Rock Follies' 45th Anniversary DVD Review
In memoriam Charlotte Cornwell (1949-2021)
Three actresses audition for roles in a stage musical, Broadway Annie. Anna Wynd (Charlotte Cornwell) is currently “resting”. Devonia Rhoades, Dee for short (Julie Covington) lives in a communal squat with boyfriend and others. Nancy Cunard de Longchamps, Q for short (Rula Lenska), is a product of a French finishing school, dropping “darlings” and French phrases in her conversation, acting in softcore porn movies to makes end meet. Broadway Annie flops, but the musical director, Derek Huggins (Emlyn Price) suggests that the three of them form a rock band, for whom he would be the manager and songwriter. And so the Little Ladies are born...
If you look at the five shows nominated for the BAFTA for Best Drama Series or Serial of 1976, you’d think that I, Claudius ought had to have won, as that’s the one of the five that has most gone on to classic status, and has been repeated more often. In fact, the category that year was pretty strong all round, with other nominees including The Glittering Prizes, The Duchess of Duke Street and When the Boat Comes In, all of which are well remembered. But no, the winner was Rock Follies. While that might not be posterity’s judgement, you can see why it won the vote. It was in its time a very popular series, with a soundtrack album that entered the charts at number one. Watched now, forty-five years after the first series was broadcast, it stands up very well, and somewhat ahead of its time.
The comparison with I, Claudius isn’t too far off, despite the great difference in subject matter, that series a historical literary adaptation, this a contemporary-set original. Both were entirely studio-shot, on video, and hark back to an age of television drama with roots more in theatre than in cinema. Nowadays, much drama is cinematic to a fault, with the only effective difference being in the episodic format and running time. Both tend to move away from naturalism to theatricality and feature dialogue that is clearly written, not that a pseudo-naturalistic mumble isn’t. It has an edge to it, just the right side of becoming arch, and underneath the comedy and satire serious themes lurk. Rock Follies pushed its artifice further in its second series, but it was there from the start.
Howard Schuman, born 1942, is a native New Yorker who had relocated to London at the end of the 1960s. He broke into television writing in 1973, and had had six single plays broadcast before Rock Follies came about. Schuman had had experience writing song lyrics, so as well as writing the script he wrote the lyrics of the many songs the Little Ladies and others perform over the six episodes (each around 50-52 minutes, so an hour with commercial breaks). The music is the work of Andy Mackay, then a multi-instrumentalist (mostly saxophone and oboe) with Roxy Music. All the music was played live, with real session players backing the three lead characters. Of the three, Julie Covington did, and does, have the most credentials as a singer, and she does indeed perform most of the lead vocals. Rula Lenska and Charlotte Cornwell were primarily actresses, though both do their own singing.
Rock Follies stood out then, and still does, for having not one but three lead female roles, and has an overtly feminist message – though some feminists did treat that with some suspicion, given that the series was written by a man. In other ways it does reflect its time in television drama: definitely post-watershed viewing, with its sexual references and some casual drug-taking, but particularly strong language was not then allowed on screen in a scripted drama, even in adult viewing hours. Given plenty to work with, the three leads all excel, though Covington was the only one nominated for a BAFTA, as Best Actress (she lost to Siân Phillips in I, Claudius).
With its success, and its BAFTA win, a second series followed a year later, called Rock Follies of 77, again six episodes. It takes up the story a few months after the end of the first series. Derek Huggins is replaced by Harry Moon (Derek Thompson) and they gain a manager in brash American Kitty Schreiber (Beth Porter). Also appearing in the series were Tim Curry as rocker Stevie Streeter, to whom the Little Ladies play in support for a while, and Bob Hoskins as club owner Johnny and Little Nell (who had appeared opposite Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Kitty’s assistant Sandra. Sue Jones-Davis plays Rox, a singer brought in by Kitty to give more power to the band, driving a wedge between her and Dee on one side and Anna and Q on the other.
As an openly gay man, Schuman wanted to have more gay representation in the show. There had been some in the first series, with Frank Williams (then as now best known as the Vicar in Dad’s Army) as a very camp make up man, but in the second episode of the new series Harry reveals that his flatmate Ken (Denis Lawson) is a flatmate plus. (Even so, Q still fancies him and they do have a brief affair.) This certainly wasn’t usual in UK television at the time, with most gay characters, when they appeared at all, being the high camp likes of John Inman in Are You Being Served? Schuman did later regret that there isn’t any on-screen intimacy between Harry and Ken, not even a kiss, but given the rarity at the time of such gay portrayals, he can be excused that.
The second series pushed the musical content further than the first had done, from brief musical soliloquies to several full-scale song and dance numbers, often advancing the plot when a more conventional production would have used dialogue and action. Also, the series in places draws on visual devices and video effects that featured in the then-developing form of the music video. In fact, it’s a song that carries the series’s bittersweet ending.
Rock Follies of 77 began broadcasting on 4 May 1977, but after three episodes industrial action at ITV took it off the air. The remaining three episodes were finally broadcast in November that year, with a two-hour recap of the first three. The series was less successful at the BAFTAs, though it did gain a nomination as Most Original Programme/Series, which it lost to The Muppet Show. This series’ soundtrack album was less successful, making number 13 in the charts, though the song “OK?” was a top-ten hit single.
While public television in the USA had shown the first series, the second’s sex and drug references, while mild by today’s standards, caused them to pass on showing it, and it remained un-broadcast in that country for twelve years. Meanwhile, a real-life all-female band, Rock Bottom, sued Thames Television for taking their idea for the series but not including them in it. The result of the settlement was that this DVD has a notice on the back saying that Rock Follies was based on an original idea by Don Fraser, Annabel Leventon, Gaye Brown and Diane Langton, though they aren’t credited on screen.
Network’s DVD release from 2017, Rock Follies: The Whole Story, comprises four discs, with three episodes on each and a Play All option. Both series carry a 15 certificate.
Previous releases of Rock Follies (both series) had been edited, but this release has every episode complete as originally broadcast, including the Thames Television fanfare at the start and the bumpers on either side of the commercial breaks (one break per episode in the first series, two in the second). There is some non-original music which at some times in the past would have been impossible to license, for example Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and a quite extended airing of the Rolling Stones’s “Get Off My Cloud”.
Rock Follies was made for television at a time before both widescreen and high definition, so it was shot on 625-line PAL video and is in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The DVD release is faithful to this, and looks as good as you can expect from the source. Likewise, stereo television sound was more than a decade away, so the soundtrack here is the original mono. Regrettably, there are no subtitles for the hard of hearing available.
The extras are interviews with Howard Schuman (39:02) and Andy Mackay (33:04), the latter sporting a red suit and dark blue tie, on discs one and two respectively. Both take the form of text questions followed by the interviewee answering to camera, and were recorded for previous releases. (There’s no date on screen, but Mackay hints that he’s speaking circa 2002.) Both describe their careers up to the point where they collaborated on Rock Follies, and their approach to working together – Mackay says that writing music to Schuman’s already-written lyrics was a different approach to the one taken in Roxy Music. None of the questions are especially searching, but these interviews are informative enough. The remaining extra is a 95-image stills gallery on disc three.