How the mighty do fall. Julie Covington last appeared on TV as a member of the identity line-up on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. A depressing thought when you consider her career consists of being one of the first women in Cambridge Footlights and she performed in an early production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 (1973), but in 1976 she played Dee (Devonia Rhoades) in Howard Schuman (words) and Andy Mackay’s (music) Rock Follies, which earned her a BAFTA nomination.
This six part series documents the varying fortunes of The Little Ladies and the not-so-unwavering support of their manager. This is basically a six-part mini-series filmed as a stage play (taking its cue from fringe theatre), it was a radical idea at the time and an exotic draw to American audiences where it became something of a cult hit on public service television (Schuman actually turned down an offer of £250,000 to Americanise the drama). Despite Schuman’s and Mackay’s dedication to keep the production British, Rock Follies was a difficult drama series to execute. Music wasn’t seen as a comfortable medium for drama, so they had their work cut out selling the series. Fortunes changed when Verity Lambert was made Head of Drama at Thames Television. After clarification that the series would emphasise character relationships over music industry satire, she commissioned Rock Follies with enthusiasm.
Covington’s Dee, the strongest singer and feistiest Little Lady, is the show’s focus, supported by Nancy ‘Q’ Cunard De Longchamps (Rula Lenska) and Anna Ward (Charlotte Cornwell). Dee’s a decent, energetic and ambitious performer with a wee tendency to over-sing. Being a spunkily attractive member of a band, Dee isn’t short of male attention and doesn’t have much problem balancing her open relationship with Spike (Bill Murray) and a newer liaison with groupie David (Chris Neal, an uncanny doppelgänger for Richard Beckinsale). Spike, who does have a problem with it, shows up the double standards of communal living and the wobbly ambitions of ’60s Bohemia. For one, there’s too much sickly group hugging and intrusive bundling into each other’s rooms.
Rula Lenska’s ‘Q’ is a slender part, but she has some degree of character development based on her gullible nature, dating a music columnist in a rough game plan for furthering the band’s public profile. He’s about as much use as a chocolate tea pot, but he is responsible for the series’ killer quote: “There are three types of women: birds, chicks and heavy chicks.” Anna is perhaps the least explored Little Lady: a long-suffering daughter of a rather priggish mother who disapproves of their modern, flagrant and meandering lifestyle who nevertheless does actually come along to her daughter’s gigs. Mainly to criticise, but still, she comes. She’s the post-war generation who tries but doesn’t get it. She’s not in the movement.
Schuman wanted to reflect Britain’s economic collapse, but it had to be fun first and foremost. The economic crisis caused problems in keeping the series on time and within budget. Only the first three episodes had been penned when the shows were commissioned. Schuman was agitated to the point of nausea trying to finish the script in time without incurring huge costs (a four week strike saved his bacon there).
The girls find themselves up against copious obstacles to their artistic integrity, mainly due to insolvency: whether or not they’re prepared to sell out to sell a few tickets down the pub. At one point they’re hoodwinked to appear in a soft core film, but decide enough is enough when it transpires the director has harder ambitions.
The appeal of Rock Follies is its sense of absurdity and elements of grit in equal measure. Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay created a surprise number one album with the soundtrack (with lyrics by Schuman). The series contains lots of attitude, Quatro-style leather and glam-flash costumes while managing to be worthy of celebration in its ability to make a mockery of largely unworkable 60s ideals.