Friday, 6 January 2012

The King and I

Not long ago I got involved in one of those conversations. You know the kind of thing, the meaning of life, will we ever win the World Cup, what’s your favourite movie of all time, and so on.
Well, it was the movie bit that got interesting. What does ‘favourite’ mean? The best? How do you define that? And so on.
So we agreed to nominate the film which had the greatest impact on our lives, the one that most changed our way of thinking.
There were the usual proposals – The Godfather (I think II was top here), Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and so forth.
But my choice caused some disbelief, consternation, and even laughter.
Until I explained the background.
I was brought up in what was then The Union of South Africa, in the late 1950’s.
There was no television.
(This, incredibly, was true until the 1970’s!)
There was not much in the way of radio, and most of that was in Afrikaans.
For those of you unfamiliar with Afrikaans, it is an offshoot of Dutch with a sprinkling of other, mainly African, words.
If you are unfamiliar with Dutch, try to imagine someone speaking German in that clipped, slightly nasal South African accent.
It is not the most mellifluous of the world’s tongues.
Now I spoke the language fluently, because I attended an Afrikaans-speaking boarding school in Newcastle in the Drakensberg Mountains, where I was sent for health reasons.
My poor brother was sent along just to keep me company - even then I felt that was somewhat unfair!
Regardless of fluency, Afrikaans is not the natural medium for song, comedy or entertainment for a 10-year old boy.
I am struggling here to get to my point.
I was raised on a musical diet of Al Jolson, my father’s favourite, and Kenneth McKellar, my mother’s, from the long-playing records brought from Scotland.
To this day I know all the words of everything Al Jolson ever sang.
Not just Mammy, Sonny Boy and Swanee, but Toot Toot Tootsie, A Rainbow Around my Shoulder, Baby Face and a hundred others.
I am not here to denigrate these great singers from an earlier era but, for a pre-teen boy, they were not quite doing it.
We went to the cinema, or Bioscope as it was known in South Africa, and saw The Wizard of Oz, Show Boat and other musicals, not always too contemporary!
The drive-in cinema was a great favourite there, for many reasons.
You sat in your car as a family – my parents, my two brothers and I – so you could talk and make the kind of jokes that families do, eat and drink, or even – in the case of my much younger brother – have a snooze without inconveniencing anyone else’s enjoyment of the evening.
You had the speaker set to the volume that suited you, so it didn’t have to be deafening.
I always thought it a great pity that our climate is so unsuited to the drive-in, when it is dark enough it is way too cold!
So one night my father took us to the drive-in to see a new film from America.
I sat open-mouthed, stunned, unbelieving, totally enraptured as Elvis Presley slid down a pole and ‘The warden threw a party in the county jail’!
Yep, Jailhouse Rock.
The film that taught me there was a whole new and different world of music out there.
The film that showed me that a man could sing and dance and – no disrespect to the wonderful Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly - still be one heck of a man.
The film that gave voice to a generation, to their music and their culture.
The film that personified the new ‘Zeitgeist’, even if it would be 20 years before I knew what that word meant.
The film that introduced me to Elvis, to Rock and Roll, to a way of life.
The film that had the greatest impact on my life, the one that most changed my way of thinking.

He would have been 77 years old on January 8.
Happy Birthday, Mr Presley.

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