Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Rula Lenska - From Rock Follies to Eurobeat

If things had gone according to plan, Rula Lenska would be hosting the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest after a storming victory by the UK at this year's event caused this somewhat fractured isle to be host country the following year. As it turned out, the UK entry, You're Not Alone sung by Joe and Jake, finished twenty-fourth out of twenty-six, with Ukraine taking the top slot, with 1944 by Jamala. This also had the honour of being the first song to be sung in Crimean Tartar throughout the contest's entire history. Since then, of course, Britain's place in Europe itself has been turned upside down following the EU referendum and the surprise win by the pro-Leave campaign.

Fortunately for Eurovision, Britain and the entire world, Lenska has found her rightful place in a revival of Eurobeat, the interactive late night Eurovision pastiche last seen in Edinburgh in 2007. Featuring new songs by Craig Christie and Andrew Patterson, Eurobeat centres around a fictional Song Contest held in cash-strapped Moldova, where a range of high-camp talent is let loose from across the globe. There is even an entry from The Vatican.

Lenska taps into her aristocratic east European lineage to play ex KGB spy Katya Kokov, who hosts the show alongside former member of 1990s line-dancing cheese-poppers Lee Latchford Evans, who plays the equally fancifully named Nikolae Nikovsky. At the end each performance, and in keeping with Eurovision tradition, there will be a live vote before a winner is declared. This will raise funds for Scotland's Hepatitis C charity, Waverley Care, as well as for the arts access based Dickens Legacy.

“It's not just theatre,” says a still husky sounding Lenska about the show. “It's a Happening. It's quite cheesy, and it's also quite rude. Some of it is scripted, but a lot of it is ad-libbed, and the songs are gentle spoofs of existing numbers, and it's incredibly exciting to do, but for me it's also a challenge, and exhausting. I do get to do one number, and it's a huge challenge trying to keep up with all the energy there is on stage, but my number isn't involved in the voting. We leave that to the young people.”

Eurobeat's return comes at a time when a post Brexit climate looks set to begin very lengthy divorce proceedings between the UK and the EU. The long-term side-affects of this might even affect who is eligible to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest.

“I'm not a political animal,” Lenska points out, “but I'm absolutely devastated by the result of Brexit, because it's immigrants who will suffer most from it. The wonderful thing about Eurovision, and the Edinburgh Fringe, is that they are a coming together of nations. Being in Edinburgh during the festival is absolutely unique, because every aspect of every single culture is there. You're spoilt for choice.”

Lenska first came to prominence in Rock Follies, the Howard Schuman scripted TV drama based around the mixed fortunes of all girl rock trio, The Little Ladies. With Julie Covington's commune dwelling Dee and Charlotte Cornwell's Anna as fellow out of work actresses turned bandmates, Lenska played the haughty Q, or Nancy Cunard de Longchamps to give her character her full title.

Running for two series in 1976 and 1977, the programme was notable for its diversion from the sort of gritty realism favoured by the likes of Play For Today, and featured a stylised narrative punctuated by original songs penned by Schuman and Roxy Music oboist and saxophonist Andy Mackay.

While production values were cheap, this only added to the show's heightened state of artifice. Combined with an arch delivery by a supporting cast that featured the likes of Bob Hoskins and Tim Curry, and with song-based fantasy interludes breaking up the action, this gave Rock Follies the air of a DIY fringe theatre musical that might have looked more at home in a pub function room or a draughty church hall than a prime time slot on national TV.

Rock Follies was part feminist cabaret, part critique of a patriarchal music industry that had come to the fore in films such as Slade in Flame, Stardust, and later with Breaking Glass. As well as flirting with radical politics, it also exposed a now accepted reality of bands as businesses in a way that pre-dated the post-punk acceptance of commerce by the likes of Public Image Limited and Heaven 17's British Electric Foundation.

Rock Follies also inadvertently gifted the world the word 'Buzzcock', after a review of the programme in London listings magazine Time Out headlined 'It's the Buzz, Cock!' This was picked up by Manchester-based proto-punks Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley as being indicative of the still nascent scene based around the Sex Pistols. The pair named their band after the phrase, with their debut EP, Spiral Scratch, kick-starting indie music as we know it.

“It was a very special show,” Lenska says of Rock Follies, which was said to have been inspired by 1970s feminist music theatre troupe, The Sadista Sisters, “and it was a privilege to be part of it. It was terribly daring for its time, and the way it used television as a medium was really innovative. It's also very much a programme of its time, and unfortunately it's never been shown again on terrestrial television in the way other series from that time are shown ad nauseum.”

Rock Follies won three BAFTAs, while a soundtrack album went to number one in the pop charts. The second series, Rock Follies of '77, however, was hampered by industrial action at ITV, causing several episodes to be pulled from the schedules. By the time it returned, in terms of ratings, the damage had been done. A DVD release of both series of Rock Follies, however, can fill in the gaps for 1970s nostalgists.

“It was an iconic and extraordinary show about three women trying to make it the world,” Lenska remembers. “We were the original Spice Girls.”

After Rock Follies, Lenska appeared in numerous guest slots in TV dramas as well as finding accidental fame in America for a shampoo ad, not to mention her stint in Celebrity Big Brother alongside politician George Galloway.

Eurobeat will mark Lenska's first time onstage at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It will also be her first time on a stage in Scotland since she appeared at Perth Theatre in 2005 in Vivien Adam's play, A Sense of Justice.

The original plan had been to stage Adam's adaptation of Emlyn Williams' Night Must Fall. With a 1950s style set already built, a last minute objection by Williams' estate forced Adam and director Ken Alexander to put together a brand new show that was written and rehearsed by Lenska and a cast of six in just over a week.

“We got through it by the skin if our teeth,” is how Lenska remembers the experience.

After Eurobeat, Lenska is delighted to have been asked to appear in an episode of Inside Number 9, the dark sit-com anthology created by former League of Gentlemen stars, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. In the meantime, she can only wonder what might have happened if she'd ended up hosting the real Eurovision Song Contest.

“I know,” she says. “Talk about life imitating art.”

Eurobeat, Pleasance, until August 29, 9.45-11.15pm.
www.pleasance.co.uk
www.EurobeatTheShow.com

The Herald, August 10th 2016

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