MY TELEPHONE ROMANCE
Eurovision and singing with Bob Hope and Julie Andrews are some of the highlights of Marion Keene’s career. She began singing at the age of 14 with dance bands and before that danced and sang, lit by torchlight, in the shelters during bombing raids over Hartlepool.
Now 80, Marion contacted me after one of her relatives had sent her a clipping from the newspaper article describing my project. She sounded lively and very sprightly, and was full of great stories about her time with the dance bands and then later on as a TV star in the heyday of light entertainment. She was a regular singer at the Royal Albert Hall. Happy days.
I suggested it would be great if I could come round and chat to her about those times and maybe video her for the project. For someone so full of life I was surprised at her reticence. “Oh I don’t get out much these days dear”…
“no I will come to you”…
“well I’ve just had the house painted and they have left a mess outside”
“don’t worry I probably won’t film outside” says I… “where do you live in Hartlepool?”
“oh no dear I live on the south coast near Dover”
“ah I see!”
“yes I did wonder how you thought you might just drop round!”
Despite the geographical obstacle, which is not of course insurmountable, there are other issues. She had a fall a couple of years ago and now can only either stand up and walk with a stick, or lay horizontal. She is in constant pain and yet lives on her own surrounded by memories and relics from her past. She used to make her own dresses – and very film star they are too (she sent me photos), and is addicted to Wall’s Cornettos… her motivation to go downstairs to the fridge.
Despite this she manages to send me a cassette of the 1958 studio recording of the musical Marie Rose, lots of press clippings and various posed publicity shots. I tell her she looks lovely and she tells me that has made her day.
I am still pondering whether to go visit her sometime or whether there is some mileage in the element of distance. She has a compelling speaking voice and I ask her if she would be happy for me to record a telephone conversation with her? She is happy to do that.
There is something here about the nature of sound across time. The recordings she has sent me, and a subsequent one I have heard re-mastered from an old 78rpm are faint and distant despite modern technology. Recording her from a telephone line will not be perfect, but will have a similar quality. I think of how we get used to poor quality from modern technology.. the massively compressed audio of the telephone – the high compression of YouTube, the less than perfect (though admittedly improving) quality of mobile phone photography. I quite like the idea of this odd convergence, so resolve to record her remotely through the ether.
I do also suggest to her during another conversation that she might like to ‘sing’ various lines and phrases that I will be emphasising in my final piece.
The idea comes from recently talking to a lady suffering from dementia. She sang everything to me as if it were normal dialogue. I filmed this but don’t really want to include it in the piece as somehow it seems too exploitative. It did give me the idea though that I might get various people to sing phrases that have occurred in general conversation. I like the idea that, alongside documentary type voice there will be occasional more structured interventions which imply something being worked and re-worked. I thought the idea might appeal to Marion so I describe my thinking. She is a little nonplussed so I give her an example. I sing a few lines down the telephone in something akin to plainsong…
“See what I mean?”.
“No dear I don’t understand”
“OK – we can talk about it later.”