Since 10 April at Above The Stag in London’s Vauxhall, Erasure frontman Andy Bell has been reprising his role as Torsten, a half-English, half-Norwegian semi-immortal polysexual born way back in 1905.
Entitled Queereteria TV, the third instalment of Barney Ashton-Bullock’s series places Torsten’s recollections inside a nightmarish vision of a post-apocalyptic Britain, where a trio of misfits – Lady Domina Bizarre (Matthew Baldwin), Rupert (veteran actor Peter Straker) and Daniel (Ashton-Bullock) – seek to recreate the halcyon days of the Queereteria sex club they and Torsten frequented before Lady Domina inadvertently caused Armageddon after a fumbled sexual liaison with the monarch.
What emerges instead is a TV station dominated by the very worst, lowest possible common denominator of programming that Britons have no choice but to watch; so much so that ‘detector execution vans’ patrol the streets to ensure strict compliance with the fascistic dictat that the channel’s crude and debased content must be watched. “It’s basically a filthy comedy,” says Andy Bell, however unlikely that might sound.
Unlikely it may sound, but a filthy comedy – perhaps the filthiest your most exuberant imagination could muster – it most certainly is. Queereteria TV is a raucous, ribald excursion of a musical that is most definitely not for the faint hearted or easily offended. It can frequently leave you laughing uproariously or sitting with your mouth agape with shock at the things you’ve seen or heard. And yet through it all is the strangely morbid tale of our hero Torsten, kept sedated in a bell jar for Lady Domina’s amusement, Bell’s embodiment of this sad, broken soul acts as a counterweight to Baldwin’s wonderful portrayal of Domina as the worst imaginable panto dame.
Bell first performed as Torsten in 2014 at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. For those used to seeing his performances with synthpop royalty Erasure, Torsten The Bareback Saint may have come as something of a shock. A one-man show written by Ashton-Bullock with music composed and performed by multi-instrumentalist Chris Frost, the show found the wretched Torsten surveying his long life, many lovers and frequent disappointments in the kind of brutally honest, and often hilariously colourful detail that was a world away from Bell’s dayjob operating within the written and unwritten parameters of pop music.
Torsten reappeared in The Beautiful Libertine at Above The Stag in London two years later. Not exactly a sequel in the traditional sense, the second instalment in what Ashton-Bullock describes as “postcards from the hotspots of memory” dug into different moments in the life of the Torsten character, revealing more detail about his life, yet more outlandish and sad episodes, but in anything but a straightforward linear narrative.
Bell settled into the character again for The Beautiful Libertine as if it was a second skin, surely meaning that this third instalment should be a breeze. “To be honest, even though he’s my character, he’s a stranger to me,” he confesses. “I can’t quite put my finger on him really.”
“I don’t think any of us can,” concurs Ashton-Bullock. “For me there’s two ways of looking at drama – there’s the approach where you have a beginning, middle and end and a forced narrative, and where you try and make everything fit that; or you acknowledge that in our lives we don’t really know what the beginning, middle and end are. If you write like that, eventually a life and a story assert themselves. Our own memory of our own lives is incomplete – we remember fragments and have selective memories and all of that. So I think with Torsten being older than any of us, his memories are even more jumbled, and everything is fragmented.”
“He’s 114 years old, even though he looks a lot younger,” adds Bell. “In this new show his bones get brittle, he’s feeling older inside, and his memory’s going a little bit. He’s a bit similar to myself, really!”
Though he’s being sarcastic, if Bell can relate to the character on some level, in part that’s because Torsten was written by Ashton-Bullock specifically with Andy Bell in mind. “I always felt as though I knew Andy, although I hadn’t met him, because I just felt that we were very similar,” he says. “The thing that Andy, Chris Frost and I all have in common is we’re very reclusive introverts, and we often don’t get the chance in life to be the best we can be.”
“We’re wallflower people,” nods Bell in agreement. “We don’t necessarily want to go and join in. It’s not our style. Barney and I have become very good, very close friends because we’re both so similar.”
“People put you in boxes and we get talked over all the time,” continues Ashton-Bullock with a sigh. “But I really think we have an energy between us which is completely understated, and that energy means we can create things that are of value to people. Without taking anything away from Andy’s success in Erasure, I really felt like there was a voice trapped within the style of synthpop – and I’m saying that as a fan. I wanted him to be freed from the regular beat and I wanted his voice to soar. When I heard him on Peter Hammill’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher from 1991, I knew I would want to work with him to do just that.”
The music written by Chris Frost for Ashton-Bullock’s vivid words also serves to free Bell up from those strictures, their distinctively flexible presentations being the outcome of a collision between Frost’s jazz / classical background and Ashton-Bullock’s schooling in the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Fad Gadget. The net effect of that is music that can occasionally be a bit New Romantic, a bit futurist, deeply theatrical, and more than often a bit uncomfortable.
One way in which Bell can get to grips with the anguish of Torsten’s life is to relate it to his own experiences from his long-term relationship with the late Paul Hickey, whose memoir Sometimes vividly detailed his life with the singer. “We had an open relationship,” recalls Bell. “I mean, I’m quite a romantic, and when Erasure were really, really successful it felt like I did have someone like in every port who I’d see while we were touring the world. I liked to make attachments, but I wasn’t allowed to fall in love. That was Paul’s stipulation, which I realise now was a bit damaging. Torsten is in a similar situation, because he outlives all of his amours and paramours.”
“It’s very similar to how I’ve written drama through the years,” explains Ashton-Bullock, whose Daniel character is a married man that Torsten has an affair with. “If I’ve got somebody’s voice in mind when I’m writing it really helps me. There are lots of similarities between Andy and I – weird things like we both worked in Debenhams when we were young and we both had love affairs in Weston-super-Mare when we were in our late teens. I think that’s why we’re both very, very emotionally committed to the Torsten project and seeing where that story will lead.”
Though it wasn’t necessarily evident to audiences when it opened in Edinburgh, Barney Ashton-Bullock had always conceived that Torsten The Bareback Saint would be the first part of a trilogy. Arriving at the latest instalment, it’s become apparent to everyone involved in the series that there are more stories left to tell. “We’re already thinking, ‘Right, what’s going to be the next thing?’” says Bell. “In the latest show they’ve introduced a younger Torsten played by Tom Mann for these kind of flashback scenes while I’m singing off to the side. It’s like me looking back at a reflection of myself in the show.”
Bell turns 55 during the show’s run. “I’m just waiting to get that time when you get written out because you’re too old,” he laughs. “I can imagine when it gets sent to Netflix or and they suddenly say they’re going to get Ryan Gosling to play Torsten, but I can have a bit part in the background playing a tramp on the street.”
“As long as there’s something to say, and that were all alive and available, I wouldn’t kill him off,” says Ashton-Bullock. ”I do think I know where the character can go next and on his timeline. That said, we’ve got the luxury of time. We’ve all got other jobs. I can wait for inspiration to strike, rather than feeling like I’ve got a deadline approaching. I think there are still things to say and I also feel like we’re living in a world where certain ideas desperately need to be shared. These are very weird times, very estranging at times. Sometime’s it’s a struggle for everyday people to wake up and be happy because the times are so odd.”
Though Ashton-Bullock wrote Torsten specifically for Andy Bell, he’s clear that other things went into his genesis from his own life experiences. “I think we’re all products of the culture that we live in and our interests,” he says. “My influences from a very early age were Harold Pinter, Derek Jarman, Steven Berkoff, and the ability that they had in their writing to pattern the world and to be viscerally honest about things. I really admired that in all of them. Also, being an outsider in a very small seaside town growing up, having my parents split up when I was four, having to fend for myself and all the sort of nightmare scenarios you can dream for yourself in all of that.” All of this manifests itself in Torsten never seeming to find his true place in the world until he found the forgiving environs of the Queereteria club.
If this were a novel, parts of it could be labelled a classic roman à clef, a story inevitably full of Ashton-Bullock’s own life encounters and recollections, only he really admits to never been drawn to books – only poetry. “The language in books wasn’t concise enough for me,” he admits. “It was like I was reading a book to get a kind of hit, but I was just never getting it. I’ve read all my life poetry, right from when I first bought my collected works of W. H. Auden. I was with my grandmother in the Pump Room in Bath when I bought it on a family weekend and she said to me disapprovingly ‘Hmmm, you do know he was a homosexual?’ From early on I just thought that poetry was the most immediate and violent expression of language.”
Transitioning from poetry to the complex, intensely full flow of words that Ashton-Bullock has written for the Torsten series wasn’t remotely a difficult one. “I think the rhythmic thing is something I’m so in tune with,” he says. “The strictures of contemporary poetry are very much that you’re considered a failure if you’re dealing in rhymes, whereas in lyrics we can rhyme sometimes. They don’t have to be full-on rhymes, they can be oblique ones or open verse rhymes or whatever, but I find that very liberating. Lyrics are a way of actually making the poetic sensibility accessible.”
One aspect of Torsten’s character that remains a mystery, even to Andy Bell, is his Norwegian heritage. That again came from Ashton-Bullock’s past. “There was a stage of my life where I definitely felt like I’d been born into the wrong, not body, but into the wrong country,” he reveals. “I remember feeling extremely Norwegian while I was growing up for some reason, even though I have no ancestry in Norway, I’d never been there, or anything. I can’t even describe it. I’m just extremely happy when I’m there. It’s a very strong connection, and so Torsten is a half-Norwegian, half-English character, born of a Norwegian merchant seamen, and a mother that lived in Rotherhithe where the boats from Scandinavia came in, in 1905.”
The songs for the new album, some of which appear in Queereteria TV in either abridged form, in full, as solo pieces for Bell or the entire ensemble, are among the most varied and captivating pieces that Chris Frost and Ashton-Bullock have yet composed together. Recorded in Autumn last year when the last Erasure tour had finished, these songs find Bell fully sloughing off any inhibitions he might have had about once again casting aside his pop credentials for this much more theatrical endeavour. Key to his sensational delivery of these songs is an appreciation of Torsten’s fundamental character. “The thing is not to be scared,” says Bell. “It doesn’t matter where your voice goes, or if it breaks. You kind of try to make everything perfect, but you can’t. You’re dealing with this character, this somewhat broken person, so you can’t do that – you have to let it go where it goes.”
One of the most memorable moments in Queereteria TV is the song ‘We Hadn’t Slept For Twenty Years’, delivered by the whole cast but led by a stunning duet between Torsten and Daniel, the voices of Andy Bell and Barney Ashton-Bullock weaving in and out of one another in tender, perfect harmony. This is the first time that Ashton-Bullock’s character has appeared in the series, though his role was trailed in the mournful song ‘Photos Of Daniel’ from the second part of the series.
The on-stage chemistry between the show’s writer and its central character seems to underline that friendship that’s been built between Bell and Ashton-Bullock, while the flashback dance scenes between Tom Mann’s young Torsten and William Spencer’s young Daniel (also choreographed by Spencer) are among the most evocative moments in the show.
The other highlights come when you are subjected to Baldwin’s Lady Domina haughtily quoting Margaret Thatcher or hilariously attempting to make a traybake using whatever detritus might be lying around as she presents a cookery show at short notice. “Lady Domina is really like a critique of the most awful kind of narcissism that any of us that work on the fringes of showbusiness have to endure, just pushed right to the extreme,” explains Ashton-Bullock. “She was an ex-lover of Torsten, a sort of onetime seaside special star, or a very bad cabaret artist.” There are moments throughout Queereteria TV where Baldwin’s ludicrous portrayal of Domina act as brutal moments of absurd levity around which some of the more austere songs are woven, and those unexpected juxtapositions provide some of the keys to Queereteria TV’s captivating presentation.
Becoming Torsten has undoubtedly had a huge impact on Andy Bell and his own approach to songwriting. He has spoken to me twice before about wanting to move in more of a theatrical direction, and you can trace that interest right back to his portrayal of Montresor in The Fall Of The House Of Usher, through Erasure’s 1992 Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour, that fateful appearance at Edinburgh’s Fringe and finally arriving at the profoundly stirring songs written for Erasure’s 2017 opus ‘World Be Gone’.
On the new album and in his delivery during the show, his performance reveals an artist whose metamorphosis is essentially complete; from the soaring ‘A Hundred Years Plus Today’ that opens the collection of songs, to the austere poetry of ‘Lowland Lowriders’, to the bawdy ‘Cabaret Awayday’ to the nod to Brecht / Weill on ‘If We Want To Drink A Little’ (with Hazel O’Connor) here we find Andy Bell utterly – and willingly – transformed, in no small part thanks to Barney Ashton-Bullock’s inventive lyrics and Chris Frost’s endlessly adaptable playing.
Queereteria TV completes its run at Above The Stag on 28 April at Above The Stag. Tickets are available at abovethestag.com. The album ‘Andy Bell Is Torsten In Queereteria’ is out now on Strike Force Entertainment via Cherry Red. A shorter version of this piece first appeared on the Clash website on 2 April
(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence & Clash