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Brief Encounter With ... Cleveland Street's Glenn Chandler

It sounds like a case worthy of investigation by Det Chief Inspector Taggart. How did Glenn Chandler, the creator of Taggart, the gritty Glaswegian detective series and a jewel in the crown of ITV drama since 1983, come to write a musical based on the notorious Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889?

One wonders what Taggart, played memorably by the late Mark McManus, would have made of this tale of a male brothel, much frequented by the highest echelons of society, where the hosts were teenagers, recruited from the ranks of the local telegraph-boys.

Al Senter talks to Chandler whose musical, directed by Tim McArthur, opens at Above the Stag on 28 April (previews from 26 April 2011) playing a limited run to 29 May.

"We dinna have such knocking-shops in Maryhill" Taggart would probably have growled.

For a man who has earnt a comfortable living from dreaming up elaborate ways of killing off his characters in plots of Byzantine complexity, Glenn Chandler is a remarkably cheerful and engaging personality. He keeps a weather eye on Taggart, the series that survived the death of McManus and the consequent disappearance of the character who gave his name to the programme. He no longer writes for the show and instead he has returned to the theatre where he had been working when a call came from Scottish Television.

"I'd been putting on plays at the old Soho Poly when I was asked to create a series about a Glasgow detective. When I pointed out that I actually came from Edinburgh, I asked if I could set the series there. But on grounds of cost, it had to be set in Glasgow. So I took a crash-course in Glasgow speak, doing my research by hanging around in bars. But there'd still be moments when I'd be told that what I'd written was pure Edinburgh and it needed translating into Glasgwegian."

As the creator of a long-running and international hit detective series, Chandler presumably doesn't have to worry about the source of the next penny. He's therefore been able to write a produce such Fringe plays as Sons Of The Empire and its sequel Scouts in Bondage, titles which may give a flavour of the camp irreverence of the work. What inspired him about the Cleveland Street scandal?

"I'd always been fascinated by the case" explains Chandler. "The Cleveland Street brothel was far from a house of ill repute: it was a high class establishment with silk bedlinen and velvet curtains and the boys weren't innocents but knew exactly what they were doing. Among the regular visitors was Lord Arthur Somerset, who was Head of the Stables for the Prince of Wales, and it was alleged but never proved that Prince Eddy, Queen Victoria's eldest grandson, had come to Cleveland Street. He died young in 1892 so we shall never know if the rumours were true."

Chandler is keen to emphasise that it's a fun evening, although he's also trying to make serious points about the hypocrisy of the British establishment and the way in which it looks after its own.

"All the aristocrats and the men of influence were allowed to escape when the police finally raided the premises. Only one of the boys was charged, quietly brought to court and sentenced to four months hard labour. The only other person jailed for his connection to Cleveland Street was Ernest Parke, the editor of the North London Press, who lost the libel case brought against him by Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Euston, and was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment. The main defence witness was a male prostitute known in the West End as Dublin Jack. So it came down to whose word was believed - the heir to the Duke of Grafton or a male hustler? All the aristocratic men involved in the scandal got off, scot-free. And nothing's changed in over a hundred years. It's the rich who takes their pleasures and the poor that pick up the tab."

For all the establishment's attempt to cover up the affair, it still attracted a good deal of public attention and to an extent influenced the climate that lay behind Oscar Wilde's disgrace a few years later.

"I'd argue that the Cleveland Street Scandal confirmed the worst fears of Victorian society. It established the idea in the public mind that homosexuality involved an older man, often wealthy and well-connected, corrupting a boy from a lower social class, an idea that persisted until the 1960s and the time of homosexual law reform."

In Cleveland Street - The Musical, Chandler has contributed both the book and the lyrics - a new departure for him.

"I believe that you should always do something you've never done before" he cheerfully admits. "Matt Devereaux has written the music which we're describing as part Gilbert and Sullivan, part music hall and part Offenbach, music which we'd like to think a Victorian coming back to life would recognise and enjoy. I'm a great admirer of musicals such as Spend Spend Spend where the music both tells the story and moves the action. I hate it when everything stops to allow a song to be sung. Writing a musical is a bit like writing a whodunnit: you know how it will end - you just have to find a way to get there."

Considering the substantial element of social realism in Taggart, it is surprising that his creator feels so at home in the past, where most of his plays have been set.

"I like period" Chandler observes, "I think I would find it difficult, if not impossible, to write a contemporary adolescent boy and yet I seem to be able to create teenagers of the 1890s or 1930s. In the late nineteenth century, there was not a recognised period called adolescence. Boys went from childhood to manhood overnight and wore cloth-caps and clothes just like their fathers. I'm also fascinated by the murders of another age. I was always trying to smuggle aspects of the classic murder into Taggart."

Although Chandler gibs at the term "musical comedy", there is plenty of both in Cleveland Street.

"We're not making any social points about whether or not you should legalise brothels and we all know about the phenomenon of people trafficking and of the exploitation that takes place. Cleveland Street - The Musical is not like that. We're hoping to entertain people by throwing light on a little known corner of Victorian social history. And you can't be coy about showing what went on. I'd describe the show as bawdy but tasteful."

Cleveland Street opens on 28 April (previews from 26 April) at Above the Stag and runs until 29 May 2011.

- Al Senter