King for a
i In Channel 4’s Viva Elvis Jonathan i Ross celebrates the cult of Elvis
' impersonation. Tom Lappin spoke to the king of kitsch about the sartorial appeal of a sequined white
The King of rock ‘n‘ roll, Elvis Presley, died on 16 August, 1977. Fourteen years on, a horde of mostly middle-aged guys are donning the spangled jumpsuits, Velcro-ing on the sideburns and heading for Bad Bob‘s Vapors bar in Memphis Tennessee for the annual Elvis impersonator contest, organised by Doc Franklin, formerly the King‘s vet (no jokes, please). The sweat pours, the gussets creak and a host of less-than-celestial voices hack their way through a chorus of ‘Glory,
‘There are some strange people out there aren‘t there,‘ understates Jonathan Ross, who captured it all on film for Viva Elvis (Channel 4) an unashamed tribute to the sublime tackiness of it all. Ross uses the contest as a base from which to explore the extent of Elvis worship in the States. from the travelling Elvis museum ofJonie Mabe featuring such treasures as a wart, surgically removed from the King in the 50s, to the outrageous Mexican Elvis, El Vez, and covering
all pointsin between . . .
‘It’s just such a bizarre phenomenon,’ says Ross, I pulling that understatement trick again. ‘If Elvis was still alive, you get the impression he‘d be their Royal Family. He‘d probably weigh as much as a
family anyway. He was like a monarch with all
is. , Jonathan Ross is The King in Viva Elvis! these lackeys and the power, but he also had an amazing talent that people tend to forget.‘
Ross set off for the States as a fan of the early Elvis, but came back with a rather more rounded view ofthe King. to the extent of investing in his own Las Vegas era spangled white jumpsuit. ‘A valuable addition to any young man‘s wardrobe,‘ he says. ‘I must admit that before I got to do this, and I suspect many people of my age will think this, that I thought the only worthwhile Elvis was the young Elvis. You see the older guy and think of him as a bit ofa figure of fun. But after this show. I‘m a full convert ofthc jumpsuit era. That was the look. No doubt about it, the guy had it right. It‘s so sort ofoverblown and operatic. and grand. And that‘s a lot of the reason there are so many impersonators. It‘s so bloody easy. All you‘ve got to do is put on that jumpsuit and people instantly know who you are meant to be.‘
Ross was concerned that his image (as the
cheeky chappie king of kitsch) should not be
allowed to prejudice the feel ofthe film. ‘We
agreed that we would keep me out of the documentary.‘ he says. ‘I didn‘t want it to seem like I was sendingit all up. [just wanted to
chronicle it. I didn‘t want it to be a spoof and I
? didn‘t want to make value judgements. After all it‘s not such a bad thing that they‘re doing. I don‘t fully understand it myself, but we let them speak for themselves.‘
Two of the more disturbing interviewees were Paul MacLeod and his son Elvis Aaron. monotone-voiced fanatics who had devoted their lives to collecting every miniscule reference to Presley they could lay their hands on. The single-minded obsessiveness is frightening to watch. ‘It‘s a horrible thing to say but you do suspect they have a vat of acid in the basement don‘t you'?‘ says Ross. 'They‘re not the most stable people. They are so firmly wedded to their collection that a while ago when the Dad was off work with a bad back and they had no money and their power was cut off they wouldn‘t sell off any of their memorabilia. They‘d rather stay in a house with no light and no heat than part with anything.
The Elvis film continues Ross‘s fascination with the bizarre that he began'exploring in The Last Resort and gave full rein to in his series on offbeat film directors last year. ‘l‘ve never really wanted to be a fully mainstream figure.‘ he says. ‘I‘ve always had an interest in people who are out ofstep with the rest of us. I remember a reviewer once writing “Ross goes out on his annual weirdo hunt“, which. while being a tad cruel. was rather true as well. In a way. Viva Elvis is like a trial run for a series which I've been cooking up for a while which I‘ll probably call Americana. which will look at all the excesses ofAmerican life in a perverse way — the oddballs basically. the people who wouldn‘t get covered elsewhere.‘
Viva Elvis was one of the quickest shows he‘s ever made, but he is reasonably happy with the result. There is just one missed opportunity that haunts him. ‘At the Chicago convention in January a massed posse of Elvises had gathered together to perform a song as one. To capture that would have been a beautiful and moving thing.‘ Viva Elvis is on Channel 4 on I 2 August at 10pm.
: Switching on the box in an attempt to
I escape the hordes of thespians
'; dominating Scotland’s capital this time , of year isn't always a safe bet. The Late Show or, more specifically, its regular
presenters Tracey MacLeod and Kirsty
Wark are venturing up to Edinburgh for
another short but sweet series of
l ‘Edinburgh Nights'. Tracey was
unavailableforcomment(probably | trying on hats) but Kirsty Wark was on hand to give her impression of all
‘Even though there’s Mayfest and everything else now, the whole Edinburgh thing seems to go on expanding. There's certainly an appetite for it, not only in Edinburgh but among the general population. Some of it, especially some of the comedy, is extremely questionable but some of it is very good. I suppose you've got to pick and choose very carefully at the Fringe, particularly nowadays when it is expanding. You could get a lemon or find something that‘s very exciting.’
The first week of shows will split coverage of the official festival and the Fringe virtually fifty-fifty. Suzanne
Bonnar’s renditions of Billie Holliday's
songs will mingle with a look at Japanese theatre, Ninagawa's latest offering, and Ron Hutchins' reading of
the dramatic poem, Autogeddon. Later
in the week there will be a portrait of the soon-to-be Balkanised Richard Demarco.
‘I get very little chance to see anything by choice,“ complains Wark. ‘I just get a kind of quick synopsis of what‘s going on but then maybe that’s the best way of doing it. I’ll be dropping in on things, unsatisfactorlly, and generally just trying to get a feel of the festival atmosphere.’ (Philip Parr) Edinburgh Nights begins on Monday 12 August at 11 .15 on BBC2 and will be on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the Edinburgh Festival.
94The List 9- 15 August 1991