ReaperYesterday it was Sylvia Anderson; today it’s the turn of Paul Daniels and Cliff Michelmore; last week it was George Martin and Keith Emerson. As far as famous names go, the one area of the economy currently experiencing a boom is undertaking. The Grim Reaper has seemingly never had it so good. A year only midway through its third month has seen a remarkably sweeping clear-out of characters from the entertainment firmament on a scale unseen since the mid-to-late 80s, when it felt as though every day saw the curtain come down on careers that had begun during the golden age of Hollywood. The 30s, 40s and 50s have been comprehensively covered and now the shadow of the scythe has fallen on the 60s and 70s.

What we have to remember, however, is that these two iconic decades are now forty and fifty years distant from the here and now, just as the 20s and 30s were when Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx died within a few months of each other in 1977. The silent era felt a long way away then because it looked very much like a different world, almost another century; but perhaps that was largely because those of us born in the post-war years had no first-hand memory of it. Then again, many aspects of the 60s and 70s still have a ring of present tense to them; look at any up-and-coming rock band (if there are any) and you will recognise the same sullen expressions, floppy hair and shoulder-shrugging sang-froid as emanating from the blueprint patented by the Stones in 1964. Then again, any contemporary musician worth their weight in gold discs still has one foot in the age when music meant more than a ringtone. And if you’re that way inclined, look at young women on the move along the high-street; the length of the hair and the shortness of the hemline hark back to the decades in which their parents were children.

Any regular viewer of documentaries who has been recording their broadcast off-air since the 80s will experience an acute awareness of the passing years when coming across one taped twenty or thirty years ago; the interviewees often seem well-preserved well into their forties when appearing as talking heads – a slight smattering of grey hairs, but jowls not yet sagging; it’s only catching sight of them as they were a couple of decades back and then comparing them to their present day selves that the ageing process really hits home. Sixties and seventies are the ages of man when time really begins to have fun with the face; but we have to remember that we too have aged during the same span. Perhaps their ageing acts as a trigger for reluctant realisations of our own.

The generation that grew up with the silver screen as the source of heroes and heroines will have undergone the same sensations when their adolescent icons began dropping like flies as the generation raised on a diet of television and pop are currently experiencing now that theirs are following suit. Although cancer and other incurable conditions have a lot to answer for, most of the giants still revered are approaching an age when natural causes will also begin to play a part. Moreover, there’s the dismal fact to contend with that few comparable successors have emerged to serve as compensation in recent years; it’s not much comfort to think we may have lost Bowie but we’ve still got Bieber.

Possibly what makes the latest crop of cultural cremations especially difficult to deal with is that the majority belong to the baby-boomer generation and therefore made their mark at a moment when thirty suddenly became a cut-off point. Previously, entertainers like Sinatra or Judy Garland reached a peak as performers when they were way past thirty; indeed, the former arguably made all of his finest recordings when he was in his forties. By contrast, there are few artists that appeared in the 60s or 70s who did much of any real value beyond thirty; all their best work was done when they were remarkably young. Ringo Starr was the eldest member of The Beatles when ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was released, and he was just 27 at the time. Youth was the raison d’être of their era. Pete Townshend famously wrote he hoped he’d die before he got old, but he wrote that from the perspective of a twenty-year-old for whom there was only the present, and he’s had to deal with the ageing process every time Roger Daltrey sings that bloody line ever since – even with his earplugs in.

In a way, the emphasis on youth and the writing-off of what comes next has condemned that group of performers to the unenviable task of attempting to live up to their younger selves for the rest of their performing lives, something their predecessors didn’t have to worry about; Sinatra’s only concession to the passing of the years was his toupee. Whenever Keith Richards is interviewed, nobody wants to know about some new Stones album; they want to hear him talk about Brian Jones or the 1967 Redlands bust or Altamont. The band’s creative spark was condensed into a period of roughly seven or eight years, which must be a curious situation to be in – always perceived by the public as the embodiment of eternal youthful rebellion when you’re now older than Noel Coward was back when you were at the peak of your powers.

2016 has already seen the loss of Pierre Boulez, Ed Stewart, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Jacques Rivett, Frank Finlay, Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, Tony Warren, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Peter Maxwell Davies, Asa Briggs, Sylvia Anderson, Cliff Michelmore, Paul Daniels and Frank Sinatra Jr, to name just a few. Some were as old as 90, but none were under 65. Such is life – and death. And, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the latter and taxes are the only certainties the world has to deal with.

© The Editor


  1. It’s basically just a numbers game – because of the explosion of media channels, and their mass audiences, from the 50s to 70s, there was also a parallel explosion of the ‘talent’ needed to fill the broadcast hours, meaning that vastly more performers became known to all the public, rather than just the small volume of ‘screen idols’ in the earlier decades. Same goes for the music world, with thousands of ‘known’ performers arising, rather than just the relative handful of megastars who had gone before.
    It just happens that we are now entering the prime time when that mass of old performers, be they of TV, music or film channels, are coming to the normal end of their lives, so there appears to be a coincidence of demise. It’s not that more are dying, it’s just that so many more of them lived in our awareness-zone in the first place.
    But this is only the start of it, the bell-curve is upon us and, in the next decade or so, we will become accustomed to more and more of our former ‘stars’ twinkling for the last time. That’s nature, that’s life, or to be more precise, death.

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    1. Yes, that’s a good point – the mass media, certainly as it’s gone forth and multiplied over the last 40/50 years, has needed heroes and villains to keep it going, increasing the turnover in the process. It’s like the old argument that, say, child abuse has probably always hovered around the same level, only the illusion given now is that it’s on the rise, even if that’s simply because there’s a greater reporting awareness of it now.


  2. Many of these people meant nothing to me; for whatever reason, I was never enamoured of “pop” music or “popular culture” in most forms. Maybe my apparently INFJ hyper sensitive personality traits disleiked certain aspects – I don’t like loud noise or crowds, and a “rock” concert would be my vision of hell. More likely I was born a half step out of my generation, a very late child to parents who were forged in wartime years, and solidly northern petite bourgeois in outlook. But Paul Daniels did mean something to me. In our working class made good culture vacuum, free even of the Abigail’s Party aspirational Blue Nun or that cheese thing you all dipped into, culture meant a Turkish delight, fish and chips on a Friday or Saturday night, Kojak or Rich Man, Poor Man. Or, as I recall, “The Wheel Tappers and Shunters Working Men’s Club”, the bizarre self parody of a working mans’ club with its clichés (“Ding Ding! Meat pies ‘ave come!”) . I associate that with being allowed to stay up late. In fact, as I recall it, there were some class acts – I was only very young, and yet I have vague memories of artists like Tom Jones, joining in the semi parody. And my recollection is that is where Paul Daniels made his TV breakthrough. So, I have fond associations, if only for the staying up late. Years later, I have a different appreciation of Paul Daniels. I may, or may not have liked him personally. He seemed to suffer the personality faults of a small ugly man with a quick mind and a chip on his shoulder. But I can also see that he was hugely dedicated, smart, and hard working, hones by years of the real hard miles of the northern clubs. He was a fixture of my childhood, and a master of his trade – for the latter alone he is worth respect. His style faded in popularity along with Blue Nun and Liebfraumich; but I add 2 postscripts. One, I once read that he had spent most of his fortune in a failed attempt to launch a musical starring his wife, Debbie. There are less noble ways of losing a fortune. Second, I am informed one of his last tours was entitled “Back Again – Despite Popular Demand”. Did I like that? Not a lot….

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    1. I too grew up in a house with a similar diet – culturally and otherwise! While I can see in retrospect it had its merits, the limitations also frustrated me. To express a curiosity about any kind of high art – let alone a subtitled movie – one was instantly labelled a poof or a ponce. Don’t get ideas above yer station, essentially. I was forced to fight against it in the end.


    2. Before it became fashionable to demean Debbie McGee (courtesy of Mrs Merton), back in my corporate days in the early 80s, I encountered Daniels & McGee at breakfast in a Kensington hotel where I was staying for some meaningless conference. At the time they were not ‘out’ as a couple, but it was obvious to any observer that they were genuinely smitten with each other and certainly not concealing their mutual affection in that public space. Whether Mrs Merton was right may never be known, but the fact that they stayed together for more than 30 years, even as his career-profile diminished, may suggest that the teasing questioner was being a little harsh on her.
      Daniels himself understood his trade and executed it superbly, not only as a clever magician but also in having the necessary personality to engage with his selected audience. I don’t begrudge him his success nor do I begrudge him or Debbie McGee their evident mutual happiness, he’d certainly served his apprenticeship before tasting the eventual fruits of success.


  3. I only saw Paul Daniels “live” once – he was appearing in a Lily Savage TV programme and I was part of the studio audience. He actually came across really badly, making snide jokes (which he thought were funny) about an audience member’s partner (and the4 audience did not think it funny AT ALL – and made it clear). It was very uncomfortable to witness, both his lack of comprehension about how rudeness about a person’s circumstances was not funny, and the audience’s subsequent group decision not to be impressed by his “magic”. Lily did her best to improve the mood but she found it hard going.

    Maybe that’s where Mrs Merton got her inspiration from?

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