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Phantom of the Opera unmasked - at great length


Imagine... Andrew Lloyd Webber: Memories (BBC iPlayer).

By Barbara Goulden

Alan Yentob always chooses the most interesting subjects for his Imagine series of documentaries....but because he's Alan Yentob nobody ever dares tell him to cut them back a bit.

An hour is surely long enough to sum up most people's lives, however much of a legend they might be? Yentob always commands an hour and a half, as he does on BBC Four for his feature on Andrew Lloyd Webber (the two are pictured above).

For all that, I recommend this on iPlayer - at least then you can pause it while you go and put the kettle on.

Webber, aged 73, has just written his autobiography, Unmasked, and reveals how as a teenager he once ran away to kill himself because his mother seemed to prefer the future international concert pianist John Lill to either him or his talented younger brother Julian.

Fortunately, Andrew thought better of the plan, made his peace with his parents, then went on to write his first version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat after inviting lyricist Tim Rice to share the family's crowded Kensington flat.

This first Webber-Rice collaboration was only staged at a nearby primary school but as one of its young performers had a journalist father, it went on to receive a national rave review.

What happened next is all in the book: Webber married his 18-year-old first wife and he and Rice won enough backing to go on to produce Jesus Christ Superstar - not at first a huge hit in the UK, but a massive one on Broadway despite early protests in the streets.

Next it was Peron - which turned Elaine Paige into a star; then surprise hit Cats - which turned Sarah Brightman into the second Mrs Webber - followed by the classical Requiem, in honour of his late father.

It was good to see there appeared to be no hard feelings between Brightman and Webber as they reunited on the programme to talk about Cats and what turned out to be their biggest stage success ever: Phantom of the Opera.

Their marriage lasted just six years, Phantom for more than 30, the same length of time Webber has been married to his third wife, the former top horsewoman Madeleine Gurdon, with whom he has three children.

At one point in his career, Webber had three shows running in London and four on Broadway. It was during a fallow patch that Madeleine gave him the idea for School of Rock.

He never needs to worry about finding theatres to stage his work - he currently owns seven of them, including the London Palladium and Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Not to mention a sort of School of Rock of his own that offers musical education to children who don't get much of it on the curriculum these days.

This is an interesting portrait of a complex man who comes over with more warmth than you might expect - or is that just because he knows Alan Yentob will give him an hour and a half to publicise his new book? No, I don't think so.

Winner!