Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "High Society's Favourite Gigolo" from 28.11.2008

This piece is from my review blog in 2008
As part of the High Society series, Channel 4 recently showed “High Society’s Favourite Gigolo” which documented and partially dramatised the life of black Granada-born pianist, singer and society entertainer Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson.

The programme told the rags-to-riches-to-comparative-rags story of a black interloper who entered – in so many ways – the highest echelons of the British establishment between the Wars. For many Hutch embodied the chic of cafe society: he was talented, attractive and glamorous and in many ways Britain’s first black superstar.

The format of the programme was conventional enough and began with use of still pictures and film to cover his Caribbean origins, early academic promise, the rejection of medicine for music and the move to Harlem and thence Paris. A little chillingly it is noted that Hutch never saw or spoke to his parents again after deserting his studies in New York. Perhaps the man couldn’t have been all that warm and fluffy.

Dramatic reconstruction is used to good effect to depict his gay affair in Paris with Cole Porter and subsequently filthy-rich hostess Edwina Mountbatten and his move to London. Ubi Ugoala plays the beautiful young Hutch convincingly.

We see the bisexual – indeed pan-sexual Hutch – being the centre of attention in a world of smoky nightclubs full of bright young things in evening dress. He performs sophisticated songs of Porter and Coward at the piano at Quaglinos, Café de Paris, Café Anglais and other fashionable venues frequented by high society.

His eminence, glamour and success are almost unimaginable – bringing huge wealth, a house in Hampstead, Rolls Royce, clothes, and everything he desired including a string of famous lovers of both sexes, reputedly extending from Tallulah Bankhead and Merle Oberon to Ivor Novello.

As all this continues, we learn Hutch had left at home his wife, a black Anglo-Chinese girl, Ella Byrd. No attempt was made to show her in the programme and we are told that not even a photograph survives. Her point of view is un-stated. The audience is left to wonder what her life during the height of his success and frenetic love-life must have been. How did she live, behave and, most importantly, feel? Similarly how did his daughter Lesley and several more children from various mothers cope with such a father and what effect did it have on them? This is touched upon in passing but deserved more thorough analysis.

So much did Hutch symbolise the black cabaret star of the 1920’s that he was immortalised as Chokey in Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”. Perhaps more than any other work this reflected the way in which he fitted into this decadent world where he played divinely and was just crazy to meet the aristocracy. Chokey embodied the stereotypes of the time: “My race,” said Chokey, “Is essentially an artistic race. We have the child’s love of song and colour and the child’s natural good taste. All you white folks despise the poor coloured man.” Free use is made of the “‘n’ word” and the seedy thrill and shock that sex between the races engendered. To some extent this programme peddled the same stereotype and scandalous frisson.

Hutch is shown entering the lavish Mayfair parties at which he was to entertain the greatest in the land by the servant’s entrance, but there is no detailed review of the bitterness or other reaction it prompted in him. We see him engaged in explicit embraces with Edwina in public, but are given no real explanation as to how this actually worked at a time when such things were very much beyond the pale.

An enormous scandal ensued when a newspaper alleged that a rich and well-connected hostess had been caught in compromising circumstances with a “coloured man.” This led Edwina Mountbatten - reputedly on the King's insistence - to sue successfully for libel over inaccurate claims that she had an affair with Paul Robeson. Subsequently, the programme shows the liaison between Edwina and Hutch became even more brazen to the alleged, very graphic, chagrin of Lord Louis.

The affair continues outlandishly with no real explanation of the practicalities or the motives and feelings of those involved. The viewer may assume simple lust and wantonness and possibly arrogance and carefree hedonism. We have no idea of love or affection or any insight into their own perception of the risks being undertaken and where the outrageous behaviour might end.

We see Lord Louis’ alleged bitterness and the establishment taking its revenge. Despite his fame, Hutch was never again invited to appear in a Command Performance nor was his tireless performance to troops and public throughout the War recognised by any honour. Similarly, his name was never again mentioned in the Beaverbrook press.

It seems clear that Hutch paid a massive price for his wealth, fame and indiscretion. He reputedly had relationships with various other members of the royal family and appears to have been cast into outer darkness by way of retribution. Social ostracism was mirrored by the destruction of his career as a performer. Today, a celebrity might try to resurrect a career on reality TV in the jungle or Big Brother house but not then.

His fall from grace was virtually Faustian as in the post-war years engagements in night clubs dried up. By the 1960’s discotheques had replaced many of the up-market supper clubs at which he might have performed. Hutch he was forced to work low down in the bill in sparsely attended shows at the end of seaside piers and even holiday camps.

As his fortune diminished in consequence of lack of work and gambling, he was obliged to sell his London home to pay tax and other debts and to move into a small flat. Ultimately these pressures and increased drinking damaged his looks and his health deteriorated, leading to a premature death from pneumonia at the age of 69. Only forty two mourners attended his funeral.

One wondered whether an interview during his later years might cast light on his motives and view of the world and himself. Sadly, all we see is an apparently shallow and damaged man dropping names to impress. We do not even see the famous charmer of yore.

I wish it had been made easier for the viewer to understand him more but we seemed mainly to be left with a list of unanswered questions. What was his relationship with his parents really like? Was he just a gigolo who used his sexual prowess to get on? Was he used or the user? Who was hurt more by such relationships? How could he treat his wife like that? What was her perspective? Why couldn’t he have been a better father to his many children? How much was he affected by the discrimination about his colour? Why didn’t he feel more empathy for other black people in this country? As to whether the story was really worth telling without trying harder to answer these questions more fully, I’m not sure it was.

If it had been possible to address more of these issues, instead of the public's sniggering inclination to dwell upon his endowment and gossip of Royal conquests, we might have struggled towards a clearer understanding of the man. As it is, we are left with an indelibly sad impression of a superficial, sexually voracious exhibitionist without conscience who was prey to his selfish urges and who, Icarus-like, fell from a great height to a dismal end. My hope is that this is only part of the story and that the whole truth about a beautiful and talented but flawed man may one day be told.

One point is however crystal clear: hell hath no fury like the British Establishment toward those that overstep the mark and get above themselves.

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