The Fascinating Aida ladies are much like butterflies. From their relative cocoons of drama schools and the civil service they emerged changed and matured from their beginnings as the caterpillars of potential into the beautiful, enchanting queens of the cabaret circuit. As the autumn of their time as a touring troupe draws on they are celebrating their two decades of lyrics and laughter with One Last Flutter at the Comedy Theatre. Matthew Amer spoke to the Red Admiral herself, Dillie Keane…
Indeed, when Dillie Keane arrives for her interview she does so in a long, deep red coat and a rich, red scarf reminiscent of a rose bush. It possibly loses something in description but the overall effect is one equal to the best of nature’s creations. Having just finished a national tour with their show One Last Flutter, Fascinating Aida is ending in style with a four week run at the West End’s Comedy Theatre. Although the tour went well, “101 dates and not a blow struck in anger backstage”, after a long period on the road Keane is ecstatic to be back at home and looking forward to the London run.
"101 dates and not a blow struck in anger "
Keane describes the content of One Last Flutter as a “seemingly random collection of songs”. Along with 12 all-new dotty ditties there are also a couple of medleys to appease the long time fans. “We also do a thing about why we’re breaking up and about friendship and about the possibility of a comeback… but no, there isn’t.” F.A.’s songs are not the typical Will Young/Gareth Gates love ballads that haunt the pop charts like evil spirits intent on scaring our eardrums. Their many topics stray from David Sneddon territory to encompass such eclectic themes as herpes, two-headed babies, singing in German and what to do when faced with Armageddon. Inspiration for such intriguing songs must come from somewhere. “I suppose I get things from friends or pick up signals in the newspapers. You keep an eye out for social trends and other ideas come from just life and living.”
Contrary to how it may seem, the randomness of the songs is marginally more controlled than the clever fellows behind chaos theory would have us believe. Although the subjects aren’t closely related, like cousins who marry they do share some common ground. Each song, in the words of the Fascinating Aida press release, “reflects the age we’re in and the age we are at.” A glowing example of this is Poor Lizzie, a new song written specially for One Last Flutter. The Lizzie in question is a poor, old dear who can’t quite cope with the changes in the world around her. As Keane explains, in a rather faux-upper-class, go-and-fetch-the-butler-I’ve-had-one-Pimms-too-many voice “a lesbian… LESBIAN moved in down the lane and a person of unspecified gender next door!” The result, as anyone would assume, is that Lizzie “goes mad and joins the Satanists.” Although the scenario is certainly on the loopy side of ridiculous and Lizzie is a choral caricature, the song does have a ‘moral’ and highlights the “highly and increasingly sexualised society we live in”, a society that the Aida girls have seen change during their last two decades as a group. “We started at the time just before the miner’s strike, so we went through Thatcher, privatisation and the closing of the mines. It was very politically focussed. Now we are very focussed consumer-wise and it’s a much more consumer orientated and highly sexualised society. It’s a really, really strange society we live in and it’s turning more and more shallow. Even though I thought things couldn’t get any harder, mentally harder, than they were under Thatcher, they are much harder: we’re bombarded at all sides by people trying to make us spend our money and trying to make us feel uncool if we’re not correctly dressed.” Keane’s spiel gives the impression that she yearns for the good old days before New Labour and before Thatcher, but that is not the case. “I’d much rather address what my problem is now than think ‘Oh, it was better then’, because I love my life; I enjoy it.”
"It’s a really, really strange society we live in "
It must be difficult for a satirist to take this happy-go-lucky attitude; as a group they spend their lives highlighting the faults of society. A satirist who wants to ignore the problems of the world is akin to a vet who can’t bear being elbow deep in a cow’s backside. So it is unsurprising that many of Fascinating Aida’s songs touch on shocking or controversial subjects. Some of Poor Lizzie’s images, to pick on the little old lady like a timid heckler, had to be censored as “they were deemed too filthy by the management.” More seriously taboo subjects which many would steer clear of also get broached by the group: “I always used to say that one couldn’t write a song about paedophilia. There’s nothing funny about that, nothing at all. Yet we have actually mentioned it in a new song about how terrifying the world has become.” The song in question, Suddenly New Zealand, plays on some of the country’s most current fears, suggesting that suddenly the land of sheep and sheep and sheep and sheep and sheep and… sheep doesn’t seem like such a bad place to live after all, if a little quiet.
Keane and the other Fascinating Aida girls have been particularly moved in recent times by the effect of the war in Iraq. “Adele and I were very anti the war and horrified by it. But there are people out there who think that it was the right thing to do and I have met one or two moderately reasonable people who put a case for it. I don’t agree, but…” As a result George Dubya has found his way into the show as another reason that the bovine population of New Zealand have become more attractive without the use of eyeliner, lipstick and a fetching cocktail dress. But F.A. has taken steps to try and help, raising both awareness and money. At their shows they are running bucket collections at the end of performances and an auction is being run on internet bidding bazaar Ebay. F.A. fans have been given the chance to out bid each other for the opportunity to win goody bags, a Fascinating Aida dress and even a glamorous night out complete with a specially commissioned song to be sung by the F.A. ladies. All of the proceeds from the collections and auctions are going to the girl’s chosen charity Warchild. “I felt quite strongly that a war charity was important and that even if you’re for the war, children getting involved is so terrible; it’s morally unambiguous. You can get people who are for the war and against the war giving to it.”
"I shall do anything that people pay me to do"
The prospect of a song commissioned by the highest bidder of an internet auction is not one that fills Keane with a surge of confidence in the human spirit. “It’s terrifying. It’s absolutely terrifying! Suppose they give us picnic baskets or…” the inside of a ping-pong ball? “don’t you suggest it!” Luckily for Keane the airy expansiveness found beneath the outer coating of sporting equipment has not been suggested… yet. Unluckily for her recent bidders have requested a song about a ladies cricket club in a country village, who consist of a few friends and Colin the traffic cone 'rescued' from Westonbirt Arboretum as their team mascot. Suddenly table-tennis, like New Zealand, seems much more appealing.
Fascinating Aida’s decision to split after a 20 year career together came about not because of showbiz fallout. There isn’t a Robbie Williams-esque prima donna determined to destroy a beautiful thing. Rather they seem to have come to the end of the comedy road. As trained actresses all, balancing cabaret with acting work is a trick a Covent Garden juggler might have trouble with. Spending only one or two nights in each tour venue has also caught up with the girls and is not something Keane seems happy to do forever. However, they have also been confronted with certain artistic difficulties: “I feel rather like Tom Lehrer. He gave up writing satire because, when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, he said life had started to imitate satire. We wrote a song called Yes, But Is It Art which is a satire on Britpop art. It was really impossible because they are almost satires of themselves. Sculptures made of faeces; how do you satirise that?”
Great hordes of the uninitiated would claim that the surest sign of showbiz success comes in the form of a clutch of awards and nominations. Others would say that consistently good reviews or even a thriving fan club mark you out from the crowd. However, those truly attuned to the show business barometer know that stars hit the big time only when they have a drinking game based around their performance. Star Wars has a drinking game: one must drink every time Harrison Ford makes a sarcastic remark or Darth Vader sounds like he is making an obscene phone call. Flash Gordon has a drinking game: one must drink every time Brian Blessed resembles a laughing man-bear or every time Timothy Dalton looks like a slightly less threatening Peter Pan. Fascinating Aida too has reached such drinking game cult status. Should you wish too enjoy this alcoholic sensation, simply hire one of their live videos, arrange an assortment of beverages – gin and margaritas are essential for any discerning FA fan – and take a drink every time Dillie Keane looks like she’s going to vomit, plays the wrong chord, swears at an inappropriate moment or turns her voice into a gin-soaked growl. Keane, sadly, has never played the game herself and was actually quite unaware of its existence. “It’s like having somebody imitate you; you suddenly think ‘oh, do I look like that?’ and I do! I recognise [the characteristics] with horrible clarity.”
Now that Fascinating Aida’s days on the road are drawing to a close, Keane’s mind turns to other opportunities for her and what she might do in the future. Rumours abound that she will be writing a musical with her F.A. cohort Adele Anderson. Although she admits this is on the cards she is surprisingly tight lipped on the subject. Her reasoning? “If we don’t get anywhere with it, it will start to be annoying if people come up and say ‘how are you doing with that project about the inside of a ping-pong ball.’” A return to acting, in which she originally trained but which has stayed in the background during her F.A. days, is also a distinct possibility. “I love acting. Acting jobs are lovely; you don’t have to do your own wardrobe, you just learn the lines and go on. And actors are really rather nice people. I like actors.” A happy future which continues to blend Keane’s two loves of writing and performing, along with a little time to be spent in the garden and on the golf course, lies ahead. But is there anything in particular she would like to do? “I shall do anything that people pay me to do… within reason.”