Tuesday, 24 November 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 21 November 2015.

Storyville: Orion – The Man Who Would Be King: Monday, BBC Four

The Coroner: Monday to Friday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Among the many offbeat footnotes from the Elvis Presley saga, the little-known tale of Jimmy Ellis is one of the saddest.

Two years after The King's death in 1977, Ellis appeared in the mysterious guise of Orion, an uncanny Elvis soundalike in a tacky Lone Ranger mask who managed to convince some gullible fans that he was the genuine article. And so the urban myth that Elvis faked his death was born.

That was hardly Ellis' intention. On the contrary, he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist in his own right. And yet he was unable to escape from Elvis' shadow. His remarkable vocal resemblance was a curse.

After several unsuccessful years in the business, he was desperate to achieve stardom, and so allowed himself to become compromised by a gimmick foisted upon him by opportunistic music biz sharks: a Faustian pact in the dark heart of Nashville.

Although he enjoyed a brief flurry of cult novelty fame in the early '80s, by the end of his life he was making a meagre living performing in high schools, still wearing that ridiculous mask. A forgotten man, in 1996 he was shot dead during a botched pawnshop robbery. His story, in its way, is as tragic as the rise and fall of Elvis himself.

Thankfully, the extraordinary documentary, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, finally afforded him the dignity he was never granted in life. Despite the bizarre truth-is-stranger-than-fiction nature of the tale, this was a sensitive, sympathetic account of a troubled man in search of his own identity. An adopted child, he never really knew who he was.

One wonders if he ever truly appreciated the irony of trying to make his name using the unmistakeable vocal style of one of the word's most famous singers. The film couldn't clarify whether he consciously aped Elvis' sound, or whether it was simply a strange coincidence. But it did present Ellis as a mass of contradictions.

Friends insist he would've been a star had Elvis never lived. But surely he wouldn't have sounded like that were it not for the existence of Elvis?

He was a hapless pawn, exploited by the unscrupulous owner of Sun Records (yes, he was actually signed to Elvis' original label). Contractually obliged to wear the mask in public, he was embarrassed by the whole Orion charade. Yet still he went along with it in the hope of finding fame. Sadly, it ruined his credibility.

During an audio interview recorded towards the end of his life, he recalled how people always told him that he'd never become a star by sounding like Elvis. “It didn't do Elvis any harm,” was his stock reply. The twisted logic of that statement encapsulates the mind-boggling weirdness of the whole sad story. He even recorded a song called I'm Not Trying To Be Like Elvis while sounding exactly like Elvis.

Director Jeanie Finlay, who also made the similarly fantastic The Great Hip Hop Hoax, treated Ellis with the compassion he deserves. Steeped in a vivid atmosphere of Deep South melancholy, it's one of the best pop culture documentaries I've seen in some time.

A new daytime drama, The Coroner stars Claire Goose as the titular cadaver-poker and crime-solver. Based in a picturesque Devonshire coastal town, squint and you could mistake it for Broadchurch on the cheap.

Goose and Matt Bardock as her ex-partner turned local police sergeant are fine, but the supporting cast overact wildly in that uniquely daytime drama way. A serviceable pot-boiler, but nothing more.

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