Michael Coveney: "Chalky" White brings style and glamour to London Film Festival
A new documentary about Michael White prompts Michael Coveney to reflect on an unsung trailblazer
Who wants to see a film documentary about a theatre producer? Most of us lot, I reckon, if not the world at large, but only if it's someone extraordinary like Cameron Mackintosh or Peter Hall, or indeed Michael White. Michael Who?
Old Chalky, that's who, the man who produced The Rocky Horror Show and signed away the rights by mistake in a cloud of hashish; the man who connived in the first theatrical sex revue, Oh, Calcutta! with Kenneth Tynan and Hillard Elkins; the hedonistic playboy who hung about in ski resorts and Riviera fleshpots with Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Jack Nicholson and Kate Moss.
He was, above all, the man who for 30 years could be relied upon to surprise and delight you with A Chorus Line (I'll never forget that first night at Drury Lane, and not just because it was my birthday; it was, anyway, the best present ever), Sleuth, Deathtrap, Crazy for You and even a show about shoes, sex and interrelated fetishism, Voyeurz.
Chalky's an enfeebled shadow of his old self nowadays, smitten with strokes and teetering on crutches, but a still elfin 76 year-old, attractive, wickedly twinkling, indefatigably party-going and, well, a bit different; he kept us all waiting before turning up ten minutes late for the premiere of his own life story as related by a pair of Aussie filmmakers - female and slinky, of course - at the London Film Festival in Leicester Square yesterday afternoon.
The Last Impresario probably won't make it for general distribution, but it's worth seeing when it arrives on the small screen, if only to be reminded how the commercial theatre nearly got hip and fashionable while White was around to pick up on the latest rock culture vibe.
He was always such fun, too, cheekily calling his own witty autobiography Empty Seats (after one flop too many) and turning up at an editorial lunch in Fleet Street to insist I was sacked (I wasn't) after I'd delivered a picky review of his rocked-up version of The Pirates of Penzance, which he'd brought from Joe Papp's Public Theatre in New York to Drury Lane.
The film hints at a chronic gambling habit and reports frankly that he made a fortune and lost it all. But where did his money come from in the first place? The family was obviously comfortable verging on filthy rich, but we heard nothing at all about that, except for the fact that little Michael had been sent away to school in Switzerland aged seven, severely asthmatic.
The Aussie doco dames had bumped into Chalky at the Cannes Film Festival, where he goes religiously (well, semi-religiously) every year, and it's typical of his wonderful gift for social availability that he allowed these nonentities to dig around in his personal and professional life, green-lighting their interviews with the likes of John Cleese (White presented Cambridge Circus, featuring Cleese and Bill Oddie, in the West End, the first student revue to make the commercial big time after Beyond the Fringe), Michael Billington, wise and analytical as ever, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory (whose brilliant My Dinner With Andre he filmed), his producing protege Robert Fox, his ex-wives and longest-standing girlfriend, the beautiful Lyndall Hobbs.
And, of course, Barry Humphries, who says he didn't really like Chalky (how could that be possible?) but somehow allowed him to produce him as Dame Edna in the West End after he'd suffered a setback or two on the boards. The Oz connection is enforced even more with the contributions of the Rocky Horror trio of designer Brian Thompson, author Richard O'Brien (looking strangely guarded and ethereal in cheap jewellery and a beige tunic) and, best witness of all, director Jim Sharman.
Sharman's the key figure here. He had proper rock theatre credentials and was directing Sam Shepard plays at the Royal Court when Rocky Horror happened; he tuned in exactly to White's wavelength of extracting the sexiest, culturally most transatlantic elements in the Royal Court artistic ethos of the day, and they all enjoyed the King's Road lifestyle that went with it.
The film doesn't really go into all of that, and there's a lot of boring wittering on from the deathly Alan Yentob - why? - about something or other and Chalky's ineffably marvellous personality. It's a shame, therefore, that he's allowed to be taken at his own flip estimation of himself, instead of as someone crucially wired into the creative energies of the Royal Court, the Public in New York, the rock and fashion scene, the zeitgeist. He's presented as a giggly, self-indulgent amateur.
Or perhaps that's just me wishing he'd been more persistent, more serious and more successful. But how do you measure such values? White's had a charmed life, he's the first to insist, and he's lived it to the full, enjoying company and putting on some great shows. What more would you want to do? Oh, and he still goes to the Cannes Film Festival every year, and still stays in the Hotel du Cap, talking to anyone who catches his eye. Such as hot-looking Aussie filmmakers...