When Gary Barlow made his disparaging comment on X-Factor (or whatever show it was) that a certain act was "too cabaret," I was more astounded by his arrogance than the insult to an entire genre. As the subsequent video protest made clear, cabaret is so eclectic and diverse, it is almost impossible to define it. Barlow's statement suggested that he had worked out what cabaret meant.
Back in 2008, I expected a cabaret explosion, with the replacement of all long form theatre with pieces either influenced by vaudeville or part of a cabaret format: it seemed to have the energy (burlesque was rising), the intelligence (Dusty Limits was updating Wildean humour into the post-modern age of angst) and the necessary irony (Des O'Connor reinventing the saucy song without slipping into some 1970s' sexist parody). Barlow's dismissal of cabaret suggested that I had been wrong, again.
However, the cabaret format is still capable of enchanting me. The rumour that The Creative Martyrs are opening up a cabaret night in the southside of Glasgow made me smile (wryly). And The Scottish Writers' Centre is presenting an evening with Neil Williamson.
Williamson is, as the blurb suggests, one of the most intriguing characters in Scottish letters. He is mainly known as a science fiction author with a nuanced sensibility (his Arrhythmia is a layered response to the revolutionary power of music): his blog is well worth checking for well-mannered and thoughtful reflections on matters literary and social. He is also half of The Markee De Saw and Bert Finkle, a musical duo who found the lost link between Weimar romanticism and surreal beat poetry.
Although it is unfair to pin Williamson down to a single genre, he does represent the sort of eclecticism that is expressed at its best within the cabaret scene. There is a consistent, sharp intelligence behind everything he does, and an understated wit and wisdom. In person, he is soft-spoken and respectable: these fine qualities are reflected in his music and writing.
He's probably the opposite of what Barlow meant by "cabaret." And an evening like this, in which Williamson talks about the relationship between his ivory tinkling and writing, would probably not win the next X-Factor talent lottery. It would be too intelligent.
Scottish Writers’ Centre presents Writing & Song: an evening with Neil Williamson
Tuesday 9 April 2013