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‘Without Rock Bottom, you wouldn’t have had The Spice Girls’

The Rock Follies was originally Rock Bottom. Annabel Leventon tells Jane Clinton what happened back in 1976

28 September, 2017 — By Jane Clinton

Annabel Leventon still loves the platform boots she wore in Rock Bottom

IT is a story worthy of a musical: a David and Goliath tale of three young women who took on the showbiz establishment and, against all the odds, won.

A new book, The Real Rock Follies: The Great Girl Band Rip-Off of 1976, charts the true story of the female rock trio Rock Bottom, and how their idea for a television show based on them was stolen from under their noses.

Written by Annabel Leventon, one third of the group, it is a salutary treatise on the innocence of youth and how in showbusiness you can trust no one.

She has called it “the bumpiest ride on the biggest ever rock ’n’­ roller­coaster” and it certainly leaves a few casualties.

There is much comedy, brilliant characters and sparkling one-liners, as well as heartbreak and a series of stunning court scenes.

Formed in 1973, Rock Bottom was described in the media as “a cross between the female Rolling Stones and the female Marx Brothers”. They were raunchy, risqué and rude.

As well as writing music and performing, they would create and star in their own ground-breaking television show based on their escapades and music.

“I think we were just capturing something that was in the air,” says Annabel who is an actress, writer and coach and lives in Primrose Hill. “There had been nothing like us. We were all as different as three girls could be. We were the first three-woman rock group in England and we had our own very different personal­ities.”

Anna­bel, or Annie, was “blonde, middle-sized, middle-class”. Gaye Brown, or GB, was “red-haired, six foot and upper-crust”. Diane Langton, or Di-Di, was the saltier character or, as Annabel describes her, “dark-haired, tiny, working-class”.

Then there was Donald Fraser, Annabel’s partner at the time, who was the composer, arranger, pianist and manager of the band.

Rock Bottom, from left: Annabel Leventon, Gaye Brown and Diane Langton. PHOTO: JOHN HAYNES

They came together spontane­ously, but the idea of a collection of clearly defined personal­ities was something that would not appear until more than 20 years later.

“Without us, you wouldn’t have had The Spice Girls,” insists Annabel. “We were ahead of our time.”

They had the idea for the television show, but needed a writer so Annabel approached her friend Jack Rosenthal.

While he loved the concept, his lack of knowledge of the music business meant he didn’t feel he was right for the job. But Annabel’s friend television writer Howard Schuman agreed to have a go. A meeting with Verity Lambert, the formidable head of drama at Thames Tele­vision, went well.

Howard would write the pilot and the three women would star in it as them­selves. It seemed as though their “Master Gruppe­nplan”, as Don had named it, was finally taking shape.

But things were not as they seemed, and Howard became distant and increasingly vague.

It transpired that the Rock Bottom show was to go ahead with three different actresses: Rula Lenska, Julie Covington and Charlotte Cornwell.

The name of the show became Rock Follies, the name of the band was changed to the Little Ladies and the names of the characters were slightly changed.

There is Anna, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Annie; Q, who is essentially GB; and Dee, who is Di-Di. The first episode of Rock Follies was broadcast in February 1976.

“It was such an awful betrayal,” says Annabel. “It was incredibly hard to believe this could happen.”

In the end, they had no option but to go to court.

Verity Lambert condes­cendingly commen­ted: “Three little actresses against the might of EMI?”

With the help of the colourful enter­tainment lawyer Oscar Beusel­inck (the late father of actor Paul Nicholas), Rock Bottom took Thames Television to the High Court.

Breach of Confidence is now on the statute book and has become a defining element in Intellectual Property law.

The television series, Rock Follies, went on to be a great success and launched the careers of Rula Lenska and Julie Coving­ton. Their album went platinum.

Writing the book after all these years was “cathartic” for Annabel, who admits the betrayal still hurts. But there is a new optimism.

“This story has got every­thing,” says Annabel. “I really think it would make a great play and a great film.”

There have already been initial conversa­tions about putting it on in the theatre, but as yet nothing has been confirmed.

If the roll call of tributes to the book are anything to go by, it shouldn’t take long before it is snapped up.

Stephen Fry deemed it “riotous, hilarious, riveting” and he is joined by a chorus of approval from stars including Michael Palin, Sir Derek Jacobi, Miriam Margolyes and Sir Richard Eyre.

It seems the story is far from over. “Re-form. Go out on the road… why shouldn’t we?” laughs Annabel.

Why not indeed?

The Real Rock Follies: The Great Girl Band Rip-Off of 1976. By Annabel Leventon. NW1 Books, £9.99; e-book also available.

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