Jeffrey talks to lyricist and author Sir Tim Rice, about their love of cricket, Eagle magazine, and Sir Tim’s three Oscars.
Hi, I’m Jeffrey Archer, and welcome to Unputdownable.
This is the podcast that takes great delight in celebrating those works of art and literature that are simply impossible to put down. If this is the first time you’ve joined me, the idea is very simple.
I get to recommend one book and one other cultural passion that I believe is unquestionably, unputdownable, and, of course, hope you feel the same way, and I ask my guest to do exactly the same.
We’ve had recommendations so far from people as varied as Anthony Horowitz, Ayesha Hazarika, Barry Humphries and Lucy Foley.
And today I’m joined by a very special man who’s been a friend for many years, and I have no doubt will add to this wonderful cultural tapestry. He is, as I said, a dear friend, and perhaps far more important, one of Britain’s greatest living lyricists, a true giant of the musical theater, whose credits would take longer to list than we have time for today.
You won’t be surprised when I tell you. Sir Tim Rice.
So here we are with Tim Rice, who I’ve had the privilege and honour of knowing for 50 years. We first met on a Good Morning Breakfast Television when it was very fashionable and we’ve subsequently, through a love of cricket and the theatre, become close friends.
Now, I’m going to ask him straight away what he’s chosen, and you may be surprised, and you may not. What he’s chosen for the one book that he considers unputdownable?
Well, Jeffrey, firstly, it’s great to be with you chatting in these circs, while I’m afraid it’s a bit obvious, if you know me, and I’ve chosen an edition of Wisden Cricket Almanac Wisden’s Cricketers Almanac, I should say.
And I’ve chosen the 1954 edition, which is all about the year 1953, because that was the year I first became aware of test match cricket, and it was the first Wisden I ever owned, and I’ve still got it.
The only difference between now and 1954, when I got that for my birthday, is that I have every other issue of Wisden as well. Now, I have nearly getting on for 160 different issues or editions.
Does that mean you’re 160, Timothy? I thought you were in your 70s.
No, it means Wisden is, it’s gone back to 1864.
And you have every edition?
Yes. And they’re originals. Some of the earlier ones are a little bit tired, a little bit ancient, but I’ve got facsimiles of them, which Wisden themselves put out a few years ago, which means I can read if I want to study something or find out what happened in 1871.
I don’t have to go necessarily to the old, fairly weary, battered old Wisden of that year, but I can read it in the exact facsimile, which is healthy and modern and not going to fall apart in my hands. But I wouldn’t part with the originals under any circumstances.
Of course not. But I’m told by nutcases like you that there’s two editions that are very, very difficult to get.
Well, I know that the 1916 edition is very difficult to get because it was obviously in the middle of the First World War, but it also featured the deaths, the obituaries of both WG. Grace and Victor Trumper. Two great players.
Many would say they were the greatest Australian and English players of all time. I’m not sure I would completely agree with that, but they were certainly up there in anyone’s top five.
For that reason the few copies that were printed because in the in the World War and also in the Second World War, Wisden somehow kept going. But they were much smaller. A – there was not much cricket to report and B, there wasn’t much paper to print it on.
So the 1916 edition is particularly rare. I’m not sure what the other one would be unless you go back to 1864, the very first edition. But all the wartime ones, World War I and World War II issues are pretty hard to get hold of.
And fascinating reading because in the World War II ones, you’ve got photographs as the Oval as a prisoner of war camp and lots of articles of the limited cricket that was played with all the famous players like Bill Edrich and Dennis Compton being referred to as Flight Lieutenant W. J. Edrich or whatever their ranks were. It’s a fascinating document of life going on wherever it could during very hard times. So it’s quite inspiring reading the World War One and World War II Wisdens.
And your own, dare I say it, prowess in this particular field. As one of the nation’s leading slow bowlers and captain of a remarkable team. I will give you 60 seconds, no more, Timothy, to talk about your remarkable team. And, indeed, if I may so your unique way of bowling.
Well, my unique way of bowling can be best described in the way that J. M. Barry, the author of Peter Pan and other greats, describe his bowling. I bowl so slowly that if I don’t like what I’ve done, I can walk down the wicket and bring it back before it gets to the batsman and I do bowl rather slowly.
It doesn’t always pitch in front of the batsman, but it has caused a few confusions among opposition batters, as we have to call them now. And my bowling analysis tends to read something like three overs, no maidens, 52 runs, three wickets, and it means that either I’m hit for six or one of my fielders catches them on the boundary.
I’m quite, quite a good wicket taker. My strike rate over the years is much better, or a little bit better anyway, than better bowlers, but my average is not so good. I tend to get tonked, but if we’ve got a lot of runs to play with, then I’m quite a useful man to get some of the high scorers out.
Dare I ask Timothy over such a long and distinguished cricketer who almost made the England cricket team, or at least that’s what I’ve understood. Who is the greatest batsman’s wicket you have taken?
Well beyond doubt. Colin Cowdrey. This was at a Lord’s Taverners match. Not for my own team Heartaches, but it was still a great thrill. We were playing actually at Lords on the proper ground and it was a Lord’s Taverners match.
I think I was Captain or I was playing for the Lord’s Taverners I was President of the Lord’s Taverners at the time and I guess we were playing the MCC, I can’t remember, but Colin Cowdrey was the star of the opposition.
And I had a couple of overs as he came in, and I don’t know whether he really tried to give me his wicket. I don’t think he did. It’s possible he was such a nice gentleman that it’s possible because he got out caught by Willie Rushton, of all people, at about sixth slip.
He snicked it and it was if you were going to try and get out properly to a bad bowler like me, you would probably just miss it or let yourself get stumped. But he played forward to a ball that actually pitched before it got to him and it went all the way out to 6th slip and Willie was fielding at fifth slip.
And I wouldn’t have said, I love Willie, but I wouldn’t have said he was most athletic of gents. But somehow he dived dramatically to his left and caught it. And it was absolutely staggering.
Caught, Rushton, bowled Rice for two.
And I spoke to Colin afterwards and he said, I think the time has come for me to give up all forms of cricket. I can’t sink any lower than this. Caught Rushton. Bowled Rice.
That is not what he told me when I was sitting next to him in the Lords and he said to me, I was thinking of retiring Jeffrey, but didn’t feel I could.
Bowled Rice, caught Rushton. I will play one more match.
At which he probably got 150 not out or something.
You’re quite right. Dare I say, it one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever, ever known. And such a gentleman.
So I’m going to tell you my book, Timothy. I’ve chosen this week A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.
Now, one of the reasons you would love this book is many people have said his cricket match in it, which is about 14 -15 pages, is the most beautiful description of a match you could hope to read.
I mean, it’s an amazing book because it was his first novel and he’s one of these tiresome people, Timothy, who can play the violin, who can sing a song, who can write a book. There doesn’t seem to be anything Vikram Seth can’t do, which I always find tiresome when one’s stuck with a minor talent.
But his description of the cricket match is absolutely devastating and well worth you reading, because you will love its conclusion.
Well, I will. I mean, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read it, I’ve heard of it, and I feel that if I’m going to read books that are seriously recommended by friends, I’ve got to do it sooner rather than later. So I’ll definitely make a point at that one.
Yes. Well, I’ll tell you his versatility. He went on his second book many years later. He was doing so much in between, was on a string quartet at the Royal Music School.
So his versatility is absolutely staggering. And I can recommend A Suitable Boy as one of the best books I’ve ever read. And if you happen to love the game of cricket as well, that cricket match will be well worth your time.
Now, Timothy, you have to pick something out of the world of books. And it can be the theater, it could be a musical, it could be a television series, it could be a film. But with your wide experience, and people will remember that you have two Oscars to your name, it’ll be fascinating to see what you choose.
Well, firstly, I must correct you, Jeffrey. I’ve got three Oscars.
I don’t normally care about that.
No, don’t be silly. If you felt it was worth mentioning at all, I thought, might as well get the facts right.
Before you go on, Timothy, they’ll be fascinated to know what the three Oscars are for.
Well, one was for Can You Feel the Love Tonight? in The Lion King.
One was A Whole New World from Aladdin.
And the other one was from Evita called You Must Love Me.
And that was a song we wrote especially for the film starring Madonna. And it’s a very nice song. He said, immodestly. People normally, I’m guilty of this myself, write songs to go into a movie that’s already been a hit somewhere else in order to win an Oscar.
Because, as I’m sure you know, you cannot win an Oscar with a song that’s been heard before.
That should be original.
Yeah. Otherwise everybody would stick Moon River into every film and win an Oscar every time out with Moon River or some immortal song like that.
And for Evita, Don’t Cry for me Argentina couldn’t be even considered for an Oscar because it had appeared before in the show. So, Andrew and I wrote a new song and almost by mistake we wrote rather a good new one, which fitted into the score very well.
And it fitted in so well that subsequent theatrical productions that happened after the film, which was in 1996, that song is now in the show You Must Love Me.
And we were frankly surprised to win. I thought we probably wouldn’t win, but Madonna did a very good version of it on record and then did a wonderful live version of it at the Oscars.
But of course, by the time the live versions are done at the Oscars, it doesn’t make any difference whether you sing it beautifully or not because the decision’s been made. But it’s a nice song and I was perhaps more thrilled by that one than the first two.
But I digress.
You do. Because you’re going to choose your particular piece of culture that you consider unputdownable.
Well, it’s a piece of culture all right. It’s not quite in the categories you’ve mentioned, but I’m going to choose something that was very important to me in my life and in many ways inspired inspiration for some of my later stuff, and that is the Eagle Comic, which was a magnificent publication, broke many, many boundaries in children’s entertainment and children’s literature.
And that’s not too high a word for it. It was a very sophisticated comic, but it had all aspects of what was then modern-day life of boys in particular. But it had a huge following among girls as well.
And it was founded by the Reverend Marcus Morris in April 1950. That was when the first edition came out and I was only five and I kind of got it, but I thought it was a bit grown up for me. But by about issue eight or nine, which was still 1950, I was absolutely hooked on Dan Dare Pilot of the Future and I really followed every aspect of Eagle and it was educational as well as being entertaining.
There were essays on sport, there was a lot of written straightforward narrative stories and articles which didn’t have too many pictures. It wasn’t just cartoons. And it really taught me an awful lot about a lot of things.
And it was, I suppose, quite old-fashioned now in that it put a big emphasis on things like behaving correctly and how you should conduct yourself in certain situations. And there was a thing called Mug of the Month which went to a boy, usually a boy, anyway, who’d done something particularly worthwhile to help society.
But it got its audience by having the most brilliant writers and artists doing work for them. David Hockney, as a reader had, I think, his first ever work of art that was published in Eagle. So did Gerald Scarfe.
There were great cartoonists like Felwell and John Ryan and David Langdon all famous names from the 50s who contributed to Eagle. And there were wonderful new ways of illustrating stories such as Dan Dare with magnificent artists and great, great colour work.
And, of course, you learned a lot about astronomy. You learned all the moons of Saturn and all these other things. So it was something that made a big impact on me and particularly some of the Bible stories I read which really set me up for one or two later works.
I don’t know whether, Jeffrey, you read Eagle when you were a kid, but I bet you did.
Anyone born in the 40s, it would be surprising if they hadn’t read Eagle. There are other great comics around. There was Beano and Dandy.
Beano and Dandy were good, but I agree Eagle was the best. The color production was remarkable for the time, for the actual time. Your comment about other things on heroes in the war or courage generally. Was where the Reverend seemed to be going, and that’s I remember. I also, picking up something you said about Wisden. I understand that people collect the Eagle and they are very expensive and very difficult to find.
Well, I do have some, and along with my Wisdens, it’s the most valuable thing I have in what I call my library. But it’s just a load of shelves, really. I’ve got every copy of Eagle for the first 14 or 15 years of its existence.
It’s gone on a lot longer than that and it frankly declined and became rather like other comics that kind of copied it. They had their merits, comics like Tiger and Lion and those sort of things, which were slightly poor man’s Eagle, I suppose, in that they just didn’t have quite the top rate writers and stories, but they were good, they had their moments, certainly Roy of the Rovers in Tiger was terrific.
But by about 1965, Eagle was not really particularly different from many other comics that were around. It seemed a little bit dated in its approach, and it actually packed up at one point and was absorbed ironically, by Lion, which was a paper that had copied Eagle in the first place.
But Eagle made one or two comebacks in the 80s, but it wasn’t the same. But the first 14-15 years, every copy I had, my father was the one who kept them, because when I was five, six, seven, I wouldn’t have had an idea to keep them that carefully.
But he kept them all and had them all bound and that they are absolutely extraordinary things to read again. I mean, again, you’re reading not so much about Dan Dare or PC 49, or even Harris Tweed, Jeff Arnold or Rileys of the Range, all these people, or the wonderful back page biographies of famous men.
It’s not just that you’re reading also, especially looking back at it now, you’re seeing how the world was in 1950 and you’re seeing it very accurately and honestly, as it was with Marcus Morris’s weekly letter, with readers’ letters writing in.
And it was a different world. And of course, in many ways it wasn’t as good a world, but in many other ways it was perhaps a bit better. Very interesting. I consider myself lucky to have been born when I was.
Not just for things like The Eagle, but obviously, for the music and the post war cultural boom in British popular music and theater and film. It was an exciting time to be around.
I remember myself the obituary of Douglas Bader, and what a remarkable learning, I suppose for the first time, what a truly a remarkable man he was.
And you have the entire bound editions. Well, there can’t be many of those around, Timothy.
No, I suspect not. Douglas Bader, of course. I first really was aware of him through that film, wonderful film, Reach for the Sky, directed by Louis Gilbert, starring one of my favorite film stars of the of the day, Kenneth Moore.
Great man, lovely man.
I never met Kenneth Moore. I wish I had. I was a great fan of his. Yeah, and there’s a wonderful channel, Talking Pictures, which shows nothing but old films from the 50s and 60s.
It’s right up our alley, us old codgers. And Kenneth Moore is in…there’s about ten or twelve great British actors of my youth who seem to be in almost every film. Everybody from Kenneth Moore, John Gregson, Jack Hawkins, Sam Kidd.
Some wonderful actors. Ian Carmichael, Terry Thomas, and of course, a lot of outstanding lady actresses as well.
Joan Sims. Well, Joan Collins. Yes. I wasn’t so aware of Joan at the time.
Well, you’re much more mature, Jeffrey.
Margaret Rutherford. She was fantastic. She was in so many films.
Yes, Celia Johnson. Liz Fraser. I was a great fan of Liz Fraser.
They were wonderful, wonderful. Margaret Tyzac.
Oh, yes, she was a little later.
I’m with you. We should tempt people towards Talking Pictures. If you want a damn good story, you’ve got a good chance on Talking Pictures.
I think the message of Talking Pictures has got out. I mean, I believe they’re very successful. Many newspapers which don’t have the space to print every single programming schedule of all the many, many channels we have now, they always seem to do Talking Pictures and tell you what’s on there.
I think it’s because people who buy newspapers now tend to be our generation. The young don’t know what a newspaper is. So, the people who buy newspapers are also the people who would be inclined to watch Talking Pictures.
But my favorite thing, and I almost chose this as my culture, is Upstairs, Downstairs, which Talking Pictures is showing every Sunday, an episode at a time, six o’clock, and it is riveting. And I watched a lot of it first time round, and that’s a bit more recent.
That’s, of course, was in the early 70s. But it’s so great to see these wonderful actors and these great scripts and people like Jean Marsh and Gordon Jackson, so many wonderful, great performers, many of whom are still with us, I’m glad to say.
And Upstairs, Downstairs, frankly, stands up just as well now as it did then. It hasn’t dated at all, obviously, because it’s about a totally different era, but it’s set mainly in the first 20 years of the 20th century, and it was therefore 50 years ago when it was first shown, and we’ve now had another 50 years since it was first shown.
So we’re now watching First World War stories nearly 100 years ago. And Upstairs, Downstairs, you don’t feel this was made in 1970. You feel this is this was made in 1917 which is which is quite an achievement.
t’s very like for us oldies. It was our Downton Abbey, wasn’t it?
Very much so, yes. That’s the obvious link or connection. Downton Abbey, I thought, was really good. But for me, I think Upstairs, Downstairs just shades it because perhaps it’s because… in fact I saw it…
…when you were a child.
Well, I wasn’t a child, but Downton Abbey was truly excellent.
Now, I’ve chosen because I was on with you, Timothy. I chose this particular one. I think this is a wonderful piece of storytelling.
I came across it by mistake, was staying with you may remember my friend Bill Bradley, who went on to be the senator for New Jersey. He introduced me to it when I was in my 20s, which gives you a feeling of how long I’ve loved it.
And it’s called A Better Place To Be by Harry Chapin. Now, for those listening to this podcast, this, frankly, is a piece of storytelling. The singing is okay, the musical accomplishment is pretty good, but the story is absolutely remarkable.
And if you’re going to listen to it, I suggest you get the live performance one, because you’ll see how the audience react. Sadly, the artist, the singer, died tragically young, and so we only have very little of his amazing work.
Have you ever heard it, Tim?
I’m not sure I have. I certainly heard of Harry Chapin. He died in a car crash, didn’t he? In New York, I think.
Correct. Very sad, very young.
And he had one we had a couple of big hits he had Cats In the Cradle, which was a big pop hit. It wasn’t just a pop record, it’s a very good one. And did he have a song? Was it him who did a record called Wold? I can’t remember. Anyway, he was somebody who was getting up there with Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and regarded, that sort of level. But he, tragically, was never able to fulfill his fantastic potential. But he certainly, I think, would have done if he’d lived a bit longer.
He had another tragic one, which you’d have enjoyed in particular, because I have had the privilege, if I may call it a privilege, of hearing you do your imitation of Mick Jagger.
There are few people in my friends who don’t remember your imitation of Mick Jagger. But Harry Chapin did an amazing thing about a man who wanted to be an opera singer. And Tim, it’ll bring you to tears.
I don’t know that one…
…because it’s all of us. It’s all of us, and it’s so sad. I commend that as well. But I would love you to listen to A Better Place to Be because it’s such a human piece.
Well, I’m just making a note of that. A better place to be. It is a CD or an album of a live performance.
Well, it’s in an album. Yes, but it is a live yes, correct. A live performance.
So, Timothy, the next thing to ask you to do ask you, of course, is what are you doing at the moment, and what did you do during COVID.
Well, I’m not sure COVID is over. I was very lucky to be stuck in Cornwall for the lockdown, and I was able to not do much more than contemplate the infinite and walk the dog, which was good for me, I think.
I quite like the fact that life slowed down for a bit, and certainly for the first lockdown, although I didn’t see, really, anybody apart from one or two very close family members, it was, in a way, quite a nice break.
I mean, I fully appreciate that I was very lucky and so many people had a terrible time in the first lockdown, and I feel very sorry. But I at least relished the change. I think relished not going to functions and things that I didn’t always want to go to and this sort of thing.
And I was able to take stock creatively. I began doing a podcast not unlike what we’re doing at the moment, and there are 50 of them out there, and I might add to them in due course. And I wrote a couple of songs.
I had been working, we were just about to work on one or two musicals coming back when COVID struck, and one of them was a show I did a few years ago called From Here to Eternity, written with a very talented young composer called Stuart Brayson, and that ran in the West End for six months.
It got quite good reviews, but just didn’t get enough audience members. I think we were a little optimistic in going straight into the West End before we’d given it a try out, but it was a good experience.
And Stuart and I have been working on revamping some of the songs. We’re having the book re-looked at, and we are going to open it, all things being equal. We’re opening it in a small production in the Charing Cross Theater under the arches in London, in autumn of 2022.
And if it works there and it’s played in New York, not, unfortunately, Broadway, but it played upstate New York, and it also played in one or two other venues in America, and it always went down rather well.
And it is, of course, an American story based on James Jones’s great book about the Pearl Harbor bombing and the American GI’s there at the time when America was catapulted into the war. And I think the version that we did in both Maine and New York State, I think that version will appeal here.
It’ll be slightly rewritten because it’s a different space, as they say in theatrical circles, the Charing Cross Theatre. It’s almost like being in the round. But we have an exciting young producer called Katie Lipson who is working on it, and I’m quite hopeful that the show will be given a second chance.
Who knows? I mean, I’ve also been working as a producer myself on a potential television series based on William IV, who is a King of England that not many people know too much about.
He was sandwiched between George the Fourth and Queen Victoria, both of whom have been featured in many television series and films. And William is an interesting character. I won’t go on for too long about him, but basically, he never thought he’d become King.
He didn’t marry. He lived with an actress called Dorothy Jordan, who was a hugely successful musical star, and they had nine children. And then suddenly he found, because of a succession of events, he was next in line for the throne, and he had to get properly married.
He married Princess Adelaide and failed to have any children with her, much as he became very, very fond of her, and much as they tried. In the end, his niece became Queen – Queen Victoria.
Well, hearing you talk about it, Tim, and having had the privilege of watching you preparing for shows in the past, presumably picking the person who will play William IV, is in itself a giant decision. Because with the right person, we could all be queuing. And with the wrong person, however good your music and your lyrics are, it’s a struggle.
Well, yes, of course, that’s always true with anything, but this is something we’re actually doing for television. Our dream is to make it somebody like Netflix or whatever. I think it would be a series, maybe eight or eight or ten episodes, and I think it’s got the ingredients for that. But you’re absolutely right, the casting is absolutely crucial.
But I don’t think at this stage it’s something I’d want to do as a musical. I think it’s a drama, and I think the scope of it will be best captured by film, be that in the cinema or on TV.
Oh, I’m lost. And I apologize.
No, not at all lost.
And I apologize because when I hear your name, I think immediately of those giant musicals you’ve done. Have you written the script for this one?
No, I’m a producer.
Ah, which is a new role, completely.
Well, yes, it is, really. That’s rather interesting. And we’ve got a partnership with some American producers and we’re hopeful that we can get this one off the ground as a television series, but it’ll take a year or so.
The script is being written at the moment by a chap called David Hancock, who is one of the lead writers on The Crown, and he’s writing the first, he’s now written the first episode, which is King William as a young gadabout.
I hope we’ll be able to do a pilot of that, and if that works, then we can go ahead and do the full works.
But no one knows better than you in your whole career how long it takes to get something to actually mature. Some people think when they look at your great shows, bet that was on in ten minutes and it took you well, you tell us how long it took you to say Evita.
Well, Evita, probably. I got the idea in late 1973. We did it as a record, and Evita was a bit quicker than it might have been otherwise because we had just had this big hit with Superstar and people were therefore keener to sign us up than they might have been.
But, well, they weren’t keen to sign us up for Superstar at all. But it still took three years just to get the record out. And the album that featured Julie Covington and the show that featured Elaine Page and David Essex, that didn’t happen until five years after I got the idea.
And Evita really was quite quick. From idea to opening night, other shows have taken a lot longer.
Well, it’s been wonderful having you on the show and look forward to William IV and indeed the rewrite of your latest musical.
And I just ought to let you know now, Timothy, that Mary has forbidden you to sing Satisfaction at my 80th birthday party. I am not with her on this one. I think you brought the house down and I mean quite literally. Quite literally.
But it’s been a privilege having you on the show. It’s been a privilege watching your career when you were a very young man coming through to being one of the scions of the British theater. And now you’re a very old man who, like me, still wants to captain the England cricket team. Right? And, like me, has blown it.
So, thank you for being on the show.
Thank you, Jeffrey. I appreciated it.
Thank you to my guest, Tim Rice. Now, some of you may wonder why for the past 40 years I’ve been calling him Timothy. So, I’d better get that on the record. His mother told me she always called him Timothy, and who am I to disagree with her?
But thank all of you for listening to Unputdownable. I don’t want any of you to miss out on future episodes, so please hit, follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
We’ve got many more fascinating guests to come, each with their own stimulating thoughts and perhaps surprise recommendations.
I hope you enjoyed this, because I now – it’s part of what I’m told I have to do recommend that you purchase Over My Dead Body, which is my latest book about William Warwick and is out in hardback eBook and audiobook.
Thank you for joining me. Until next time.