There may be 19 million people in Shanghai, bursting city of Chinese enterprise, but if your poems are popular enough to be on the London Underground, you’re never far from a fan. I’m leaving a hotel in the city centre with Roger McGough when someone approaches him with open arms.
“Roger!” cries the man, who turns out to be a professor of forensic psychology from Nottingham University. “I love your poetry! Got all your books! What are you doing here?” He beams at McGough, who blushes, and mutters something about a reunion with his old pop band, The Scaffold. The professor cries with unrestrained joy and immediately launches into an enthusiastic rendition of “Lily The Pink”. McGough looks horrified. We escape through the revolving doors, chased by the evergreen refrain.
It is 42 years since McGough and his fellow Scaffold members John Gorman and Mike McCartney (brother of Paul) had their biggest hit record: a version of a rugby song inspired by a vintage medicine for “women’s problems” which sold a million copies and was Christmas number one in 1968.
Now, 6,000 miles from Liverpool, the trio are once again onstage, exhorting a rather stunned Chinese audience to “Drink-a-drink-a-drink, to Lily the-Pink-the-Pink-the-Pink”. The Scaffold has reunited, and here they are, performing as part of “Liverpool Day” at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, a vast fair in which Liverpool is one of the participating cities (and indeed, the only British one).
Over coffee and dim sum on the 26th floor of the Equatorial Hotel, the Labour leader of Liverpool City Council, Joe Anderson, explains why he has brought a 210-strong entourage to Shanghai. As well as The Scaffold, the council has flown over the entire Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, a children’s Chinese orchestra, a teen band, specially selected Liverpool schoolchildren, their teachers, a marketing agency, councillors, investment advisers, communications advisers and local journalists. Oh, and Eighties electro-pop group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Anderson is determined that of all the cities in the UK, Liverpool will corner the gigantic Chinese market. He’s working hard at it, for even though they are formally twinned, Liverpool is not an obvious match for the Chinese behemoth. Shanghai has a vast economic footprint and boasts 1,200 towers with more than 18 storeys, culminating in the stupendous World Financial Center, which looks like a 1,614ft-high bottle-opener. Liverpool is home to a population of 450,000, the Liver Building and a pair of decent football clubs.
But never mind. So keen is Anderson on Liverpool becoming Britain’s “Chinese portal”, that when his £2m Expo budget – £400,000 of which was public money – ran out, and Liverpool Day looked like it might go down the drain, he authorised another £300,000 from public funds to bridge the gap.
This did not go down well on Merseyside. His opponent, LibDem councillor Warren Bradley, fumed about the profligacy of an “exotic trip” in the face of “a tsunami of cuts”, but Anderson is unrepentant, and has brought over enough Liverpudlians to fill a small aircraft. There’s nothing like spending money to attract money, is his Brownite rationale.
“The Chinese need to be wooed. You have to show them what’s available,” says Anderson, a giant man who defines his work in China as “gold-digging”.
The mystery is why wooing the Chinese should involve The Scaffold, an English satirical group from the deep past, utterly without an Asian fanbase, a band whose members haven’t sung together for decades, and don’t even get along very well.
Councillor Anderson stirs his coffee thoughtfully. “The Scaffold is a very quirky group. In a nice way. And their … eccentricity is well received. People expect a bit of fun. They are part of the charm of Liverpool.” He looks out at the Shanghai scenery, where a thick orange smog has gently descended on the relentlessly vertical skyline. “When I told the mayor of Shanghai about The Scaffold, he was quite taken aback.”
The Liverpool Pavilion at the Expo has been open for business since February. “Welcome to Liverpool!” says a rather ancient-looking Macca from the safety of a plasma screen. Chinese visitors are then encouraged to parse “Alroight-la!” in Scouse. An array of electronic wizardry lets you “push” the Ferry across the Mersey, play football against Steven Gerrard, go on a 3-D journey through the city and listen to hits by Cilla Black, and, er, The Scaffold. There’s even a giant picture of The Scaffold (alongside an even bigger one of the Fab Four).
Beneath a giant sign saying “Liverpool is only 2 hours from Everywhere”, Bob Collins has temporarily traded in his day job of town planner, and is busy flogging Liverpool FC badges to Chinese tourists. “The best-selling thing in the pavilion? A USB stick,” shouts Collins above a giggling mob of teenagers waving I Love Liverpool mugs. “It’s a bargain. It’s got half a gigabite on Liverpool and the Liverpool Offer, plus 1.53 gigabites of free space. All for 35 yuan (about £3.50).”
What’s the Liverpool Offer, then? Free train tickets? Free football tickets? A free Scaffold LP? Collins looks at me strangely. “The Offer is Liverpool’s business and investment opportunities. Tourism. The University. Culture.”
Outside the Pavilion, 600 Chinese people are waiting to be exposed to The Offer. This is not atypical. Later on, a fight breaks out because someone pushes in. Not every pavilion has such magnetism; over at the Pondicherry stand next-door, bored-looking stewards are coping with an almost total absence of interest. My interpreter Yang Jie asks those patiently queueing up why they want to go to the Liverpool Pavilion.
“Apparently there are a lot of interactive games inside,” says Yang Li, 63, a retired accountant. Does she think that Shanghai and Liverpool have a lot in common? “I suppose so.” “My son is a big Liverpool FC fan so I’m going to take a picture of the picture of the football team inside,” says Chen Jie, 36, an office worker.
Outside, John Gorman from The Scaffold is prowling around. Gorman, 74, a professional prankster who is heading for a gallbladder operation on his return to the UK, but never mind, thinks the whole trip is just hilarious. “We always considered our songs to be soft and silly. Still do. It never occurred to me that they had any status. For us to be here, to be part of this.” He spots a Chinese family posing for a photograph, and stands behind them, looming above the unaware group in his green tweed jacket. “I’ve been in hundreds of official wedding portraits you know,” says Gorman, who was brought on to liven up ITV kids’ show Tiswas after The Scaffold bit the dust in 1974.
Meanwhile, over on Shanghai’s historic waterfront, The Bund, Roger McGough is guest of honour at a literary lunch. He seems a lot happier about being here than being at the Expo, promoting The Offer. He looks owlishly over to the old colonial waterfront buildings, which bear a vague resemblance to the buildings on the Pier Head. That’s about the only similarity. Across the Huangpu River, the new Pudong district bristles with giddying structures including the World Financial Center and the Pearl Tower, 1,535ft high. McGough, now 72 and dapper in a bright floral shirt, blue-rimmed glasses and what look rather like skinny jeans, considers the Liverpool analogy. “Hmm. Not very much like Birkenhead,” he says drolly, referring to the distinctly low-rise district across the Mersey.
“I had to think a lot about coming,” he says in his hesitant, soft burr which bears only a trace of the Mersey beat. “When I got the invitation I didn’t want to go. Yes, my first instinct was not to go.” He pauses and drums thin fingers on the table. “But then I felt it would be mean not to. And the whole Liverpool thing. And I wanted to build bridges. It would have been letting the side down.”
Not letting the side down is important for McGough. It was probably what pushed him into being in The Scaffold in the first place. At least, it was probably what motivated him to go along with singing pop songs with The Scaffold, which was certainly never part of the plan.
“We were picked to be alternative comedians, but not Oxbridge. Not like Beyond The Fringe,” says McGough, referring to the group’s origins as a band put together by an ABC television producer for a comedy show in 1963. “I was the writer. John Gorman was the comic. And Mike was the glamorous element. That was how it was,” says McGough thoughtfully. “The music came along and caught us by surprise. If the music hadn’t developed, we might have ended up a bit like Python, I suppose.”
In 1967, The Mersey Sound was published. The iconic anthology of poetry written by him, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten came out a year before “Lily The Pink”. The two successes did not work well together. “It didn’t appear to me to be a dichotomy,” says McGough. “Yet people began to think we were a jumped-up rock’n’roll band. You know, you can’t be a serious writer if you appear on Top of the Pops.”
Mike and “Our Kid”
If there is such a thing as the flame of The Scaffold, it is surely kept alight by Mike McCartney, who has long been badgering McGough, with zero success, for a reunion. McCartney apparently has roomfuls of Scaffold ephemera, cuttings, posters, fan mail and a single recording of a television sketch, at his home on the Wirral. He clearly loved being frontman for a Liverpool group. All right, it wasn’t the Liverpool group, the band to end all bands, but a Christmas number one ain’t bad. And the success of The Scaffold meant at least he could hold his head high in the family circle. “Suddenly, there were two show-offs in the house,” he tells me, beaming.
With his striking profile, bleach-blond hair, imposing height, and peculiar habit of perching suit jackets, cape-like, on his shoulders, McCartney, 66 (he abandoned his original stage name of McGear after The Scaffold’s follow-up group, The Grimms, abandoned him), looks rather like an evangelical preacher, or a Hollywood actor in the Ronald Reagan mould. It’s understandable why the bookish, sideburned McGough considered Mike represented Glamour. After all, he was not only good-looking, but he was the brother of a Beatle.
When you talk to McCartney, Paul permanently hovers on the sidelines, an omnipresent spirit known as Our Kid. Our Kid is never more than an anecdote away. This is not a criticism of Mike McCartney, who has forged out a not insignificant career as a photographer since his days in The Scaffold. But it is a constant reminder that being the younger brother of one of the most wealthy, talented and adored human beings on the planet must be a cross to bear, although McCartney Junior denies this fervently. “I’m not in the shadow of Our Kid! Journalists are always asking me this,” he says, tensely. “And Our Kid had nothing to do with ‘Lily The Pink’, you know.” He sighs with fond recollections. “It was the Queen Mother’s favourite record. Taxi drivers sing it to me, still. And you know, we are still earning residuals from it.”
Yet although he revels in the anthemic status of the song, and has a bottle of the original Medicinal Compound (a potion marketed in the US at the turn of the century by a Lydia Pinkham), McCartney also thinks it got in the way. The Scaffold, he likes to think, was destined for bigger things on the alternative stage. Then “Lily The Pink” came along. By the time they came back down to earth, others had stolen their “alternative” crown.
“After ‘Lily The Pink’, we toured working men’s clubs. That was a mistake. We should have stayed doing satire and poetry, not singing rugby songs. It killed us off!”
McCartney smiles a terrifying smile. “It ended our career! That’s all Scaffold were known for.” The smile disappears instantly. “The bloody Goodies came along. Pah!” He almost spits on the carpet. “The Goodies! I think they are dreadful. Ugh. So obvious, and boring. Of course, they got the television series. Do you know, the BBC have wiped all our sketches? But you can go back and look at The Goodies’ work. And Python.”
Of course, The Scaffold’s sketches do exist. They exist in neatly typed pages, filed at the home of Mike McCartney. But can McCartney persuade the other two to come back out of Scaffold retirement and perform them with him? Well, Gorman would probably go along with the crack. But McGough? No way. There is absolutely no chance that McCartney is, or was, ever going to be successful in tempting Roger McGough, CBE, OBE, and presenter of Poetry Please on Radio 4, to clamber up on stage and do ancient Scaffold sketches which seemingly tend to trade on vintage Seventies themes, long-dead politicians and (according to McGough) cringe-makingly dated views of women. McCartney doesn’t see it quite so. “If only the public could see it,” he mourns. He starts delineating the skits, which seem impossible and unfunny, as any repeated rendition of a staged joke usually does.
In 2008, McCartney begged McGough to consider a Scaffold reunion. Forget it, came the answer from the McGough residence. McCartney, who had apparently sounded out a venue, was furious. Relations were not good. They got even worse when McGough was selected to talk about The Scaffold on the BBC’s The One Show last year. McCartney thought it was a snub. (McGough, with characteristic modesty, thinks it was because he lives near the BBC studio.)
“Yes, we had a disagreement,” says McCartney. “Roger wouldn’t do it. I’m surprised he’s agreed to come to Shanghai, to be honest.” I tell him McGough said he wanted to “build bridges”. McCartney breaks into a grin. “I’m glad.”
And so to Shanghai’s much-vaunted Liverpool Night, which councillor Anderson described to me as “the end of the beginning”. The event, in the Entertainment Pavilion, has been sold out for weeks. “We could have sold these tickets 20 times over,” blusters Anderson, proudly. Beneath a giant banner reading simply “Liverpool”, Vasily Petrenko, the Philharmonic’s charismatic conductor, leads the orchestra through an elegant rendition of the Lennon/McCartney songbook. Shanghaians in the audience smile as they hear familiar melodies from “Yesterday”, “Hey Jude” and “Yellow Submarine”. There’s no question, the city is delivering its heart and soul on a plate for the delectation of China and its brave new world of enterprise.
Then, it’s time for The Scaffold. Three elderly men yoked together by happenstance, their home town and a rugby anthem, bound on and start singing their first hit. “Thank U very much for the Aintree iron” (whatever that is), warbles McCartney, who looks as if he has temporarily shut Our Kid away, for once. McGough is beaming, gently tapping his foot. Gorman is doing Martian-style tap dancing.
Then it’s time for the big one. The tinkling xylophone introduction fans out over the auditorium, and we launch into “Lily The Pink”. The Chinese in the audience look somewhat startled, but encouraged by the explosive exuberance of the entire Liverpool entourage, they laugh and clap along. They have no notion who the subject of the next song, “Jennifer Eccles”, is, but they seem to appreciate it, particularly when Gorman leaps off stage and sits on someone’s knee. After precisely 11 minutes and 23 seconds, The Scaffold’s time is up and the orchestra restores order with creamy excerpts from The Nutcracker.
In the interval, some of the audience speak to me and Yang Jie. “I liked those grandpas singing,” says Fang Qihui, four, while college student Jiang Bo is positively ecstatic. “I took a train for two hours here from Hangzhou for this concert because I’m a big Liverpool FC fan. Surprisingly, I thought The Scaffold were excellent. Those white-haired men looked so young.” “I think we old Chinese people should learn from them, being happy grandma or grandpa,” says Tang Aili, 67.
After the show, everyone starts downing large Chardonnays and taking photos of themselves with various Chinese dignitaries, who smile politely at the noise and confusion. McCartney is still banging on about a reunion. “I regret people never saw the full Scaffold evening. They would be pleasantly surprised about what a Scaffold evening has to offer.” McGough rolls his eyes in despair. The leader of Liverpool City Council comes charging over. “We’re considering bringing the whole Liverpool Night to London! How about it? January? February?” McCartney immediately pulls his diary out to write down the dates. “Er, I may be in Sri Lanka,” says McGough, with a polite cough.