Peer Pleasure

12 May 1997

A few weeks ago, a glossy booklet arrived in the mail from Sotheby’s, the auctioneers, containing details of forthcoming sales.  I  browsed through its pages, pausing from time to time over  an enticing  rarity: a Picasso drawing (estimate £12,000), a rare Chinese clock with dragon’s feet (estimate £8,500), a violin ‘attributed to the brothers Amati’ (in excess of £85,000) and so on. 

The illustrations were small and of poor quality, and the prices beyond anything I could dream of paying.  I was about to close the booklet and consign it, along with the rest of the day’s junk mail, to the kitchen waste bin,  when a ‘sale of fine wines’ caught my eye. No common-or-garden wines these: they were from the cellar of composer and business magnate, Lord Lloyd-Webber,  a trifling 18,000 bottles - all of magnificent quality. Lord Webber has retained sufficient wine for the enjoyment of himself and his friends - the accompanying text informed the reader - these bottles being superfluous to his requirements. I imagined the writer of this obsequious verbiage tugging a respectful forelock before the imperious presence of the noble legislator.

I first saw Andrew Lloyd-Webber - then simply ‘Mr’ -  on BBC 1 in a trial run  of a musical quiz show, based on Radio Four’s entertaining and learned My Music. What I recall of him is that he knew absolutely nothing about any of the questions posed. His main contribution to the event came in a succession of frowns and pouts apparently intended to convey repeated efforts to scan the prodigious reaches of his memory - an organ of such interstellar size and labyrinthine structure that the unhappy future peer failed to locate anything in it of value to the occasion.  I reflected at the time that this abject display of intellectual mediocrity  - coupled with a transparent willingness to engage in a public exercise for which he was ill-equipped - was entirely of a piece with his music and would likely guarantee him a successful future.

So it has proved. Lloyd-Webber’s tunes evoke two reactions in me: either indifference tinged with faint distaste -  when they exploit fascist sentimentalities, as in Evita; or a sense of having heard them somewhere before. I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s delightful response to an untalented author: “Sir, your work is both good and original; except that the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

My most recent  sighting of this illustrious grandee was when he made a brief on-stage appearance at one of the entertainment industry’s mindless prize-giving ceremonies: the kind where  stars  celebrate their own genius  and give each other awards. His role on this occasion was simply to deliver an honour; but he walked onstage with the clear intention of stamping his presence on the occasion.

Like his music, Lloyd Webber is not intrinsically remarkable, certainly not charismatic;  he looks like a cross between a renaissance putto and a schoolboy ashamed of his own bad habits. Had he not begun to speak, people might not have noticed him. Dressed in black tie regalia, he stood at the podium like a head waiter  anticipating a large tip from a departing guest .

Those called upon to say something in these ceremonies retrieve their lines from what are known as “idiot cards”, large placards held up - or nowadays projected on a screen - behind the audience and out of sight of the cameras. His lordship glanced at the “idiot card” , observed that he had not been furnished with a joke, and decided that he must insert one of his own. My interpretation is charitable, for if  a joke had, indeed, been written out for him then the tale acquires an extra tinge of bathos. At any rate, he told a joke - or rather tried to tell one - and then paused for the laughter.  But nobody laughed. Not even a titter. Had he not offered a chuckle of his own, the audience would have remained unaware that an attempt at humour had occurred.

His lordship had probably spent hours thinking about that joke, practising it in his hotel room in front of the mirror, anxiously committing every inflection to memory so that he would bring it off with aplomb before his show-biz colleagues. Never mind.  None of the amusing quips, the glamorous award-winners, the songs and film-clips that flashed by that evening have stayed with me.  All that I remember of the thirty or so minutes I spent watching the show,  is Webber’s minute of inglory. His mediocrity captivated me no less than it does the crowds who line up at famous West-End theatres to see one or other of his numbing blockbusters.
“Success is a hideous thing,” Victor Hugo tells us, “People mistake it for merit”

Though cloaked in the trappings of great wealth and worldly achievement, an undistinguished mind reveals itself not least in how it seeks amusement. Lord Webber’ s diversions do not stop at hoarding immense quantities of expensive wine. He also collects costly Victorian paintings of modest quality. And I have it on good authority that he  races emus round the acreages of his country estate, a pastime that involves finding friends - necessarily few in number - who have enough spare cash to risk a flutter or two. Then there is the business of importing these odd creatures, breeding winners, keeping stables, and so forth. And when he needs a change of air, there’s always the House of Lords where he can pontificate - and legislate -  on how the rest of us should live. Oh and visits - chequebook in hand - to the headquarters of the Tory Party. A rich nobleman with limited wit and a tireless capacity for self-indulgence can find plenty of ways of keeping busy.

Lloyd Webber is a figure of interest not on account of his grotesquely over-rated talents, nor his inordinate wealth, nor his comical emergence as a peer of the realm; but because he is so transparently ordinary. His secret - it is also the secret of the age - lies in the greyness of his aspirations, and his discovery - one made by Spielberg as well - that the road to success is not a highway, but an ordinary city street, the kind that runs through middling neighbourhoods in mid-sized towns with unmemorable names; and as you travel this street, what you see on either side , decorating the sidewalks and the neat houses, are streamers of facile sentiment and  shallow pretension, the artistic equivalent of garden gnomes.