Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Polyester Fiesta would bring crackle back to Saturday night

Lorraine Bowen's Polyester Fiesta

Lorraine Bowen's Polyester Fiesta - Credit: Archant

Her latest stage extravaganza came to Colchester Arts Centre recently. Lorraine Bowen’s Polyester Fiesta was a riot of kitsch fashion, camp pseudo-science and ’70s lounge music. For that Saturday evening the Arts Centre was cleverly transformed into a catwalk arena, with the audience arrayed either side of it. Here a celebration of all things polyester, from post-war to the present, took place.

When the show’s “scientist”, Alasdair Sheard, takes the stage to give a small talk about polyester’s origins in Manchester in 1941, he does so with sufficient gravitas that you’re not expecting him to suddenly whip off his white lab coat, as he does, and then flounce at speed down the catwalk in a gesture of high camp.

Following that introduction comes a two-hour flummery of paisley, DayGlo and quilted suburban housewear all modelled by Lorraine herself and her team, who comprise Alasdair, two female singer-dancers and a dresser.

The production is a fast-moving exposition of what La Bowen calls “suburban exotica”.

No, it’s not cutting-edge rock, top-end art or incisive drama. It’s pure entertainment of a calibre which you’d be pushed to find anywhere on mainstream TV nowadays, let alone in a medium-sized provincial arts venue.

Lorraine, who grew up in Danbury, near Chelmsford, is nothing less than Joyce Grenfell for the Space Age. Lorraine’s parents, who occasionally come to her shows, live in Chelmsford, and so Lorraine, though resident in Brighton, returns to Essex regularly.

She’s about six-feet tall, with a hairstyle which though usually worn in a modernist crop is, for the purposes of this show, wigged into a 1970s-style home-perm. Bespectacled, like Elvis Costello or Eric Morecambe, she’s always worn her glasses with a capital G. She plays cute, self-written bossa novas on a Casio keyboard she keeps on an ironing board, rather than a stand.

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Her songs are about food – making crumble and buying spinach – bicycles, space travel and suburban life. Her dress-style, humour and music have, of course, earned her a sizeable gay following. There’s rather more to her, however.

Long ago she’d been destined for a career as a primary school music teacher, a job which she actually did for a while. I once heard a rendition of the Coronation Street theme which she’d taught her young charges to play on treble recorders. It was strangely affecting.

Back in the early 1980s she played in a post-punk indie band, the Dinnerladies. Then the newly-famous Billy Bragg spotted her. He didn’t even bother to have her wrapped; just whisked her out on tour as his piano player: concert halls, stadia, the lot. It was he, in fact, who encouraged her to develop her own act, which she did.

She’s actually a pretty good piano player and composer. Lorraine’s musicality is an aspect of her which is easily overlooked, buried, as it is, somewhere under her ingenious comedy. Evidence of it, however, permeates her albums. There are traces of the influences of Debussy and Satie to be found within her songs, an airy poignancy which, when it suddenly filters through, can startle the listener.

Years ago, on the eve of doing a local concert, she telephoned me to ask whether I could play a violin or not. I replied that I couldn’t. “Good,” she said. She needed someone who couldn’t play a violin in order to help out with a stage number she was doing, entitled My Boy’s Learning To Play The Violin.

My job that evening was to get up on stage as her straight man and play the thing as badly as possible. When I later recounted this story to Captain Sensible, another of her fans, he laughed. “She’s got a man in every town!” She also did well in Canada and Italy. I came across a fragment of an Italian magazine review of her, simply stating, in Fast Show Channel 9-speak, that she was “Mary Poppins in acido”.

Watching her show the other week, my first thought was, “This needs to go national. It’s British entertainment at its eccentric best.” Saturday night TV would almost certainly enjoy the Polyester Fiesta and its creator’s talents.

Sadly, Saturday night’s TV audiences are rather busy watching themselves at present. It seems that many people nowadays would rather watch TV talent shows, featuring amateurs mimicking professionals, than watch anything genuinely new.

The shows’ sponsors and those businessmen who’ve appointed themselves the Nation’s Tastemakers are naturally only too happy with this arrangement. After all, if you can pack an auditorium with an audience content only to watch itself watching itself, then you have a ratings winner. If, in addition, you can re-sell your customers that which they already know, by simply repackaging that which they’ve already bought, why should you have to pay for any new talent at all?

This malaise isn’t confined to the UK. A casual glance will reveal that France and America don’t have talent either – or at least nothing which is currently being allowed onto television.

I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that the financial recession has been accompanied by bankruptcy in light entertainment, with the talent shows acting as bail-out loans. Once the public finally become bored with watching themselves, which I pray won’t be too long now, there are signs, as politicians like to say, of the green shoots of recovery. May they, like Ms Bowen, bloom sooner rather than later.

n Lorraine Bowen will return to Colchester Arts Centre in September.