November 4th on ITV here in the UK will see the airing of a brand new documentary as highly acclaimed actress and broadcaster Joanna Lumley traces the legacy of her childhood hero – Elvis Presley.
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“My Elvis was this young one, before the jumpsuits and the big lifestyle. But what was he really like? If my dream had come true and he had come over to England and I had met him, I wonder would I have liked the boy buried underneath the myth? I’m going in search of the youth catapulted to fame and fortune. ” Joanna Lumley
Joanna Lumley embarks on a very personal journey for an intimate insight into Elvis Presley, the man behind the myth, for this unique one-hour documentary. The programme sees Joanna travel to Graceland and meet some of Elvis’s closest surviving friends and family, including ex-wife Priscilla Presley, for an honest portrait of what ‘The King’ was really like.
One of the first records Joanna ever bought was “Hound Dog” and ever since that day she has loved Elvis. This year Elvis would have turned 80 and it is one of Joanna’s biggest regrets that she never got the opportunity to meet the man.
Joanna says: “The thing about being a fan of Elvis is that you just love everything about him. I loved the way he looked, the way he sang, the way he dressed, the photographs of him, the way he performed on stage…and I loved his smile and his sense of humour. I love the fact that he never really grinned huge cheesy grins, he had a special Elvis grin, and I borrowed that for Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous…a little tribute to Elvis.”
Joanna joins Priscilla Presley at Abbey Road Studios for a recording session of the new Elvis album “If I Can Dream” with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As they listen to musicians from the live orchestra recording together, the atmosphere is emotional.
Priscilla says (of Elvis): “This is something he would have dreamed of doing, especially here. It gives me chills really.”
Joanna accepts Priscilla’s invitation to Graceland for a personal tour of Elvis’s home, where Priscilla shares intimate memories about their married life and Joanna learns that Elvis was an insomniac who preferred milkshakes to alcohol.
Joanna says: “The TV room, the living room, Elvis’s jungle-themed den, are virtually untouched. His mother’s bedroom is still as it was. It’s open to the public, but tonight, Priscilla and I will be alone, with her memories.”
Elvis had just turned 22 and was the biggest sensation in music when he bought the house. But his story began in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born. Joanna heads there next, to see his humble beginnings for herself and visit the shack which Elvis’s father built for the family.
Joanna reveals how his parents, who couldn’t read or write, were regarded at the bottom of the social ladder in the 1930s.
She explains: “Dirt poor was a term coined in America in the 1930s and it meant people who were so poor that they had a roof over their heads but the ground they were on was just earth. This little shack, that Vernon, Elvis’s dad built when he was just a teenager, in fact had planks on the ground but there was pretty much nothing inside it, just a few sticks of furniture. They were dirt poor. It’s extraordinary to think that this was where he was born.”
Joanna visits the hardware shop where an eleven-year-old Elvis bought a child-sized guitar when his protective mother, Gladys, banned him from buying the 22-calibre rifle that he had wanted.
Elvis’s first song was about a boy and his dog and he played it endlessly on his guitar. It later became a hit single in 1956 but Elvis performed it for the first time on stage at his school, ten years earlier.
Joanna talks to Elvis’s childhood friend Sam Bell, who reveals what life was like for a young Elvis growing up in a city blighted by segregation. She learns that Gospel was a major influence on Elvis, which would later shine through his music with the birth of rock n roll.
Sam says: “He wasn’t treated as a white boy in the neighbourhood, he was treated as one of the kids in the neighbourhood. He was very polite to my grandparents. We better say, ‘yes ma’am, yes sir,’ but him being white, he didn’t have to. But he did it anyway. Grandma loved him, and my papa did too, because no white kid ever said, ‘yes sir’.”
After moving to Memphis, Tennessee in 1947, Elvis found inspiration in the capital city of the blues.
One of the highlights of Joanna’s journey is the iconic Sun Studios where Elvis recorded his first record in August 1953. Sun Studios remains exactly as it was the moment Elvis walked in. Overwhelmed, Joanna performs at the microphone whilst listening to Elvis’s breakthrough record from 1954.
Joanna also meets The King’s first love, Dixie Locke, who gives a fascinating insight into how Elvis was regarded as an outsider in his youth and bullied for the way he looked.
Dixie says: “My girlfriends had thought that maybe I was a little strange because I was dating him, when he was a little strange, that’s what people thought.”
Joanna visits the clothing store where Elvis created his look in the 1950s, including his infamous blue suede shoes, and follows his meteoric rise to fame. By the 1960s Elvis was earning the equivalent of 40 million dollars a year, largely thanks to his manager Colonel Tom Parker, whose influence was at times questioned by others.
Just after he found fame and brought Graceland, Elvis went into the army and off to Germany, where he found Priscilla. At that key moment, he lost his beloved mother.
School friend George Klein says: “I’ve never seen a grown man cry so much. He cried for three straight days. Elvis would get her gown or her blouse or something and he’d just hold it all day long. I saw that with my own eyes.”
Priscilla explains to Joanna how she picked up the pieces of Elvis’s grief and how they became close, marrying in private, before having a baby daughter together in 1968.
But Elvis returned to touring and his time on the road was damaging to his marriage. He tragically died from a heart attack just four years after his divorce.
Joanna talks to Elvis’s family and lifelong friends about his death, hearing about how the singer James Brown broke down at Elvis’s casket. She is moved to hear about his funeral and inspired by the legacy he has left behind.
– Elvis and Me airs on ITV on November 4th 2015 at 9pm
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