Falling for the joy of Gyles
AS a postscript to my recent
communique regarding a date in Taunton for my wife and me to sit in on
the appearance of Gyles Brandreth at the Brewhouse theatre, I can now
report that I duly kept the tryst, courtesy of daughter Beverly and
son-in-law Nick – and that the erstwhile evangelist of jumpers provided
a quite superb evening of thoughts, observations and reminiscences –
every one of them beautifully honed to provide a veritable harvest of
From the beginning, he commanded the stage, exuding a sort of unfailing but surprised happiness and striding forcefully from one side to the other, punching the space before him as he went.
Aging groupie John Slim (left) with Gyles Brandreth
on, he started exchanging pleasantries with a young lady called Alison,
sitting in the front row, stage left. She became an intermittent feature
of the evening, to everyone else's delight and presumably her own.
On arriving at the theatre, I had got an attendant to
agree to go backstage with a note accompanying the latest of my eight
books of original limericks – Short and Sweet – A thousand virtuous
limericks – so that the man of the moment, who had written the
foreword to the first in the series, could see the oeuvre's
latest offering at some point when he did not have the more pressing
obligation of entertaining several hundred expectant citizens.
The result, right at the end of a riotous two
hours, was that I got an honourable mention from the stage, accompanied
by a reference to the Big Birthday that was to follow four days later.
Then, after he had taken his bow and disappeared into the darkness stage
left, we found him in the foyer, where he hailed me with a huge cry of
“John!” that was the cue for an instant bear-hug.
I was carrying Something Sensational. to Read in
the Train, the diary-based autobiography that takes him from the age
of 11 in 1959 to 1999 and finds him giving the world a privileged peek
at his multifarious diversions and what makes him tick so irresistbly.
He promptly inscribed the title page with kindly words in impeccably
extravagant handwriting and dated it with my birthday.
This was a joyous encounter, but presumably our last – and that's sad. On the other hand, he will be at the Palace Theatre, Redditch, on Sunday, February 13. . .
Is there a law that bars an 80-year-old from becoming a groupie?
I LIKE Jamie. You know who I mean. Like Delia, he appears to be galloping through his television career with minimal recourse to a surname.
He's the boy-next-door-cum-inspirational-chef. His latest book inspired me to try to follow in his footsteps. In the kitchen, not on television. Once.
And now I learn that I am not alone in failing to meet the Oliver expectations. Not that he would have had any expectations if he had actually met me, of course. But our paths have never crossed, so it falls to me to tell him that he is not the first Oliver to have hoped in vain for more.
I am not a cook. I am a cheese-on-toast boiled egg man. I have even demonstrated my inability to cope with a cafetière – by loading the coffee grains, not into the pot but into the plunger tray. The culinary arts have somehow passed me by – though I am a sucker for television programmes in which the experts work their magic.
Inevitably, I watched Jamie's 30-Minute Meals, based on his book of the same name. There he was, crash-bang-walloping ingredients together with his customary boyish abandon in pursuit of the result that was his target, and somehow finding time to chat without pause in the likeable lisp that is his trademark.
More in hope than optimism, despite the ease with which the affable expert had whizzed through the business of creating wondrous feasts, I acquired the book. Alas, I was not at all surprised that it failed to circumvent my ingrained culinary cowardice and my refusal to believe that it could miraculously enable me to create the wonders it contained.
And it appears, sadly, that I am not his only lost cause. It seems that even cooks of experience have been finding that a 30-minute meal can take 1½ hours to produce – the reason being that by the time the average pioneer has assembled all the ingredients that Jamie has decreed – even if they actually happen to be readily available – a substantial chunk of those magic 30 minutes has been eaten up.
Moreover, he who plans to follow the Jamie road to magic meals also needs the accoutrements. Forty-nine of them. They're listed on page 21.
The first recipe is for broccoli orecchiette, courgette & bocconcini salad and prosciutto & melon salad. Twenty-one specified ingredients. Don't despair, just get on with it. I wish!
Even if I had ever confronted my cooker with intent, I would have turned pale at the edges – aware in my ineptitude of a recurring vision of a blur of blond affability steaming through the successive stages of a challenge that has had me tagged on the instant as a non-starter.
I fear that the evangelical Jamie, who has been rightly praised for his efforts in spreading the gospel of healthy food and how to tackle it, is several light years ahead of me in all considerations culinary.
Now then, who's for toast?
Don't put your bottom
on the stage, Mrs Worthington
IN relation to something over a quarter of a century in which I have been chasing amateur thespians across their boards, I have not known Walsall's Grange Players very long. That is to say, I have known of them for 25 years, but it is only in the comparatively recent past that I have begun crossing the threshold of the Grange Playhouse with any degree of regularity, to find them at first hand.
What follows, therefore, is a belated display of delight at what I have found inside the single-storey, unpretentious, brick-built building clad in corrugated metal and fronted by an unexpectedly spacious and intermittently muddy car park. An age ago, it used to be an exclusive tennis club, and then during the Second World War it became the headquarters for the local volunteers of the National Fire Service.
Also during the war, the formidable Kathleen Bullock formed the 14th Rangers Company at a Walsall church, with drama an important item on its calendar – an arrangement which worked well until a vicar had the temerity to insist that he would vet any play before it was presented. Clearly unimpressed, Kathleen then launched the peripatetic Studio Players, who laboured for four years in the wake of the NFS to reconstruct the interior of what is now the Grange Playhouse – where they introduced themselves as the Grange Players in 1951.
They have gone from strength to strength, despite losing the dressing-room side of their theatre, along with irreplaceable costumes and props, in an arson attack in 1980.
What I have discovered in their home is a joy of cosy intimacy, where the interval finds the wooden-floored foyer – which is also the box office and the bar – consistently full of playgoers who are mainly middle-aged and all seeming to know each other, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, sip-for-sip, because there is not enough room to put in more tables without cutting down on the gate receipts.
Meanwhiile, away from the convivial uproar, the interval turns the auditorium into a restful haven in which discerning patrons are able to remain in their seats and have cups of tea served on trays by the ever-pleasant front-of-house volunteers.
It is an auditorium with seating for 104. That is to say, there is not a lot of it – and it is in high demand. The Grange Players have a record of going through season after season with virtually full houses and waiting lists for the frustrated.
Last year, for example, there were 129 of them champing at the bit while they hoped to get in to see Gym and Tonic, 142 similarly on the outside looking in for Carrie's War, and a remarkable 237 who had planned to applaud The Darling Buds of May. This season, when Run for Your Wife opened on January 13, the number of prospective patrons hoping for tickets was just three short of what would have been another full house.
In 1982, the Players counted themselves lucky when, on the night before the Sunday dress rehearsal of The Heiress, thieves got in and stole the sound equipment and lighting decks. Lucky? Well, yes: the intruders decided not to bother with borrowed props including valuable vases and a trinkets box – and a fireplace worth £700. They overlooked a potential haul worth £8,000.
The auditorium is a pleasing little space. There is little danger that any patrons will get lost inside, even though the front row is Row F – but the Players nevertheless take no chances. Their commendable system of ticketing means that every ticket, in addition to displaying the seat number, helpfully makes clear whether it will be found on the left or the right of the central gangway – and this, in my experience, is pretty unusual in the world of amateur theatre.
FLANKED ON EACH SIDE
FLANKED ON EACH SIDE
The gangway is in fact a staircase flanked on each side by half-rows, for the most part consisting of eight seats, and its successive steps are thoughtfully illuminated. The dark red walls sport bright little wall-lights in clear glass tubes.
Apart from its tea trays and Row F (for Front), the Grange has an occasional idiosyncrasy that intrigues the uninitiated. It puzzled me when I went to see Brontë. At one point, the performers were joined by off-stage sounds caused by a high wind rattling the vents on the extraction fan in the auditorium roof – an experience new to me but familiar to the Players, who say they have no control over it. The rain is also liable to rattle on the roof.
But it doesn't matter: it augments the audience's feeling of being cosily all-in-this-together-and-we-shall-see-it-through as it huddles up and concentrates on the action.
And before Brontë began, there was another pointer to the sort of thing that makes the Grange rather special. Those auditorium steps lead down towards what is a distinctly low-slung stage with a gap in front of it that gives just about enough room for patrons to make their way along the front row.
On the first night of Brontë, a woman had paused in her pilgrimage to her seat in order to have a chat with front-row friends sitting by the gangway – and had clearly made herself comfortable while she sat on the lip of the stage. It was the only time I have seen an audience cleared from a stage – be it never so politely – before the start of a performance.
But this is the Grange, where Run for Your Wife – running being the order of the day until January 22 – is the Players' 281st production. It's the Grange. It's different!
It's bus time with Brandreth
I LIKE coincidences. They remind me that Somebody Up There has a sense of humour. They allow me to say, “Well, would you believe it!” – and I do enjoy asking questions that don't have a question mark.
It is about 40 years since I met Gyles Brandreth for an interview at his London home. I remember that the resultant article was accompanied by a photograph of him doing something silly with a pillar box. Most of all, though, I remember his relentless amiability, his supercharged enjoyment of the world around him – even me.
He told me that he had written the world's shortest poem, Ode to My Goldfish. It went, “O, wet pet.” And I was able to respond by telling him that I had written the world's longest poem to consist of a single sentence, taking the form of a question and beginning, “Have you heard how Cuthbert Hatch.. . .”
It was a one-sentence question containing 320 words, of which I recited to him as many as I could remember. What with that, and with the Brandreth wet pet, we got on like a house on fire. I subsequently expanded my single-sentence opus to 336 words and turned it back on itself so that it began all over again and therefore had no room for the question mark – nor even a Would-you-believe-it! exclamation mark.
Since then, I have followed the Brandreth career with interest, though always from afar. He condenses it on his website: Actor, Author, Broadcaster, Former MP, Government Whip and Lord Commissioner of the Treasury – all alphabetical and orderly until he moves on to Awards Host, After-Dinner Speaker and the rest. I don't know whether he still has a shop full of teddy bears, but he did at the only time our paths crossed.
He was also on record as having delivered the world's longest after-dinner speech. By this time I have forgotten how long it was, but it was many hours, undoubtedly chuckle-filled. I do know that he also demonstrated his ability to stand on his head in a soup bowl and to take leave of his audience by walking off on his hands. He is an engaging show-off, a pleasure to have about the place.
But back to coincidences. Aware of my abiding interest in the aforesaid one-time Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, my daughter Heather telephoned me to ask whether I knew that he was at that moment holding forth on Desert Island Discs. I didn't, but I was pressing the button even as I thanked her for not allowing me to miss out.
Then, having not missed, I was moved to explore the Brandreth website – and found that after not being within spitting distance for years, this irrepressible jester and erstwhile evangelist of jumpers was actually going to be in Birmingham on Saturday, January 29. Which brings me painstakingly to the coincidence: that is my 80th birthday.
He is on the launch-pad at Birmingham Town Hall to begin another barnstorming performance at 8 pm, by which time I shall be 80-and-half-an-hour exactly. I won't be there, but I shall raise a glass to him in deepest Surrey. That's where daughter Heather has plotted a black-tie family dinner for all 19 of us. Speech!
And, still on the coincidence trail, senior daughter Beverly – name spelled the masculine way because at the time of her arrival we were more aware of the Beverly sisters than of the fact that they were making us get her name wrong – had already laid the foundations of what is turning out to be our Brandreth Week, by inviting us to her home in Taunton so that we shall be seeing the beguiling Gyles at the town's Brewhouse four days earlier, January 25.
It's a sort of Brandreth on the Buses! Forty years without being near him, then he all comes at once.
THE glories of the
stage have been with us for centuries, from Shakespeare to Shaw, via
Sheridan. Unfortunately, this arena of so many theatrical pleasures is
now beset by another
Sh. A four-letter Sh,
shovelled by the shameless.
When the now-fashionable kind of
alleged comedians first arrived on television, they presented what was
called alternative comedy. Even the least perceptive of viewers soon
realised that it was an alternative to comedy, and that we had
been beset by those who thought that to make their mark as funnymen all
they had to do was swear and blaspheme. Once obscene, never forgotten,
sort of thing.
They have now had things all their own way for years.
The virtual disappearance of education standards has ensured that the
ritual disgorging of four-letter filth is the cue for uninhibited
paroxysms among the patrons. It doesn't have to be funny: just give 'em
What has happened to ensure that nobody appears to be
in line to perpetuate the word-play delicacies of Dawson and the
daftnesses of Dodd?
Les Dawson is now somewhere Upstairs, doubtless still
having fun at the expense of his mother-in-law – she whose approach made
the mice throw themselves on to the traps – and it is highly unlikely
that even the indomitable Ken Dodd, born in 1928, will go on for ever,
though his current bookings run to June 2011. Mortality doesn't seem to
be in his reckoning, thank heaven.
Apart from interviewing him, I never saw Les Dawson
“live”, as they say so strangely these days. But my two meetings with
Doddy, plus pilgrimages to three of his shows, remain happy memories –
even though, like nearly every other comedian among the dozen or so of
that era I met, they presented the serious side that their loyal fans
have little cause to suspect.
The exceptions were Morecambe and Wise, with the zany
double act I got as they sparked each other off in their
Birmingham hotel room.
You don't catch Doddy on television these days. His
tickling-stick and his Diddymen, like the lethal-toothed lad himself,
have given way to the sneering, foul-mouthed stuff which, with the
connivance of those in charge of our home entertainment and who should
be ashamed of themselves, has turned the television set into a sewer
pipe and living rooms into cesspits.
It is no surprise that Victoria Wood, who burst upon
us as a pensively zany, highly-talented young writer and comedienne and
has since made her mark in serious drama, has condemned what she calls
coarse, harsh and laddish humour. Like Les Dawson was, she is a
practised pianist. He was a genius at playing wrong notes and making
them seem credible; she created joyous songs like the one with the
unforgettable Beat me on the bottom with the Woman's Weekly line.
Neither of them told crude “jokes” punctuated by blasphemy. Neither was
apt to appear as a super-cretin, apparently unable to stop swearing.
There was never any danger that either of them would
be mistaken, for example, for that latterday filth-peddler Frankie Boyle
– he whose every racist pronouncement and offensive barb at disability
is followed by the stench of self-satisfaction or a childish smirk.
Victoria Wood has now let rip at those who debase the
standards of stand-up and has expressed her belief that there is still
an appetite for the more gentle humour that once held sway. I am sure
she is right, although we have seen it virtually driven away by the
onward march of muck perpetrated by those whose smart suits do nothing
to disguise the fact that they are just overpaid oafs.
We are stuck with them because the comedy pendulum
has swung. The consolation is that pendulums do tend to swing back to
where they started – and dare we take a little hope from the fact that
Ofcom's current interest in the eruptions of Boyle has been augmented by
a wave of disgust from people offended by racist material in his
Clearly, this is a Boyle ripe for lancing – and perhaps all is not yet lost.
A high old time for the judge - nearly
THERE'S a touch of The
Emperor's New Clothes about the internationally renowned zebra crossing
near the former Beatles studio in London's Abbey Road.
This is the one that was catapulted to
fame when the Beatles used a photograph of themselves crossing it on the
cover of their Abbey Road album in 1969. It now has a place on
the itinerary of tours of London and is a pilgrimage point for fans from
all over the world – to the frustration of drivers who come to an
impatient stop while the pilgrims pause to have their picture taken in
the middle of the road.
And now, it has become the first crossing to be given
Grade II listed status because it has “cultural and historical
importance” and special interest.
So hooray! But all is not what it seems. It's not
like that at all. Wrong crossing.
That Emperor didn't actually have any new clothes –
or any clothes at all – in the Hans Christian Andersen story of 1837,
having been conned by a couple of swindlers who said they would make him
an invisible suit. While the populace at large expressed its admiration
for the suit that wasn't there, it fell to a child to point out that the
Emperor was not actually wearing any clothes.
Which takes us back to the crossing – well, sort of.
The problem is that the Tarmacadam Mecca in Abbey Road, NW 8, the one
that sends pilgrims into paroxysms, is not the Beatles' crossing at all.
Celebrity status – Grade II listed status, indeed – has been conferred
on a crossing that is nothing whatever to do with the Fab Four. This is
The Great Crossing Cock-Up.
DISREGARD FOR SOCIAL HISTORY
Nobody would suggest that the Beatles didn't earn
their stripes, but these aren't they. This is what can happen when a
council – Westminster City Council in this case – shows a fine disregard
for social history and accords it second place to the needs of traffic
The original crossing was removed many years ago. By
now, no original features remain in the one that has succeeded it,
several yards south. Even the council can't remember precisely why or
when it was moved – but ever since, we've all been pretending that its
successor's non-existent claim to fame is still the bee's knees, not to
say the cat's pyjamas.
Fortunately, unlike what happened with the salutary
example of the Emperor's New Clothes, no little girl loiters by the
Belisha beacon to point out to pilgrims the error of their ways.
Interestingly, news that listed status had been
accorded to a crossing that had nothing to do with the Beatles emerged
almost simultaneously with that of the death of James Pickles, the judge
who famously claimed that he did not know who the Beatles were.
He would have had a high old time, asking why it had been decided to honour a crossing unconnected with a bunch of Liverpool lads he had never heard of.
The best panto gag of all
THERE are not many
good, well-recognised bits of pantomime “business.” There's the one
involving wads of money, with the notes being counted repeatedly to
ensure that whoever is being given them is successfully short-changed.
There's the one involving a backless
bench whose legs are all at the same end, to ensure that whoever sits at
the other end slides onto the floor in a heap as soon as the person at
the legs end stands up. I haven't seen that for a very long time. I
assume it's been marked compulsorily absent by Health and Safety.
There's the Ugly Sister whom the glass shoe fits
perfectly – on the foot of the wooden leg she has carefully concealed
beneath her skirts.
But the best of all is the Long Plank Gag. Yes,
plank, as in Thick-as-a. You may not know it. I have seen it only once,
and I think it was in a pre-war pantomime at Birmingham's long-gone
Theatre Royal, which was always the venue of choice at our house when it
was time for a bit of It's Behind You. My parents reckoned they knew
what was good for their mixed infant and it was where I started my
theatregoing on an annual basis, aged five.
Three pantomimes came my way before the wartime blitz
that destroyed the Royal. I know that one of them was Cinderella,
because Jack Buchanan was Buttons and my abiding memory is of seeing him
peeling off a succession of all-blue suits. I'm sure there must have
been a dozen of them, but even abiding memories play tricks.
STARS OF THE DAY
Two more stars of the day who came my way were Sandy
Powell and Evelyn Laye, which almost sounds as if I have been moved to
say it in rhyme. I remember that somehow or other my parents took me to
be introduced to Sandy (“Can you hear me, Mother?”) Powell after the
show, but I have no idea what the pantomime was.
Evelyn Laye may well have been co-starring with Jack
Buchanan in the saga of the glass footwear. She was the prince of
principal boys, a bold, thigh-slapping strutter, commanding the stage
and clearly not in the habit of standing any nonsense from Dandini. I
interviewed her twice – the first time in the 1960s at her Birmingham
hotel and the second time at her London home, to mark, I think, her 80th
birthday in 1980.
All of which has led me gently away from The Greatest
Gag of All, in the show whose name I can't remember, though it was
almost certainly at the Theatre Royal. The comic came striding on, stage
left, with a plank over his shoulder. He headed purposefully for the
wings on the other side, waving as he went, while, behind him, the plank
just kept coming out of the wings, stage left, apparently endless and
apparently without support.
He disappeared, stage right, with more plank still
emerging, stage left. And still it came, filling the line of vision as
it stretched across the stage and kept going. And more. And more. I was
one transfixed mixed infant.
Then, after what seemed a joyful eternity, the rear
end came into view – supported on the shoulder of the man who had been
carrying the front end.
And that was it, the best panto gag of all time. I wonder where it's gone to.
The return of the toffee lobber
THERE was an officious
diktat from some anonymous jumped-up clown a while ago that sought to
ban the throwing of sweets from the stage during pantomimes. Health and
Safety was on the prowl again.
Not, as far as I am aware, that anyone
has ever been injured or even inconvenienced by a seasonal
toffee-lobber. We panto patrons don't feel the need to seek special
insurance before making our pilgrimage to Puss in Boots. And in
any case, there is little likelihood that anybody will be caused
indescribable suffering on the offchance that a direct hit is scored by
the Dame or her likeably idiot son.
It is not as if Quality Street missiles are being hurled with the meaningful venom of a cricket ball that is thrown at the stumps.
No, panto projectiles tend to be launched
circumspectly underarm, apart from those whose hopeful intent is to
reach the front row of the dress circle, where, if they actually manage
to get that far, they fall with an almost apologetic air and with no
prospect at all of ruining somebody's night out.
I suppose I have seen some half-dozen
pantomimes each season for 26 years, so it was not hard to spot that the
Dame's chucking arm had suddenly reverted to concentrating on hitching
up her Les Dawson bosom, leaving the audience to fend for itself in the
matter of the sweet supplies.
Many a raucous Twankey resorted to walking up
the gangway, carefully dispensing supposedly potential missiles safely
into outstretched hands, straight from the paper bag. Oh, the shame of
Is it a bird? Is it a missile? Is it a meteorite? No, its a peppermint grenade!!!!!
Happily, I am now witnessing the return of seasonal
fun. Toffee-lobbing is back, and still with no report of irreparable
Moreover, it has signalled its return by scoring a
direct hit on a cranium of some significance – that of David Cameron, no
less. Indeed, it is reported from Chipping Norton that “one toffee
bounced rather spectacularly off the Prime Minister's head.” I suggest
that if it is all right for the Prime Ministerial noggin to become an
inadvertent toffee-stopper, it's all right for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, it just so happens that Ed Miliband has
been expressing his displeasure at people who while away the hiatus
during dinners by throwing bread rolls between the courses. It would
have done him good to have looked in at P G Wodehouse's Drones Club,
where this was a staple sport, like pinching policemen's helmets on Boat
Alas, he was not even born when these merry larks were at their peak, so there is little hope of his being brought to enlightenment and repentance at this stage. Indeed, are we on the way to seeing the termination of toffee-lobbing being followed by a bread roll Milly ban?
Let's have believable eating
I HAVE never tried it,
but as my only stage appearance, apart from Third Shepherd shortly
before an otherwise long-forgotten Christmas, was to whiz on as The Wind
– short blue shantung frock with serrated hemline, while crying
“Whooooo!” to make the infants-school
flowers grow – there has really been no need for me to try to eat as
part of a performance.
Somebody has probably written a
guide to eating on stage but I have not been able to find any reference
to it, so this could be a clear niche for anybody with experience.
Meanwhile, I have no idea what advice is apt to be flying about in
rehearsals as opening night approaches.
I know that the tables are always laid with plates
whose contents would not deter a fieldmouse. From what I have seen, any
sausage that is up for demolition should be chopped to a length of not
more than ¾in and every participant at the failed feast that has been
provided has clearly been warned not to come remotely near to being
caught with a mouthful and the need to utter the next line.
Cutlery clatters on plates, but with the best will in
the world we can see it's all a big tease. Uppermost in participants'
minds is the need to have a clear run at their next requirement to
speak, unencumbered by having to wedge a wodge of something edible out
of the way and into their cheeks as an essential preliminary.
Presumably, as well as remembering every line, they
have to remember the rehearsal at which they discovered how long it
takes to swallow whatever comestible precedes it. It sounds a bit of a
challenge, but if a playwright has decided to make life difficult it is
one that has to be met.
The other thing about eating on stage is that it
customarily requires a table. And the thing I have noticed about tables
is that if they have to accommodate, say, half a dozen characters, they
are often rectangular, placed parallel with the audience's seats, with a
chair at each end and four facing the auditorium, leaving empty the side
that is nearest the audience.
It may have worked for The Last Supper, and it may continue to work for accommodating the chairman, secretary, treasurer, gents' and ladies' captains et al at the annual meeting of the golf club but it looks distinctly odd onstage in something theatrical.
What it means is that the director did not want us to
be contemplating a couple of diners' backs for the duration of the meal.
But yes, it does look odd.
Would it not be better for a six-seater table to be
placed at one side of the stage, at 45 degrees to the audience, starting
stage-front and angled towards the upstage wings? Each of its long sides
could then be used to accommodate two actors, who would provide a far
more believable seating arrangement, with two of them having their backs
towards just a small section of the audience. Unavoidably, the actor at
the downstage end of the table would be ignoring the patrons on the
other side of the auditorium, but at least he would be sitting
acceptably sideways-on to most of the others.
But better still would be to have a round table of an
appropriate size. This could be placed stage-front at the centre
of the proceedings, only taking care not to seat one of the participants
to face firmly upstage with his back to the audience. Arrange the chairs
so that there is a natural-looking gap there.
And at least – again – it's food for thought.
I HAVE long suspected
that any facial fungoid growth, commonly called a moustache, merely
proves that its owner can't see what's going on under his nose.
The moustache, that spiky
self-inflicted idiocy, comes in many forms: weird, waxed, rampant, bushy
or toothbrush. There is the sinister pencil-line effort that bodes
no good to anybody. What all these manifestations have in common is that
they ensure that any face that has the misfortune to be its host is
being. . . er, defaced.
Teddy, the mad pith-helmeted nephew in Arsenic and
Old Lace, is customarily to be found charging up the stairs – after
first roaring “Charge!”, naturally – behind some sort of
moustache, though definitely not one of the indelibly daft Adolf
Hitler variety. And whenever I see him, I find that my brain cell is
straying: I am aware of a swell of sympathy for the fairer sex, or at
least those members of it who have been led by Fate into sharing their
lives with Mustachioed Man.
They may have been beguiled into marrying him. Or,
increasingly in these liberated days, they may have baulked at the idea
of bothering the vicar and simply settled for creating An Item –
i.e., something held together by screws.
Whatever the cause of their coupling, the abiding
Do they find it difficult to acclimatise to an
unavoidable awareness of Facial Hair? How long does it take them to
become accustomed to taking the rough with the smooch? Has any of them
ever contemplated writing an autobiography entitled My Life with a
Burst Horsehair Sofa?
BETTER CLASS OF ADHESIVE
BETTER CLASS OF ADHESIVE
And what of the perpetrators of these
territorially-ambitious blots on the landscape? What gave them the idea
that they had need of a personalised soup-strainer? Can they really be
content? Are they absolutely convinced that man is Nature's last word,
when their shaving mirror shows them a latterday Mr Chad peering out of
a rampant non-flowering bush? Wot – No sense?
One of the commonest joys of theatregoing used to be
the sight of a false moustache when one half became unstuck. I have not
seen it happen for several years now, which may be an indication that
we're into a better class of adhesive – but it was at one time not at
all unusual to see a 50-per cent fall-off which merely emphasised that
the genuine article also exists only to be laughed at.
With all these odds against him, it is therefore good
to know that Mustachioed Man is fighting his corner against cancer – and
even better, to realise that battle is being joined by heroes who
hitherto have had an unscarred upper lip and have deliberately
gone out of their way to foul their features in a splendid cause.
It is time to salute these sterling citizens. One
such is my colleague Roger Clarke, who is to be found bringing on the
bristles for the battle being fought by the Movember charity -
http://uk.movember.com/ - The idea is that the rest of us should
prise open the piggy-bank and sponsor the sprouting.
Let's do it.
Growing to battle - one man's
fight not to look a complete prat
Growing to battle - one man's fight not to look a complete prat
More car consternation
THIS brain cell of mine
is working overtime – to demonstrate that it is not really working at
all. It's a shame, because I was quite a promising citizen at one time.
But now, in the space of a
recent month, I have telephoned my dentist of 25 years, listened to his
phone ring, and hastily hung up on realising that I could not remember
his name. I have telephoned my online bank, pressed buttons as
instructed, finally reached a real live human being, and discovered that
I could not for the life of me think what I was ringing about.
This prompted me to see a memory man, because I
believe in catching crises early, whether they be a brainstorm or a
broken leg. He sat me down, asked me lots of questions and scored me 99
out of 100 because he said I had beaten all his previous customers out
of sight, having fallen down, inexplicably, only on the number of
animals I could name inside a minute.
Nevertheless, my ultimate triumph was yet to come. It
came with my first visit to The Hampton Players, of Hampton-in-Arden – a
community whose High Street, as far as I could see, contains only one
shop. The occasion was the Players' production of Arsenic and Old
Lace, the wonderful Joseph Kesselring comedy from 1939 in which two
spinster sisters keep a cellarful of corpses, which they consistently
top up by ministering to lonely old men – perfect strangers – with their
potions of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide.
It was a happy evening. Until it was time to go home.
That is the recognised time for me to discover that my car has been
stolen, as I did many years ago after I had been to see an offering at
Droitwich's Norbury Theatre. And now, it was the time when I was to be
observed, alone and palely loitering, wandering lonely as a cloud, but
in fact feeling anything but poetic, in the vast car park that serves
the complex of which Hampton-in-Arden's Fentham Hall is a part.
I kept that up for about five minutes, after which I
walked the 100 yards back to the hall, to update Players director
Maureen George and her troops while they were giving generous support to
the bar. They were very kind, very attentive. I do not walk in the same
world as mobile telephones, so I was provided at once with the means to
ensure that my wife, the police and a taxi firm were fully updated with
Then I repaired again to the car park and took up my
station at the gate, having been assured that my lifeline to home
would be with me in 15 minutes.
It was the kindly Rooney – no, not that one – who
duly materialised as my saviour. I told him my troubles and we set off
for deepest Bromsgrove. Then, somewhere on the motorway, I had a
revelation. A Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. A blinding,
gobsmacking bit of would-you-believe-it.
I suspect that the late Saul did not respond, as I
did, with an explosive expletive invoking four-letter faeces – but he
had not spent as long as I had, looking for the wrong car. For me, it
was a sudden, noisy evocation that combined anxiety with disbelief and
new hope. The world, in the shape of my kindly driver, had to be told.
We turned about and eventually fetched up in the
environs of Fentham Hall again – where by this time there were only two
cars on view, one of them being my wife's. Hers is a small, green car.
Mine is a slightly bigger one in orange – habitually excellent for
spotting in car parks. Unfortunately, because our daughter-in-law's car
was out of action, I had entirely forgotten that I had high-tailed it to
Hampton in a small green one. I had wasted time, energy and blood
pressure looking for the wrong car.
Back home at about midnight, it was necessary to ask
the police to call off the hunt. It was time to sit up on the bed
alongside my wife while we downed a brace of soothing scotches. Then it
was time to collect my thoughts and get back to penning something
sensible about Arsenic and Old Lace.
And at about 2 am I settled down to sleep the sleep of the just-so-relieved.
Charity began on the fifth floor
DELIGHTED to report
that my wife and I survived the possibly unintentional excitement of
having bed and breakfast at Birmingham's Radisson hotel at Holloway
Circus, on the fringe of the city's theatreland.
Well, it was a bit unnerving. On the
recessed shelf in our fifth-floor room was an array of goodies – Crispy
M & Ms, cashew nuts, gourmet jelly beans, double chocolate biscuits,
pastilles and a bottle of wine. But these temptations were accompanied
by a notice that said, “Dear Guest, please be aware this is an automatic
system. All items moved will be automatically charged onto your room
bill. Thank you.” It was time for walking on eggshells. We were
Terrified, but impressed.
But we were even more impressed in the first-floor
Felini restaurant – “a stylish ambience and an authentic Italian
experience with a contemporary edge”, which is a roundabout way of
saying that dinner was superb and undoubtedly up to the task of
satisfying theatregoers at a reasonable cost after the show.
One way and another, this was a visit to remember.
The advice on telephones was a lesson in itself, with a book that
contained phone charges to everywhere, and dialling codes – do people
still dial? – that occupied seven pages and went from Afghanistan to
Zimbabwe. En route was “Burma (see Myanmar)” but Myanmar had somehow
failed to slide in between Mozambique and Namibia.
The television and radio guide told us that the hotel
provided two radio channels – Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 4 and The New
BRMB. But who's counting?
Equally intriguing were the curtainless curtain rail
in front of a bedroom mirror, the cautionary note to the effect that the
management had removed all hotel stationery, and a couple of other
references to stationery in which stationery had been misspelled.
This sounds as if I'm complaining. I'm not. We had a
splendid visit, all the more enjoyable nevertheless when we learned of
the offer of “grab-and-run breakfast in lobby area in the early morning
hours” and the fact that the only drinking glass in sight was a large
one, primarily designed for holding wine.
For me, it was also exciting, in that the
floor-to-ceiling window offered a vertiginous view of Queensway,
far below us. I'm no hero. In no time at all, I had looked my fill and
retired to the super-soft king-size bed to await the return of innards
that unaccountably seemed to have gone missing, there to sit up and
watch Aston Villa play Chelsea and somehow send them packing without
scoring, for the first time this season.
Finding the Villa on the television was particularly appropriate in our £150 room. I had won it in a raffle at the annual celebrity lunch of the West Midlands branch of The Journalists' Charity. It was a prize provided by Aston Villa.
Let's hear it for the modest monkeys
IT IS more than five decades
since the tea business turned to monkey business and PG Tips introduced
television audiences to its handful of simian superstars. Or perhaps
they were simply stars: I can't remember when it was that people who
previously had been content to be stars found themselves elevated for no
good reason to superstardom, a status which until then had never existed
and had never been missed.
Anyway, whatever the rank of the monkeys who became
the nation's furry favourites and held that position from 1956 to 2002,
the news from the enclosure at Twyford Zoo is that Jilloch, one of the
po-faced band who were flogging us PG Tips in that period, has died,
aged 34. That was not particularly old among chimpanzees, who are
frequently able to get six decades under their belts. She wasn't even
about when the commercials were launched, but she was to become a
regular as one of the children in television's chimp family.
And the other news – as far as I am concerned,
anyway, because I had never heard it before – is that the commercials
were cut off in their prime because animal welfare campaigners,
presumably even more po-faced than the artless actors they were worrying
about, finally saw their lobbying have what they deemed to be a
successful conclusion. The chimps, with their hats, their wigs, their
costumes and their teapots, were banished.
I don't know whether the killjoys were equally
successful in getting a ban on the chimps' tea parties at London Zoo, on
which the commercials were based – but Jilloch, her relatives and
friends, who had never given a public indication of not enjoying playing
with teapots and cups of tea, were compulsorily retired from TV, along
with their delightful antics, which had been supported by voice-overs by
Peter Sellers, Bob Monkhouse, Cilla Black and others.
By the time they disappeared, they had made PG Tips the nation's top-selling tea. It was a success which, according to Neil Dorman, curator at Twyford Zoo, had never gone to their heads. This being so, perhaps they could have been found a new role – as unassuming examples to the hyper-inflated egos that are a pain in the proverbial, both among the professionals and the amateurs of the theatre business.
But it isn't strictly at all
FOR those among us who
are happy to spend non-critical hours in front of the television,
Strictly Come Dancing
is manna from heaven for
however many weeks it continues, year after year after year.
I am one of them. I can't dance, and
it is only once a year – for however many weeks – that I am drawn to the
world of spangly women in dresses whose lengths range from the
floor-sweeping to the would-be pelmet.
I like the couples, with their weekly-rising hopes
and their ultimate dismay. I am transfixed by Bruce Forsyth who most
commentators seem to believe is taking his initials too far by
continuing to proffer remarkably lame humour followed by urgent gestures
indicating that he believes his audience ought to laugh – and sometimes,
heaven help us, by a laboured explanation of why he thinks it was funny.
And I am transfixed by Tess Daly, the presenter who
fills her dresses in all the right tight places but tends to diminish
her shine somewhat when she speaks of joodges, cooples and resoolts. I
have been intrigued enough to pursue her through several internet pages,
and on one of them I discovered that she achieved the interesting feat
of being born on April 27, 1969, and then again on April 27, 1971.
But at least there was consistency in her place of
birth, which presumably is where her accent comes from. It's Stockport,
in Cheshire, famed for the cheese that is the agreeable result arising
from doing whatever's necessary to a cauldron of curds and whey – but
not, as far as I am aware, well-known for people who talk like Tess,
though in this I am presumably wrong. Suddenly, I realise I have clearly
never met anybody who hails from Stockport.
But the really intriguing thing about Strictly
Come Dancing is its title. Strictly, for a start. Volume 2 of
my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1983 edition) does not actually
stretch itself to including strictly – though I stumbled across
stultiloquence on page 2160 in my unavailing effort to find it,
which was something of a consolation – but it makes it clear that the
adjective strict is all to do with something that is not vague or
loose and is accurately defined and admitting no relaxation or
indulgence. So at least it's a hint of what the adverb is all about.
Alll of which means that it isn't (strictly) Come
Dancing at all, because it is also about the judges, the judging,
the jeers and the jokes.
And what about Come Dancing? It sounds like an
invitation for a spotty teenager to have an embarrassing accident during
a Saturday-night hop at the village hall – admittedly, an occurrence
that was considerably more likely in the far-off nights when embraces
were part of the terpsichorean scenario because close contact was a
must, and when young ladies had not yet thought of forming a
circle and dancing round their handbags.
Here, in short, is a programme that finds me awash with wonderment. I shall miss it when it's gone.
See Ann the Unforgettable below
Hooray for Ann, the unforgettable
AS ANY properly primed parson might say,
we are here today to give praise for the life of Ann Widdecombe.
And why not? Why wait until she has risen to higher
things and may well be in no position to appreciate the . . . well, the
appreciation? The appreciation, that is, of a fascinated fan club of
early-Saturday-evening television viewers, irretrievably hooked on her
wonderfully unpredictable waltz and delighted by the determination of
her salsa and her tango.
Here is a woman whose steely resolve has never been confined to the
parliamentary responsibilities she has finally left behind her. We have
previously seen her impishly imperious chairmanship of Have I Got
News for You, but she has now been unleashed into the arena of
Strictly Come Dancing, where she has blithely called herself this
year's John Sergeant, been described by one of the judges as a flying
hippopotamus as a result of entering on wires – which made it
extraordinarily easy for viewers to forget that she was Minister of
State for Prisons from 1995 to 1997 and the Shadow Home Secretary from
1999 to 2001.
And always remember that she came pristine-clean through the
parliamentary expenses scandal, after which she was described by one
London newspaper as one of the saints among MPs.
She is a joy – because in the participants' weekly battle for points,
she is to all intents and purposes a non-starter. She is unpredictable.
She is a one-woman theatre in the round; as stately as a galleon until
she begins to dance. She was the first to say she dances like Dumbo the
Elephant, thereby leaving full-time television commentators kicking
themselves for not having thought of it first.
The former MP for Maidstone doesn't give a damn. She left Parliament in
May this year and she beams like a lighthouse on overtime. She enjoys
herself. She takes on the judges with a huge smile, then derides herself
a bit more decisively with a comment that they have omitted to make.
Having boomed through the quickstep and the waltz and achieved the
record low marks for the salsa, she then achieved that literal lift-off
in a wire-supported tango. Partner Anton du Beke said he wanted to
impress the judges, though he may simply have been cutting down on the
need for weight-lifting practice.
This is Ann the All Right. The Ann who is this year's most popular
perpetrator of personal disaster and the contestant to be publicly
acknowledged as the first to make judge Craig Revel Horwood smile. (It
was that salsa again). What
a fascinating character!
On occasions like Strictly Come Dancing, she determinedly hides
her steely side – though it did come out after one of her appearances on
Have I Got News for You, when she was clearly rattled by comedian
Jimmy Carr. She later commented: “His idea of wit is a barrage of filth and the sort of
humour most men grow out of in their teens.”
To me, there seems little doubt that here is a woman whose depths are in
the Thatcher mould and who at some point could have been a credible
successor to the Iron Lady.
But I'm not pushing it. There's far more fun for the rest of us when she is Ann, The Flying Tango-ist.
I DON'T let many things worry me. Generally speaking, I am happy to go on failing to understand any given situation.
But I have just realised, several years after it first sat on my desk, that my printer is taking liberties – liberties with me.
There are many varieties of printers but I know that few of them have a hope of emulating the sheer cheek of my Epson Stylus DX4000. They just push the paper through with a consistent hum, or even with no sound at all and often far more quickly.
My printer is not like that. Not at all. Mine talks to me, and it's rude, extraordinarily rude. Fortunately, it has taken me until now to realise the fact. Otherwise I would have been knocked out of my stride years ago. But at last my printer is exposed as a shameless oaf. And between you and me, I'm not impressed.
You see, my printer, like so many others, also has a habitual hum – but this is a hum that comes with rapid intermittent breaks. And now that I have actually listened to it, I realise that it is being distinctly personal. And I do mean distinctly: there is no mistaking what it is saying.
Many years ago, there was a song called Three Little Words. It claimed a permanent place in my brain cell because my sister was convinced that it was Three Little Worms, which caused her to fail to understand why the singer was asking, “What would I give for those three little worms?” Just one of those little mishearings that happen a thousand times a day up and down the land, generally with no harm done.
And in all fairness, my printer is not actually doing me any harm, either. But now that I have sat back and really listened to it, I have to say that I'm not impressed, which I can't help feeling is fair enough – because my printer is clearly not impressed with me, either.
What it is saying, insistently and unmistakably, is “Small penis, small penis, small penis.” I am the only one here, so it's not particularly difficult to work out who is the object of this unbridled scorn.
So far, I have not thought of a way of shutting it
up, other than by refraining from using it, a course of self-denial that
would inevitably ensure that I could not share my problem – or should I
say what my printer perceives to be my problem? – with my friends, other
than by reverting to pen and ink,
Remember letter-writing? The ballpoint pen replaced the fountain pen that had replaced the quill and inkpot. And printers replaced typewriters – which in my case means I have to switch off if I hear footsteps on the stairs forewarning of the imminent possibility that somebody is going to come in, discover that my printer is laughing at me, and join in the general merriment.
Right now, I am comforted by the thought that in all probability it is sitting there seething, because once it sees that Small Thoughts is at the top of a page it knows that what follows is destined to disappear at the touch of an email button and its scornful services will not be required.
Unfortunately, there is always next time. And the time after that.. Mockery is always just around the corner.
In at the start of the Norman conquest
BRITAIN has said its
goodbyes to the man who was its most-loved comedian – the man with whom
I found myself rubbing an unplanned shoulder more than six decades ago.
When Norman Wisdom and I were fellow-students at the former Underwood Secretarial College in Union Street, Birmingham, I was 17 and he was in his mid-30s.
Ours was a comfortable but fleeting friendship. I was preparing for life in journalism by spending six months on a course that was teaching me the mysteries of shorthand – this was many years before an interview came to consist of simply shoving your microphone up somebody's nostrils – and touch-typing, while I awaited the summons to two years' National Service. He was there because he was in pantomime at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre and wanted to be able to write letters to his already numerous fans by using the typewriter in his dressing room.
So it was with plain ordinary Norman Wisdom, quick with a quip but otherwise unassuming, polite and quiet – just another student who swelled to four the otherwise undistingished ranks of males among the 30-plus girl students – that I used to slip out to the nearby café at break times for a cup of tea, which I seem to remember was 2d and we took turns to buy it. It was to be his turn when tea-break time finally found me untreated and him in his dressing room at the Alex – but I suspect that he had probably bought the first round several weeks earlier, so he doesn't owe me one.
The other two in our quartet were a fairly studious teenager whose name was Bill and a fair-haired, happy strip of wind called Michael Adams. The Wisdom pantomime season was nearing its end by the time I used my new-found typing skills to send Michael an anonymous home-made Valentine card containing the immortal lines, “. . . whose muscles bulge through ancient mack and send cold shivers down my back”, which purported to come from any one of the young ladies who co-operated to ensure that it was waiting for him to discover it in his desk.
Pam Muddiman? Pat Riley? Pat Nicholls? Where are you now? I remember we found our way to the local record shop and took over a booth in which we could regale ourselves with Pee Wee Hunt's Twelfth Street Rag – vinyl 78 rpm, naturally – at no inconvenience to anybody else. Another student was Sheila Massie, daughter of Alex Massie, manager of Aston Villa who had been its right-half when I used to pay my schoolboy 9d (3p) to stand on the terraces for home matches.
The Underwood Secretarial College was presided over by its principal, Miss Samways, stern of demeanour but generous of spirit and never suspected of having a first name. She would come round the classroom to give pupils her individual attention, explaining something and then following through with her favourite phrase, “Do you see?” – except that she elided the first two words and pronounced the third to rhyme with the French for eye, which is oeil, so her condensed question emerged as “Dyuh-soeil?”
Those were happy days, unexpectedly shared with a man who was to find his way into the nation's heart – innocently funny, warmer than his fellow comic Eric Morecambe, less predictable than the stupidities of Michael Crawford in the days of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, not as aggressive as Ken Dodd; fully deserving of all the tributes that have been paid, now that he has left us at the age of 95. I saw only one jarring obituary, in which the writer went out of his way to speak up for smut in the face of a nation's sudden preoccupation with innocence.
Among all the comedians, Sir Norman – as he was to
become, while pretending to do a trademark prat-fall on being knighted –
was one of the two who actually endeared themselves to their countrymen.
The other was the diminutive Charlie Drake – curly-topped, moon-faced, a
roly-poly little man who would blink in slow bemusement at his
successive calamities and who was to suffer serious injuries on live
television with a spectacular but miscalculated dive through a bookcase.
Of all Britain's funnymen, only Drake and Wisdom were actually loved by
their fans. Only they had what any middle-aged mum would recognise as
the cuddle factor.
Happy days, indeed. And yes, I am quite sure that the most endearing of all Britain's comedians, now enlivening his new celestial surroundings, does not owe me a 1948-vintage cup of tea.
A Tristram triumph is surely on the way
I HAVE said many times over the long
years that David Tristram's Inspector Drake is a joy to be treasured.
This is a fact of theatre life that I learned remarkably rapidly,
virtually as soon as I saw him for the first time, when I turned up two
decades ago at Birmingham's Old Rep for Inspector
Drake's Last Case.
I don't know whether Inspector Drake needs a groupie,
but in me he has got one. I am devoted to him – courtesy of David
Tristram and of Alan Birch, who has been playing him on stage every time
the oppportunity has arisen for two decades and who is now about to
transfix a largely new audience on film.
Inspector Drake, The Movie is the label under
which Drake is destined to make his cinematic bow in the New Year. The
blank-faced lunacy that he wears like a bespoke overcoat will accompany
him into his as-yet-unexplored world of cinema. With all the confidence
I can muster, I now declare that he will be an instant high-powered hit.
Not that he looks or acts high-powered. No, this is a
an arm of the law that is laid-back, unhurried, unflustered; a copper
for whom a career comes copper-bottomed, safely ensconced in the special
stupidity that defies the paying patrons not to laugh in disbelieving
He was David Tristram's first pin-'em-by-the-ears
creation; the character who, aided and abetted by the po-faced Sergeant
Plod, laid the foundations of what is now the deserved reputation for
comic playwriting that Tristram has established. And now, after four
rib-tickling comedies that have taken him to theatres all over the
world, he is being preserved for ever on film.
WHALE OF A TIME
WHALE OF A TIME
On film, moreover, for money that is microscopic
compared with the budgets behind the high-powered products of the world
of cinema – with David Tristram behind the camera and doing the editing
as he goes, and actors from the amateur stage having a whale of a time
giving their services for the hell of it, with the bonus of something to
come if Inspector Drake beguiles, for instance, the moguls behind events
like the Cannes Film Festival and gets himself shown to a largely
unsuspecting audience of movie buffs – and this is by no means pie in
Meanwhile, however, the idea is to show him to the
world in which he was born – the world of amateur theatre, with little
theatres given the chance to present the film to their loyal audiences,
once it has had its première at Sutton Coldfield's Highbury Theatre
Centre, some of whose members are taking prominent roles.
This is an exciting time – for David Tristram, for a
new company that brims with enthusiasm, and for the ever-increasing army
of afficionados for whom the chance to see what happens to the
ineffable idiocy of Inspector Drake when the camera's eye is upon him
cannot come quickly enough.
I make no bones about it. Having been in on the
development of Drake since his Last Case had me and the rest of
the audience wiping our eyes and doing our best not to roll in the
steeply-stepped aisles of the Old Rep, there is no cinematic experience
I would prefer. He is Inspector Clouseau-cum-Goon. He is an
unparalleled prat. He is a joy that is largely indescribable. And on
film he will be with us for keeps.
No, I am not going over the top – and disbelievers
may discover a hint of the joys that are to come by viewing the trailer
that Tristram has created for Inspector Drake, The Movie, here on
Behind the Arras. In years to come, the film may well be seen as
opening a new distinctive doorway in a medium that is waiting for a
successor to the Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot
and Costello, and Mr Bean.
The first year to come is 2011. Possibly February. I'll be there.
Dangerous work is afoot
I WAS in church, having
my weekly kneel, when I was struck by the shoes of the woman kneeling
two rows in front. Not literally: we are a peaceable lot in our
communion, not prone to indulge very often in flinging footwear and
especially when we are wearing it.
No, it was just that, with head bowed and gaze directed downwards, my
eyes caught sight of the soles of the shoes just ahead of me – and saw
that each was prominently decorated by a rather large white label,
one of them proclaiming the letter L and the other announcing R.
Let me say at once that I'm sure that the owner of
the feet they were adorning was not relying on them to supply
information vital to her being able to get them correctly housed on one
foot or the other. Nor was the outsize lettering the only thing that was
on the labels, which also included, among other things, a barcode.
Nevertheless, this unexpected pause in my pensive
conversation with the Almighty did prove to be an impressive
distraction. Suddenly, for the first time, I was aware that shoes can
administer a figurative kick when you are onstage and least expect it.
It is a kick not directed at you, the actor, but at
unsuspecting audience members – particularly in a studio production. I
realised, in my interrupted silent discourse with my Maker, that in the
close-up intimacy of a studio a shoe label could easily spell the end of
concentration. Well, it would for me, anyway.
You are required by your director to drape yourself
languidly along a chaise longue. What your director did not
realise was that in honour of your first night you would be wearing your
new shoes and might well be stretching your superbly-shod feet in the
direction of an audience sitting on your level and within a few feet of
If your new shoes happen to be bearing a small but
perfectly formed adhesive banner that says Lotus or Hotter or Clarks,
and if I chance to be a member of the audience that has turned up to see
fair play, I am confident that the carefully crafted plot would lose my
attention on the instant. Even more so, if one shoe was displaying an L
and the other an R and clearly inviting a silent sneer.
I don't think that the devastating propensities of
shoe soles are sufficiently widely appreciated. For instance, when the
bride and groom kneel for the blessing at their wedding, the groom's
soles are briefly the most prominent things in church. If they are
sporting a hole, or a label that offers an interesting read, you may be
sure that they will be the talking-point of the reception. Nobody will
have missed it.
It's the same in any studio production that features
a chaise longue that is required to support any member of the
cast. The director should either position it so that the soles somehow
avoid pointing at the patrons – or, better still, every pair of shoes
that is going to be involved in the evening's proceedings should be
upturned and checked for potentially lethal labelling – because if
labels sense an opportunity for mischief they will not hesitate to grab
In this, they are rather like the legend on the golf ball with which a friend was enjoying a competitive foursome. My friend was always the first to pick up his ball before moving on towards the next hole. He did not explain himself to his companions, but he told me later. His ball was the one that was stamped Reject.
When is a channel a gutter?
INTERESTING, isn't it, how we keep on thinking that television's obsession with “reality” programmes has reached its nadir – only to realise that it has succeeded, yet again, in being even more abominably base?
One of its more recent efforts, Ladette to Lady, which seeks to glue us to the drunken excesses of a bunch of young Australian women in a high-class English college, follows the very resistible delights of Big Brother and other desperate concoctions such as How to Look Good Naked, which staked much on its titillating title.
But for sheer cynical catchpenny exploitation there has been little to match the latest delvings of Channel 4. The premise is that we are shown an attractive person and one who has some kind of deformity. To ensure that the difference between them does not escape the notice of the less fortunate one, it happens in a house with mirrored walls.
I have not yet read anything other than a specious reason for the enterprise, but apart from a desire to spend as little as possible on a programme while exercising a schoolboy insistence on appearing to be ever so brave and naughty there does not appear to be another one.
There is indeed something rotten in the state of Channel 4 – which is all the more regrettable because this is the channel that repeatedly produces documentaries of value and absorbing interest, and whose evening news is given the time to present more informative coverage than is available on BBC1 and ITV1. Yet, time after time, it behaves not so much like a channel as a gutter.
And it inevitably prompts questions. Questions like, What sort of person is it who would (a) think of, and (b) create this kind of barrel-scraping stuff? And what is the state of mind of the authorities that permitted it?
And what kind of unfortunate would suddenly permit his or her misfortune, which has presumably been a lifetime's embarrassment and regret thus far, to be blasted into the public arena and provide a field day for voyeurism on a nation-wide basis – assuming, of course, that the nation is of a mind to give its support by tuning in?
And was he or she given any sort of hint about the title of the programme that was to offer unlikely stardom to its participants in furthering its own bid for sewer status? It's Beauty and the Beast. “Yes, that's what we're calling it – and you're the Beast, by the way.”
We are a wonderful nation.
Pope Benny, Bromsgrove and
MIGHT you be in the market for something different in
sociable shirts? There's one now available in white and gold. It sounds
like a combination of Spurs and Wolves, but it's nothing to do with
No, this is a rather special creation, designed to
commemorate the imminent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. If you
plan to be among the tens of thousands in Birmingham's Cofton Park at
Longbridge on September 19, you may get a glimpse of the Pope, but
possibly not of the Popemobile. There are anxieties about the security
that would be involved in seeing it safely from Birmingham Oratory, on
the Hagley Road, to Cofton Park, scene of
many a mass strike meeting by car workers in the past.
There is, however, every chance of swooping on a
shirt beforehand. Indeed, as the newsletter of St Peter's RC Church,
Bromsgrove, helpfully points out, you can order one by calling 0844 8111
031 – and it urges you on your way with: “Be seen in the right gear.
Order your Pope Benny shirt today.” Of all the parishes in the
3,000-square-mile diocese, which covers Warwickshire, Worcestershire,
Staffordshire and Oxfordshire, St Peter's is one of the closest to what
will be the centrepiece of the Papal day. Clearly, it is not overawed by
BRIM-FULL OF THEATRE
BRIM-FULL OF THEATRE
Even without the Popemobile, we are heading for a
day predestined to be brim-full of theatre. The Pope will celebrate
Pontifical Mass, in the course of which the solemnity of the occasion
will be augmented when he beatifies Cardinal John Henry Newman, an
Oratory priest for nearly 40 years in the second half of the 19th
Century, who is about to take his first step towards sainthood.
I hope no pilgrim who looks up from his prayers to
point a camera at the Pontiff will find himself drummed out buttonless,
because it will be a day of which many will hope to create a permanent
In addition to Cofton Park and the
Oratory, where he will see Cardinal Newman's room, the Pope will also
visit St Mary's College, Oscott, the Birmingham archdiocesan centre for
the training of priests.
Meanwhile, back at Bromsgrove and nearly two weeks
before the Papal visit, St Peter's has something else up its
shirtsleeve. The church has a celebration of its own on Wednesday,
September 8, for its 150th anniversary. This will find the
Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Bernard Longley, celebrating its
jubilee Mass – followed by a celebration buffet in the school hall.
“But”, the newsletter warns, “don't
just come for the sausage rolls.” Sausage rolls and Pope Benny, too. An
unlikely but admirable mix.
It is good to see that the human touch still flourishes undaunted against some pretty impressive odds. All the world is indeed a stage.
Where there's a Will, there's a way out
AS it prepares for its 60th anniversary season, Hall Green Little Theatre announces that “there is a whole lot of rebranding going on” – and the immediate casualty is none other than the Bard of Avon.
William Shakespeare – more informally
known as Bill Wagga Dagga, I seem to remember – is caught in the act of
a sweeping bow as he appears in the top left-hand corner of the
He's been there for 60 years – but not any more. No
more Will. Look your fill.
it is not only those taxpayers on the receiving end of Hall Green's
correspondence who will find that Shakespeare has been replaced by
hglt – none of your outmoded capital letters in its New Age
thinking. No, he is about to disappear from membership cards, audience
membership cards, diaries, theatre signage, badges, posters, flyers and
presumably from programmes as well.
The new corporate look, designed by Hall Green
member Edward Stokes, with the idea of presenting a young new look and
in the hope of attracting new members for its diamond jubilee season,
has no room for the son of
Stratford. As he might have put it, given half a chance, exit pursued by
bear. If this saddens you, look away now.
opens on September 24 with Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park in
the main auditorium and promises to continue the “commercial” feel
throughout, with Mother Goose, Blood Brothers,The Unexpected Guest,
Dangerous Corner and Outside Edge lined up to show that Willy
Russell, Agatha Christie, J
B Priestley and Richard Harris won't be missing the party after the
theatre, meanwhile, is not quite so clearly intent on offering an
irresistible programme, despite its inclusion of Alan Bennett's The
Lady in the Van.
productions are Four Nights in Knaresborough, through which
Paul Webb recounts his modern language version – with plenty of
profanity and slang – of the aftermath of the murder of Thomas à
Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170; Straight and Narrow,
by Jimmie Chinn; The Long Road, by Shelagh Stephenson; and an
unspecified youth theatre production.
And they'll all be launched, untrammelled by our Will. I can't help feeling sorry for him – but I suppose he's had a good run.
Waiting for the knock-out Punch?
SO that's one in the eye for Mr Punch – and I bet some readily-offended jobsworth is all aglow with satisfaction.
A fluffy mop is replacing the traditional walloping stick – but even so, Judy is no longer going to suffer any kind of clouting. Indeed, her regrettably reformed husband is even being required to abandon the business of throwing away the baby. Imagine that!
All is calm, all is not-so-bright at Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth, where officialdom fears that in our new age of walking on eggshells there are some people who are going to be offended by the sight of one puppet hitting another in the cause of pretend violence. Perhaps there are – but that is surely their problem. Isn't it wonderful?
It is getting on for 600 years since the seeds of
Punch & Judy were sown in
In the early 18th Century, Punch was
wowing the crowds in
Now, however, Mr Punch is being forced to face not only his old enemy, the long-established interfering police constable, but his upstart fellow officer, PC Political Correctness.
It's quite remarkable. Are there really people stupid enough to take offence at ludicrous mock-mayhem on a 2ft-square arena – possibly afterwards going home and taking the latest television violence, real and fictional, without a blink? And if there are, are they so extraordinarily stupid that they will be unable to resist unveiling their idiocies to the world at large?
If this daftest of diseases spreads, Mr Punch's
famous war cry, “That's the way to do it”, will acquire a ring that is
horribly hollow. I am already aware of a distinct unease when I find
that Daniel Liversidge, the
Whatever next? Longstanding stalwarts, the Devil and Punch's mistress Pretty Polly, suffered general dismissal when an earlier wave of the aghast and the affronted decided that they were inappropriate.
How long will it be before Mr Punch himself is deemed ready for damning? It is his bad luck that it looks as if Brussels is now going to be able to empower foreign police to pitch camp on these shores to boost the British bobby, so it is entirely possible that Mr Punch could find himself being marched off by Estonia's Old Bill as an unwanted immigrant – back to Italy, where he came from in the first place.
And what's worse, we'll take it with a Bravely British stiff upper lip and we won't say a word.
I YIELD to no one in my admiration of that hardy band of souls who spend their working lives on the professional stage. All right, they bask in what is often deserved adulation in the wake of a job well done, but with their every appearance they risk the scorn of the unfeeling by forgetting their lines and not picking up the prompt.
So, whenever there's an awestruck forelock to be touched, you will find me reaching for it – and even more so in respect of amateurs who do it for nothing. I shall never get to grips with this idea of needless exposure to potential humiliation in the hope of fleeting glory – but then, I'm all for the quiet life.
I could not cope with (a) risking needing a prompt, (b) getting one but not hearing it, or (c) not getting one while I contemplated throwing a fainting fit. And the passing years can only make matters worse. There's a story about the late Sir John Gielgud emerging from behind a pillar in Othello and delivering a speech from Hamlet. Or maybe it was the other way round. He didn't need prompting, of course – just pointing in the direction of the right play.
But as far as I have been able to judge, when people do need a prompt, they also need to have been told how to cope: how to fill the seeming eternity in which their brain has died and their mouth has dried, while not allowing the audience to suspect a thing. Perhaps NODA, the National Operatic & Dramatic Association, could find somebody to devote half a day in the course of a Summer School to defeating self-paralysis.
This would necessarily incorporate not only the victims of instantaneous amnesia but anybody likely to be on stage with them – because these are moments when people need all the help they can get and their friends should be equipped to help them confidently, perhaps by asking an unscripted question that embodies a phrase for which they are grasping. In other words, it should not all be down to prompt corner if an intervention from the wings can be possibly avoided.
One time when a stage butler forgot a line to do with tea leaves, a seated actress rightly assumed some responsibility for dealing with the situation. She kept flicking her eyes between him and the teapot. Unfortunately, his reaction was to assume that his flies were undone.
The prompt, that is to say, does not have to come from the wings. I have seen a production set in a garden – with the prompt basking in her sun hat on the other side of the fence as the next-door neighbour, reading a script that was pretending to be a book. She was not needed, as it happened, but if she had been this would have been a clear case of making a virtue out of necessity.
There was one chilly summer's night when an outdoor production of Bartholomew Fair was mounted on a half-moon of scaffolding, with braziers doing their best to warm the audience standing below. Sure enough, somebody up there dried. This was the moment I discovered that the prompt was standing immediately behind me, a good 20 feet from the action aloft. I leaped like a rocketing pheasant when the missing line was roared over my right shoulder to the citizen in need.
That was the loudest prompt I have ever heard – but there was one occasion when the prompt really should have been delivered fortissimo. This was during a production of one of the Farndale series of comedies, based on the incompetence of a Townswomen's Guild's drama section.
You know the sort of thing. A corpse will open one eye, the scenery will be upside-down, a telephone will be answered before it has rung – so a prompt that rang out loud and clear would have been entirely in keeping when one of the actresses suddenly lost the plot.
Alas, it emerged in a hushed, almost reverent tone and the opportunity was missed, but this is a situation that any director contemplating something from the Farndale canon should prepare to meet head-on and profit from.
In another production, an actor alone on stage was standing in hapless silence. This time, we all heard his prompt. It was, ‘I can't seem to remember.' How true, I thought, how true!
There was the classic occasion when four people were onstage in sudden unsought silence. The prompt came three times to no effect, but at this point one of them responded, ‘We all know the line, darling, but who the bloody hell says it?'
I know of a bygone Shakespearian actor with his own special way of dealing with sudden onstage death. Knowing it was his turn to say something, but totally uncertain what, he would take a fellow-thespian by the arm and lead him gently to the wings, saying, ‘But soft, here comes the noble Duke. Couch we awhile and mark!'
As Shakespeare was pretty prolific in noble dukes, this was an unimpeachable ploy that slipped a cog only if the play of the moment was one of his Roman efforts.
The late A E Matthews, on the other hand, found occasion to circumvent the prompt altogether. The telephone rang on stage and he had to answer it. Unfortunately, the moment he picked it up, he dried – but enough of his brain remained sufficiently active for him to hold out the instrument to a fellow-actor and say, ‘It's for you.'
As an example of self-preservation, that takes some beating. Clearly it should be mentioned in any half-day course.
Are you receiving me?
AT their worst, mishearings can cause momentary irritation. The person who has missed the message may feel embarrassed to admit – perhaps not for the first time – that a friend's pearls of wisdom have passed him by.
And the failed communicator may fall to wondering whether an elocution lesson or two might improve his chances of being understood. Should he have paid more attention to how-now-brown-cowing and grazing-in-the-green-green-grass?
There is the classic story, still good for a chuckle, even now, of the urgent request that was passed, mouth-to-ear-mouth-to-ear, along the wartime trench: “Going to advance. Send reinforcements.” Eventually, at the far end of the line, a bemused soldier was told: “Going to a dance. Send three-and-fourpence.”
It couldn't happen with decimalisation, so let's hang onto it while we still can, because it's a joy.
Mishearings can indeed do much to outweigh their embarrassment factor – but it's odd, now I come to think of it, that in my lifetime thus far only one has whopped me so delightfully that its memory lives with me many years after I encountered it.
It happened almost as soon as I woke up. I turned on my side to look out of the window and found I was gazing on a glorious spring morning. A dazzle of sunshine, skies of the brightest blue. It was good-to-be-alive time.
There was just one slight drawback. A vigorous wind was howling. Trees were waving exuberantly. Clouds were whizzing by. It was time for a weather report. Without turning to face my still-recumbent wife, I delivered one.
“Nice day”, I said. “Bit rough.”
My effort as a one-man Met Office had a surprising result. My wife shot off the pillow, all dazed and disbelieving. “What” she exclaimed. “What did you say?”
“Nice day”, I said. “Bit rough.”
At this, she collapsed back onto the foam-filled, evincing what I could not help regarding as gratifying relief and therefore an implied compliment.
“Oh”, she said. “I thought you said, ‘I'm not staying. I've had enough'.”
All of which leads me to Arsehammers. You heard. It is a play that is scheduled to burst upon Birmingham's amateur theatre scene – courtesy of an always-enterprising youth group.
I have admired Stage 2 for two decades but I am still guaranteed to be gobsmacked by every production. Its director, Liz Light, takes children, often disadvantaged, under her wing from the age of nine upwards, and she moulds them quite marvellously into confident, word-perfect performers who are clearly capable of handling anything she throws at them in productions that she expands with flamboyant insouciance so that they become highly-polished vehicles into which she crams 100 youngsters without ever making the stage look overcrowded.
Most recently, they have given audiences at the Crescent Theatre their incredibly-populated versions of Under Milk Wood and A Midsummer Night's Dream – and their record is awash with titles that you just don't habitually associate with youth groups: Once a Catholic, The Lord of the Flies, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Equus, The Crucible, Picasso's Women and Ionescu's Rhinoceros. You name it, Stage 2 may well have had a crack at it.
Right now, its immediate enterprise is John Godber's Shakers – but just over the horizon, in the New Year, is Arsehammers. It is a play written by Claire Dowie, who is Stage 2's patron, and its title is possibly prone to cause parental consternation.
Imagine the scene: young Johnny has just come home after his first visit to Stage 2. Proudly, he announces that he is going to be in a play. Mum and Dad are delighted. “Oh, well done!” they cry. “What's it called?”
“Arsehammers.” Cue one of those pauses.
But it is indeed called Arsehammers, and Johnny's parents can either get used to the idea or decide that he should perhaps reserve his burgeoning talents for James and the Giant Peach, which is on the Stage 2 schedule for January 5-8 – just a week before what sounds, even for Stage 2, like a bold step into the Great Unknown.
In fact, as far as these witterings are concerned, it is a step backwards – to mishearings, where they all started. Liz Light entirely understood why I had sought enlightenment from her about the title – but it turns out that it stems from the fact that a young boy mishears his parents saying Alzheimer's in carefully-guarded whispers and he understandably thinks it must be something rude.
Liz told me: “In his mind he assumes it must be Arsehammers, which makes him giggle and then go off on a flight of fancy to imagine his grandfather as a superhero with magic powers. But we are doing three plays that term, so anyone or any parent who may have a concern about the use of the word can be in James and the Giant Peach or do the general drama workshop. And we do still have Stage 1 for the under 10's, so the vast majority of kids doing the productions are secondary school age.”
And clearly old enough to cope with an eye-watering title with nothing short of their customary confidence. As ever, in my efforts to keep up with Stage 2, I am fascinated.
Always look at the label
MANY years ago,
Alas, it proved too much for its computer. The result was that every ticket bore the seemingly off-colour legend, “Daisy Pulls It.”
And now I've found another one.
In an email headed “Librarians and Bookstores Looking
for New Titles”, Review Direct tells me that it has evolved from
a simple listing of book titles and descriptions to a respected and
highly anticipated monthly newsletter featuring an opportunity for
nearly 40,000 librarians and 3,200 independent bookstores to see what's
happening in the world of independent publishing.
Unfortunately, this time it was my computer that
could not cope. But it did its best. The email I found awaiting my
attention was in my list as Librarians and Bookstores Looking for New
Tit.” How respected and highly anticipated can you get?
Were I a librarian or a bookstore, I would either
regard that as a dreadful calumny or ask who was the whistle-blower.
Sometimes, fortunately, people tell me something that
is equally surprising but completely correct. Step forward, my colleague
When I recently reviewed Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf? at Highbury Theatre Centre, Sutton Coldfield, Roger drew what
he called “an obscure little fact” to my attention. He pointed out that
one of the four characters in the play, Nick, never has his name used or
mentioned, and that if he wasn't in the programme the paying patrons
would have no idea what he is called.
Think of a
IF you asked somebody to think of a number, and the reply was, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, it might take you a second or two to catch up with the plot.
We're talking music here – the world in which a number contributes to happiness, rather than being the vital bit in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. A number, musically speaking, is a tune, a song, or possibly even a bit of a ditty, belonging to the world of popular music or jazz.
One thousand eight hundred and twelve, however, and possibly contrary to popular non-musical belief, is not a number – which makes it instead something of a paradox. It is not a number because, as far as I am aware, and even allowing for all the numbers Mozart called upon because he couldn't be bothered to think of titles, the numbers in classical music tend to be real numbers, attached to worthy works like sonatas and opuses. Moreover, even when 1812 is tied up with Overture, the resultant union is not called a number.
So why are numbers all the go in the less rarefied world of popular music – where they also talk of standards and don't mean ethical ones?
Forgive me if you already know the answer: every orchestra pit in the land is probably awash with solid citizens who have grown up with it and for whom it holds no surprises. But bear with me while I share the pleasure of which I was aware when, thanks to my former colleague Jim Clayton, I was led gently to that answer after a lifetime spent thinking that number, in a popular-musical context, was nothing more than a rather strange word.
It seems that it all goes back to the early days of popular music, when musicians began working from arrangements or orchestrations that were filed by number, rather than by their title or the first line of the lyric. A drawback for a newcomer to a band was that when the conductor called out a number and everybody else knew what he meant and could play it without the score, the raw recruit was left desperately turning the pages of his file to find what music he was supposed to be producing.
If you will permit me to take my new-found and belated education a stage further, there were also tunes that were the result of collective composing by the band. These were known as head arrangements, which at first had neither a lyric nor a name, let alone a head. They were – perhaps they still are – just another of those mysterious numbers.
So there we are. If numbers thought they were going to continue to bemuse me, their number's up.
I WAS fascinated to learn that primary school children are likely to find languages a compulsory subject.
Of more immediate benefit in keeping down my blood pressure would be the making of English a compulsory subject for the copywriters of television commercials and the actors who accompany them with their under-instructed voice-overs.
Well, English and the ability to recognise what isn't English.
There's something called Couleur Experte that's claimed to do wonders for your hair in one way or another. That final E indicates that it's French and clearly very difficult, because the American tones that accompany the commercial call it Colour Expert.
But a more widespread irritation, mainly among cosmetics commercials – again – though also apt to pop up elsewhere, is the abolition of the word proved. It's been almost universally replaced, for no good reason, by proven, which adds nothing to the meaning and is a syllable longer, but which seems to have been seized upon by copywriters who presumably think it's a bit more up-market.
Meanwhile, I recall hearing that our policemen were going to be taught Urdu to save their customers from having to learn English: why, instead, can't something be done about the English whose failure with their native tongue is inflicted nightly upon the nation?
The special young ones just get on with it
NEVER act with children or animals. It is the dictum that is drilled
into aspiring thespians from an early age – though possibly not an age
as early as the ages that prompt a problem.
I'm not referring to the angelic five-year-olds who are apt to turn up
as fairly uninterested villagers in the local community hall pantomime,
their thoughts clearly more on Mummy and Daddy in the audience, with
whom they may even share an unselfconscious wave, than on their
responsibilities to Prince Charming and Dandini.
They are delightful, certainly, but as actors they are non-starters; no
threat to the stuff-strutters downstage.
No, I'm talking a few years further up the scale, when eight- and
nine-year-olds are apt to catch everyone on the hop, not only because
they retain the Ah! factor but because they clearly have real thespian
potential. They are the ones who make you say not only Ah! but Good
heavens! They pin you to your
seat because while you are saying Ah! they are actually acting – and
acting incredibly well.
This does not happen often – rarely enough, in fact, to ensure that any
precocious perpetrator who does this will ping into your mind-store of
theatre memories to be treasured and shared for some time to come.
That's what is happening for me with Francesca Johnston, unwitting
shock-factor in Hall Green Youth Theatre's production of
This little lass was Mother. Mother with apron, mop cap, po-faced
matter-of-factness, total control of all the sizeable number of lines
that she backed with believably grown-up hands on hips – and a delivery
that skewered you where you sat.
She was remarkable. She really is the innocent potential threat to
actors who are aiming at the stars. The audience loved her but I suspect
she had no idea. She asked no questions. She was just getting on with
the job – as, indeed, was young William Garrett, entrusted in the same
show with doing a stand-up comic routine in policeman's uniform, abetted
by a helmet that loomed large over his eyes. Like the minute Francesca,
he was faultless – and very funny.
Kids are good at doing po-face – largely, I think, because they do it inadvertently. If humour is what they seek to deliver it is an accidental ingredient to be treasured.
Why do they keep the dire in directing?
YOU never know with theatre. Just when
everything is rolling as smoothly as a hippopotamus on castors, it jumps
up and bites you – because the living theatre is a thing of pitfalls and
pratfalls. And that's without counting inanimate objects that suddenly
leap into life, like banisters that collapse or grand pianos that
threaten to roll into the orchestra pit – things that nobody could have
been expected to foresee.
On the other hand, many things sit up and beg to be
foreseen. That's what a director is for, to look into the future as far
as the first night and forestall all the obvious mishaps that lie in
wait. I should make it clear before we go any further that I have never
directed. I have never even been on stage since my unforgettable triumph
as The Wind, aged six, in a little pale blue shantung frock with a
crotch-high serrated hemline, when I had to rush onto the stage among
the other mixed infants and go “Whooo!” to make the flowers grow.
So directing is a closed book. I have no idea how
soon the director should expect his casts to spot the hidden meanings in
their script, or what is the significance of the first read-through. But
when I go to the theatre, amateur or professional, I am nevertheless
aware of what can be justly called The Blatant Gaffe. Pause for a moment
to consider some of the uncalled-for contretemps that amateurs
and professionals alike inflict upon themselves, alone and unaided.
A professional who was playing the man in a
wheelchair in The Man Who Came to Dinner over-indulged in the bar
at the interval, left himself no time to answer the call of Nature and
just about got back in his chair in time for the second half.
Hardly surprisingly, as the action progressed, his bladder began to exercise its authority and its function. Gritting his teeth and his cheeks, its owner held on desperately. Alas, he failed to stay the course – and as he sat there, trapped in his chair, the only course in sight was the course that Nature took: the watercourse. He was aware of an unwonted warmth proceeding down one leg.
The audience did not suspect a thing until a
gentle stream emerged from the far end of his trousers, fell
unassumingly onto the boards and stretched inexorably down the gentle
slope towards the front of the stage. The discomfiture of its source was
compounded by a cry from the stalls: ‘He's pissing
his bloody self!'
Were I ever to dare to try to be a director, I would
ensure that there was a notice in every dressing room every night. It
would say, Beware of Your Bladder. On the other hand, going to
the loo in the interval can be just as fatal as not going. I was in an
audience that was riveted at the start of the second half of a
period-costume production when a young woman turned her back on us and
unwittingly revealed that her 17th-Century floor-sweeping
dress had become tucked into her 20th-Century knickers.
But there's always the bright side: at least she had not made her very private pilgrimage with her microphone switched on – unlike the thespian whose interval visitation in another show regaled the auditorium with remarkable sound effects.
Moving on from real situations to the make-believe that is the stuff of theatre, I have seen a production of Little Women in which Jo finds a job advertisement from a 19th-Century newspaper containing colour printing. I have seen a production of BFG, The Friendly Giant in which someone read aloud a long headline from a newspaper – which was fair enough, until she turned the newspaper and revealed to the entire audience that its front-page sensation had simply been stuck there, on a small piece of paper.
I have seen heaven knows how many productions of
Pack of Lies, Hugh Whitemore's docudrama of how the Jacksons, living
ordinary lives in Ruislip, became involved in an operation to trap their
friends the Krogers, who happened to be Russian spies. Many of my Mrs
Jacksons have been misguided enough to wear a see-through top – which is
fine, except that it ensures that for several months Mrs Jackson is seen
to have never changed her bra. Where were the directors?
I have sat in on a whole run of productions of
Art, the story of a man who pays 200,000 francs for a blank canvas
and how it wrecks a 15-year friendship. In one of them, the script
referred several times to its size as four feet square but the
centrepiece of the show was nearer four square feet. In another, in
which the picture lived up to its quoted size of 5ft by 4ft, a sheet of
white paper had very obviously been stuck on top of the canvas, to be
drawn on when the action required it. The idea must have been to avoid
having a new canvas every night, but it was an unsatisfactory and
But one of the most frequent pitfalls comes in
I have seen
Directors repeatedly fail to give the impression of providing adequate medical attention. What about plays where a damaged knee or ankle finds an actor hobbling around with a walking stick or crutch? One such is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – but I have ascertained that there's no guarantee that the accident victim will be found with his stick in his correct hand, which is the one on the opposite side to his injury, as any post-hip-operation member of the audience will know.
And if you're doing the
all-too-rarely-seen Harvey, and
the script says that the nurse is being presented with a bunch of
dahlias, it's no good hoping that nobody will notice if the love-sick
citizen who's holding them has a fistful of chrysanthemums – which I
have seen happen.
And why do directors of such things as pantomimes and Gang Shows fail to give youngsters under 13 elementary instruction on how to tell a joke? When they are supposed to come together on stage, jokes and juveniles remain a world apart. The would-be funny line invariably emerges flat-toned, without emphasis, apparent interest or even understanding. I've even seen it delivered after the youthful thespian who has it in his care has turned his back on the audience and is walking upstage.
WHAT ABOUT PIANOS?
WHAT ABOUT PIANOS?
And why can't anything be done about pianos – even
those that don't try to roll offstage? I often see a piano that's
supposed to be being played but clearly isn't – because nobody has had
the sense to put its back to the audience and hide the alleged pianist's
fingers. I know that nobody actually wants to visit a theatre and stare
at the back of a piano, but it can be largely hidden by a strategic
settee, or its effect can be reduced by placing it at an angle.
In dozens of sightings of My Fair Lady, I have
yet to see evidence that Eliza has been instructed to throw Higgins'
slippers at him so that they whiz past his shoulders. Every production
has unfailingly found Higgins lying in his teeth while his slippers lie
at his feet and he says she threw them at his head.
And does a director never give advice on procedure if
the unexpected should happen? No actor should be expected to do
something about a collapsing banister – but on the other hand, nine
times out of ten, if something gets accidentally knocked off a table or
a shelf, it is left on the floor until the curtains close as a merciful
relief. I saw a show in which a small rug was accidentally scuffed,
causing it to become badly wrinkled and possibly a bit of a hazard. All
that happened then was that people walked round it or stepped over it
but showed no sign of thinking that perhaps somebody ought to straighten
it, the way they presumably have done at home.
All praise, on the other hand, to the actress
involved in one of those scene-on-a-trolley jobs with a two-walled set.
She tried to leave but the door was stuck and it refused to respond to
her repeated tugs. So, bless her, she stepped through one of the
imaginary walls and took a floor-sweeping bow with one arm stretched up
behind her, to the biggest applause of the night. Why am I certain that
her director had neither envisaged the situation nor instructed her how
to tackle it?
Sadly, there are times when a director has actually tried to do a bit of directing, only to be thwarted by a member of the cast. I saw a musical western in which the director had decreed a freeze. Fine – except that a cowboy decided it was now time to adjust his hat, thus at once becoming the most prominent and the most stupid person on stage.
The business of speaking is another seemingly
unavoidable snare for the British if it requires them to speak English.
So we get elegant drawing-room comedies in which the drawing room
becomes the droring room. I have compiled a depressing list of ordinary
words that people fail to pronounce properly. I won't repeat it now,
beyond mentioning that it is surely time for directors to tell actors
how to pronounce inventory and communal. It is clear that
directors as a class have yet to point out that the accent comes on the
first syllable, not the second, and that actors as a class have never
given it a thought.
Oddly, your average British thesp seems more at home with a transatlantic twang than with getting things right in English. The exception – which crops up constantly – is when he forgets that our pals across the Pond can't say the ‘N-T' or ‘N-D' sound.
So we get American masquerades disrupted by uncalled-for English pronunciation at times when the script is demanding, say, innernairtional unnerstairning – though I've admittedly yet to learn how innernairtional unnerstairning can possibly emerge if one side of the discussion consists of citizens who say cairn, meaning can, and cairn, meaning can't.
On the other hand, the English girl playing American
showgirl Lola the only time I have seen Copacabana was convincing
throughout – until she began to sing a song called Man Wanted. At
this point, she should have rendered this constantly recurring phrase as
Mairn wannied, but she reverted instead to being the charming
English rose that I am sure she really is.
This was very odd, considering our inexplicable and
apparently otherwise irresistible urge to abandon our Britishness at the
drop of a hat for any song on any occasion – in Babes in the Wood,
for example. Whenever this forms part of my pantomime trail, I
discover that Robin Hood and his Merry Men have turned into Americans
the moment they start to sing – which is just the opposite of the trap
that lurks for Lola, the would-be American who is apparently in danger
of becoming a Brit. I have never learned why no showtime yodel – apart,
it seems, from Man Wanted – is considered to be the biz unless
its performer ceases on the instant to be British.
For heaven's sake, let's have a bit of
directorial thinking. Let's drink to it! Charge your glasses!
And that's another thing: if you're swanning around the stage, sipping champagne or a purportedly-chilled white wine, hold it by the stem or the foot so you don't warm it up. Any real droring room person knows that.
The following article is reproduced with or without the kind
permission of John Slim esq, writer of this parish - so there!
Let's try to remember the writer
I WAS much stirred by a letter brimming with indignation about what its creator called “this damning phrase” that amateur companies are required to display on their programmes and advertising.
It's the one about this amateur production being presented by permission of the named rightsholder – who, he says, adds to the final cost of the enterprise by demanding large percentages of the box-office takings.
If it's any solace at all, it is through the rightsholder that the writers receive their money – and if it were not for the writers, there would be some awfully empty stages about the place. Not that writers receive a fat lot of recognition in any case.
Seeing the touring production of The Holly and the Ivy, I was fascinated to find that its programme, full of Christmas nostalgia, memories of 55-year-old weather records and profiles of the company, did not see fit to mention the author – Wynyard Browne – until page 15 of the 20 enclosed in its glossy cover. He was firmly put in his place, just after the biographies of the deputy stage manager, the assistant stage manager and the man who did the sound effects. As Mr Browne has been dead since 1964, they perhaps hoped he wouldn't notice.
And then there has been all that nonsense that made Tony Hancock our best comedian of all time. It ignored the essential fact that he made his name, not as a comedian but as a comic actor – and that what he was doing was uttering the words written for him by Alan Galton and Ray Simpson.
I saw an amateur production of The Blood Donor, in which Gerry Lucas, of Birmingham's Crescent Theatre, played the Hancock role every bit as well as Hancock did – because he, too, is a very good comic actor and acting is what actors do.
But they do it only because somebody writes their material for them in the first place before being largely overlooked – often by the people who strut their stuff, bask in the plaudits and forget to help to tidy up afterwards. It's a strange old world.
Emreggubllew! (As Dylan didn't say)
SEEMS I worried my website colleague Roger Clarke fairly somewhat in the
wake of Stage 2's recent production of
Under Milk Wood – by causing him to think that I did not know that
Llareggyb, the Welsh community that Dylan Thomas created as the
centrepiece of the story, was as near as dammit bugger all backwards.
Fortunately, I was able to reassure him that I was fully briefed on the
state of impishness in the Valleys – though I did not realise that
Llareggyb had originally been Llareggub until whatever was the
equivalent of Elf ‘n' Safety in days gone by registered anguish and
consternation and persuaded the reluctant playwright to change it.
Nor was I aware that right at the beginning, in the early 1950s, there
were people who said it was a joke played on the BBC which first
commissioned the radio play that was narrated by Richard Burton – but my
mentor assures me that this is unlikely, as the Internet insists that
Llareggub had already appeared in
a Thomas short story, The Burning
Baby, more than a decade earlier.
Thomas clearly revelled in the word play, which is why he came to use it
again in Under Milk Wood, and apparently managed to sneak it through BBC
scrutiny by making it Llareggyb, against his better judgment, when he
submitted it in its radio play format in 1953.
Subsequently, Terry Pratchett created his own modest tribute to Thomas
in his Discworld novels by
including his mythical country Llamedos which, is a thinly-disguised
Wales and is as interesting backwards as Llareggub.
Roger, I learn, is well-briefed on the subject because, as a student, he
was guided through the script of Under Milk Wood by “some old dear from the drama department who was
helping out” – and who was delighted that the original version was still
He recalls her fondly: “She had been to Roedean, had worked in the West
End with Olivier and could cuss, drink and smoke like a shipyard welder.
She sounds the ideal person to comment on a wonderful, poetic playwright.
Let's give praise for Act 2½
I HAVE been grateful for a long time that whoever invented theatre also thought of having an interval.
It's not that I sit there longing for it – although, as I've mentioned before, I do enjoy sitting, either before curtain-up or at half-time, and listening to the often far-from-muted conversation of the people behind me while I imagine them to be Plasticine chickens or dogs in the Wallace and Gromit mould. The sound, even without the pictures, can be rewardingly amusing.
No, I like the interval because it features prominently in the reply given by somebody who had been asked what part of the show he had liked most. Its sheer unexpectedness made tracks to my funny-bone and I have treasured it ever since.
The interval is a vital 15 minutes in the performance. It's for having a drink and then giving it back to the theatre. It's the time during which somebody in the party is bound to ask you what you think of it so far – unwittingly inviting somebody else to respond with “Rubbish!” in unfailing tribute to Morecambe and Wise.
It's a sobering thought, but as it is 21 years since Ernie Wise died and an unbelievable 26 since Eric Morecambe had his fatal heart attack, it is quite likely that many of the people who even now say “Rubbish!” as an automatic reflex response have no idea where it came from.
But I stray. I want to tell you about the evening with an interval so unusual that it turned out to be a special pleasure. As a matter of fact, it was the second interval – which is unusual in itself in these days of simply chopping a performance into two. And it was special because, although it must have lasted for a quarter of an hour, everyone in the audience stayed put: this was not an interval for an escape to the oasis for a g & t or a pint of b.
We remained in our seats at the request of director David Morris, now that we had seen two-thirds of his little group's production of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. David, you see, is a proud evangelist of grassroots theatre, an umbrella title covering the thousands of stalwarts who put on their shows in church halls, village halls or scout huts, without benefit of anything approaching theatre facilities, and who make them work.
And here, in a church hall on the south-west fringe of Birmingham, David had crossed his fingers, his legs and possibly himself and gone hell-for-leather into Noises Off.
This is the farce about a touring professional company, unencumbered by talent. It shows us in the first act what its audience sees, and then in the second act takes us to share the chaos behind the scenes. In the third act the action reverts to the public face of its production.
In a theatre, the set simply spins on its axis, because the theatre has a revolve. In David's church hall, as with grassroots theatre anywhere in the world, the set stays where it is until it is manhandled into its new position. Flats and windows that were stage right have to be turned round and carried stage left. Eight doors have to change sides, one by one, and be rehung.
Depending which act is next, the furniture, the phone and the pictures have either to be put in place or carted into the wings.
If your venue is largely facility-free, this is quite an undertaking – and that is what gave David Morris his idea. Instead of keeping the patrons just sitting there, or pushing them out for another drink, why didn't he let them see the commitment that was making their entertainment possible?
So this is what his company – which a few years back was down to seven members, who were liable to become responsible for the lighting when they stepped off stage – set about doing in the second interval. While David stood downstage-left and gave a running commentary, his cast became stagehands and in about ten absorbing minutes his audience saw grassroots secrets revealed.
I am sure that every member of that audience, every night, was fascinated. For those whose theatre experience is customarily limited to seeing this unpretentious group twice a year and who possibly have no idea of what makes possible the entertainment with which they are presented and never think about it, it must have been an absolute eye-opener.
It was a great idea, this insertion of Act 2½ before Act 3. I commend it to grassroots directors everywhere.
Yes, by all means go and see Noises Off at its slickest and best and most expensive if it arrives at your favourite theatre. But when you're there, take a look around you at all those happy customers who have no idea what they're missing.
Keeping abreast of the brain cell
I AM sure he does, but there's really no need for Donald Hunt OBE to feel bad about the moments of distraction that prevented him from bringing in the orchestra to herald the arrival of the prison staff in Great Witley Operatic Society's splendid production of Die Fledermaus. (click here for review)
The gentlemen of the chorus stood bewildered in the
wings while the ladies behind them unavailingly urged them onwards by
poking them in the ribs while, for what must have seemed like an
eternity, the orchestra stayed schtum.
The human mind is a law unto itself. It leads you
into absurd situations, or it just sits there and lets absurd situations
develop around you, so that they become something that could be adapted
for use in a farce or a comedy, no questions asked.
Recently, when my senior son-in-law turned up for
lunch, having collected his daughter, my senior grandchild, from the
University of Birmingham, I was able to tell them of the trauma that my
brain cell had visited upon me that very day, in my preparations for
meeting my matutinal razor.
BEGUILING BLUE GOO
BEGUILING BLUE GOO
I had in fact got a bit ahead of myself.
Shaving was to be the second item on the agenda, accomplished with the
aid of a tallish tin can containing the beguiling blue goo with which I
have to butter up my manly features in readiness for the arrival of the
blade. But first I had to avail myself of the high-pressure pong-away –
the press-and-squirt canister designed to deal with any armpit that
plans to get a bit above itself.
It was at this point that my brain cell had switched
off. Left armpit at the ready, tin can in my right hand, I pressed the
button and fired.
I don't know how often in a lifetime the average male is likely to fill an armpit with shaving foam, but this was my second such adventure. Moreover, it was undoubtedly an improvement on the first, which was some years ago. Its territorial ambition this time was quite remarkable.
It not only filled my armpit, it globbed down
the side of my ribcage. It also missed me completely – this must have
been because when it made its first contact I jumped – and it put a
yard-long blue stripe down the wall behind me, with another on the door
of the airing cupboard. It made a blue canal on the bathmat on which I
was standing and it scored a direct hit on the big toe of my left foot.
I still can't understand how so much goo was able to burst into my bathroom so swiftly – but I have to confess that this was an occurrence rare enough for me to feel improbably proud. That's why I called my wife to come and admire my achievement. That's why she not only admired, she took photographs. That's why, although, unlike Donald Hunt, I did not have the bad luck to switch off in public, I have not hesitated to come clean at the earliest possible moment.
It is also why, when time has taken its course, I am
sure that Donald Hunt will dine out for years on the night he bemused
the band. Most of us have no qualms about confessing to encountering the
The only time I have had a major brain cell problem
in public, however, was when I was sitting in a train at Euston, ready
to be returned to
I was surprised that they had not noticed me, so I
repaired their oversight immediately. I leaned across the aisle, put one
hand on their table, and said, “Hallo!”
Well, not so much “Hallo!” as “Halloooooo!” and quite
noisily, leaning encouragingly towards them across the gangway as I did
so. As I say, I had known them for ages. It was what they would have
Unfortunately, they didn't know me. Wrong couple.
Double deceivers. Quite amazing. The woman said, “Er. . ?”
I stumbled through what I hoped was an explanation
before spending the entire journey staring fixedly out of my window.
It's called being a human being – like the man who
has been a friend ever since we started grammar school together in
September, 1941. A few years back, he regaled our dinner party with the
day, before the arrival of dishwashers, when the difficulties of his
domestic chores quite overcame him – the day he put the washing-up in
the bowl, then carried it outside and tipped the whole lot into the
dustbin. Think how he would be censured today, if he repeated the trick
but chose the wrong bin.
But now, he looks back with something akin to paradoxical pride, as I already do with my shaving foam extravaganza – and as I am sure that the briefly discomfited Donald Hunt will do in years to come.
To rain or not to rain . . .
IT has never been a role I have sought for myself, but I cannot help wondering whether one of the essentials in securing a job as a television presenter or reporter is the ability to demonstrate that you are a failed thespian.
And, particularly if you have designs on giving us the weather forecast, that you have that peculiar affliction, Left Elbow Bounce – something which, unlike the arms and hands that almost inevitably spring into action when any other sort of presenter faces the camera, appears to be something entirely beyond the control of the sufferer.
But let's look first at all those actors manqués. It matters not whether they are standing windswept on a barren moor or mountainside or sitting warm and cosy at a desk in a studio, as soon as they begin to speak, they start waving their arms about. And we are talking expansive gestures here – big, sweeping performances – as well as the smaller but equally stupid ones that involve only the hands, often in a veritable symmetry of syncopation.
BBC business editor Robert Peston even gets his face involved. With his head leaning to one side or the other, he brings alarming frowns into play behind his whirring hands. By jingo, he's fierce – even when he is not addressing the camera but the newsreader who is sitting just the other side of the desk, a couple of feet in front of him.
At times, it is easy to imagine that he is conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the fourth trombone has not quite discovered the note he was looking for. And like all the others, our Robert becomes even more amusing with the sound turned off.
But what has inspired this near-universal affliction that sweeps through television? What's it all about? Has some under-employed jobsworth upstairs decided that viewers' attention span is now so limited that it cannot cope with talking heads unless there are also active arms?
Were we to be allowed a peep beneath those impressive desks, would we find that they are hiding feet that are tapping away in time with all the activity above them?
It would be stretching the credulities too far, were we asked to accept that all this strange hyperactivity is a simple coincidence; something from which 90 per cent of television's frontispieces just happen to be suffering. On the other hand, can it really be that all new recruits have to go on an induction course that tests them for satisfactory arm action? Do drama schools provide their students with tuition in mastering it, in case their dreams of stardom on stage fail to find fruition?
I don't know – but I am certain that all these peculiar people know exactly what they are doing. This is deliberate distraction. They could not possibly be afflicted en masse with out-of-control limbs – unless, of course, hypnosis forms part of the bigger picture.
And that is where they differ from their mates from the Met Office. A remarkably high proportion of weather presenters, clearly involuntarily, have Left Elbow Bounce. They use their left arm when they point at their maps, then they bring it back to their side, where it arrives perfectly normally – but then bounces an indeterminate number of times, away from the waist and back again.
They can't possibly be doing it on purpose. Nobody would deliberately offer to look so odd. So what causes it? For me, this is one of life's great unanswered questions, like how big are a greenfly's kidneys?
But they're wonderful to watch. Just remember to turn off the sound.
Old habitués die hard
AMATEUR thespians are an interesting lot. They love their hobby so much that they never want to abandon it. But they don't love it enough to care that by going on too long they risk putting off the patrons who would otherwise be happy to continue supporting their shows.
So some of them are still on view when they can scarcely totter. Some wear weird wigs. Some are no longer built to move but nobody's happened to mention it to them. Some have clearly become too big for the job. Physically, I mean – but mentally, too: a big head does not contemplate bowing out gracefully.
In an ideal world, anyone, whatever the role in whatever the show, would find a moment to wonder whether he or she is any longer a director's dream. In an ideal world, the director would make it clear if the dream had ended.
My worry is not particularly about a chorus that seems to have come straight from Saga. Provided its members can look interested, hold a note and be hidden at the back when mobility becomes a problem, an aging theatre group has gone a long way to meeting its responsibilities to the paying public.
No, it's the principals who give me pause. It is they who demonstrate far too often that the world that is a stage is a world that is far from ideal and that it will continue to be so as long as too many directors are content to stay schtum.
That's why I've heard about a Marco and a Giuseppe who looked like Michelin men. It's why I've seen a Curly who must have been hitting 50 but who was clearly primed on his first entrance to vault the gate in Aunt Eller's picket fence. He positioned himself for lift-off but wisely thought better of it. Instead, he opened the gate and just about squeezed through.
This was a Curly full of calories; a cowboy who was a walking demonstration of how square meals make round people. He may have been a good-looking kinda guy 20 years ago, but Time the Great Wrecker had taken its course and Adonis was now a doughnut.
It's these carry-on Curlies I worry about. They don't know when to stop. They apparently lack both a mirror and a best friend – so the show, its supporters and the reputation of the group are doomed to suffer.
Similarly, the bright young ingénue who first captivated an audience 20 years ago should no longer be allowed to be a Laurey when she's as old as the show that was launched in 1945 and a Laurey who's distinctly sorry.
This does not need to happen, and as an under-instructed outsider I can't see why theatre groups allow it to do so. It is surely not too much to hope that a meeting of the membership could agree that there should be an age limit of, say, 35 or preferably 30, on the younger principal roles.
For heaven's sake, most shows have a smattering of older or character parts that need filling, and some plays are written entirely for that kind of cast.
And if there's a society shortage of young members, let's be bold and import a youthful guest or two and at least put on a show that is both creditable and credible as well as being fair to the audience.
Some theatre groups are indeed short of youngsters, but most have at least some young members perfectly capable of carrying off a young role – yet time after time I see them in the chorus while the usual principals, the usual suspects, risk making themselves a laughing-stock and frequently succeed in doing so.
It's odd, isn't it? These self-obsessed citizens, these set-in-stone time-servers, don't have the wit to see how they now portray themselves. There are lines in the script they can't remember and lines in their faces we can't forget. And all the while, they add momentum to the mockery to which they are exposing their beloved hobby.
They're pitiful and it's sad. And it's ever sadder, because weak directors are allowing them to risk driving away not only the patrons but those frustrated younger members who could do the job a damn' sight better.
Rabbie Burns – he who in one immortal verse managed to rhyme beast, breast and hastily – could not be faulted when he urged some great power to give us the wherewithal to see ourselves as others have the misfortune to do.
If some great power does not pull its socks up pretty quickly, it could be too late.
Making light work
With music and sound effects, lighting is a vital part of a stage production – part of the packaging which wraps and enhances the best efforts of the company. Properly used, it is the most atmospheric of tools. On an otherwise darkened stage, if there is just enough of it to enable the audience to see what is going on, without necessarily being able to distinguish the shadowy figure who is creeping about, it can send a pleasurable tingle down the spine in expectation of an as-yet-uncertain shock.
It can provide substitute dappled sunshine and shade to create a magic bower for A Midsummer Night's Dream. It can conjure up the flames of Hell, as did one magnificent production of Dr Faustus that I saw.
Indeed, so powerful was the re-creation of this story of the man who sold his soul to the Devil that it caused one woman in the audience to scramble desperately across kneecaps to which she never been formally introduced, crying, ‘I've got to get out!'
And another woman sat rooted to her seat for several minutes after the final curtain, so real had the battle with evil become. When she eventually managed to make her way out of the auditorium, one last unexpected shock awaited her: there at the bar was Faustus – having a quiet drink with Mephistopheles.
With a strangled cry, she disappeared into the night. I never heard whether the theatre saw her again.
Properly controlled, lighting is a wonderful thing and it undoubtedly did much to create the ambience that so disturbed that unfortunate woman.
But if it breaks loose, it can be a bit of a joker. Ultra-violet lighting has a mind of its own. I saw a group of dancers capering in the u/v gloaming. One of them had a bra strap escaping from under her top. It positively gleamed – a tiny strip of brilliant white which became day-glow distraction and the most prominent thing on stage.
And another production featured a clutch of angels who had presumably never been put through a technical rehearsal. The effect of the lighting on them was to remove their diaphanous heavenly robes.
I saw a thriller involving a corpse in an alcove of the sitting room. Eventually, the curtain was closed on the scene of the crime – at which point, badly sited lighting behind it gave us an unfortunate shadow show of activity as the corpse got up and a stagehand did a bit of bustling about.
In the same production, somebody went out up-stage and failed to close the glass door behind him. And lo! an unaccountable figure appeared from behind the flat and closed it for him, brilliantly illuminated by the lighting team.
The moral must be that lighting is a tool to be treasured, but you do have to watch it – because if you don't, the audience almost certainly will.
Sufferings in an awful audience
ONE of life's little ironies is that so
many drama students, the professionals of the future, don't know how to
behave when they are members of an audience. The result is that if you
have the misfortune to be in that same audience, normally at a drama
school production, you can't help knowing that they are in there with
They may not actually go as far as to shout out comments. They don't usually throw apple cores or toffee papers. They don't need to. They register their intrusive presence by howling with mirth at serious moments, or because one of their fellow-students has been required to adopt, say, a Glaswegian accent for the purposes of the production.
I have seen one young man convulsed
by hearing unaccustomed tones emerging from a scripted conversation in
the wings – just because he knew that this was not what the actresses
concerned really sounded like.
If perchance the production is a comedy, he and his like join in wholeheartedly, habitually from as near to the front of the auditorium as they have been able to get, with exaggerated laughter intended to show the rest of us that they understand the joke.
But the real joke is a sad one: it's the
fact that they are not helping their fellow students on stage and they
are a pain in the proverbial for patrons who want to be able to enjoy
the performance that they have paid to see, not the one that's in the
It's clear that although a drama school habitually turns out young people who will illuminate their profession, it hasn't occurred to it to teach them to behave when they are audience members – so they get very excited by seeing their fellow-students on stage and appear totally incapable of curbing their enthusiasms to an acceptable level.
I know nothing of the psyche of being a drama student, but it's as if they are overtaken by the need to let their long-suffering friends on stage know that they are there, supporting them to the hilt and really enjoying their silly selves. And if their friends are as daft as they are, the presumption must be that when it's the cheerleaders' turn to star, their friends will respond in kind and ruin yet another theatre evening.
This whole business of audiences bothers
me. Audience participation is for pantomimes, not for Pinter, but it's
becoming more and more difficult to attend a performance anywhere
without discovering that you are in the presence of people who have no
idea of how to conduct themselves or of their obligations to other
They don't understand that the proscenium arch is not to be talked to like a television screen. And along with the talkers, we have the telephonists, the sweet-rustlers and those who clearly think a theatre is the ideal place to try to get rid of their bronchitis while they kick the seat in front, rest their head on their companion's shoulder or lean forward in their raked seating and ensure that the person behind has a sharply restricted view of the stage.
If the overture becomes inconsiderately
loud, they raise their conversational pitch accordingly.
Heaven help me, despite the theatre's
nightly recital of the litany of the mobile phone, they still fail to
turn the damn' thing off. I've even seen one member of the lesser
intelligentsia answer it and embark on an animated conversation.
And before any of these things happen,
before the show has even started, you are up and down in your seat to
make way for those who have come in by the wrong entrance despite the
clear numbering above the door and the instructions on the ticket.
are these under-informed regrettables? What's the matter with them?
And is there nothing that the rest of us can do to point out the
error of their ways?
All they need to know could be compressed
into a half-hour talk, in which the instructor would be accompanied by
strategically-placed audience members kicking seats, rustling sweets and
having free-flowing conversations.
It's impracticable to suggest that the
National Operatic & Dramatic Association (NODA) might incorporate a free
mini-course in its annual Summer School – although some thought could
perhaps be given to providing an advice sheet for the under-instructed
that could be slipped into every theatre programme, in print large
enough to be read in the half-light before curtain-up.
It might even include a hint that while
unstinted cries of Woo! Woo! Woo! may be a help in rounding up the occasional herd of
cattle, they are just a little over the top as part of the applause when
the cast is taking its bow.
Perhaps next time one of
The week they swore to
be **!!@** memorable
I WAS irritated on reading a report that a revival production of Michael Frayn's splendid Noises Off had somehow managed to include one of the foulest four-letter words in the English language. I have no reason to doubt that it is true – but if it is, for heaven's sake why?
This amusing behind-the-scenes look at a not-very-good effort to present an acceptable bit of theatre has managed very nicely, thank you, for years. It does not need to descend to the abysmal basics of communication with which it shocked its first audiences in the West End in the early 1980s.
It has no need of the witless terminology that is so often shovelled into plays these days. The shock effect achieved by Kenneth Tynan when he pinned the nation's viewers by their ears in breaking the F barrier all those years ago is no longer achievable.
Today, every talent-free idiot is at it, either in writing plays or as an alternative comedian presenting an alternative to comedy.
Let's dot an I or two. At least it will cause less upheaval than blacking them. Let's talk about the irritation of this insistent idiocy.
CLEVER AND **!!@** BRAVE
I'm fed up with it. Nine times out of ten, if a character produces The Word, I spend the next few minutes wondering why. It's a complete distraction. I ask myself whether there was any reason, other than that the author thought there was still something rather clever and brave about writing it. Was he expecting awestruck admiration for his dauntless daring? If so, he is many years out of date. If he is going to F about, the audience has the right to expect that there is a more compelling reason than a playwright's self-delusion.
Which leads me straight to Glengarry Glen Ross. You may not have heard of it. I hadn't, either, until I found myself watching an amateur production in deepest Worcestershire. But now that I have heard of it, now that I've seen it – and it was quite some time ago – I am not going to forget it.
Paradoxically, it is because writer David Mamet must have broken world records for the number of filthy words in any one script – and because I thought both the play and the production were magnificent.
The words, you see, define the characters in this Chicago drama. Here are hard-bitten real estate salesmen who are deadly rivals in their dog-eat-dog profession. No word that comes their way has a hope of being minced. Right from the start, two characters are in high-decibel, nose-to-nose confrontation.
MAGNIFICENT **!!@** GUTTER-SPEAK
No theatrical ambience can ever have been defined so quickly, so effectively and so unmistakably. The words, that is to say, had a purpose. This was quite magnificent gutter-speak. It pinned a largely middle-aged audience in its seat, disbelief ringing loud in its ears.
But the interesting thing is, once the initial shock had been absorbed, it was obvious that the patrons had adjusted. They had never heard anything like it in their theatregoing lives, with more profanities than they could count in the first five minutes and heaven knows how many still to come – but the fact remains, they adjusted.
And they adjusted because this was dreadful language for a reason – not something added as a silly, smutty afterthought by a foolish perennial fourth-former in search of obsequious plaudits.
I salute the amateur group concerned for its bravery in taking the risks inherent in placing such highly-charged theatre before patrons whose susceptibilities had to be suspect – and for bashing it at them so brilliantly.
This was a week when bad language had a job to do – a real job, one that could be justified without benefit of subtitles or help from prompt corner. It was a week that deserves recounting in any future history of The Nonentities or of Kidderminster's Rose Theatre. If only they could have seen it, it could have taught a profound lesson to all those scribbling irritants who would not know a good swear if it sat up and bit them.
HAVE you ever asked WHY you put yourself through the business of appearing on stage, enduring the anxieties that precede the plaudits, giving your time, risking your reputation and putting up with the petulance of your fellow-performers?
It isn't because, in your masochistic way, you enjoy it.
No, the real reason goes back much further than that: you do it because somebody made it POSSIBLE for you to do it – somebody whose existence probably never crosses your consciousness as you bask in your triumphant opening night.
There's gratitude for you!
But it's a fact. The authors – the writers whose witty lines enable YOU to get the laughs, the composers whose melodies let YOU have the audience howling for more – are without exception the most important factor in every single production, because without them there would be nothing.
Yet they are also, far too often, theatre's forgotten people – the taken-for-granted team whose solitary endeavours apparently mean so little to those who absorb the adulation that they have made possible that every so often I can go to an amateur production whose programme does not tell me who wrote it.
For any thinking member of the audience, such a cavalier approach deserves every contemptuous inference implicit in the old concept of Amateur Dramatics.
It is unlikely to happen if your name is Ayckbourn or Lloyd-Webber – only if you are a lesser-known but completely competent practitioner – unsung, but utterly worth your hire. A pro, utterly deserving of reward.
Unfortunately, playwrights are the people who tend to spring to mind only when it is time to try to lob something off their royalties – a tactic which is aimed almost exclusively at writers and rarely at the lighting chaps, the costume hire people or the musicians.
I think it's boost-the author time. We are not embarking on a sustained crusade: just trying to point out that plays and musicals don't happen by spontaneous combustion.
Next time you are strutting your stuff, please try to spare a thought for the fact that you are there by dint of somebody else's time, inspiration, perspiration and furrowed brow.
Unless he or she has provided you with an opus like the one which was famously criticised for giving failures a bad name, that is the very least your forgotten benefactor deserves.
Driven to distraction
IT'S odd, how one thing leads to another. I had returned home a few years back, waxing lyrical over the best Jack Point, amateur or professional, I had ever seen, in what I also thought could possibly have been the best account of The Yeomen of the Guard to have come my way, when suddenly it struck me: why Gilbert and Sullivan?
That is to say, why not Sullivan and Gilbert? Was it because Gilbert exercised his ego and Sullivan was too much of a gentleman to stand in his way? Was it an alphabetical decision? Or was it to do with the sound of it? When two names are involved in a partnership, is it more mellifluous to put the shorter one first?
Well, yes, according to Rodgers and Hammerstein – which certainly sounds better than Hammerstein and Rodgers – and Abbott and Costello. On the other hand, Lerner and Loewe support both the long-one-first and the alphabetical theory, and so, for that matter, do Morecambe and Wise.
For Flanagan and Allen, whose label benefited enormously from all those A sounds, it's foot-in-both-camps time. They are anti-alphabet but in favour of long-one-first.
But what do you do when both names are single-syllable, with the same vowel sound? Comedians Hale and Pace went alphabetical – which is perhaps just as well, because the other way round they would have sounded uncomfortably like Paschendael, that horrific battleground of the First World War. Tate and Lyle, unencumbered by that sort of vowel consideration, gave the alphabet the elbow.
So how are all these priority decisions arrived at? And would it matter if any of them had been reversed? Is it just a case of what we are accustomed to? We are happy with Gilbert and Sullivan, so could we have become used to Allen and Flanagan? Would we have warmed to Wise and Morecambe and to Loewe and Lerner – and if not, why not?
There's probably an expert on labels, lurking in the undergrowth somewhere. I would be delighted to hear from him – or, indeed, from her.
To revert to the operetta that prompted me along this particular pointless path, and to give credit where credit is manifestly due, the production was by Aileen Haden, for Worcester Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and the remarkable Andrew Rawle was Jack Point – a tragic jester whose legs, arms, elbows, hands and fingers supported his face and voice in a quite superb performance.
His final appearance, for his desperate, antic dance, was in rags, which I had never seen done before but which brilliantly underscored his broken-hearted destruction.
But what I was really going to ask, before completely distracting myself, was this: how does any group, however brilliantly, confine itself, show after show, year after year, to G&S? It surely cannot be entirely due to the absence of royalties, however persuasive the treasurer may be on the subject. And can there really be sufficient aficionados in the area to enable such a one-track society to keep body and soul together?
STYLISED TO DEATH
STYLISED TO DEATH
Drawing support on a national basis, the original D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, formed in the late 1870s and tied for ever to tired routines, first at Gilbert's insistence and subsequently, it seems, simply to maintain the tradition, managed to keep going until it finally stylised itself to death in 1985.
But irrespective of the support, what discipline is required by the company? Is there not a boredom threshold somewhere, waiting to be crossed with cat-like tread? Does no Gilbert & Sullivan society member, awaiting with scarcely-suppressed eagerness the arrival of his fourth Patience, Pirates or Mikado, murmur, albeit sotto voce, ‘Not again!'?
And surely Gilbert did not have the immortal arrogance to assume that his concept would manage to entrance the world for ever without the need to change a syllable or a gesture? Surely even he would have seen the wisdom of letting productions off the leash far sooner than was allowed by the original copyrights.
Happily, we now see liberties taken. There are, for example, a version of Patience about a football team and a Mikado set in a Japanese car factory, and Ko-Ko's little list is mischievously adapted nearly every time we hear it, so we're getting there.
I still rejoice in the inanity of the plots, but are they and all that wonderful music sufficient compensation for all those awful jokes, which surely cannot possibly have been funny, even in the 1890s? Tell me!
And will no Mikado director ever insert a minuscule spot of excitement by sorting out which of Katisha's elbows has a fascination that few can resist and choosing only one of them? She names them both at different times. Surely no one could have been blessed with a double delight half way to her armpits. Perhaps Gilbert himself was getting bored at a very early stage. Good heavens, it was only 1885!
DOES anyone else find anything slightly weird in the thought that Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been wandering from theatre to theatre rather longer than the Israelites were in the wilderness?
Where will it all end? For the Israelites, it
ended when Moses led them to one of the few places in the
IT was in despair, rather than with the anger in which she could so justifiably have indulged herself, that the secretary of a musical theatre company told a friend that after the last show, she, her husband and their daughter had between them spent ten hours cleaning up after the band.
Nothing to do with ice cream cartons or cigarette packets. No, this was a family giving precious time to the job of rubbing pencil marks off all those hired scores, which are supposed to be returned to rights holders in a condition that ensures they are fit to be used by the next theatre group that needs them.
When the musical director had been asked to sort them out, she had promptly gone all high-horse and hoity-toity and proclaimed that she was not paid to rub out.
Who says? She had been paid to take responsibility for the musicians, and if those musicians turned out to be a bunch of idle, unthinking, selfish oafs, they were still her responsibility. If she had failed to instil in them any sense of fair play and best practice, that was down to her. If she had failed, and she clearly had, why should somebody else have had to provide the dustcart that followed her Lord Mayor's Show?
Was she more interested in collecting bucks than in being where one stopped? Not that that matters: from where I am sitting, it is obvious that the buck stopped right on her rostrum.
Her attitude and that of the musicians were typical of the society into which Britain has turned – a society in which, increasingly often, it is me, me, me, with no thought for others unless there's something in it that might provide instant payback in return for some slight sacrifice. Ask any MP.
I am writing, of course, with the distinct advantage of knowing nothing about the subject. I am proceeding in blessed ignorance of any self-serving and possibly stupid rules that may have been shaped by those whose job it is to know something about it. I don't know whether the Musicians' Union has rules of any kind relating to the returning of scores in a decent condition – but whether it has or not, they should not be necessary. All that is needed is that its members should have a civilized attitude to other people's property.
And if they are incapable of being civilized, and if their musical director is incapable of helping them towards such a desirable and obvious goal, then it seems inarguably apparent that the musical director, who is paid to take responsibility, is the one who must step up to the mark – whether or not he has a bunch of self-centred oiks beneath his baton.
If the music industry does not recognise this, I am appalled. Why should longstanding and loyal members of a theatre group that annually forks out increasing sums, both to the musical director and the musicians, have found it necessary to take on a chore that was nothing to do with them because the band was unduly populated with miscreants who didn't know any better and the musical director had shamelessly shirked her responsibilities?
If the musicians won't do it, the musical director is logically the next in line. It should be clear that if pigheaded obstinacy and selfishness – or, indeed, insupportable rules – are in the way, perhaps a touch of the ignorance that has inspired these witterings is just what's needed.
In a way, I wish the story had never come my way. But it did – and now I shall never again be able to sit in the half-light and hear Luck Be a Lady, There is Nothing Like a Dame or Blow, Gabriel, Blow, without wondering how many of the musicians involved will prove at the end of the week to be just so many musical jerks.
Their exits and their entrances
NOTHING in a theatre is more heartfelt or spontaneous than the applause that greets a player who has responded superbly to an unexpected problem.
Two examples spring instantly to my mind. One involved an actress who entered a sitting room on stage, pulling the door closed behind her – and found that she still had the door knob in her hand as she carried on walking. She joined two other women who were already sitting on a settee, and being no fool she immediately gave her unexpected encumbrance to the actress next to her.
Actress No 2 studied it intently before passing it to Actress No. 3. She, too, left us in no doubt that she would recognise this particular piece of door furniture if ever she met it again, then gave it back to Actress No 2. By this time, Actress No 2 had seen all she wanted to see of it and gave it to Actress No 1 on the instant – whereupon, to a rousing cheer, Actress No 1 popped it into her handbag.
Then there was the young lady on a stage-within-a-stage – on one of those trolley affairs that can be wheeled into the wings on the instant. It had only two walls, one of which contained a door through which she was intended to take her leave. She pulled the door and nothing happened. She pushed it and it didn't want to know.
Totally unfazed, she stepped through the fourth wall – the non-existent one that faces the audience on theatrical occasions, as if you didn't know – and down onto the stage. There, she performed an exquisite profound bow, like some 16th-Century courtier greeting his Queen, with the knuckles of one hand almost touching the floor and her other arm held high in the air behind her back. And she took her leave to the biggest cheer of the night.
Audiences are always generous to players who keep going in the face of adversity and this one was no exception.
A similar rousing response greeted the baddy in Viva Mexico! – not when he left the stage by diving though a window, but when he subsequently appeared with a fractured arm in a sling and described himself as a one-armed bandit.
Both these are examples of confronting a crisis head-on – and I can think of another which coincidentally involved the same actor, this time as the young man in Anything Goes, standing downstage on deck and taking notes from his boss. His pencil snapped and the operative end flew into the orchestra pit. Only momentarily disconcerted, he shrugged his shoulders and threw his notebook in after it. He received the cheer he deserved.
A young lady, however, was completely unable to cover her embarrassment as I watched her being carried offstage, wearing a low-slung gipsy-style dress, over the shoulder of the hero of the hour. The dress slipped profoundly and we could only wish her luck as we waved her goodbye. Our Gracie would have understood.
But the most prolonged build-up to catastrophe I have ever seen came in Cabaret. Our expectations were raised when the actor playing the all-American hero of the piece failed to drink his glassful of raw egg – for the unimpeachable reason that he knew he would be sick if he did so.
He placed it on a convenient shelf – then managed to knock the glass onto the stage, where it shattered. The stage was a sudden morass of shards and egg yolk, on which the first dancer to arrive skidded and fell over before getting up with egg on her base.
Eventually, the time came for our hero to take his leave. One should not dwell upon a fellow-man's misfortune. Suffice it therefore to say that he had reached for his overcoat and pushed his second arm down his sleeve lining; that he had Sally Bowles' ticket in his overcoat pocket; and that the pocket was on the same side as his imprisoned arm. He was supposed to place the ticket on a convenient table before making his exit – and, give him his due, he did the best he could.
He turned sideways-on to the audience, so that his missing arm was upstage. Then he flapped the rogue sleeve in the general direction of the empty table-top and said, ‘There's your ticket', and took his leave, not for a moment believing that he'd had us fooled.
But he had done his best in the face of fate, and I salute him. I take my hat off, too, to all those other amateur thespians who have looked disaster in the eye and somehow managed to survive by sheer luck or native wit.
But I shall never, ever, understand what drives them repeatedly to chance their arm – even an arm that's not stuck in a sleeve lining – when the unpredictable is for ever lurking in the wings.
Scene and unseen:
hard work unheralded
ONE of theatre's constant unkindnesses is to be observed in the
cavalier way it so often treats its scenic designers these nights. These
are the people the audience never sees – the ones who receive, if
they're lucky and someone has remembered to write it, just a line of
acknowledgment in the programme, but whose skills can illuminate any
production and bring joy to the heart.
I am sure that the average theatregoer
who settles into his seat and waits to be entertained has no idea of the
hard work that has gone into the show – and certainly, as far as the set
designer's unsung contribution is concerned, there is little, if any,
effort to enlighten him.
The words and the action flow smoothly,
so it's obvious that somebody has sweated away at learning the lines.
But what about what might be called all the backing bits – the finding
or making of the props and the ingenuity that has gone not only into the
set but into the model of the set that may well have preceded its
Very few audience members, I'm sure, give
it a thought – and they are hardly encouraged to do so by the current
vogue, far too prevalent, of having the set on display when they arrive,
which means there is no collective gasp of pleasure in response to the
opening of the curtains. The curtains are open already, so the audience
sees the set in penny numbers, with half an eye, as it performs its
one-at-a-time scramble past the kneecaps that are to be its neighbours
for the next two hours.
BAG OF TOFFEES
BAG OF TOFFEES
Then it takes its seat, finds its bag of
toffees and resumes the conversation it was having in the car, while the
impact of a possibly glorious set decreases by the minute and has been
firmly consigned to a wallpaper role by the time the lights dim and the
I have never been so aware of this as I
was at a professional production of
Neville's Island, the joyous
Tim Firth comedy about a group of businessmen marooned on an island
during an Outward Bound-style course. The set was superb: trees, lichen,
seriously impressive fake rocks – and so much water that the cast
members made their first entrance swimming.
But long before they did so, the set had
been on show from the moment the theatre opened. It was on display in
all its glory as the audience filed in. The customers had undoubtedly
been individually impressed on arrival but had completely acclimatised
to it up to half an hour before anything happened on stage. This was the
in-vogue way in which
But it's just not fair! The only time a
set designer has a chance of being acknowledged is when the dimming of
the lights heralds the opening of the curtains and the result of weeks
of artistic endeavour and bloody hard work is allowed in a single magic
moment to hit the patrons firmly between the eyes. That's what prompts
them into the concerted applause that all that creativity so richly
All of which makes
The Handbook of Set Design, by
Colin Winslow (The Crowood Press, 192 pp, £19.95) a guaranteed
eye-opener, attractively illustrated with black-and-white and colour
There are pictures of model sets,
painstakingly crafted before anybody began creating the real thing. One
shows model banisters made from beads and wire and wrapped with thread.
Another features tiny double doors decorated with rococo details
produced with fine plaster from a syringe.
The irony of all this is that set
designers are understandably unimpressed when they feel that their
patient skills have not been given a thought by members of the audience
– but on the other hand they are often distinctly coy about revealing
the secrets of their scaled-down artistry.
I suspect that they can't have it both ways – but I'm equally sure that if a few more directors ensured that their productions kept a visual surprise out of sight right up to the moment a performance begins, designers would at least receive the plaudits they so often deserve but which are habitually reserved only for the stuff-strutting members of the cast.
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