Updated: Oct 2
Interviewed by Jonathan Ross in 1991, Rula Lenska, Julie Covington and Charlotte Cornwell put the unexpected success of the 1970s series Rock Follies in which they starred down to several factors: sister’s doin’ it for themselves and also the unique format of the show. The show certainly had something – a certain Je ne sais quoi. Time for a trip down memory lane to the scorching hot year of 1976, year of the hose pipe ban, hot pants, glitter and James Hunt. Oh, what fun!
With its fusion of drama (always veering towards camp) which told the struggles of a female rock group in a man’s world and its funky soundtrack in which the group performed their songs, TV had not seen anything like it. Rock Follies became a ratings winner for ITV. Its trio of female leads went on to further success. Covington, easily the best vocalist of the three, had a number one smash hit with her definitive version of ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina.’ Life imitating art.
The plot was fairly simple: Nancy 'Q' Cunard de Longchamps (Lenska), Dee (Covington) and Anna (Cornwell) are a trio of actresses who meet during a disastrous musical theatre run. Brought together by musical director and songsmith Derek (Emlyn Price) adopting the admittedly naff and unimaginative sobriquet ‘The Little Ladies’ the trio set out to conquer the music biz. Naturally, it’s a path fraught with all sorts of problems – professional and personal.
For starters, there’s the problem of men. All three songbirds are heavily involved in relationships which seem to hold them back. Aristocratic Q lives with Carl a lugubrious yank played with customary comic brilliance by Michael Shannon (Do check him out in the second season of A Very Peculiar Practice). Dee lives in a socialist commune with ‘Spike’ (A ridiculously young Billy Murray of The Bill Fame.) Anna meanwhile co-habits with sociology lecturer Jack (Stephen Moore) fond of lecturing his beau as much as his students.
While the whole series is performed very much tongue-in-cheek the dramas within Dee’s commune provide plenty of extra laughs. Populated by a ragtag bunch of idealists and hypocrites, there’s never too much karma in the walls of this socialist utopia. That 70s commune spirit is mocked, but only gently.
Without wishing to get dragged down into sexual politics, the ladies find liberation on the road. In Rock Follies it’s the gals who cheat on the guys although the men-folk are, one way or the other, supposed to approve of these open relationships – at least that’s the theory. They do – until the gals put theory into practice. There’s a lot of fun to be had with the male partners precisely because they are archetypes: gruff, macho, jealous, vain etc the guys eventually support the ambitions of these trio of female free spirits - even if begrudgingly.
Interspersed in between the domestics are various performances from The Little Ladies. Starting off pure rock n’ roll, by the end of season 1 the act has evolved into something far more polished – much to Dee’s irritation, a pure rocker at heart. Cue the appearance of Michael Angelis as Svengali Stavros. Camped up to the point of sinister by Angelis, the Greek tycoon wants to turn the group into a commercial success – on his terms. That’s ok with Q and Anna, but not Dee. Tensions rise.
Look out for some moments of pure rock n’ roll brilliance. The album of the series went straight into the charts at no. 1 and stayed there for three weeks – a feat never before achieved. With Lenska and Cornwell’s backing Covington duly emerges as something special. Some of the tunes are especially memorable e.g. 'Sugar Mountain' or the Kate Bush-esque 'Hot Neon.' But with the ghostly setting of its video, last forlorn dance and the ladies clad in khaki, the standout song of the series must surely be the haunting ‘Glenn Miller is Missing.’ Perfection!
So popular was the series it returned as Rock Follies of ’77. Six more episodes to enjoy! In her interview with Mr Ross, Lenska revealed she’d have been more than happy to have done more series. Hardly surprising – the whole thing comes across as just a great big bundle of fun. This is the type of show in which money is referred to as 'bread!' Kitsch as Christmas, Viva Rock Follies, television from a different age - an age of innocence before politically correct roundheads sucked the joy out of everything and by Jasper does it show. Oh how it shows.