You began your career in the music industry did you always want a music career?Not at all! I started off as a commercial artist and I trained, at school I did my A-Levels I did art and German, and then I went off to art college and that is what I was going to do, I was going to be a commercial artist. And then when I came out of art college I did intend to be a commercial artist and I began doing album sleeve designs and handouts and posters for the music industry and because I could play the piano, and was trained in classical music, I thought, for a laugh, I would write some songs. And in fact, even when I had written four hits, I still expected to go back to my art work. So it was not something that I intended to do but I was living in an £8 a week flat above an indian resturant and ever time I opened my window my clothes smelled of tandoori and I couldn't see the daylight and I was worrying about how to make £8 a week with my art work and from the music I was offered this, well for 1972 it was a large deal, £80,000 which is like a million now. I decided to give up my art work and carry on in music, it seemed like a better deal.
Did the writing of these songs come really naturally?Yes it did. you know at that age you are very into pop songs and you are listening to the radio all the time, and you know all the songs and how they are constructed, and I could play the piano, the classical training gave me a good grounding for cordal structures. So although the songs sounded very simple the cord structures underneath weren't simple and something like Won't Somebody Dance With Me was quite a complicated cord structure. But I still am amazed myself that I went into it because it wasn't something that I meant to do.
How did the Eurovision role come along?Well at the time I was having a hell of a time, a problem, with a manager who happened to be Sharon Osbourne's father Don Arden, who happened to have died very recently. And I actually wrote a piece for the Mail on Sunday but they wanted me to make it more sensational and of course I wouldn't. But Sharon and I were very good friends and she and I would travel , she was allocated to travel with me because her father managed me and they owed me quite alot of money, the record company Jet and Don Arden, owed me quite alot of money. He still wanted me to sign with him for two more years and because there was £47,000, which is around half a million today, that I knew they owed me I didn't want to sign this extension. And what happened was he sued me and when my normal, existing contract ended and I was sued everytime I went to a new company to get signed he sued them.
I worte a song with Mike Moran for a group called Blue Mink, which were having bigs hits at the time All We Need Is A Great Big Melting Pot and those of things, and we wrote this song for his group The Blue Mink. Unknown to me it was entered for Eurovision and it was Rock Bottom and it got through and Polydor heard about this, a certain record company heard about this, and they came to me and siad if you sing the song we will sign you and we know you have law cases with Don Arden. And so I had to write into that contract, it was about a 70 odd page contract, I had to write my law case into the contact. The only reason I did Eurovision was I could not get a record deal unless I did.
What was the Eurovision experience like?
Well I was proud that my song got through, I was proud I had written a song that had represented the country and it was fraught with trouble because in the Song For Europe heat we had gott all these little outfits made up, and we had a newspaper made up that said Rock Bottom like a fake Financial Times and we had 22 feet of piano, and we had Lionel Blair choreograph, as much as you can, two people sitting down. And literally three minutes before we went on air the camera men went on strike and so the competition, on just the British heats, went out on radio. So all that effort, all those outfits we made alot of people, because they didn't get through to the finals of Eurovision, never got seen. And they had spent so much money and time doing their liitle costumes an dtheir little acts and it went out on radio.
Anyway, so doing the actual thing I was exhaused, because I had these law suits, and we worked very hard and it was before video, it wasn't even in its infancy, so we had to physically travel to all these different countries to promote. I remember we would fly in Holland to do a television programme and fly out the same day and it was exhausting but it certainly was an experience and the strange thing is Helen I'm scared to perform in front of half a million people, but put me in front of three people in one room and I am just rivited with fear. But immediately after that, becaue of all the troubles with Don Ardan, I was really quite ill and I fainted just before we did some promotion in Holland and I decided I had to get away. I ran off to America and I lived there several years and I lived with a guy called James Coburn, who was quite a big actor at the time.
What was it like to win an Ivor Novello Award?
I won one for Won't Somebody Dance With Me? I went to the Ivor Novello's in 1973, I had been a year in the industry, and Gilbert O'Sullivan won it, for I think, Alone Again Naturally, Best Ballad. No, I had been six months in the industry and you know how naive you can be when you are young, you believe the world is waiting for you, you believe that you are invulnerable and you can conquer everything, it's that wonderful naivety. So I thought ah! I will write the song that will win the Ivor Novello next year for the Best Ballad and I went home that night, form the competition, and began writing a song. And I though what is Universal, what has everone been through... rejection. I was thirteen when I went to my first dance I was miles fatter, very short hair, didn't wear make-up and my mother had to make me my outfit because I was fatter on the bottom than I was on the top so I couldn't buy a size 10 or 12 or anything, I'm now size 4 or 6, I had to buy 10 on the top and 12 on the bottom I think.
So I went to this dance and no one asked me to dance. I was wearing these patent shoes I thought they had brought me bad luck and that is what I wrote about, going to a dance and not having anyone ask you to dance and throwing the patent shoes away when I got home. And there is a line in the song 'and I feel so stupid in my patent shoes' because they were flat and I was small and I would wander from the dance floor into the loo and comb the top of my head, because men used to design all the loos in those days and the mirrors were very high, and there were taller women combing their hair looking very glamorous and I would just walk out, and wait, and didn't get asked to dance. So I wrote about it, and that was the first Ivor Novello that I won.
You have also written for other artists including Shirley Bassey and Nancy Sinatra how did that come about?
Well, in those two cases, for Shirley Bassey I was actually comissioned bu the Tourist Board to write a song for London and I wrote it with Gerrard Kenny, who wrote New York New York So Good They Named It Twice, and we wrote this song called there's no place like London. The thing about a sond about a town or city youdon't write a travel log, because no one is interested in travel logs, you write the emotion that is attached with it.
So we wrote about the emotive thing about London, There's No Place Like London, and the Tourist Board liked it, and then we thought of an artist and I thought of Shirley Bassey. So I approached her and asked her to sing it and she really liked and that's the way round it came, it didn't come that I wrote for her I just had the song and said would you sing it. And she was great. We had a fifty four piece orchestra and I really made her work hard, she's used to doing one or two takes and walking out, I made her work five hours. I did one master tape where she sang, and then I did two other master tapes and then I did patching up and then I made a composite of everything. Of course she sings very vey well but on a record you have to get absolute perfection, and I remember when she hit the top note, it was a C sharp, and we stopped the track afterwards and I pulled back the little knob to talk to her in the studio and I said to her 'bitch'. So that was fun too. But I say those years fighting Don Ardman were perilous, exhausting and very damaging.
Did this feud with Arden give you a negative view on the industry?
I think the music industry is much better now than it was, it was full of criminals and crooks in the seventies, you have still got to be aware because there are sharp people out now, but in general the young people are much more aware andit's not a question of having a good or a bad deal, because I had the finest lawyers draw up my contracts, so it wasn't that I was naive and signed any piece of paper that was put under my nose Any contract is only as good as the intent of those parties and if one side doesn't want to keep to the contract it means litigation. And that's what happened.
You know I remember the time I had to go and tell him that I wasn't going to, the contract was finished, and he was satting in his office with a huge plate of fish and chips on his desk and a large napkin stuffed in his shirt scoffing this meal. And I walked in and said that the contract was at an end now I'm leaving and he said: 'you signed a contract for two years' and I said: 'No I didn't and I don't intend to'. And he stood up and he slammed his hand onto the desk and he said that's unethical, which was hilarious because this man owed everyone money.
He had, by reputation, held Robert Stigwood out of a four story window by his ankles and he liked the name Don because it has connotations of the Mafia, his real name was Harry, so that's Sharon's father for you.
You went on to work in the West End how did that differ from your music career?
Well it's an ensmble piece, and that is very nice, it had always been me at a piano sometimes on my own sometimes with a little band but when you go out on stage it's all so well rehearsed every word you say, every move you make is rehearsed and every note, because we played the instruments from the stage, is rehearsed. And so everyone has their own little box to sit in, their own little character and nothing over laps each other and it was extremely interesting but again it was hard work; eight performances a week, two hours each performance and on the weekend, Friday and Saturday, we had matinee's with I think an hours turnaround. We had eight hours with one hour off in between each which was hard work. Butit was interesting and it was a comedy and I like making people laugh.
You have also worked in television was it an easy transition to make?
I always did alot of TV when I was doing just music because I would go on alot of these different panel programmes to be interviewed, talking is the easiest thing I do it's hard to shut me up. I never got nervous on TV it was so easy. The only time I did get nervouswas when, Oscar Peterson was this extraordinary jazz musician widely celebrated, huge black guy and he had his own television series here and I was alsed to play the piano on his programme, and that was the only time I got nervous, because he was the finest musician and I would be scrutinised. And I remeber turning up at the studio and he was just devouring this huge grand piano, and I don't drink, but the record company had to go and get me a Tia Maria to help take the edge off. I just couldn't face it without.
Which area of the entertainment industry did you like the best?
I have a very lowthreshold of boredom and I wouldn't want to do one thing at all. I think I like theatre less, I like to look at theatre I like to go to theatre, but I like to do it less because it gets repetative and I get bored.
Is there anything you wish you had done?
More film, I would like to do a film. I did one little film and wrote the music for it, it was just a little children's film but I would love to act in a period piece. I did Kingdom, a little tiny part in Kingdom, with Stephen Fry and I had to play this older woman with a toyboy in a jacuzzi and I had to dive in and have a heart attack and die. And it was such a hoot we had to have one dry dive, with all the hair and make up done because they wouldn't have time to dry off and do it again but then there was two hours of filming under the water dive, dive, dive, dive, dive, but it was such a hoot. I had been elected to the Performing Rights Society main board, and the Performing Rights Society is the big organistaion that collects eveybody royalties and manages copywrite, and I had my very first meetin gon a certain day in July and it just so happened that we were filming in Norfolk with Stephen Fry. So at onw o'clock in the morning I was lying at the bottom of a pool pretending to be dead, and then the same day, at eleven o'clock in the morning I was at my first board meeting with people like Estelle Morris, who is government minister, it was quite sort of surreal.
You career has spanned thirty years why have you been in the industry so long and what is the secret to your longevity?
I think if there's any longevity it's because you are determined and it's something that you want to do and that's it really. And why did I stay in it so long it isn't what you do it's who you are. If yu work in a shop it's great and it earns you money but it doesn't always define who you are and so peole go out in the evening and they go out at the weekend and that's when they become themselves But when you are in an industry thatyou maybe love you are yourself all the time so it's not a matter of I won't do that anymore I will do this it's just staying in it. You know I have a DVD out on self defence for women and we want to take it into schools. It's on a website called takingcontrol.tv and it will take lives and it's for women to buy and learn about thephysical and the mental side of self defence. And it's not me saying you should do this it's just, what I've done I've collated all the information from America and from here from experts, criminologists and psychologists and statistics to bring it into a palletable DVD that women can watch and learn. Women don't have a clue, alot of women don't have a clue. I have shown it to people and friends and women are like sponges they want to know what to do if you are attacked from behind, grabbed by your hair or your throat and what are your best options. So it's a real help.
Why have you decided to do this?
I did a documentary in the nineties for the BBC, it was something I decided that I would like to do, so I took a pilot that I had made to the BBC and they gave us a slot and we made the programme Eve Strikes Back proving the theory that you should strike back ll the statistics and information proving that. And it got a Television Socity Award and I always wanted to make a sell through bit it was the wrong time. But because violent crime has gone up 12% and sexual crime has gone up 7%, in the last year, I thought I should bring this out now so I did.
For more information on self defence visit www.takingcontrol.tv