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Chewing the fat: A tale of two Georges

Confidential takes people with interesting things to say out to eat. This time: Playwright Mark Davies Markham talks to Angie Sammons and reveals his latest drama about the extraordinary George and Diana Melly

Written by . Published on November 18th 2009.


Chewing the fat: A tale of two Georges

PORN, death, drug addiction, infidelity, illness and emotional neediness. Good job it's a sunny day.

The first 20 minutes of conversation with Mark Davies Markham are full of it. A wagon of heavy goods brought to the table. And the starters haven't even arrived yet.

They might be laden issues – but (sigh of relief) they are not his. Instead, the Bootle-born writer of last year's Liverpool Nativity and Eric's musical is explaining how they litter practically every page of Diana Melly's startlingly matter-of-fact autobiography.

“It's a play waiting to happen,” he says. With music. It's called Take A Girl Like Me, and so he has.

Ease - and the skill of putting people at it - appears to be something Davies Markham has cultivated to great advantage, or perhaps it comes naturally: either way, Diana Melly is the latest in a line of people-not-to-be-messed-with who has seen fit to entrust the one-time Mencap special needs teacher with their story.

The Eric's gig, at the Everyman, was something of a sacred cow and could have gone horribly wrong.

“Yes, he agrees. “People had deeply personal and possessive feelings about the place.” However, far from the masses revolting, they generally seemed to embrace the fact that he had made the story his own - his true journey of battling leukaemia. But that's gone now. Davies Markham is keen not to be thought of as “the remission man”. Life, in every sense, goes on.

Before that, the musical Taboo, concerning the life of Boy George (who wrote the music), could easily have been a turkey. It was a smash hit. It was nominated for four Laurence Olivier awards and the two have stayed good friends.

“I saw George last week,” he says. “We met in Hampstead. I felt, in all the years I've known him, that this was the first time I had ever really seen him. It's the first time he's ever been clean for any real duration. He's a different man. It's the real man.”

By clean, we are talking in the cocaine vernacular. George O'Dowd was famously jailed after imprisoning a rent boy and beating him up during what the popular papers like to call a drug-fuelled frenzy, but nowadays his friend is high only on the news agenda, having just given his first TV interview in years.

A big step, too, because “George is one of those people who has always found fame difficult,” recalls Davies Markham. “When I first met him he he told me he was on a prescription drug.”

Well, you can get cocaine on prescription, I say, but we are in the Malmaison Brasserie to talk about a really proper naughty George. The maestro of mischief.

As a photogenic slab of chicken liver parfait arrives, knocked slightly off balance by two thick rounds of toast, and a home cured salmon gravadlax with horseradish crème fraiche and pickled cucumber, the ghost of George Melly pulls up a chair.

Davies Markham recalls: “Last year I saw the documentary George Melly's Last Stand. I only came across it because it had been made by a film company I am working with on something else (a documentary series with a group of teenagers from The Teenage Cancer Trust, as it happens).

“It was so moving and extraordinary, and his wife came across as so strong in it, that I immediately went out and bought her autobiography. I am still carrying around with me,” he announces

as he produces the paperback from a bag.

The BBC's George Melly's Last Stand told the candid story of the last days of the flamboyant Liverpool-born singer, addled by dementia and lung cancer. It showed, first hand, how he was looked after in those dying days by his faithful spouse, who, for 40 years was unfaithful with permission.

“Melly needed needy women and Diana fitted the bill perfectly,” says Davies Markham. “She was 24 with two kids already. They both divorced people to get married.

“But eventually, Diana stopped being needy and they both went on to have strings of affairs.

“She would come back to George when it got messy. He would start another affair if anyone got too close, or he would go back to her.”

The Malmaison's own label Argentinian Malbec Shiraz is not quite as full on as the subject, but it's getting there and goes pretty well with the scouse - “that takes me back 20 years,” he tells the pleased waitress - and does some justice to the presentable confit of duck which tops some perfect mash.

The Mellys' life was so colourful – and dark in places – that one wonders if the stage dramatisation needs much dramatising at all, so rich are the facts already.

Amid the wine, women and song, there's the death of Diana's son, Patrick, to contend with (a heroin addict who “never really stood a chance”) after a childhood that was bitterly sad in places. Then, immediately after his funeral, there's the tale of her awful, black, drink-filled days with a cruel lover in Wales, self harm and nervous breakdowns, and the fact that many elements of the account are either too much information or an act of contrition.

Davies Markham, however, remains confident in Diana Melly's story and, in his version of events - as in the true story - there's always George to fall back on, he is literally waiting in the wings.

“She's not out for sympathy,” he adds, “which is her greatest strength.”

Now a widow of two years standing, merry or otherwise, Diana Melly decided she wanted the one-time writer of This Life and Band of Gold to take the play on - and after just one meeting.

“I read the book twice and I approached her.”

The "girl like me" is now 71, says she feels liberated by the fact that she is no longer seen as a sex object and works with dementia and nursing charities to fill the hole left by trad jazz's Mr Big.

Davies Markham clearly delights in her company, meeting regularly with her in London. He has even interviewed one of Melly's many long term women, Venetia, for the play.“That was a revelation,” he says. “Although it would be interesting to know more about the mistress Diana calls 'The Greckel',” her nemesis in the last 20 years of her marriage and who was so named after "a screeching Caribbean bird".

Over a light lemon and raspberry mousse concoction and a lot of Lancashire cheese, which Melly would probably have demanded several more of – he liked his grub and his favourite restaurant was Wheelers of St James - MDM reveals that there are one or two starry people who have expressed an interest in playing the portly one.

It's still early days. The play's first draft has just been completed, he says, but whether it premieres in Melly's native city or his spiritual Soho stamping ground remains to be seen.

As does the notion of potentially entertaining musical numbers drawn from real life. Like the scene from Melly's last days, perhaps, when Diana opened the door to allow a procession of her husband's favourite mistresses, including the writer Molly Parkin, to his death-bed to say their goodbyes.

There you go. Boy George could play Molly.

Suddenly, I can hear Melly cackling with laughter.

* With thanks to staff at the Malmaison Brasserie.

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

James Robertson JusticeNovember 18th 2009.

I was there first, Perkin!

Hooray HenriNovember 18th 2009.

Thank you much for this reminder of the great George Melly. I was once fortunate enough to sit at the same lunch table as George and hear him tell a story about an Edinburgh hotel where he and other music journalists were being entertained by Beatles Press Officer Derek Taylor. Towards the end of the evening things got a little flat so the smooth Mr Taylor called reception and asked for seven hookers to be sent up to his suite. The male receptionist, very clearly unused to the ways of the music business, said sternly"This is not that kind of hotel", to which Derek Taylor responded "In that case, make it seven prawn sandwiches".

Melly PerkinNovember 18th 2009.

I find this most illuminating. How do I approach my wife about these things?

younger-than-twiggy-anywayNovember 18th 2009.

George Melly had an amazing colourful life as did his Diana, who must have had great character (and need) to have stuck the course with Melly. I am sure this will be an equally colourful play, all the more so as it will be from the woman's side and therefore more quirky. I shall look forward to attending with feathers in my hair and as flamboyant clothes as I can lay my hands on.

VanyaNovember 18th 2009.

I look forward to this immediately. When will I be taken out?

Doctor NookieNovember 18th 2009.

Do you mean they had sexual relations with other people and it was allowed? My goodness, I feel I must lie down and remove my eye patch!

Sam HarveyNovember 18th 2009.

"Cruel lover" ? Moi ?

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