Mark Hichens – The Great Entertainers

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Tedious trudge through the lives of 20th-century music hall stars.

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A hundred years ago Lytton Strachey wrote the book that made his name. Eminent Victorians was a series of delightfully and pointedly written profiles of makers of the Victorian era (among them Florence Nightingale and General Gordon). Although the Lady with the Lamp came away relatively unscathed, other subjects fell victim to Strachey’s acid pen. An exercise in knocking the pompous off their pedestals, the book is as readable today as ever and is a masterwork.

This might have been a great template for Mark Hichens’s The Great Entertainers but, sadly, it’s not. It’s more of a tedious trudge, pockmarked with infelicities. Today’s manic obsession with celebrity – instant fame, the rise and fall of movie/pop stars – is a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps the arrival of Princess Diana in the 1980s was the tipping point.

Might Hichens’s book suggests that fascination for celebrity goes back to the music hall? Might he take some half-remembered celeb and do an entertaining demolition job on them? Could there be fascinating insights into the tenacity of the talented that reveals how they became famous against all the odds? Is this a rehashing of delicious celeb gossip – Paul Robeson and his rumoured affair with Edwina Mountbatten, Frank Sinatra’s “special endowment”? Well, no it’s none of these things. It’s not even clear why he chose this odd array – music hall singer Marie Lloyd, ballet stars Vaslav Nijinsky and Margot Fonteyn, playwright and wit Noël Coward, Sinatra, Édith Piaf among them. There’s no bibliography, index, or note of sources, or even “further reading”, which is a shame to say the least. It’s clear that some of his subjects interest him far more than others. Sinatra’s story is well known and is perhaps Hichens most famous subject yet gets somewhat cursory treatment.

For the rest there’s really very little here that the reader might not glean from a Wikipedia entry. It’s not even as if the writing is well-crafted. There is much ill-chosen phrasing. Dancer Rudolf Nureyev, we are told, was not averse to “feminine flings” (meaning: he had love affairs with women). In the 1960s’ Garden of Eden-inspired ballet Paradise Lost, we are informed, there is a scene where “Adam was to be found diving through huge scarlet lips with an orgasm standing on his head”. Eh?

And in the chapter on the singer Paul Robeson there’s an unfortunate use of “Negro” and “Afro-American”, terms long out of favour. The final line reads: “[Robeson’s] courage, self-sacrifice, and immense talent on behalf of the dark skinned had been incomparable”. Ouch!

There’s often a slip between brain and page, and proofreading your own work is trickier than it seems. Many of the failures in the book are things even a rookie editor might have fixed. As every writers’ guide counsels “avoid clichés like the plague”. Had Mr Hichens only complied. Yes we all have a book inside us but only the few will go to the lengths of self-publishing one.