelict respectively. White-socked mullets and blousons smoked in the lobby. In 1984, I was 18 months away from my first date, so must have pushed my way through it all with my family to be confronted with Pearl and Dean, and then this:
And that’s how I met Cole Porter. Unforgettable, what?
In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see that Kate Capshaw doesn’t quite pull it off, and it’s neither a nightclub show nor a rematch with Busby Berkeley, and in French too of course. But she’s close. And isn’t this where you’re supposed to come across Cole Porter for the first time – half-tight in black tie in a blur of booze, art deco, food and fine automobiles, in 1935?
Ideally: and it’s one of the most underrated disadvantages of being human that we can so easily imagine the ideal, and even more easily feel a kind of grief at its absence. We can dream up without difficulty a perfect set of circumstances in which to experience life, culture, or more or less anything at all. But of course, I didn’t run across Cole Porter in those circumstances, and the chances are that neither did you.
What’s more, neither did almost everyone, even in 1935. Actually, make that 1936, the year of the execrable Merman/Crosby film treatment of Anything Goes, and insert an admittedly newer and better decorated cinema than 1984’s Odeon on London Road. Or insert somewhere a little like Russells or Acott’s on Oxford High Street: a music shop with a hint of damp about it, browsers in wet overcoats flipping through racks of (new!) shellac 78s in search of Blow Gabriel Blow. Or insert a street corner pub in a district reeking of coalsmoke and invoke that forgotten source of interwar boozer trouble and strife, the bellowing radio set behind the bar.
It’s a line of thought capable of almost infinite expansion. Dorothy Parker, met not at the Alonquin but in a gaslit public library in Shropshire at dusk. Mozart, heard not in a grand Viennese concert hall but on an empty London Underground platform at the close of the 90s. Van Gogh, encountered not in the heat of the Provencal sun, but on a dogeared old postcard pinned up in a classroom.
The mind skips these scenarios like record grooves, looking for something better to settle on. I once heard Peter Hurford at the Sheldonian Theatre, and now it’s as though all harpsichord music I run across is actually somehow experienced there, and not on a tinny car radio on the M6 or on a walkman as the train rolls sullenly through Battersea Park Station. To go back to Kate Capshaw, our minds spend their time in pre-War Singapore nightclubs whilst our ill-dressed bodies smoke in a lobby, half a world and half a lifetime away.
The new generation’s coming across Cole Porter in Fallout 3. Better than the Odeon! Here’s one of the few really good pre-War recordings – Paul Whiteman with Ramona (Cole Porter’s own piano rendition would have been better, but Fallout 3 has done its work, and there’s no decent Youtube copy out there. But although he did spend the interWar years in spectacular nightclubs, he knew: and you have to wonder where his imagination spent its days).
- If Baby I’m the Bottom: Bad Adaptations of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”
- Noir in the Home Counties: Carol Reed’s The Third Man