How did Bryan Ferry end up playing tennis with Tony Blair, Dave Stewart and Rory Bremner? Tony Barrell tells the story
If you were wandering around the French Riviera in the summer of 1996, you could have witnessed something special. You might have seen four men running around a tennis court somewhere between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. If you came closer, you stood a sporting chance of recognising them – for this was a once-in-a-lifetime doubles match between four British celebrities. On one side of the net were Bryan Ferry and Dave Stewart, and on the other were Tony Blair and Rory Bremner.
This was a largely accidental grouping of individuals who just happened to be in the same sunkissed region of Europe at the same time. But how did this celebrity mash-up happen? The full story has never been properly told – until now.
The story begins with Rory Bremner, who was famous then for his impressions of politicians on the Channel 4 show Rory Bremner, Who Else?. The comedian was holidaying in the picturesque Parc de l’Estérel, near the town of St Raphäel, when he met a man in a restaurant who told him that Tony Blair – “your socialist leader”, as the man called him – would be arriving in the area the following week. At the time, Blair had been the leader of the Labour party for two years, and had less than nine months before he became prime minister.
Tony Blair was known then for his unexpectedly hip taste in music
Blair was allegedly expected in Les Adrets-de-l’Estérel, just north of where Bremner was staying. Curious but not entirely convinced, the impressionist called his office back home to check that the story was true. Shortly after doing that, he received an unexpected phone call at the villa from Blair’s wife, Cherie, who asked him: “Would you like to play tennis with Tony?” The opportunity to meet Blair and whack some balls with him was “too good to resist”, Bremner later recalled. And so one day in August 1996, Blair arrived at a rendezvous near a local tennis court. Bremner met him as he rolled up in a rented minibus together with his wife, children and mother-in-law. Unfortunately, the tennis court was already being used by two children, but the Labour leader came up with a solution. “I know – let’s go to Dave’s place,” he decided.
Tony Blair was known then for his unexpectedly hip taste in music. Asked in an interview about the sounds he enjoyed, he had mentioned R.E.M., Seal and Annie Lennox. He was also gaining a reputation for schmoozing with pop stars; earlier that year he had attended the Brit Awards and presented a prize to David Bowie for Outstanding Contribution to Music. But the “Dave” he was talking about as he paced up and down in the French sunshine was Dave Stewart, Lennox’s former bandmate in Eurythmics.
Minutes later, Bremner and the Blairs rolled up at Stewart’s villa near the trendy beach town of Juan-les-Pins. Dave Stewart wasn’t at home at the time, but his court was free and very inviting, so Blair and Bremner enjoyed a spot of tennis there. Afterwards Blair went off to Toulouse for a few days, but Bremner and the Blair family reconvened at “Dave’s place” on his return. This time, not only was Stewart at home but Bryan Ferry was in residence as well. The Roxy Music singer had been hanging out with Stewart, and the pair were collaborating on some new music. And it turned out that Ferry was rather keen on tennis.
It was a beautiful hard tennis court, overlooking the Bay of Cannes in the distance
So one of the world’s starriest doubles matches began, with the two rock stars teaming up against the politician and the political impersonator. Bremner remembers the location as being impressive: “It was a beautiful hard court, overlooking the Bay of Cannes in the distance.” The political team was more youthful than the musical one: Blair was 43 and Bremner 35, while Stewart was nearly 44 and Ferry was pushing 51. Blair and Bremner were also the more competitive pair, recalls the comedian, and there was some strong language. At one point Cherie expressed her disapproval of Bremner’s swearing, chiding him that “there are children watching”. (The Blairs’ eldest child, Euan, was 12 years old, and their youngest, Kathryn, was eight.)
Bryan Ferry was going to a party that evening in Monaco
Bryan Ferry later discussed the match briefly in an interview, recalling that he and Stewart had lost. Blair was “all right, but quite determined to win”, he noted. “Mind you, I pulled a muscle in my leg and I was hobbling around, so it wasn’t a fair contest.” In another interview he was more specific, saying he had “pulled a hamstring”. A photograph of the foursome taken on the day (see left) reveals that Ferry also had a bandaged right arm, having apparently been afflicted with tennis elbow.
One of the spectators who turned up to the match was the Dutch photographer Anoushka Fisz, whom Dave Stewart had only recently met, and who would become his wife five years later. Stewart has said that Bremner was doing impressions of Blair on the court, and Anoushka was “really confused, watching me and Bryan Ferry playing against two Tony Blairs”.
After the match, Ferry told a story about losing a jacket at a glitzy party, and the jacket turning up later, miles away, in New York. He said he was going to another party that evening, in Monaco, and suggested his fellow players join him. “Sadly, we couldn’t,” remembers Bremner. “Blair turned to me and said, ‘Golly. We’re in the wrong job, aren’t we?’ ”
Less than a year later, in May 1997, Tony Blair enjoyed another victory when he trounced John Major’s Conservatives in the general election and formed the New Labour government. The following day, believe it or not, the United Kingdom won the Eurovision Song Contest (with ‘Love Shine a Light’ by Katrina and the Waves). A month later I met Dave Stewart at a gig, and he talked to me about his recent work with Ferry, saying he had been “trying to help Bryan recapture some of the classic Roxy sound”. That was an exciting prospect, but ultimately the project wasn’t fully realised. As Ferry’s fans know, Bryan is a perfectionist who moves in slow and mysterious ways. Three co-written songs finally surfaced on his widely admired 2002 album, Frantic – ‘Cruel’, ‘Goddess of Love’ and ‘San Simeon’.
Sadly, the world of amateur tennis is unlikely to see another event quite like that impromptu 1996 match in the South of France. The reappearance of Ferry, Stewart, Blair and Bremner together on a tennis court is perhaps about as likely as Roxy Music reuniting to record a new album – though it’s perhaps a shade more likely than Tony Blair becoming prime minister again and the UK winning Eurovision. ♦
© 2019 Tony Barrell