Monday, 28 July 2008


Writing about 'Seyler Disease' the other day put me in mind of a conversation I had some years ago when I was working with the legendary black diva, Elisabeth Welch.

The star who in a sixty year career introduced theatre audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to many enduring songs including 'Charleston' (which launched the dance craze), 'Love for Sale' and 'Stormy Weather'.

John Gielgud once said of her: "You could hear a pin drop while she sang but when she finished, the thunder of applause could be heard in the street."

Towards the end of her life, Miss Welch appeared in a revue which I compiled for the BBC, entitled Hit the Heights, and I had the privilege of looking after her during rehearsals. This enabled me to have several long chats with an actress who had performed with and for the best.

She told me how, some years after her great triumphs in shows like Blackbirds, The New Yorkers, Nymph Errant, Glamorous Night, Tuppence Coloured, Oranges and Lemons and Penny Plain, she was asked by a director - who ought to have known better - to audition!

As she walked on stage, a voice from the darkened auditorium called out: "Miss Welsh?"

First mistake!

His second mistake was to ask: "What are you going to sing for us?"

With great dignity and an appropriate lack of modesty, Elisabeth Welch delivered one of the great put-downs of the theatre.

"Well," she replied, "perhaps, you'd like to hear the first number Cole Porter wrote for me!"


And here is the immortal Miss Welch as 'A Goddess' in Derek Jarman's 1979 high-camp film version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, singing - appropriately - the song that became her theme tune...


Boll Weavil said...

'Hit the Heights was a great revue ! I still give it a whirl on my mp3 once a year at least.Even when you get word-perfect on it, its still a laugh although I wouldn't claim to manage all the songs in tune.

Brian Sibley said...

GILL writes...

Rather late in the day (it has been one of those days!), thank you for the wonderful clip on the blog.

What a lady!

Jen said...

Thank you! Such an enjoyable start to the week.A fabulous performance in a visually rich film. Derek Jarman's Journals 'Modern Nature' is the most moving diary I have ever read.No wonder he was such an adventurous & creative director.