Pure Imagination, a sorta-biography by Leslie Bricusse
Faber Music £25.

Review: William Russell

Reading this so-called “sorta-biography” is a bit like being force fed a diet of pavlova and panna cotta washed down with something excessively bubbly and just possibly pink. Leslie Bricusse is, for all that, a hugely entertaining writer, and in a long career as composer of songs and musicals, writer of lyrics and film scripts he seems to have met pretty well everybody who was anybody.

He warns at the start that names will be dropped and they certainly are. In the circumstances it is not his fault. He met them all and most of them became friends. Maybe the milk of human kindness – he is the least bitchy of raconteurs – flows a little too much. He even manages a rapprochement of sorts with Rex Harrison, one of nature’s monsters as a human being who starred in Dr Doolittle, for which Bricusse composed the songs and wrote the book.

But read it and enjoy the stories. Ringo Starr returning from the ashram asked what it was like, said “Butlin’s f*****’ holiday camp.” There is Joan Collins, an irresistible force, in hot pursuit of his friend and collaborator, Anthony Newley – they called one another Newburg and Brickman; the fact that Richard Attenborough was known to his chums as Bunter; the nightmare that was the Broadway impresario David Merrick who played havoc with Pickwick; the ways of Hollywood moguls, which passeth all understanding; and just why Ralph Richardson was never invited to visit the Oliviers again.

He was amazingly lucky. Right at the start of his career – he had enjoyed success with a Cambridge Footlights revue – he was asked by the great Beatrice Lillie to be her leading man in another revue and he was duly launched in show business, although he never performed again. But for all that, asked to name the great British composers of musicals and he could well be left off the list.

Perhaps it is a case of prophets and own country. But it is a glittering list. Whether, without Newley starring in it, Stop the World I Want to Get Off is revivable is anybody’s guess, but The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd was done at the Finborough in 2011 and it was breathtaking.

This was no Lloyd Webber one-hit wonder, a lesson for all aspiring writers of musicals. His other shows include Jekyll and Hyde, Scrooge, Goodbye Mr Chips, Sherlock Holmes, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and way back at the beginning the more or less forgotten Lady at the Wheel, one which deserves at least a fringe revival. He and Newley wrote the Willy Wonka film, but not the stage musical, except that one song is included in the stage version – and guess what the show’s sales pitch is – and provides the title for this book: Pure Imagination.

Bricusse has enjoyed a long and happy marriage to the actress Yvonne Romain – she co-starred in a film with Elvis at one point – and seems to have drunk and partied with everyone famous in Hollywood and the theatre along the way and written some great songs of the sing-in-the-bath kind. They range from ‘Goldfinger’ to ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, from ‘Talk to the Animals’ to ‘Gonna Build a Mountain’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’.

He may not quite rule the world – he wrote the words to that one too – but this book, although strangely he has omitted ‘auto’ from the title, is a total delight, especially for lovers of panna cotta , pavlova, musicals and show business.

2015-09-29 14:07:21

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