Annabel Leventon talks about her girl band Rock Bottom, and how it was brought down by a greedy TV station in 1976
Annabel Leventon, juxtaposed to a portrait of herself as a child.
I’m sitting with Annabel Leventon (St Anne’s, 1961) in her London flat in Primrose Hill, and notice on playing back the recording of our conversation that at neat intervals you hear the underground/overground clickety-clacking across London, somewhere beyond the back garden. A tell-tale London sound; perhaps an especially North London sound; strangely a comforting sound on the autumnal day we meet, when leaves are turning rusty but the sun still emits warmth.
She notes somewhere in her new book about loving north London, partly in contrast to her upbringing in Rickmansworth and a later episode outside the capital, not a happy one. Leventon studied English and languages at Watford Grammar School for Girls and got an Exhibition to St Anne’s to read English. ‘We did nothing but Latin and Anglo-Saxon for the first year, until the other side of Prelims,’ she recalls. ‘It was very hard with a lot of rote learning; but this was good training for acting, where you learn your lines…’
Less than a decade later, and Leventon was already well-established as a West End actor and singer (emphasis on ‘and’) having bagged the lead role for Hair, a rock musical –a huge trans-Atlantic hit that some alumni will clearly remember- at a time when the very idea of mixing rock music and theatre was untested.
The show was controversial for its anti-war undertow and there’s a lovely photo of a young Leventon holding up a protest poster that chimes with recent coverage of US President Donald Trump, as if history has neatly looped from 2017 back to 1968. The poster shows a Swastika framed by a mushroom cloud, flying a US flag. At the bottom is a coffin, called ‘Vietnam.’
Out of this milieu, Leventon founded a girl band with two colleagues, each with a distinct persona – Gaye Brown, Annabel Leventon and Di Langton, known respectively as uproarious personas GB, Annie and Di-Di. The very composition was ‘ridiculous and wrong, and yet it feels so right’, remembers Annabel in her book, published on September 27th, called The Real Rock Follies, The Great Girl Band Rip-Off of 1976.
To this interviewer, the concept for Rock Bottom sounds like an idea so far ahead of its time, no need to mention Simon Cowell. Gaye was tall and upper class; Annabel middle class; Di working class. They knew they were sending up other girl groups of the fifties – typically claiming to be ‘sisters, and similar to each other, invariably American,’ remembers Leventon. Rock Bottom had a purpose and a character beyond their ability to sing and perform. It was a truly theatrical, anarchic mix of character and rock, unheard-of for women.
Rock Bottom dressed its collective noun as outrageously and variously as glam rockers might, when that aesthetic was new, troubling and rebellious; and they were each lead singers. There’s something musical-esque about the their singles, some of which can be found on YouTube/ Memory Lane; Horoscope; It’s all Over; Tambourine Queen; You’re a Big Girl Now. There’s also something outrageous and energetic and insistent about some of the grooves put together by the de facto band manager and (brilliant and mercurial) composer behind the scenes, Annabel’s then-boyfriend Don Fraser.
Gaye Brown, Di Langton and Annabel Leventon. 1974 - the motorbike was just there, not contrived as a prop.
I suggest that they had a massive amount of fun despite experiencing every cliché of sexism and put-down that you could possibly imagine, times ten, times one hundred even.
She describes Boy You’re a Big Girl Now –an unmistakably feminist track about achieving independence- in terms of its ‘up-tempo, upbeat, driving optimism.’ The book is noteworthy for its present tense, which is wonderfully effervescent.
‘…We’re a bunch of teenage girls escaped from a strict convent, grabbing freedom before they round us up and stick our uniform back on and shove us into detention.’
It’s a bit diversionary, but I ask if this particular memory of the ‘mood’ of the group and its cultural context relates to the Oxford Leventon encountered as a grammar school girl, in 1961-4.
She grins, ‘Well, you could be gated for three weeks if you were caught coming in late [at college], a huge problem for a budding actor… - yes, it was very strict. But we were encouraged so much. It was a women’s college and it wanted us to do better than the men. We were really supported in this.’
Her views today about co-education are mixed, as she readily admits. On one hand it was ridiculous to ‘have all that pent-up sexual frustration and curiosity…’ but on the other hand she thinks that with virtually every ‘rule’ rescinded these days, the boys are just as likely as ever to shout down the female contribution, to dominate in the class-room and in other arenas – even if not meaning to.
In another crushingly familiar memory, Leventon remembers in the book how in 1974 her only paying work had been three different roles for the BBC, including Dixon of Dock Green:
‘The dear old Beeb pays me a pathetic salary because, they say, I got a job as an extra in one of their costume dramas as a student and that fixed my pay level at the lowest of the low forever.’
I ask her directly about this, in light of the recent scandal about grossly unequal Beeb pay to women. But she laughs it all off –conceding that yes, a man would have progressed further in pay than a woman- but her attitude now, like her book, is defined by sparkling wit, wonderfully detailed recollected speech, laughter and a shining sense of integrity that flies far above moaning about anything.
The point is that conventional attitudes to all sorts of things, especially sexuality, were being broken up the late 1960s. Leventon and her peer group were determined to play their part. The book is full of endless cleavage and mischievous mirth, a counterpoint to grey Policemen and Savoy Hotel doormen who wouldn’t let them in accusing them of being dressed like hookers.
Later in court, Di tells the judge that they were ‘like a bag of dolly mixtures,’ and from the photos and from Leventon’s account of events, it’s obvious that they played the dolly as much as the mixture and that both were ‘the point’. As for Thames Television, who stole the idea of a colourful, bolshie girl band to fuel a massively popular, twice-BAFTA-nominated TV Drama called Rock Follies, they got their comeuppance. But it’s not for me to spoil what is undoubtedly the highlight of the book, for this was a massive, weeks-long high court drama told with exquisite detail by Leventon, who took the sort of notes that you might hope for from an Oxford graduate.
No plot spoiler as such; Rock Bottom had been led to believe that they would act themselves in a series about their attempt to make it big as a rock group. At a crucial moment Thames TV cast three other actors, lookalikes, to play them: Julie Covington, Rula Lenska and Charlotte Cornwell.
On the other side of the courtroom drama, Rock Bottom (the three women and Don) walked away with a life-changing sum of money. More significantly, Leventon's determination had changed the rights landscape for creatives. 'It was a landmark ruling on Breach of Confidence, never challenged since. Because of us, a creative idea is property and mustn't be stolen.'
It was a remarkable piece of litigation, during which Leventon told the court some very personal stuff in order to explain details that otherwise would have seemed odd – all of it adding greatly to a sense of personal integrity that was sustained in the face of simply appalling attempted-character-assassination by the defending barrister, who first sought to make Leventon out as an anti-establishment hippie (in spite of going to Oxford) – and later as a paranoid schizophrenic. Read it if only for that. It’s mind-blowing.
Joanna Lumley, Annabel Leventon and Derek Jacobi at the book launch, 2017.
Returning to today and to North London, while I size up a portrait Leventon explains that she’s been leading her co-tenants in a sustained protest against the proposed High Speed Rail link, HS2, which is destined as things stand to unleash thousands of lorries onto the roads of Camden and bore a tunnel right under their flats. It enforces my sense that one of the peculiar strengths of her generation is its ability to perceive causes and take action. I stray onto politics because it’s been so exciting – she asks me to quote her, after bursting out unprompted into Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 to describe her view of Prime Minister Theresa May (St Hugh’s, 1974):
‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’ She continues, 'Women in a man's world can be worse than the men. Thatcher was bad enough, she set the women’s movement back thirty years …and Theresa isn’t as brainy, isn’t as driven, – but left holding the baby and not really up to it!’