Manon / Home Truths / Literary Sex / Glen Tetley

May 2000

Knowing that my 'day job' is in live theatre, I'm sure you've all been waiting for a 'show must go on' story. At last, I can oblige. A couple of weeks ago I was enjoying an evening at home while The Royal Ballet danced the last of several performances of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. I'd only popped out to buy a pint of milk, but when I came home, the message light on the answerphone was flashing with added urgency. It was Jeanetta Laurence, artistic administrator of The Royal Ballet, asking if I could make my way post haste to the Opera House. The soloist dancing the part of Lescaut's Mistress had torn a calf muscle as Massenet's overture started to play, and although she had limped through Act One, there was no question of her continuing with Act Two. Of the five other ladies cast in the role, one was sick, two were injured and the fourth, we discovered the next day, was sitting in a Covent Garden wine bar, just a jété's distance from the theatre. That left me. Jeanetta's harried tone had me out the door and in the car within minutes. I arrived in the theatre at 8pm, slapped on the grease paint and a large blond wig and was on stage about ten minutes later. I've made one or two unscheduled appearances in my time, but up to now the furthest I've had to rush to save the day was from the dressing room to the stage. Considering the impromptu nature of my performance, the bouquet of flowers at the final curtain calls came as a surprise. It's amazing what they can do at lastminute.com.

Being a self-confessed Radio 4 addict, I was invited recently to take part in a series of endorsements for the network in which regular users explain which programmes they particularly like, and why. Wendy Richards had pipped me at the post for the Archers, so I went for Home Truths instead. I missed John Peel in the sixties – in this case, missing the sixties is not proof that I was there, just that I was born part way through them – but I'm greatly enjoying him this time around. The Radio 4 audience is a bit like the local community in Ambridge. We don't readily take newcomers to our hearts, but John Peel and Home Truths are the exception that proves the rule. After a short two years with the station, he's well in. If Radio 4 were The Bull at Ambridge, John Peel would have his own tankard behind the bar by now. He's the guy next door, the Everyman of the airwaves, his conversational style more saloon bar than nationwide broadcast. But my cosy Saturday mornings – just John, me and the radio - were shattered when the BBC extended its promotional campaign to include commercials for Home Truths on the television. I was forced to face a few home truths of my own. My relationship with John Peel is a little crowded. It seems you're all in it, too.

I can sympathise with novelist Maeve Binchy's decision to put down her pen for good. Apparently she's had enough of the pressures of the literary world, not least the emphasis that publishers place on 'steamy sex'. I know what she means. A few years ago, I said in a newspaper interview that I wouldn't be writing a novel as I couldn't possibly do all that sex. The journalist added a parenthetic comment: 'one wonders what she's been reading'. For the record, it was Howard Jacobson, but it could have been almost any contemporary novelist. It seems to have become an absolute prerequisite for the modern writer to include at least one bout of sex more outlandish, more aberrant and often more wincingly painful than anyone has previously been able to imagine. Even Alan Titchmarsh, that ubiquitous gardener who pens novels between TV appearances, reveals himself to have a nice line in colourful copulation. But wait a minute. Perhaps it isn't compulsory after all. Reading Ann Widdecombe's The Clematis Tree for BBC 2's Sunday night Review programme, I discovered that she manages to go the full 277 pages with only a single, veiled reference to any carnal activity. 'They probably found it quite gurgle making' she writes, a description I found so perplexing that it lost me a night's sleep.

In preparation for BBC 2's live transmission of Rambert Dance Company's June performances at Sadler's Wells, I went down to their rehearsal studios in Chiswick to interview the choreographer Glen Tetley. I worked with Tetley three years ago, when he created Amores for The Royal Ballet. His first ever ballet, Pierrot Lunaire, choreographed for himself in 1962 survives in the repertoire of several companies worldwide and exemplifies his choreographic style, a groundbreaking fusion of classical and contemporary technique. He told me he never really wanted to be a choreographer, only the 'best dancer in the world'. So why did he make Pierrot? To show his choreographic talent or to display his dancing skills? Neither. He made Pierrot because he was convinced that despite the range of work he had already danced, there was still another quality within him that had yet to be uncovered. 'I made Pierrot to try and pull that quality out of myself'. In doing so, he created a choreographic language recognisable the world over as Tetley. If most of us engaged in a similar sort of soul searching, we'd probably come up with nothing more than the spiritual equivalent of last night's dirty dishes, an unpaid electricity bill and a misshapen paper clip.