Mar 2009 Journal

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How I missed out on a peerage

I once worked for six months as a song plugger. While it may be the fear haunting every Jewish mother that her budding Rubinstein of a son will end up playing the piano in a brothel, there is a still lower form of musical life: the song plugger.

Let me explain. Before the war and right up into the ‘fifties, music publishers made much of their income from the sale of sheet music. And just as literary agents send their authors’ manuscripts to book publishers, so music agents used to send their songwriters’ work to music publishers. Most of these powerful men could not read music and were tone-deaf. This was long before the day of the demo disc. Human demonstrators - sub-human in the eyes of the publishers, otherwise known as song pluggers - were the means of conveying new songs from agent to publisher. It meant sneaking past some unchained gorilla in reception, sitting down at an out-of-tune piano with sticky keys, and starting to play and sing. It was hard to get past the ‘intro’ and into the ‘chorus’ - the 32-bar heart of the song. The audition was usually cut short by your being told to f... off or worse.

In some ways, one could not blame these masters of the universe: we entered uninvited, interrupted their sleep, most of the songs were rubbish and, more often than not, voice and accompaniment left something to be desired. But that wasn’t the point: song pluggers were salesmen, not performers - otherwise they would have found steady employment in that brothel. My objective was to smuggle my own songs in among those I was paid to plug.

I didn’t have much of a track record but, together with a more talented partner, I had written what became the marching song of the Canadian army. One of our best songs was actually written in Canadian internment for a camp show and later adapted to become successful on the other side of the barbed wire. One of the more enjoyable aspects of hawking music door-to-door in Charing Cross Road, where all the music publishers had their offices, was that I met some talented people. Gracie Fields was a favourite of mine and I was allowed to do a bit of work for her (‘No sibilants!’, pleaded her manager, because she had trouble with her teeth, yet Sally was her greatest song).

I was cruelly patronised by Eric Maschwitz but finished up in a grand office in Berkeley Square, a finer perch than his wretched nightingale ever occupied. I took piano lessons by mail from the great Billy Mayerl and have a certificate to prove it.

I suppose my greatest triumph came when I was working for an advertising agency in the early days of commercial TV, before specialist writers and directors appropriated the medium. Then, the copywriter was king and one of the earliest commercials for Unilever was written and directed by me, with my own jingle to crown it. Those were the heady days of the amateur. I had never before stood behind a camera, never shouted ‘Cut’, let alone ‘Take five’.

The idyll did not last: specialists moved in and I was demoted to providing just the words. ‘I can tell from your music you’re a born copywriter,’ marked, I suppose, the end of my career as a composer. Instead, I started moonlighting as a script writer, supplying single jokes and, less often, entire sketches to the likes of Max Bygraves, Charlie Chester, Issy Bonn and, on one memorable occasion, the legendary Jack Benny, who actually wrote me a thank-you letter after a successful London engagement. This was for three lines at a guinea each; 20 other writers tweaked the rest of his act.

From Jack Benny it was but a short step to Conservative Central Office as a speech writer for Mrs Thatcher. I had three things going for me: holding down a job in the media meant I didn’t need to be paid; not wanting to make policy but, being a true hack, content to put over any brief I was given; and finally - this I think impressed Norman Tebbit - pointing out that they were still writing speeches as if Mrs Thatcher were a man, ignoring the fact that women use different words, different sentence structures, different cadences. Not that a lot of my speeches made it to her lips. Oh, those lips! It was sufficient reward when now and then I recognised a phrase picked up from one of my drafts.

These things never last. New cliques form around the leader: one day you’re in, out the next. But not completely out. I noticed that people rang to ask whether I would serve on this committee or that - honorary, of course, old boy. My name came up for a job alongside Heseltine and Wakeham, advising on how best to put over jobs policy. I was appointed a member of the Home Office Data Protection Tribunal; I did serious work on turning the Post Office into a commercial enterprise; my name appeared in Who’s Who.

Had I, unbeknownst to myself, joined the establishment? Strictly B-list, of course: never chairman, always member of .... At that time, I was part of a group of friends, with loose links to this day among the survivors. This is who we were, in alphabetical order: Tim Beaumont, Robert Gavron, Paul Hamlyn, Claus Moser, David Owen, Victor Ross, George Weidenfeld, Michael Young. Notice something? Every one ended up in the House of Lords except me. I should never have done that stint as a song plugger.

Victor Ross

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