Writing Commissions

 

Thinking back to some old data and statistics about writing screenplays for TV, I think I remember reading that out of something like 40,000 submissions only 40 get commissioned, in other words a writer is paid to write a completed script, and out of that 40 about only four make it to the screen. So there are dozens upon dozens of writers who are often commissioned, but their creations rarely go into production.

    In 1980, I wrote three episodes of the Thames comedy Keep It In The Family. And not long after these were broadcast, I heard that Humphrey Barclay, who was then head of Light Entertainment at LWT, was looking for six sitcom pilot episodes for Channel 7 in Australia. Because of my success with the three episodes I had written for Thames, I wrote a short idea and synopsis for the Australian series. I then got a call from Humphrey Barclay to go in and discuss my idea which was set in a family run tenpin bowling alley. The very affable Humphrey liked the idea, commissioned it, and I wrote the script and sent it off to him. Weeks later I got a call from him, saying the Australians liked the script, but the trouble was there were no tenpin bowling alleys in Western Australia. Humphrey very graciously said it was their fault, but if I could think of another setting for my script and rewrite it with the same or similar characters which the Australian channel liked, he would recommission it, meaning I would earn a double fee.

   This paid for our deposit on a mortgage for a flat in Tunbridge Wells. And then I heard that Channel 7 had scrapped all six commissioned scripts by various writers without giving a reason for it.

   Later in the 1980s, I submitted a sitcom about seaside photographers to Alan J W Bell at the BBC, Alan was producer of The Last of The Summer Wine. Not a series, I have to admit, that I particularly liked, mainly because I thought a lot of the slapstick with characters in a runaway bath hurtling down a hill and going over a hedge was extremely unfunny. But Alan liked my script, and I was paid the commission for writing it. We had a meeting about my script, and Alan said why don’t we sit in my office and read it aloud. This we did, and then he made suggestions about certain characters degenerating into slapstick along Summer Wines lines, suggesting my police constable chases a car which brakes suddenly and he flies over the top of it. I didn’t like his ideas but made the changes. And then the script fell at the final hurdle.

   Months later I got a call from a BBC Wales producer who said my script had landed on his desk, he liked it and asked me if I could rewrite and reset it in Wales. He came up to London to talk about it and took me out to lunch. He agreed to commission the Welsh version of my script, and then said he had a few hours to kill before he had to catch his train to Paddington. So I took him to the Kismet Club in Soho, which opened at 3 p.m. and shut at 7 p.m. to circumvent the licensing laws at that time. The Welsh producer loved this seedy dive, and thought this was really living, rubbing shoulders with mainly actors and villains, and was thrilled that I had taken him there.

   I was commissioned to write the script, but again, nothing came of it.

   Another script I was commissioned to write early on in that decade was Mr Micawber, which I wrote as a two-page synopsis and gave it to a commercials director I knew, who passed it on to his agent. Five years later the agent, Terence Baker, who was actor George Baker’s brother, got me a commission to write the script for a production company, who were happy with my script, but were looking for an Australian co-production. Unfortunately the Australians said they weren’t interested because they had already had a Dickensian spin-off with Magwitch about the adventures of the Great Expectations convict, and this wasn’t successful. So that was that as far as my Dickens character was concerned.

   Incidentally, Terence Baker represented Jeffrey Archer, and it was he who provided an alibi for his client when the writer denied paying a prostitute money to keep quiet, saying he had taken Archer to lunch at Le Caprice, even though Baker could produce no receipts for that client lunch. Years later, when Archer unsuccessfully sued a newspaper, and received a three year sentence for perverting the course of justice, fortunately Terence Baker – or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it – had already died, otherwise he too may have been given a custodial sentence for the false alibi.

   But that is life’s rich pageant!

   As for Mr Micawber, I eventually wrote it as a novel, and decades later it was published as Mr Micawber Down Under in hardback by Robert Hale Books in 2011. Unfortunately, a few years later this publisher wrapped up their company, having been around since 1936 maybe they decided enough was enough. There were some of my hardback books left over from the print run, and I bought them in order to secure my copyright, as Hale had reassigned my books to another publisher that I wasn’t happy with.

   I still think my Micawber book would do well if it was published in paperback and e-books. And my current publisher, AUK Ltd, has recently published my Please Sir! The Official History which seems to be doing well. They have also published another Australian Dickens spin-off, The Dreamtime of the Artful Dodger by Norman Eshley and Elizabeth Revill, so perhaps AUK might be interested in a paperback version of my Micawber book.

   Perhaps this is one for next year?

   As for the Artful Dodger book, please get a copy. It is an excellent read. I am halfway through it at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it.

 

Corona Academy Stage School

 

1959 was the year of the third Carry On film, Carry On Teacher. For me it was an uncredited role, sitting behind a desk, unaware that I would be sitting behind a desk in 5C eight years later. But for the Carry On film, nearly all the Corona students were used. Featured roles were played by Richard O’ Sullivan, Diana Beevers, Larry Dann, George Howell, Carol White, and her sister Jane, Paul Cole and Roy Hines, brother of Frazer. Jeremy and Nigel Bulloch, and Francesca Annis were also uncredited, along with dozens of other Corona Academy students.

   Later that year I came to play a part which – little did I know it – was the precursor of Frankie Abbott. I was cast as a tearaway character called Slob in a one-off BBC TV drama Roundabout, written and directed by John Elliott.  Although a few years older than me, and therefore a more senior student at Corona, Larry Dann played one of the leading roles. It was an exciting production for me, as we stole a car in one scene, and in another I had to cosh someone over the head, which perhaps made Slob a little more daring than Frankie Abbott.. Much of it was filmed on housing estates in Bermondsey and Chislehurst Caves in Kent, which was a jazz venue, where revellers would go to dance, fornicate if the opportunity arose, and drink cheap cider.  It became a huge jazz scene in the 1950s, with Humphrey Littleton, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk performing there regularly. The jazz bands who appeared with us in Roundabout were The Storyville Jazzmen and The Roy Spiller Six, whom we got to know quite well as they were an integral part of the drama and rehearsed with us in a west London church hall prior to the start of the filming.

   For me one of the highlights of this drama was working with Larry Dann, playing my first substantial television role alongside him. Larry would go on to work for Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Oh What a Lovely War, and many years later appeared in dozens of episodes as Sgt Alec Peters in The Bill.

   When we were taught voice production at Corona, we often used to mock some of the exercises Miss Rona Knight, the principal of the school, asked us to do, but later I came to realize just how valuable this physical training was, since I have never had a problem with being heard on stage. We were taught to take deep breaths from the diaphragm, no shallow chest breathing, then neck totally relaxed as we began a gentle humming, increasing in volume as the sound spun in the head, and chanting fully relaxed the litany of Niminy-Nim is a nice little man-n-n-n-n-n, with the last letter-n spinning louder and louder as we were urged to relax and keep it reverberating in the head. And she taught us how to conquer first-night nerves, standing in the wings prior to making your entrance, you imagine you are standing under a soothing shower, the perfect-temperature water trickling through the hair and running down the back, creating a tingling sensation in the fingers, and once more using the diaphragm to breathe gently. The value of Miss Knight’s lessons only became apparent as we matured into adulthood.

        Corona was a private, fee-paying school, which my parents couldn’t afford, but the school assured them that, as I looked younger than my twelve years, they would find me enough professional acting work to cover the fees. Which is what happened. I got so much work in my early teens that my parents never had to pay a penny towards my private education. I use the term ‘education’ loosely because of the constant disruptions when pupils were whisked away, either to attend auditions or appear in a film or television show. Imagine the frustration of teachers trying to educate students who sometimes dropped out of school at a moment’s notice, returning perhaps a day or even weeks later.

    In 1969, prior to the start of the second series of Please Sir!, I worked with Larry again in a Thirty Minute Theatre play for BBC 2. And now I get to work with him again when he appears with  Graham Cole OBE, Suzanne Maddock, Felicity Dean, Judy Matheson and me in The Lives of Frankie Abbott at the Phoenix Arts Club on Saturday 13 November at 2 p.m.

which Misty Moon is producing.

   I am looking forward to that immensely.

 

Never Work with Animals, Children or Drunks

 

The most shambolic dress rehearsal I have ever been involved in was on the opening night of Funny Money at Theatre Royal, Windsor, and having a dress rehearsal on the day we were due to open, talk about leaving things until the last minute. It was like the old days of repertory theatre when everyone was pushed for time. But the chaos in this production lay heavily on the shoulders of the leading man Rodney Bewes, who shut the door on the set when it should be left open and vice versa. Also, he seemed to be taking a prompt for every other line.

   Sweating in the wings, prior to the performance, Gareth Hunt told me he had never been so nervous. And I was just as bad. It was the insecurity of not being able to rely on Rodney, playing the character who should have been driving the play along. But however shambolic it was, the audience appeared not to notice the many cock-ups and laughed uproariously at everything. But the second act was something else, which I can only describe as abysmal. Rodney had really lost it, and Trevor Bannister was doing his nut in the wings.’

   In the dressing room after the show, Mark Piper, artistic director of the theatre, came into the dressing room I shared with Ron Aldridge, the director of the play, and I sensed an atmosphere. I decided to head quickly for the bar, but not before I heard Ron telling Mark Piper, ‘We all make mistakes. I can accept that. But he’s done a bottle of port in the interval, and that’s something I find unforgivable.’

   In the Stalls Bar, I sat beside Trevor, who ran Rodney down. And when Rodney appeared, sheepish and quiet, clutching a glass of Coke, Trevor muttered, ‘The cunt has the cheek to drink Coke. He’s not fooling anybody.’

   Ron called a line rehearsal for the next day, which was Press Night. Bill Kenwright wants Rodney to continue, probably because he is very popular and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads was currently being repeated on BBC television. But unless Rodney improved following Press Night, Ron wanted him out.

   None of this was done behind Rodney’s back. He knew what the score was. He had to get it together or they might find someone to replace him.

    The next day, Press Night, we started a line run at 5 p.m. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Rodney was better and had obviously spent the day working on the script. The performance, although still rocky in places, was a vast improvement on the first night.

    (Years later, to promote my book Flashback – An Actor’s Life, I went on the Steve Allen Show on LBC Radio, and the presenter told me that he had Rodney on one of his shows who came straight from the Garrick Club and was clearly pissed. The programme controller happened to be listening in and contacted the presenter to ask what was wrong with his guest. Allen made an excuse for Rodney, telling the programme controller that his guest was ill!)

   But at the Windsor Theatre Royal during the week of Funny Money, sitting in the dressing room in the interval, I stared at my black cat mascot that my mother and father gave me at Windsor 43 years ago and tried to remember what Life with Father, an American play was like. I played the youngest of three brothers and wore a cute little sailor suit in one scene. Playing one of the maids, was Irish actress Doreen Keogh, who would later feature in many TV comedies, including Father Ted and as Mary Carroll in The Royle Family. Mother was played by Noel Dyson, who became Ida Barlow in Coronation Street. Heather Sears played Mary Skinner, and shortly after her Windsor stint, she signed a contract with Romulus Films, earning a British Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in The Story of Esther Costello with Joan Crawford. She was only 21 at the time. But the film of hers which I remember most strongly was as the social-climbing Joe Lampton’s hapless fiancée in Room at the Top with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret.

   Why are the worst memories sometimes the strongest? All I really remember of my first professional appearance at Windsor is someone’s devious attempt to murder me. During the performance one night, having to eat a bowl of porridge, I was about to shovel a spoonful into my mouth when I noticed something glinting in the bowl, catching the light. It was a pin. I tried to appear unruffled, but my cereal was full of pins, concealed just beneath the surface. It had to be deliberate. But why? Are cute-looking child actors in sailor suits so puke-making as to provoke someone to attempt infanticide? Maybe it was a test to see how I would cope. I did my best to eat heartily while I avoided swallowing the killer pins. And if it was a test, I think I may have passed, carrying on as if nothing had happened.

   I never mentioned the pins to anyone. I ate cautiously for the remainder of the run, but the killer pins didn’t appear again. It was very strange.

   But if I’m honest, the attempted infanticide was nowhere near as alarming as working with Rodney Bewes!

Flashback - An Actor's Life still available but only on Amazon Kindle.

The audio book is available from Amazon Audible and runs to five hours narrated by me, David Barry.

'Imagine yourself travelling - as a member of the company - with a train-load of stars to the great cities of Europe.' Daily Express

'He recounts those years with  great humour, and hilarious events unfold as he describes working for dodgy producers and argumentative actors.' Western Mail

 

 

Great Radio Comedies

 

It was because of Richard Davies and his wife Jill Britton that I eventually got to play Tony Hancock on stage, along with other characters from some great BBC radio comedies. When we appeared in the third series of Please Sir! Richard Davies involved us – the 5C cast – in a production of Under Milk Wood  at Lewisham Concert Hall. Then, in the mid-eighties, Richard Davies, his wife Jill, Peter Cleall, my wife Pat Carlile, Peter Childs and I, mounted a small-scale tour of Under Milk Wood. Peter Childs appeared for three nights at only one venue because he was committed to appearing in several episodes of Minder and we cast another actor in his place.  

    The only props we toured in Milk Wood  were six bentwood chairs, and we used rostra, usually supplied by each venue. The tour was so successful, many theatres selling out and,  benefiting from the goodwill of the theatres we had played, I wanted to create another production but I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t involve scenery, which would then mean transporting a set and all the paraphernalia that went with it. And then it struck me! Radio has no scenery. I thought I could produce a comedy radio show, standing around a BBC microphone as if it was a live recording. I had a word with most of the cast in the Welsh play and everyone thought the radio comedy show was a good idea, so I began to research it and put it together. I called it Radio Fun, kicking off with ITMA in the War Years, The Glums from Take It from Here, The Goon Show, Hancock’s Half Hour and Round the Horne.

   First, though, I needed to get theatre touring rights and my first contact was BBC Enterprises, who demanded six per cent of the box office. When I contacted Norma Farnes, Spike Milligan’s agent and friend for more than thirty-five years, she was extremely helpful. When I told her what the BBC wanted percentage wise, she told me Spike owned the copyright to his Goon Show scripts, and she told me to tell the BBC to 'fuck off'.

   For years after our conversation I had this fantasy of me dialling the BBC switchboard and telling them to fuck off.

   Norma went on to suggest I offer them one per cent just for the goodwill. She also gave me the names of the other writers’ agents and how to contact them.

   When I contacted Barry Took about Round the Horne, he said I could use the rights for

free, he didn’t want any money, and said he could also speak on behalf of Mary Feldman, even without the aid of Doris Stokes. (She was a famous psychic and medium.)

   The show began its small-scale tour in 1987. I wrote additional material linking each episode, which the rest of the cast narrated in a documentary style, all of us standing around an old-fashioned BBC coffin-shaped microphone, and used props for the sound effects, which added a visual mood to each episode. Apart from ITMA, where we made a few cuts because the humour was so dated, every episode was as fresh as when it was first written, the audiences enjoyed it and the show received good reviews. In The Glums, the comedy revolved around Ron who is unemployable, but they eventually get him a job as an art class model, and he is horrified that he might have to appear naked. ‘No, son,’ says his father (originally played by Jimmy Edwards), ‘not naked as such. Just stark symbolic naked.’ The script was by Frank Muir and Denis Norden and was extremely funny. And Round the Horne was just as up to date and would even work in this century seeing as one of the sketches was a hilarious James Bond spoof, and the licensed killer is still around and going strong.

   One of our best dates for this tour was at the Theatre Royal Margate, where we played for a fortnight, and we were joined by Arthur White (David Jason’s brother) as the sixth member of the company.

   There have been many such revived comedies in recent years, using the pretend BBC studio technique, but I like to think we were probably the first production company doing this, and it was all thanks to those wonderful radio scripts, and also the lack of funds to use much in the way of scenery. Necessity being the mother of invention, as they say.

    And now Misty Moon takes over producing a similar production as a cast stands around an old BBC microphone, performing live in front of an audience. This is two half-hour comedies I have written, titled The Lives of Frankie Abbott, which will be recorded for CDs and MP3 downloads at the Phoenix Arts Club on Saturday 13 November at 2 p.m., with Graham Cole OBE, Suzanne Maddock, Felicity Dean, Judy Matheson and Larry Dann.

    And it’s good to know that tickets are already selling well, even though the show is still more than two months away. So hurry up and get your ticket and I hope to see you there!

 

Something Turned Up – Years Later

 

In my early twenties I had read only two Charles Dickens novels – A Christmas Carol and A  Tale of Two Cities. And then, having seen W. C. Field’s performance as Mr Micawber in George Cukor’s David Copperfield, little did I think at the time that, almost half a century later, I would follow in the Micawber family footsteps and write about their adventures in Australia.

   In the 1970s, I took to Dickens’ novels, and read most of them, one of my favourites being David Copperfield. And whenever Micawber appeared on the page, I fondly recalled the eccentric Fields and his definitive performance.

   In the 1980s I wrote three episodes of Keep It In The Family for Thames TV and had never considered writing a book. And then I chanced upon a criticism of Dickens by G. K. Chesterton who questioned why the man who created the larger-than-life Micawber could pension him off as a successful colonial mayor in Australia towards the end of the book. It was a lightbulb moment, and I envisaged a TV series about Micawber, with him and his family struggling to make ends meet in this brash new world. I decided to tread cautiously, and to begin with I wrote a two-page synopsis. Then, filming a commercial abroad, I mentioned the idea to the director, who thought it was a terrific proposal and passed it on to his agent, Terence Baker, who agreed and promised he would get a deal, even if it took him five years.

   Fast-forward five years to the mid-1980s and Baker managed to get a deal for the project with Moonlight Films, who were looking for a co-production with Australian TV, and I was duly commissioned to write a pilot script. Although Moonlight Films liked the script, I had only mastered the first hurdle in this long steeplechase. Unfortunately, the Australian TV company had already broadcast Magwitch, a series about Pip’s convict benefactor, and the series was largely unsuccessful, which put the lid on the project, and that ended Moonlight’s interest in the project.

   So that was that. I would not even think about Micawber again until the next millennium, when I had my first novel published. It was then I began to feel confident enough to tackle Micawber as a book. I wrote three chapters and submitted them to the then editor of Vintage Books, who wrote back to say he was intrigued by the submission and would I send the rest of the book. Being still slightly naïve about the world of publishing, I replied saying that I had only written the first three chapters with a synopsis for its development. He then suggested I ring him to discuss its development.

   Now I began to feel excited about Micawber’s prospects. But there were still obstacles to overcome. Prior to my submission to Vintage, I sent the TV script, the one Moonlight Films commissioned, to the BBC, not getting as much as an acknowledgement from them. Then my heart sank when I saw that YTV were about to broadcast Micawber. John Sullivan had been commissioned by the BBC to write David Copperfield. It didn’t work out, so he took the Micawber idea to YTV, and as they were about to broadcast it was when I telephoned the editor at Vintage. I made the fatal error of mentioning it to him, and my horse fell at the final fence. He advised me to shelve it for five or six years and I thought no more about it.

   In March 2011 I decided I would write the rest of the novel and submitted it to Robert Hale Books, and I had a very speedy response, saying they wished to publish it, and it came out in October of the same year. It was only when a friend pointed out to me that 2012 was the Charles Dickens bicentenary that I realized how fortunate the timing was.

   Then in 2012 & 2013, actor, singer and musician, Marie Kelly, who is Branch Secretary at Kent Equity, suggested to me that I might adapt the novel into a play, this I did and then we toured it in the southeast with a cast of Kent Equity members, ending the tour at Epsom Playhouse.

   Unfortunately, Robert Hale, who had been around since 1936, wound up their company, and assigned the rights to another publisher that I was not happy with, and in order to get back the rights I had to buy the remaining stock of books back at the cost of £200

   Micawber is a wonderful music-hall character, and one with whom I can identify. Because of the vicissitudes of the acting profession, I too have been an optimist and behave like a prodigal on occasions, ever the optimist and confident that ‘something is bound to turn up’

   Since performing the play with Kent Equity members, I rewrote it, and it has been published by Lazy Bee Scripts. Anyone who is interested may read the entire play on their website free of charge, and here is the link, just copy and paste it into your browser:

 

https://www.lazybeescripts.co.uk/Scripts/Results.aspx?iSc=2162

 

A Spanish Tombstone

 

I have a great nostalgia for the Spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s, when Hollywood had grown tired of the genre. Then along came Sergio Leone and revived the declining Western with three Italian Westerns – A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, all starring Clint Eastwood as ‘the man with no name’.

    Nowadays young people prefer sci-fi and fantasy, and one is unlikely to see them queuing to see a cowboy film when hordes will be attracted to Star Wars or Harry Potter. But many movies are Western plots in contemporary or futuristic costumes, like the aforementioned Star Wars, and Clint Eastwood’s second biggest grossing film Gran Torino is an almost rehashed Western plot as he plays a Korean war veteran who has hung up his gun to live a peaceful life and is also a repentant because he shot a surrendering Korean soldier. But when his Asian next door neighbours are terrorised by a gang, he has to revert to his old life and become a man of action again.

    But any Western repeats on television are probably watched by older viewers. And as I fall into that category, I was thrilled to visit Spain in 2019 with Henry Holland and Mark Andrews to visit our very good friend Carol Hawkins, and a highlight of the visit was a trip to Fort Bravo.

    The Spaghetti Westerns were mostly shot in the Tabernas Desert in the Spanish region of Almeria, where the Italian company built the film sets. And our day out at Fort Bravo consisted of a walk through this cowboy town, which looked pretty authentic to me. We arrived just after 11.00 a.m. and as we walked into this quite large town, with its facades of stables, Sheriff’s Office, banks, jails, churches and all the other buildings you would encounter in a Tombstone-like area, from the saloon we heard music blasting out, and it just happened to be the Ennio Morricone instrumental from the films. It was perfect.

    Then after a few beers in the saloon (naturally), there was a show, with dancing girls up on stage doing the Can-Can, and this was followed by rough looking gunslingers performing a Western scenario in the main body of the saloon, complete with fights, and their six-shooters being fired, causing everyone to jump. There was also a great deal of humour and audience participation in the show. It was in Spanish, of course, but we got the gist of it.

    Then after lunch came the pièce de résistance when we sat outside the saloon staring down the main street of the town. Empty at first, and then The Magnificent Seven theme began playing, and the horsemen appeared from around a building at the far end of the street, marching slowly and menacingly in a line toward us. And then a show began with much stunt horse riding, and as some of the gunslingers galloped though the street, some lay horizontal on the horse as if to dodge bullets while firing themselves. And one of the baddies was shot from an upstairs balcony, somersaulting to land in the street – on a padded mat of course.

    We spent five hours at Fort Bravo at the cost of 20 Euros each, and it was money well spent. We all had a fabulous time there, and we were glad we went. I looked it up on the internet when I got home and discovered that in 1970 a storm blew down most of the original film sets and they had to be rebuilt. But that didn’t matter as it all looked pretty authentic and cared for.

    I remembered Clint Eastwood in a documentary saying that because the budget was low for A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone asked him to take his poncho and Stetson back to the hotel with him every evening and look after them, because they didn’t have a duplicate set. Of course, by the time The Good, The Bad And The Ugly  was shot two years later, the budget was much bigger.

    As our visit to Fort Bravo neared the end of the season, we were lucky because we could photograph and pose for photographs with no other visitors encroaching the edge of frame. And one of the things we noticed was the absence of children. Not a single child to be seen.

    Perhaps this was because cowboys or gunslingers don’t have magic wands or books to conjure up spells.

Click on the Youtube link below for the Danish National Orchestra playing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enuOArEfqGo

 

 

Child Actor

 

When I look back to 1956, it was probably one of my busiest years as a young actor, kicking off with a brief appearance in a BBC soap opera The Appleyards, directed by Kevin Sheldon, which led to a part in a BBC children’s television science-fiction series, Space School, also produced by Sheldon. It was a story about three children being educated aboard Earth Satellite One. This space station predated the first ever artificial satellite in space by a year, when the Soviet Sputnik 1 was launched, and it was certainly well ahead of the first space station which began orbiting the earth in the 1980s. But they have yet to have astronaut fathers taking their children with them, which was what Space School was about.

   One of the actors I remember was the softly-spoken Canadian actor, Neil McCallum, who played the space station’s cook, who went on to become one of the stars in the last Ealing Studios film which was shot on location in Australia, The Siege of Pinchgut, and he also became the voice of Dr Ray Pierce in Thunderbirds Are Go.

   We rehearsed in a church hall near Shepherd’s Bush, and this was conveniently close to our school. We always had a packed lunch, along with our chaperone, when the adult actors broke for an hour. After lunch, when the producer lurched back into the room, we always noticed how much more animated he had become since the morning rehearsal, his eyes lustrous, blasting us with beer and nicotine breath when he directed us.

   Of course, all this work meant pupils like myself missed many of our school lessons, which were constantly being disrupted when we were whisked away to some grotty rehearsal hall. Imagine the frustration of teachers trying to educate students who sometimes dropped out of school at a moment’s notice, because Hazel Malone’s agency, in conjunction with the school, had a policy of involving many of the pupils as part of a job lot when occasional crowd scenes of children were needed on a picture. Even teenage actors like Richard O’Sullivan who usually played featured film roles were expected to adjust to occasional work as a background artist.  Which is how three years later I found myself standing next to Richard in a crowd scene in Bottom’s Up, a filmed version of the television series Whack-O, starring Jimmy Edwards. We were told this policy of going from featured roles to uncredited extra work was so that no one became conceited or starry, but – cynic that I am – I thought it was more to do with financial gain for both the school and the agency.

   When I was 4 or 5 years older and no longer needed a chaperone, I worked again with Neil McCallum in an Armchair Theatre production. I was cast as in the very small role of a Telegraph Boy in The Night of The Apes, with Petra Davies, Jessie Evans and Neil McCallum in the lead roles, a play about a dishonourably discharged soldier who refused to shoot a terrorist and faces problems when he returns to his hometown. The play was directed by Dennis Vance.

   Following rehearsals in London at the inevitable church hall, we were due to travel to Didsbury, a suburb of Manchester, where we would spend two days at Didsbury Television Studios. We set off one evening from Euston, and spent the entire journey in the dining car, where I was treated to the spectacle of our director behaving badly as he drank copiously during dinner, and threw sugar lumps at everyone, including other passengers who were not with our party. But he did it with such roguish charm, nobody seemed to mind, and he kept everyone entertained.

   The hotel we stayed at in Didsbury was the exotic El Morocco, its decor faux north African, but the proprietors and staff were genuine Moroccans, and some of them wore sheik-like Arab costumes. On our arrival at Manchester Piccadilly, naturally the cast all shared taxis to the hotel, but Dennis Vance seemed to have disappeared. After a fruitless search for our director, his PA gave up and we all clambered into cabs and headed for Didsbury. As we entered the El Morocco, we were greeted by an Arab in full costume, his face half concealed by his headwear, which he tugged aside and said conspiratorially, ‘It’s me chaps. Biggles!’

   Dennis Vance had somehow managed to give everyone the slip, got his own cab to the El Morocco, and persuaded the management to lend him the Arab gear for the gag. Later, some of the cast speculated that he may have done this with other Armchair Theatre productions, as the staff of the hotel played along as if this was a well-rehearsed routine.

   I can’t remember whether I was 17 or just turned 18, but I was now drinking beer and enjoying it, and on the second night at the hotel, I stayed up late with the rest of the cast, way past the staff bedtime. We were left to help ourselves to alcohol and put the money in an honesty till. Imagine that! Leaving a load of actors to help themselves to drinks. But no one took advantage, as far as I can remember.

 

The Boys in The Band

 

In 1975 I played Michael in Boys in The Band at Cardiff New Theatre, and became a great friend of Peter Childs, who played Hank in the production. Peter would go on to give a great performance as DS Rycott in Minder.

   Peter and I enjoyed our five week stay in Cardiff. He was a member of the BBC Club, and one day we went out to the BBC Studios at Llandaff to have a drink in the club. We got chatting to some producers and script editors who were knocking back the booze as if the club was about to run out. One of them, a script editor, told this joke:

    A nun outside the convent was irritated by some pigeons, saying to them, ‘Fuck off!’ But the Mother Superior intervened and said, ‘No, no, sister. You shouldn’t say that. You must say, “Shoo, shoo, little pigeons, and they’ll fuck off just the same!”’

    Suddenly there was a tap on the script editor’s shoulder, and a BBC commissionaire, complete with a row of medals on his chest, said, ‘I heard you using language. Cut that out, otherwise you’ll be asked to leave the club.’

    Quick as a flash the script editor asked the commissionaire if he spoke Welsh. He didn’t. ‘Well.’ explained the script editor. ‘You see there are mutations in the Welsh language. And there is no letter V in our alphabet. The F is a V sound. So what you misheard was Buck, which mutated to Vuck.’

    The commissionaire looked very embarrassed and said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.’

    ‘That’s all right,’ said the script editor pleasantly. ‘Now you can fuck off!’

    Peter and I often spent long nights drinking with the Welsh Opera Company. Peter went to the trouble of learning ‘Myfanwy’ in Welsh and sang it for them. On their last night they presented him with an LP of the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, and signed it ‘To Peter, an honorary Welshman.’

    Following our two week run in Cardiff, the production was scheduled to go to the MacRobert Centre at Stirling and Norwich Theatre Royal. The former theatre was on the university campus, and again we had concerns about some sort of moral backlash. According to some of the cast members, the homosexual bill had never been ratified in Scotland, and sexual relations between consenting members of the same sex was still against the law. Mind you, to say we were concerned was probably an exaggeration. I mean, who in the theatre doesn’t like a drama? And so we looked forward to anything the Scottish audiences might throw at us, either metaphorically or literally.

   But the trouble in Scotland came from an unexpected source – the Scottish Gay Liberation Front. They reckoned the play was an insult to gays, and audiences were merely being entertained by ‘laughing at poofs’, and the play didn’t deserve to be taken seriously. When we arrived in Stirling, we were shown all the newspaper cuttings condemning the play by the Gay Libs, and the chief in charge of this minority group would be attending our first night.

   The show went brilliantly on its first performance. We knew some of the Gay Lib members were in the audience, and thought they probably squirmed as Barry Howard’s Emory minced and camped it up. In the bar afterwards, the Gay Lib chief introduced himself, and immediately launched into an argument about how clichéd the play was, with stereotypical, limp-wristed gays giving out the wrong messages.

   Most of us in the cast pointed out that Emory was the only effeminate character, and the play showed an entire cross section of the gay community. But he was so intent on getting his point across, he didn’t accept or listen to our arguments. He charged in bitterly with a diatribe on all limp-wristed gays like Larry Grayson and John Inman, who were a disgrace and a pathetic travesty.

   Knowing Barry had once been the long-term partner of John Inman, I saw him bristle, and I waited with eager anticipation for the explosion. Instead, he decided it was time to buy an enormous round of drinks. ‘David, what’ll you have, love? And for you, Peter?’ He went round the entire cast, and there were nine of us, plus the stage management. Finally, he came to the Gay Lib bloke at the end of the row, looked him right in the eye, and said, ‘I’m not buying you one, because you’re a cunt!’

   It was a costly round of drinks, but I guess Barry thought it was worth it to make a point.

 

Fringe Benefits

 

By the mid-fifties commercial theatre had become monotonous, giving audiences star-studded casts in well-made plays in box sets. The excitement dwindled as theatre became a social occasion rather than an artistic experience. Time for a radical change.

   In the early days of alternative theatre, performances were usually held in an attic or musty basement. The attitude seemed to be that if you were the sort of weirdo who craved avant garde theatre then you had to suffer discomfort in the cause of art. It was a period of adjustment as well as one of experiment. People began to re-evaluate the role of theatre in society. Suddenly plays began to stimulate audiences’ imaginations again, and the theatre entered another golden period, producing plays by Pinter, Becket, Osborne, Wesker – and many others too numerous to mention – many of whom startled theatre audiences by challenging convention, but who finally became accepted as part of our theatrical heritage. Many new plays were premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, under the initiative of George Devine, and the English Stage Company.

        Their third production, Look Back In Anger was anti-Establishment and rattled the cages of many critics and was lambasted by many. Sir Laurence Olivier saw a performance and said he hadn’t liked the play but confessed that his rhythm of work had become a bit deadly and felt a change was necessary. He was looking for a challenge and he found it in The Entertainer.

     He had undergone a mental strain directing Marilyn Monroe in his film The Prince and The Showgirl, partly because she wanted to be thought of as a serious actor, not a sex symbol, and since 1954 she studied acting under the influence of the cult figure of method acting, Lee Strasberg. On 14 July 1956, Marilyn arrived in London, accompanied by Strasberg, his wife Paula, and her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller. When filming began, there were problems from the start. Marilyn relied on her acting coach Paula Strasberg for direction and Olivier had been warned well in advance to keep the acting guru’s wife well away from the set. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. When Olivier started to give Marilyn direction, she walked away to consult with Paula Strasberg. And she was often three or four hours late arriving on set. Dame Sybil Thorndike, who played the Dowager Queen in the picture, said, ‘Marilyn is the only one of us who knows how to act in front of a camera.’ Despite that flattery, Marilyn still kept the elderly actress waiting for two hours on set.

    It was during this horrendous experience that fate intervened, guiding Olivier towards one of his greatest performances in modern theatre. Arthur Miller advised him to go and see Look Back in Anger again and reassess Osborne as a talented playwright. Heeding Miller’s advice, Olivier returned to the Royal Court to see another performance, then attended a  meeting with John Osborne, to which Arthur Miller went along, who was surprised to hear Olivier, asking a pallid Osborne, who looked as if he’d just got out of bed, ‘Do you suppose you could write something for me?’ As it happened, Osborne was halfway through a script about a washed-up variety artiste called The Entertainer and it wasn’t long before Sir Laurence Olivier was tap dancing, singing and making vaudevillian jokes at the Royal Court in the playwright’s second play. It became one of his most magnificent performances, as he really captured the seedy vaudevillian comedian on his last legs. I didn’t see the play at the Royal Court but I saw his great performance when it was made into a film and released in 1960, directed by Tony Richardson, who also directed the play.

   The Edinburgh Festival played an enormous part in establishing alternative theatre and provided us with the word ‘fringe’ to denote this optional extra to commercial theatre. Gradually the fringe has become accepted and respectable over the years and has changed the course of theatre. The term ‘small’ or ‘small-scale’ when applied to a production no longer meant inferior, because fringe theatre had become so popular by the late-sixties/early-seventies, new theatres and arts complexes started to incorporate small studio theatres in their designs, and many existing repertory theatres began to look for extra space in which to accommodate a studio theatre. And in recent years many so-called fringe productions have actually transferred to West End theatres or undergone national tours.

     As an actor for almost sixty years, having started in professional theatre as a child actor, I had never worked the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, not until 2016, when Stuart and Jen Morriss of Misty Moon produced A Day in The Lives of Frankie Abbott, which I wrote and appeared in, first of all touring to small venues in the south-east, playing opposite Linda Regan, and then for two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Anita Graham (where we received a 5-star review in the Edinburgh Evening News), before returning for two London dates with Marie Kelly playing Abbott’s carer.

    Although taking the play to Edinburgh was hard work, it was rewarding, and at least I can say that I have worked at the Edinburgh Festival and can now cross it off my bucket list!

   Now I have written, with a slight change in title, The Lives of Frankie Abbott, and this Misty Moon is presenting live at Phoenix Arts Club in front of an audience on 13 November, and this will be recorded for audio downloads and CDs.

   I have expanded the cast, and we now have five actors in Episode 1, with Graham Cole, Suzanne Maddock, Felicity Dean and Judy Matheson, and Larry Dann will join us for Episode 2. Anyone who hasn’t been to the Phoenix for a while will be bowled over by the improvements. This is one of London’s premier cabaret clubs, and it will be great to do this live and recorded show, much as the BBC used to record Round the Horne.

 

End of The Empires

 

When I was a young teenager, we lived in Hounslow and often went to the Chiswick Empire, a large theatre facing Turnham Green. It was one of the many theatres designed by theatre architect Frank Matcham, who created almost a quarter of Britain’s theatres, including buildings like the London Palladium and the Old Vic, and seated just under 2,000.

    As the Chiswick Empire was only seven stops from Hounslow Central on the London Underground, this was our nearest – certainly most convenient – venue to visit. But more often than not we caught a trolley bus, which was cheaper than the train. Trolley buses were operated electrically from overhead cables, with a long pole attached to the roof of the bus. Every so often, if the bus took a corner too wide, the pole would snap off, and the driver or conductor would pull another great rod from under the bus and reattach the pole to the electric cable. Despite this form of transport being environmentally friendly, trolley buses in the London suburbs ended by 1962, although they are still used in hundreds of cities worldwide.

    In February of that year we jumped on a trolley bus to Chiswick to see Tommy Steele and the Steelmen who topped the bill at the Chiswick Empire. It was obviously me who wanted to see this young rock ‘n’ roller, and my parents graciously agreed to purchase tickets. As it was a complete variety show, I think my parents enjoyed themselves. And there were two comedians on the bill who went down very well. Mike and Bernie Winters.

    Many decades later I remember hearing a story about these comedians when they appeared at Glasgow Empire, which was known as the comedians’ graveyard. I was told by a Scottish friend of mine there was a very good reason for this. Back in the fifties the Glasgow pubs shut at 10 p.m., so if wives or fiancées dragged their men along, who knew they wouldn’t get a pint after the show, they were dead miserable, dug in their heels and refused to laugh. One miserable night, Mike and Bernie Winters appeared there, and Mike as the straight man opened their spot with some patter and a song. And then Bernie would appear from behind a curtain, pulling a funny face. Then they heard from the stalls a loud male voice declare, ‘Och, no, there’s two of ‘em!’

    The fifties signalled the death knell of music hall and variety shows, especially when families began staying home to watch shows like ­Sunday Night At The London Palladium on television, having paid a licence fee which was cheaper than three or four theatre tickets and transport costs. And as the audiences dwindled, theatres began to be sold off and demolished to make way for supermarkets and office blocks.

    Founded by Sir Oswald Stoll and Sir Edward Moss, the Stoll Moss Empires were once the largest chain of variety theatres in Britain, and not many would be left standing by the mid-sixties. The Stoll Theatre, where I played Laurence Olivier’s grandson in Titus Andronicus was probably one of the first to go, followed soon after by the Chiswick Empire, Glasgow Empire and dozens of others across the length and breadth of Britain, many wonderful buildings designed by Frank Matcham, and all that remains now are some photographs and playbills. I find that very sad. Although I am what is perhaps a trifle ostentatiously known as a legitimate actor, I always enjoyed the dozens of variety bills I saw at the Chiswick Empire. Which is where I got my love of conjuring and illusions. It was at that theatre I went with my parents to see the Great Levant, an Australian magician who could make an entire rostrum of choirgirls vanish. And it wasn’t just variety or music hall we saw there, occasionally an actor/manager and his troupe of players would be performing Shakespeare, and several times I went with a school party from Corona Academy, the stage school I attended. It may well have been Robert Atkins’s Bankside Company we saw there.

    When Olivier was about to appear as Archie Rice at the Royal Court, just a month or so before our Titus tour, John Osborne took him to many of the Moss Empires to see variety shows, to observe perhaps a real life Archie Rice, of which I am sure there were many of them still clinging to this theatre raft. And I often wondered whether Olivier visited the Chiswick Empire on this little jaunt.

    The Chiswick Empire closed on 31 March 1963, the last top-of-the-bill act being Liberace, who is now the most prominent figure in the crowd montage that artist Sir Peter Blake has created to pay homage to the theatre. His images of performers such as Laurel and Hardy, who performed there when they toured Britain in 1947, and everyone else from Alma Cogan, and Max Miller to Cliff Richard, are arranged similarly to his iconic Sergeant Pepper album cover. And when I saw him in a YouTube clip being interviewed at Chiswick, he mentioned moving there in 1957, and the first act he saw was probably Tommy Steele.

    Now there’s a coincidence. You never know: maybe we attended the same performance.

 

Gangster Jargon

 

We all know, don’t we, that the greatest euphemisms come from estate agents? You know the ones like 'needs some redecoration' for derelict, rat-infested and about to fall down. Are these euphemisms or downright lies? Well, let me move on to the real euphemisms, aggressively speaking, that is the world of sales-people.

   If you fancy writing the next hit-man movie, you can always pick up the lingo by getting a job as a sales rep. Even salespersons insinuate themselves into this quasi-twilight world of the macho male hunter, using aggressive terminology as a motivational stimulus in this predominantly male arena.

    Before going out into the field, the rep does some probing by first of all sifting through trade journals in search of some likely suspects. Once the telephone canvassing has produced a few good leads, these suspects become monthly targets, which may add a few more notches to the rep’s monthly score if he succeeds in making a hit.

    But first the salesperson has to get a foot in the door and get an appointment to see the M.A.N. (even when a female) who is the potential customer with the Means (power to sign an agreement or write out a cheque), Authority (the decision-maker) and Needs (require the product on offer). During this pitch the rep will either kick off with an open probe (question with ponderables) or closed probe, to which the buyer can respond with only one or two replies – a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. If the rep does badly, the sale becomes wrecked. But an experienced rep should have a thick hide under the collar, and pretty soon a good agent is ‘out there’ selling again.

    Less than subtle, and blatantly atavistic, IBM salesmen used to have their own expression for disposing of a wrecked deal. Potash. Meaning Piss on the ashes!

    Many reps work hard, and some work smart; but the really successful rep works hard and smart, the main motivation is having a goal to aim for, to beat your opponent, get a result and bring home the meat. A cancelled appointment means that the rep is blown-out and may resort to cold-calling (calling without an appointment), which is sometimes known as prospecting. Some reps have their own secret language, useful for passing messages in front of prospective clients. This is known as flagging. An easy target (gullible customer) could get stitched-up by a disreputable salesperson, if they don’t keep their eye on the small print!

    But, honest or not, they are all out there to make a killing. Perhaps leading one to surmise that amongst all this verbal mayhem the ‘out there’ has to be a battleground. Not necessarily. Although many reps have their own territory, generally speaking they all work in the less glamorous market-place. Despite the tendency to sound like cut-purses when they go for the rich pickings.

    So, as reps arm themselves with samples and mobile phones, heading towards their cars, their cries can be heard in offices throughout the land: ‘Good hunting!’

    Although, the real hit-men and the likes of Tony Soprano, use gentler euphemisms when ordering murder, telling their subordinates to ‘whack’ a victim, making the most brutal and savage killing sound like a slap on the wrist.

 

The Monochrome Days

 

In 1959, when I was 16, I was sent by Hazel Malone, Corona Academy’s agent, to Elstree Studios to appear as a telegram boy in Moment of Danger, a thriller starring Trevor Howard, Dorothy Dandridge and Edmond Purdom. When I got to the studio, I thought there had been a mistake, our agency having sent the wrong actor along, because they told me the part was in Spanish. ‘But I don’t speak Spanish,’ I told the assistant director. Not to worry, I was assured. It was only two lines, and they had a language coach who would teach me to pronounce the Spanish correctly. I guessed I had been cast purely from a photograph and CV that Malone’s office had sent in. When I was needed on set, I knocked on the door and I rattled off my two lines in Spanish as I delivered my telegram, then went home seven pounds richer, less the ten per cent agency fee of course. In today’s money that would have been around £170.

   This was the year of the third Carry On film, Carry On Teacher. For me it was an uncredited role, sitting behind a desk, unaware that I would be sitting behind a desk in 5C eight years later. But for the Carry On film, nearly all the Corona students were used. Featured roles were played by Richard O’ Sullivan, Diana Beevers, Larry Dann, George Howell, Carol White, and her sister Jane, Paul Cole and Roy Hines, brother of Frazer. Jeremy and Nigel Bulloch, and Francesca Annis were also uncredited, along with dozens of other Corona students.

   Later that year I came to play a part which – little did I know it – was the precursor of Frankie Abbott. I was cast as a tearaway character called Slob in a one-off BBC TV drama Roundabout, written and directed by John Elliott. Although a few years older than me, and therefore a more senior student at Corona, Larry Dann played one of the leading roles. It was an exciting production for me, as we stole a car in one scene, and in another I had to cosh someone over the head. Much of it was filmed on housing estates in Bermondsey and Chislehurst Caves in Kent, which was a jazz venue, where revellers would go to dance, fornicate if the opportunity arose, and drink cheap cider.  It became a huge jazz scene in the 1950s, with Humphrey Littleton, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk performing there regularly. The jazz bands who appeared with us in Roundabout were The Storyville Jazzmen and The Roy Spiller Six, whom we got to know quite well as they were an integral part of the drama and rehearsed with us in a west London church hall prior to the start of the filming.

   For me one of the highlights of this drama was working with Larry Dann, playing my first substantial television role alongside him. Larry would go on to work for Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Oh What a Lovely War, and many years later appeared in dozens of episodes as Sgt Alec Peters in The Bill.

   The most iconic image in British cinemas was ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells banging that gong to herald the start of a J Arthur Rank picture. Rank, was a millionaire flour miller who became arguably the most powerful movie mogul in Britain, owning cinemas, studios and stars. He was a Methodist Sunday-school teacher and, ironically, his name is common rhyming slang for masturbation. His involvement with the Methodist church led to his policy of showing short religious films at his cinemas on a Sunday, which is how I came to play the title role in one of his films, The Fred James Story, the only time I have ever played the title role on screen, in a film I have never seen.

   Fred James was a railway porter who became a Methodist minister. And that was about it! A story that could have you sitting on the edge of your seat.  Another Corona pupil, Paul Cole, was playing a school chum of Fred’s in the film, and our first day’s shoot on location was a riot of bad behaviour. Captain Walker, a grizzled man who obviously insisted on retaining his military title, was the director. Unfortunately, he had a wall-eye. This proved a handicap when he directed us as we weren’t sure which one of us he was talking to, made doubly difficult by his inability to remember names, either our own or the characters’. Paul stepped forward at Walker’s command, then the director became impatient and said something like, ‘Not, not you, Ron, I meant Johnny.’ Who were these people he gave directions to? It soon degenerated into farce, with Paul and me spluttering with laughter, attempting to conceal it with handkerchiefs covering our faces, but the tears in our eyes betrayed our irreverent hilarity. There was no excusing our bad behaviour, but we really couldn’t control ourselves. Every time the captain opened his mouth to direct these non-existent actors, we fell about.

   I believe the showing of these short religious films was not a success, as most of the yobs or teddy boys who attended the cinemas on wet Sunday afternoons took the piss out of them, and so they disappeared, never to be seen again. I would like to think The Fred James Story did have a showing in some flea pit at least once, and the yobs blew me almighty raspberries and shouted obscenities. That thought cheers me up no end.

 

Film and TV Clichés

 

We all know them, don’t we? They seem like old familiar friends whom we tolerate, although they can become tiresome when they repeat themselves ad nauseum.

   It is the war film that has created some of the biggest clichés. Deep in the jungle, it is always the young soldier who reveals the beloved picture of his wife or girlfriend who is the next to die. And the friendly sergeant who takes the young conscript under his wing, so that when the rookie soldier confides, ‘I’m scared,’ Sarge. To which the sergeant replies, ‘We’re all scared, son.’

    And in the crime TV series you just know that the honest copper who is a week away from retirement and called out to a robbery is the one who will get shot. These are always the inevitable deaths, and we just know what will happen. The trouble is with these scenarios, there are no surprises.

    And always when a senior police officer gives an underling a command, the minion’s reply is always, ‘I’m onto it.’

    And the gangsters in these series are usually Cockney or Glaswegian, never Welsh or Cornish. But just sometimes the top baddie is upper class and listens to grand opera, and this too has become over-used. And they always meet in that derelict factory or underground car park, shout at each other, and have a stand-off.

   But it is the car chase that has been done to death with the way they always hit the fruit and veg stall. In fact, Bob Bayne, a friend of mine, who was a prop man for Yorkshire Television told me that when he was with a director ready to film a fight scene in a basement, Bob asked him, ‘Where do you want the fruit and veg stall?’

   The cars should always burst through a wedding party, too. And other cars on the road conveniently miss the main cars, although they crash into other cars causing mayhem.

   Another well-worn device is the person who talks to a dear departed one via the gravestone, giving the writer an opportunity for exposition, so that the viewer might piece together a bit of the plot. Their dead ones are never cremated for this reason, because talking to an urn of ashes is nowhere near as effective.

   We have all seen the grumpy old bugger who doesn’t get on with anyone until he is befriended by a young child with problems, and the old tosser is suddenly blessed with the milk of human kindness (apologies for that cliché).

    In horror films, groups of teenagers rather than stick together always split up to investigate something scary and go off in different direction so that they can be picked off one by one.

    But these are all writers’ clichés. Directors and DOPs are also prone to these hackneyed movie moments, especially when it comes to the focus pull If you are not technically minded, let me explain about what has become a cinematographic cliché. If there are perhaps two people in a scene, and one of them is out of focus, the person in focus is the subject of attention, then the focus is pulled and changes to the other person, and they become the subject.

    You probably know the scene, having endured it hundreds of times on television. Two people talking in a car, with the focus switching between whoever happens to be speaking. The trouble with scenes like this is it makes me very aware that what I am watching is a piece of film and I cease to become so involved in the action or the dialogue, watching as the camera switches from one subject to another. Of course, some viewers are never fazed by this, never notice it even, which is fair enough.

   But there is often a reason for using this technique. It is a cheap and quick way of filming. A scene can be shot with a one camera set-up, and if the actors know their lines, the scene can be achieved rapidly, and then it’s on to the next location. I have never seen a single focus pull in a classic black and white film. And this device, as far as I know, has never been used for comedy. Even TV spin-off films like On the Buses or Please Sir! never resorted to this device, despite being shot in a shorter time than many drama features. Of course, a person speaking out of focus in a comedy would destroy the feed and tag. Which is also why most comedies do not have the dirty big close-up of a person. Huge close-ups work better for drama.

    The other hackneyed bit of camera work is the joie de vivre moment, taking the camera in a whirlwind 360 degree spin around a joyful couple, but only succeeds in making me dizzy and irritated with the director, and I always feel like writing to him or her with a Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells letter.

    So that’s that as far as I have given you a few film and TV clichés, and I now want to get back to the Wimbledon tennis.

    But I’m sure you can come up with a few of these hackneyed moments I may have missed. Good luck!

 

That’s Entertainment

 

‘I can’t stand the way they suddenly burst into song in musicals,’ I once heard someone remark. Which is about as sensible as objecting to books because they contain written material. I rather suspect the person who made this sweeping statement had only ever seen a handful of filmed musicals, where the bursting-into-song syndrome tends to look staged and false, because the conventions of a stage musical become emasculated by a medium that is constantly striving for realism.

   Of course, I appreciate that many people hate musicals. When Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was made into a film, starring Johnny Depp, a woman who was one of his devoted fans complained because she hated musicals and demanded her money back. Clearly she hadn’t noticed Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim on the posters. I hope they didn’t pander to her ignorance and refund her ticket money.

   There is no getting away from the fact that stage musicals are the most popular form of theatre (up until the lockdown that was). More than half the listings in the Official London Theatre Guide were either musicals or opera.

    For me, the coming of age of the musical was in 1959. I appeared in a non-speaking role in an episode of the Granada TV series Knight Errant, and I was staying in a small Manchester hotel. The little-known musical West Side Story had just opened for its pre-West End try out at the Opera House. One of the pit musicians happened to be staying at our hotel, and I asked him what the show was like. ‘Well,’ he began, less than enthusiastically, ‘it’s a sort of jazz-ballet. I don’t think it’ll run.’

    Later that year, I queued in London to buy tickets to see it at the Haymarket Theatre. I, and a school friend, managed to get six-shilling seats standing at the back of the stalls. If I suffered any discomfort from my two and a half hour stand, I didn’t notice, so engrossed was I in this energetic, dynamic musical. To me this was a turning point. Musicals could have a strong narrative and deal with serious subjects.

    Growing up in North Wales I didn’t get to see much in the way of theatre, it was mainly films at the Royal Cinema in Amlwch. But I do remember being taken by my parents to Liverpool, where we saw at the Empire Theatre a post-West End tour of Carousel.

    Many decades later I can’t help wondering if Gerry Marsden’s parents took him to see this production and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ filtered into his brain?

    There are no hard and fast rules as to what makes a musical. Almost any subject can be handled, from the light-hearted Me and My Girl to the threat of Naziism and decadence in pre-war Germany in Cabaret.

   Shakespeare has provided many plots for musicals, and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, based on The Taming of The Shrew is about a theatre company producing Shakespeare’s play, when the husband and wife stars have fallen out. But the showstopping number is sung by two Bronx-accented enforcers come to collect the leading man’s gambling debt. They suddenly burst into ‘Brush up your Shakespeare, start quoting him now. Brush up your Shakespeare, and the women you will wow!’  And later comes the line, ‘If she says your behaviour is heinous, Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus’.

    Return to The Forbidden Planet is a rock musical based on a sci-fi film which was based on The Tempest, so in a roundabout way leading back to Shakespeare, and The Lion King is based on Hamlet. And there have been many other musicals based on classic writers, including Chaucer, Bernard Shaw, Dickens. There have been musicals about composers, God, cartoon characters, prostitutes, transvestites, hippy draft dodgers, rock singers, dozens of jukebox musicals – the list is endless. There was even a musical about the Vietnam My Lai massacre. It was called Lieutenant and ran for only 9 performances but was nominated for a Tony Award.

    Pantomime, that very British Christmas entertainment could just about be described as a musical, as most pantos contain many songs and dances, although unlike ‘proper’ musicals their rehearsals are scant, and I have appeared in pantos before now which have been thrown on with only eight days’ rehearsal.

    In Doncaster I worked with Malcolm McFee with only just over a week to rehearse in Robin Hood & The Babes in The Wood. I can remember us having to rehearse a song and dance for hours on end when we had a break from the rest of the cast. We were the silly robbers and the number we sang was ‘We’re Busy Doing Nothing’ which came from the Bing Crosby musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court from a story by Mark Twain.

    During my career I worked in several musicals, including the one for which I wrote the script, The Trail of The Lonesome Pine, and Big Sin City and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. But my favourite was The Wizard of Oz and is in one of my top ten films of all time.

    And what of the future for musicals? What bizarre subjects will be employed in this hybrid art form, I wonder? The spoken word of the non-musical theatre is the better at communicating ideas, but music can have a powerful effect on our emotions, which may partly explain the popularity of the musical.

 

Judging a Book by its Cover

 

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I suspect this is not meant to be taken literally and is probably a metaphor for some greater truth, instructing us to admire another human being’s inner beauty rather than going on just looks.

    With books it’s a different kettle of fish. Of course people judge them on their covers, because people in bookstores have to be attracted enough by the design to pick them up in the first place. Half the battle is getting a potential customer to pick up a book, turn it over and read the blurb on the back. To achieve this obvious marketing strategy, the book needs a good design. 

My first novel was published in 2002. Each Man Kills is a thriller located in South

Wales, published by Gomer Press a south Wales publisher. I had had good experiences with this publisher and when the book was almost ready for the printers, I was asked for suggestions for the cover design. So far so good.

    The plot of my thriller hinges on Celtic mysticism, and an escape following ley lines and ancient druidic stones and monuments. I suggested a  black and white photograph of an ancient stone, surrounded by atmospheric mist on a gloomy day, and a red trickle of blood running down the stone, the only colour on the cover. A bit like Schindler’s List, which was shot in monochrome, but with occasional and unnerving glimpses of a would-be victim seen in red. My publishers seemed to like the idea and said they would soon be in touch with a proof. But a proof never came. As the launch date of the book drew close I was presented with a fait accompli; the book arrived in the post one morning and on the cover was a rather unsubtle photograph of a hooded man grabbing a woman from behind with a knife to her throat. My initial reaction was negative. But, as it was my first published book, I became impatient to see it released and pushed any doubts I had about the cover to the back of my mind, convincing myself that I liked it. This was consolidated by the enthusiasm of the editor informing me how pleased they all were with the design. I well and truly buried my doubts.

    Months later a friend of mine lent her copy of my book to a friend, who read it and said she was surprised at how good it was. I was told that had she not known about me, and seen the book in a store, she wouldn’t have bothered to pick it up because of the cover. I knew then I had made a grave error and should have trusted my first gut reaction. I had been too eager to become a published writer to form an objective opinion about the design. And I had no one else to blame but myself. I got on well with the editor and hadn’t even mentioned to her my concerns about the cover.  I could at least have tried to gently persuade her that the cover was lurid. Of course, she might have told me it was too late to change the design, and maybe it was. But what really annoys me is that I didn’t even try.

    I suppose, if a writer is already famous and has a huge following, the book cover is not so important. On the other hand, in 1975, when I performed with Malcolm McFee in Pauline Macauley’s play The Creeper at Hull New Theatre, on my travels around the city I saw East of Eden by John Steinbeck in a second-hand bookshop. It had a ghastly cover: a badly drawn picture of a half-naked woman in the arms of what looked like a western saloon gambler. But I had already read Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Grapes of Wrath, so the cover didn’t matter to me. I bought it and loved every page of it.

   When I showed it to Malcolm, he laughed and said jokingly, ‘So you’re reading dirty books now.’ Of course, Malcolm was familiar with Steinbeck, and we both spoke about those two great films: The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda, and East of Eden with James Dean. And he agreed that it was a disgusting cover, and whoever had published that version of the novel should have been executed for the design of that cover.

    But, I thought, supposing someone who had never heard of Steinbeck bought a copy of that version of the book, thinking every page had steamy sex scenes as promised by the book cover?  Perhaps the opening chapters and the descriptions of the Salinas Valley in California might prove to be a huge disappointment, however evocative and well written.

     The trouble is, the original cover of Each Man Kills looks as if there is a great deal of violence against women in the novel, and this is far from the truth of my story, unlike many other thrillers on the market. But when it was republished by Andrews UK in 2014, the cover design of the atmospheric forest scene at twilight is so much better.

 

Recording in Soho

 

A film I watched on Talking Pictures a while back was The Small World of Sammy Lee, released in 1963 and starring Anthony Newley as a Soho reprobate and compere of a seedy strip-tease club, who owes money to some very nasty people from gambling, and his small world is centred around this famous district as he dashes around trying to raise the readies before the heavies catch up with him. As I watched the film I was pleased to see the exteriors were shot in Soho, and I recognised many of the clubs, bars, restaurants and shops.

   Originally called Sammy it was a TV play first, and a one-person drama, with Newley in his seedy Soho apartment trying to raise money by telephone before his small world falls apart. I can remember seeing the TV drama and how effective it was.

   The film, directed by Ken Hughes, was not successful at the box office, even though it was adapted and expanded with a great cast, including Julia Foster. Perhaps this was because it was about a loser who was going nowhere, except to get beaten up on a garbage heap.

   But the successful Soho loser was Budgie, and I watched every episode of the two series when they repeated it last year on Talking Pictures. Adam Faith was excellent as the ducking-and-diving small-time thief and conman, always trying to get in with Glaswegian Charlie Endell, the gangster and porn shop owner who uses Budgie to do some of his dirty work, for which Budgie always loses out.

   I was also pleased to see that the exteriors of the series were mostly shot in Soho, and I occasionally caught glimpses of Cecil Gee’s Men’s Outfitters or Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.

   I have written quite a bit about Soho, especially in my book of fictional short stories Tales from Soho. But Soho does have some interesting history, such as Theodore the King of Corsica being buried there, and Karl Marx lived in the district and wrote much of the Communist Manifesto from above the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street, and what was once known as the York Minster pub became ‘The French House’ and it was where during the war members of the French Resistance and General de Gaulle met to plan their campaigns against the German occupation.

    And then there was Dr John Snow who identified the source of a cholera outbreak to a water pump in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). Soho is just teeming with history, as well as being a centre of entertainment. And Wardour Street was crammed with many offices of film companies, with dozens of recording studios in the area.

    One of the main hallmarks of Soho is its history of recording studios. Possibly the most renowned was the Trident Studios  at St Anne’s Court in the heart of Soho, where many bands recorded some great hits, including Elton John and David Bowie, but to mention all the musicians that recorded there would take up another 10,000 words of this blog…and the rest.

   My memories of recording studios are of the many voice-overs I did in the 1970s. I was always the cheeky Cockney, as you might have guessed. I can never remember the products or the scripts I read, but I do clearly remember my brief sojourn (recordings usually lasted an hour) with many actors, like the voice over I did with Warren Clarke and James Bolam, and what was said about Rodney Bewes, which I wrote about in Please Sir! The Official History.

And my brief stint with Julie Walters, who was just starting to make a name for herself when she appeared in the West End in Educating Rita. Having not seen the play, I didn’t know who she was, but the recording producer had clearly seen it and booked her for this session on the strength of it. Then and there, I made up my mind to see the play as soon as possible.

   What struck me about Julie Walters during that session was how natural and unpretentious she was, especially when she leaned over to me and whispered so that the sound engineer couldn’t hear and said, ‘This is money for old rope, isn’t it?’

   From her remark, I guessed this may have been her first ever voice-over. Not long after the session, I went to see Educating Rita, and was captivated by her brilliant performance. Weeks later I happened to be at Theatre Royal E.15, and there she was in the bar during the interval. I told her how much I had enjoyed her performance and she was openly delighted with the compliment.

    Back in those days, voice-overs were well paid, especially if you had a TV track record. I was appearing in Aladdin at Porthcawl during Christmas of 1975, and we only just over a week’s rehearsal. The producers, who were also in it as the Chinese Policemen, were disorganised and fairly useless, so that by the second day we had achieved very little. Then my agent got in touch and asked if there was any possibility of my doing a voice-over the next day. Of course, I agreed, I would do it. I told the producers I had to visit a doctor on Wednesday morning ( and let them make of that what they will, I thought), and I caught the early 125 train from Bridgend to Paddington, and was in the Soho studio by 10.00 a.m.

    If I was always doing the silly, character voices, it was often Keith Baron who did the straight voice selling the product. Keith was then one of the kings of voice overs, and this was about the third voice over where we had bumped into each other. I knew Keith having worked with him in a BBC 2 Somerset Maugham play. But after this particular session ended, his pager bleeped, summoning him to yet another voice-over in yet another Soho studio.

   Whereas I had to catch a fast train back to Bridgend. I arrived back at rehearsal just after lunch, and very little had been achieved in my absence, and so I had absolutely no regrets about my deception. Ho-hum!

 

A Year in Aberdeen

 

Between 2007 and 2008, I spent a year in Aberdeen as a Writer in Residence on a project called The Reading Bus, a vehicle similar to a travelling library, but filled with mainly children’s books and puppets, with a screen for showing various video projects. The job came about because of information I received from a bulletin sent out by The Writers’ Guild, of which I am a member. I applied for the job, sending off my CV, and weeks later I received a reply saying they would like to interview me in Aberdeen. They arranged a flight for me from Gatwick, and a small hotel in Aberdeen, as the interview was in the morning and so I had to fly up the night before.

    I was interviewed on The Reading Bus by Jenny Watson, who was manager of the project, a primary head teacher, and some of their staff and two sixth form students. I outlined my writing project for primary pupils where I would invite them to think creatively about an imaginary personal space belonging to one or more characters, and the writing would end on a cliff-hanger, and the reader would be challenged to guess what had happened within the space after they were uploaded onto the Reading Bus website. I was also taken by one of the staff to a local library where I did an interactive reading with nine-year-old children. When the interview ended, and before catching a cab back to central Aberdeen, I asked how many applicants they were interviewing, and I was told six, and five had already been interviewed.

    Before leaving to catch my flight home, I had a spot of lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the city centre. I had just been served when my phone rang. It was Jenny Watson to tell me I had got the job. And there was me thinking I would have to wait weeks to hear.

    The school summer holidays are different in Scotland; they break up earlier and resume the last week in August, which meant I had to set off on Saturday 18 August. Tunbridge Wells to Aberdeen is about 600 miles, and so I spent the Saturday night with friends in Leeds before continuing my journey on Sunday, ready for my induction at a school on Tuesday.

    I checked into my Aberdeen digs late Sunday afternoon, temporary accommodation until the flat I would be renting became available a week later. Having driven from Leeds fuelled on a banana, two oranges and a packet of bacon fries, I felt in need of a proper meal, so I took a  long walk from my digs to the far end of Union Street and ordered a roast dinner in a nearby branch of Wetherspoon’s. Unfortunately, I chose a table next to two couples who were loudly inebriated, and the fatter of the two blokes found it hilarious to keep shouting on about “Lanzafuckin’grotty!”

    Welcome to Wetherspoon’s, I thought.

    On my first Monday in the granite city, I explored some of the pubs, and soon discovered that football had replaced religion in Scotland, certainly in the urban areas. Every pub you went into was filled with banks of television screens showing soccer matches from near and far. Blokes stared like zombies at football matches in silence, not registering much collective enjoyment. Thankfully, after I had been in Aberdeen a while, I discovered two pubs with no TV, which was a bonus. Where football is concerned, I remain an atheist.

    My job description meant that I only worked four days a week, and one day was set aside for my writing, so that I could continue working on my children’s novel The Ice Cream Time Machine, and as it developed I would often read some of it to the children I taught to judge their reactions.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the creative writing sessions I did with the children, mainly in their last primary year before secondary school. Two of the projects I did with them over the course of that year were published in small books, and I also took four children once a week to a local radio station where they broadcast their own hour-long radio show, each child being given a 15 minute segment as presenter.

    Occasionally, older secondary pupils participated and came aboard the bus for a talk. Although they knew I was an actor, none of them had heard of Please Sir! but many of them recognised me from an episode of Chucklevision I appeared in.

    Often at weekends I drove out to a lovely seaside town, Cruden Bay, and years later this became the setting for a murder scene in my thriller Walking Shadows. I also used to go to a nature reserve, an area of sand dunes, on which businessman Donald Trump wanted to build a golf course, dividing the community. And who could possibly guess back then that this man would one day become the most ridiculous US president?

    During Christmas and Easter, when the schools broke up, rather than stay on my own in Aberdeen I flew back home. During my stay in the granite city they did a televised test, challenging two people to leave the city centre and meet at London’s Piccadilly Circus, one travelling by rail and the other by air. I can’t now remember who won the race because there was only five minutes difference in it. So if the train is just as quick, why did I choose to fly home? Because the train was more than double the price of the air fare.

    I was sad when my year in Aberdeen ended. I had enjoyed all the challenging creative projects I did with many children from various schools. Our Reading Bus visited many schools on different days. Sometimes Norman, our bus driver, had difficulty manoeuvring the enormous bus through small gaps in school gates, when I always used to wind him up by saying:

    ‘Come on, Norman. You could get a bus through there!’  

 

Nostalgia

 

‘I’ve never seen a view that didn’t look better looking back,’ sang Lee Marvin in the ‘Wanderin’ Star’ song from Paint Your Wagon. And I guess we all do it when all is not right in the world and we have to look tragedy in the face. We think those summers back then were truly gorgeous. I took myself back to the late sixties and seventies during the first lockdown by writing Please Sir! The Official History and many people have responded favourably as they treasure memories of a series which I worked in and counted myself lucky to be involved in with such a fabulous cast. And after writing this autobiographical book, other memories of those decades have come flooding back.

   Prior to starting the series you might have caught me swanning around in a kaftan, all the rage at the time in those Beatlemania days. These were the days of flower power and love and peace, so it’s no wonder the view is always better looking back. You would often glimpse shared lovemaking when hippies disrobed at music festivals. You had to be young, though, in the sixties, otherwise it must have been…well, Philip Larkin summed it up better than I could in his poem Annus Mirabilis.

           So life was never better than

           In nineteen sixty-three

           (Though just too late for me)—

           Between the end of the Chatterley ban

           And the Beatles’ first LP.

    Around the early seventies there was a curious custom about running naked across football or rugby pitches. This was called streaking and this fad soon caught on and in 1974 a Daily Mirror photographer got an iconic shot at Twickenham when a policeman’s helmet came in handy for covering another helmet.

   The other fashions at the time, apart from dashing about in your birthday suit, were platform soles. I remember owning a pair in bright red, but I don’t think I wore them that much, and was glad when they soon disappeared. Flares soon went out of fashion, I think before the decade was out. And the pacifists' kaftan changed to a more aggressive bomber jacket. Then there were flowery shirts with enormous collars, worn with identical matching flowery ties. This was just the men, of course. Women’s skirts changed on a daily basis from ankle length to mini, depending on their mood. But the men’s fashion I really liked were velvet suits, and they were practical, as they could also be used as a dinner suit worn with a black bow tie.

    And if you were extremely rich in those days, and likely to die from an incurable disease, then you could turn to cryogenics. After your death you could be frozen until some future date when they might find a cure for whatever killed you and – hey presto! – resurrection.

Now we are in the noughties, I don’t know if there are any wealthy recipients of cryogenics whose frozen bodies have been preserved somewhere, or was this just another passing fad?

    If you asked anyone who was around during the ‘60s or ‘70s, what they might remember, it would probably be music, but along with music came all those advertising jingles, like Beanz Meanz Heinz. I can distinctly remember Homepride flour, those bowler-hatted little flour graders sifting busily, and the James Bond figure who always climbed through a woman’s window late at night just because she loved Cadbury’s Milk Tray. Sometimes the adverts back then resulted in some outrageous graffiti. Typhoo put the T in Britain resulted in: ‘If Typhoo put the T in Britain, who put the c**t in Scunthorpe.

    But not all adverts were successful, even though they might have had a fortune spent on them. In 1960, a trilby-hatted Frank Sinatra lookalike stood on one of London’s bridges alone one gloomy night, took out a Strand cigarette and lit it, and the tag was: ‘You’re Never Alone with a Strand.’ Which of course was contrary to what they showed, and it killed the cigarette off forever. And I heard of an actor turning up to shoot a Findus or Bird’s Eye commercial, and the tag or pack shot was: ‘Try our tasty cod pieces.’ When they asked the actor why he was giggling, and he explained the reason, the ad was pulled, and I bet he wished he’d kept his mouth shut now that he wouldn’t be getting repeat money for the showings. Another ad which was transmitted for a time until the Netherlands-based clients realised there was a very different meaning to the tag and logo for the Dutch cheese which said, ‘Look for the girl with the little Dutch cap.’

   Not long after The Fenn Street Gang ended my agent sent me to meet with an ad agency executive at J. Walter Thompson in Berkeley Square, who explained that they wanted me for a commercial, and it would be me sitting behind a desk, while a teacher’s arm held a packet of Golden Wonder crisps. Each time I took one I would say the word ‘Wonderful,’ and this said the ad man would supersede the key word of the seventies, which was ‘super!’

Soon, he said, everyone would be saying ‘Wonderful!’ because of me.

   It gave me nightmares. I imagined walking into pubs where everyone would cry ‘Wonderful!’ ‘How’s your mum’s legs, Frankie?’ I could just about cope with, but not that association with crisps. And even worse, walking onto the stage in a straight role and the audience whispering audibly that dreaded word.

   I phoned my agent and turned it down. Curiously, I never ever remember seeing that ad with anyone else, and thankfully wonderful never became the ‘in’ word. Not like amazing nowadays. I get sick of hearing ‘amazing’ following every minor achievement. I wonder if we can get as many people to use a different word. It might catch on, you never know. Instead of the word ‘amazing,’ what about ‘spiffing’, instead? And then everyone will sound like Bertie Wooster.

    It might just work!

 

Now You See It…

 

I have always been a sucker for magic tricks. About four years ago I saw Derren Brown at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells. At the start of the second half, he did a mind reading act, and when he revealed details about a woman sitting in the row in front of me, she began yelling excitedly that he was so accurate he had to be psychic. ‘How could he have possibly known that?’ she asked her partner.

    But Derren Brown is honest about his tricks and illusions not being anything to do with superstition. He lets his audiences know these are tricks, despite concealing the truth of how they are done. Although, if I could hazard a guess on how he deceived the woman in front of me, might he have sent an assistant into the bar in the interval to eavesdrop on conversations?

And, although Derren Brown insists he is not a psychic, still there were people leaving the theatre that night who were convinced he had psychic powers. I guess it’s because people want to believe, even though science can demolish most beliefs that are taken on trust.

   I think my love of magic tricks and illusionists goes back to my teenage years when I lived in Brentford and we would often travel to the Chiswick Empire, one of the last of the great Moss Empires to be demolished to make way for an office block or supermarket. But it was at this wonderful suburban theatre I first saw the illusionist The Great Levant, and many other magicians. The Chiswick Empire incidentally has been preserved as a great piece of pop art by Sir Peter Blake who created the ‘Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band’ cover, and he has used the same creative process as he did with the Beatles famous album cover to preserve the memory of that once great theatre, using the same technique as he did with Sergeant Pepper, with all the famous entertainers who worked there lined up in front of the theatre, everyone from Laurel and Hardy to Tommy Steele. Oh! Where was I? Yes, back to the magic tricks.

    The way most magicians operate is through misdirection, drawing the observer’s attention to something else. As an actor I can appreciate that, getting audiences to focus on what we want them to see even when another actor is speaking. This type of misdirection can either be a positive focus or a negative one.

    First, let me give you a negative example of misdirection. I was in a play called Forget-Me-Not Lane by Peter Nichols, and I had a line that was a sure-fire laugh but was greeted with silence. Behind me stood Dave King, who made a sudden move during my delivery of the line, so that the audience’s attention was distracted. Upstaging someone is a form of negative misdirection.

    Now for the positive. I was performing, alongside Bob Grant, in Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton’s brilliantly constructed farce, One For The Pot. I played Hickory Wood, a trio of triplets using various dialects. I needed two assistant stage managers who would double for me as I ran backstage to make another entrance. There was one exit I had to make which involved stepping back to exit through French windows, being replaced by my double who entered and threw his arms around the actress playing one of the triplets’ girlfriend. I always felt insecure. Surely someone in the audience would notice this switch? But the misdirection worked like a dream. As the switch was about to happen, Ivor Salter, playing Jugg the drunken butler, crashed through the door on the opposite side of the stage, collapsing in a heap, and in that split second the switch was made. Some members of the audience saw the play a second time and still they couldn’t work out how it was done. Cooney and Hilton successfully used conjurors’ tricks in that farce.

 

Cheers!

 

Pub licensing laws have gone almost full circle. These days most pubs stay open all day, and some open early for breakfast. Many’s the time I have had a Wetherspoon’s breakfast, taking the moral high ground as I look down on those boozers knocking back beer at ten a.m.   Whereas pubs in years gone by could also open early and close late, it was during the First World War that licensing laws became more stringent and remained that way until the late 1980s. Pubs opened at 12 noon and shut at 2.30 p.m.. opening again at either 5.30 or six in the evening then closing at 10.30 or 11 p.m., depending on which county you imbibed in. But there were always ways around this, and you could almost drink round the clock in London in the sixties and seventies if you knew where to go.

   I can remember in my late teens attending West End drinking clubs after the pubs had shut at eleven. There was some strange law that allowed backstreet clubs to function provided they sold food. So what you did to gain an entrance to these establishments was pay two shillings and sixpence (roughly equivalent to £2.40 in today’s money), and this would get you a club table on which lay a sad open sandwich, the stale bread curling at the edges, and a lame bit of ham and lettuce on the top. But the point was not that you ate it, unless you were desperate, but that enabled you to legally purchase alcohol.

   In my early twenties I worked backstage at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Whenever we worked a get-out, when a show closed and the scenery and props had to be taken away, it usually involved working all night, sometimes several all-nighters. At about five in the morning, which became almost like our night-time, we took a break and went to one of the Covent Garden market pubs for a pint. In the sixties Covent Garden was the fruit and veg market, and if you were a market porter you were entitled to drink alcohol in the early hours at one of the market pubs. I and my stagehand colleagues were not market porters but we still got served.

   Once the curtain came down on the Drury Lane show, we hurried to drink in perhaps the last 20 minutes or half hour before the pubs shut. Then we took ourselves off to the Russell Hotel just up the road at Russell Square, where we would sit drinking in the residents’ lounge. The waiter was quite happy to serve us as we gave him two bob every time we bought a round, and I guess that’s like a two quid tip these days.

   In my Please Sir days I belonged to two West End clubs, Gerry’s, which was an actors’ drinking club, and the Kismet club in Great Newport Street, opposite the Arts Theatre. This subterranean club opened at three in the afternoon, when the pubs shut, and closed at seven, just after the pubs had reopened. The Kismet was quite scruffy, with scuffed and torn linoleum on the floor, and a jukebox with way out-of-date discs on the turntable. Numbers like Kay Starr singing ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Green Door’.

   In my late teens I and my friends’ Sunday routine was to meet in the pub around twelve-thirty. The Sunday pubs shut at two, so then we went to the Temperance Snooker Hall for a couple of hours until the cinema opened at four and, after the film, the pubs would open again at seven. In the early seventies, I used to be in the pub on a Sunday bang on 12 noon, because half an hour before they shut I rushed home to listen to Round the Horne which was broadcast at 1.30.

   Although pubs in England opened for limited times on Sundays, in Scotland they remained shut on Sundays up until 1976, and in Wales each county held a referendum when certain counties voted to remain dry on Sundays. Gwynedd, formerly known as Caernarvonshire, where I come from, remained a dry county. So when I visited Holyhead one Easter, my cousin suggested we go to the pub on Good Friday, and was told they opened Sunday hours, despite pubs not opening on Sundays. Work that one out!

   Finally, I can remember a pub somewhere near Wembley and Malcolm McFee came to the rescue when my car radiator sprung a leak. I can’t remember where we were going, perhaps to do some exterior filming of Fenn Street Gang. I was driving a Hillman Hunter at the time when the radiator started spurting water. As we were passing a pub, Malcolm told me to pull into their car park. Inside the pub I ordered two halves of bitter, and then Malcolm asked the barmaid if she would sell me an egg. What she gave me was a hard boiled one. Malcolm laughed and said we needed a fresh, uncooked one, as it was really for my car. After giving him a funny look, she fetched me an egg from the kitchen.

   And that did the trick. It repaired the leak And I remember thinking it was the sort of streetwise tip that Peter Craven would have known. We broke the egg into the radiator, and what happens is the white of the egg is sucked into the leak and hardens as it is cooked in the hot water. It kept me going for maybe a week or more afterwards, until I could get a proper radiator repair or replacement.

   I think, if we were on our way to do some filming that day, it adds a new meaning to the advertising slogan of that time: ‘Go To Work On An Egg’.

 

From Welsh to English R.P.

 

After my professional debut aged 12 at Theatre Royal, Windsor, playing an American boy, it was soon time for me to dress in the Corona Academy school uniform, the distinctive bright green blazer with yellow piping and monogram on the breast pocket, along with grey flannel trousers and black shoes, which we were instructed to keep clean and polished always, not forgetting the crowning school cap, an addition which most of the boys folded and tucked into a pocket when no Corona staff were around.

   We had moved from Richmond to live in Hounslow, close to Hounslow Central station. My parents rented a maisonette above an optician’s shop in Lampton Road, and Vernon Morris, who played one of my older brothers in the Windsor play, also lived in the district. As he was a year or two older than me, and already a pupil at Corona for several years, he came to call on me for my first day at school, and we travelled on the Underground train together to Ravenscourt Park station near to where Corona Academy was situated, at the end of a

cul-de-sac near the park and the elevated tracks of the District and Piccadilly Line trains.

Walking into the school playground through the gates is a flimsy memory. I accompanied Vernon through a sea of green and yellow blazers towards a large three-storey house with Gothic windows, with stone steps leading up to an enormous wide-open front door. And what looked like a building site in the playground, soon to become Corona’s purpose-built theatre.

   I can’t remember being nervous. I was probably relieved to escape from the clutches of the sneering bullies at Mortlake school who picked on me because of my Welsh dialect. And even worse, the teachers, embittered and wishing they were somewhere else, without appreciating how mutual that feeling was between them and their pupils. But I could put all that behind me now. This school was different, unlike any I had so far experienced. The usual academic subjects were taught every morning, but the afternoons were filled with drama, ballet, tap dancing, play reading, modern dance, mime and voice production. This was more like it. And these pupils were very different from the Mortlake thugs, many of whom were already regular film actors. Richard O’Sullivan, with whom I became close friends much later, was in the same class as me; as were Carol White, Frazer Hines, Jeremy Bulloch and Francesca Annis.

   The principal of the school was Rona Knight, short and dumpy, with carrot-red hair, she could sometimes be quite forbidding, but mainly she was bright and enthusiastic, and fanatical about mime, voice production and Shakespeare. So, it wasn’t long before I was speaking like a proper English person, as if I’d been brought up with that silver spoon in my mouth – because this was 1955, and kitchen sink drama had yet to hit our screens, when regional dialects became acceptable in films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Cathy Come Home and television dramas like Up the Junction. But my first television appearance was in a light entertainment programme, arranged by the school agency, which was run by Rona Knight’s sister, Hazel Malone.

   Accompanied by a chaperone, about a dozen of us was sent to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire to appear in The Bob Monkhouse Show¸ which would be televised live by the BBC. In the rehearsal, we all stood around and Monkhouse and the director wanted one of us to listen to a string of gags told by the comedian but keep a perfectly straight face. When Monkhouse went through his routine, some of the kids snorted and giggled, but I didn’t crack so much as a smile. Maybe the quick-fire gags went straight over my head. And so, because of my blank expression, I was given the non-speaking role of listening to Monkhouse’s jokes deadpan, and when he desperately got to the end, going down on his knees pleadingly with one almighty joke, I took from behind my back an egg which I cracked on his head. It got a great laugh from the studio audience, and then Monkhouse was whisked away to change and clean up while a performer called Yana sang a number.

   So, my first television appearance was in comedy. The second, which came around Christmas time, was in a drama, and I played another American lad. Three Empty Rooms was set in a New York City tenement, and the play was produced by a young Canadian director, Alvin Rakoff, and I was one of three youngsters in the play.

   I will never forget one of the actors in the small part of a removal man, because he was so tall and striking, rather terrifying until you spotted the warmth in his eyes, and when he wasn’t needed in rehearsal, he and other actors who hadn’t a great deal to do in the play, retired to a corner of the rehearsal room and played cards, with what seemed to me a great deal of money changing hands. This removal man was played by Bernard Bresslaw, and I recognised him a few years later when he played Private Popplewell in The Army Game.

   Three Empty Rooms was broadcast live, as most television was in the ‘50s, and well into the mid ‘60s. The play had the offstage cries, the birth pangs of a woman in labour, and when it went out live on the 27 December, the BBC switchboard was jammed with complaints from viewers who found the screams of a woman in labour distasteful and upsetting. Imagine that! A woman giving birth around Christmas time!

 

The Real Mascot

 

After I moved with my parents and older brother from North Wales, I was ten-years-old, and when it came time to sit for the 11-plus exam, I failed in Maths, a subject I’m still pretty bad at, but at least now we have calculators and computers to do most of the work.

   I was sent to the most loathsome school of all – Mortlake Secondary Modern, a place I detested, which was full of sneering bullies at my Welsh dialect, and if anything the hard-bitten schoolteachers were worse. I hated my contemptible class teacher. I had wanted to be an actor for as long as I can remember, so instead of putting me in the school play, he put me in the boxing ring instead. He must have hated me as much as I hated him.

   Rescue came when my parents were doing amateur dramatics for a Welsh society in Twickenham. The play was Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green, and I was given the Welsh-speaking part of Idwal. Richard Palmer, an English boy, also played one of the young pupils. He attended Corona Academy Stage School and had already made several films. I pestered my parents to send me there, but it was a fee paying school, and my parents couldn’t afford it.

But they thought there was no harm in investigating and we were interviewed by the school. When they saw my 12-year-old self, who only looked about nine, they told my parents that they could find enough work for me to cover the school fees, which is what happened. My parents never had to pay a penny towards the fees or school uniforms and extras. Not only that, but during the summer of 1955, prior to my starting in September at Corona, the school got me a part in an American play at Theatre Royal, Windsor.

   Life with Father, from a book by Clarence Day, opened in New York in 1939 and ran for 3,224 performances, holding the record for the longest-running non-musical play on Broadway. At Windsor, I played Harlan, the youngest of three brothers, and wore a cute little sailor suit in one scene. A lot of time was spent sitting around a dining table with Vernon Morris and Richard Palmer, who played my brothers John and Whitney.  Playing Annie, one of the maids who served our breakfast in one scene, was Irish actress Doreen Keogh, who would later feature in many TV comedies, including Father Ted and as Mary Carroll in The Royle Family. The mother was played by Noel Dyson, who became Ida Barlow in Coronation Street. Heather Sears, a pretty girl, played Mary Skinner, and shortly after her Windsor stint, she signed a contract with Romulus Films, earning a British Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in The Story of Esther Costello with Joan Crawford. She was only 21 at the time. But the film of hers which I remember most strongly was as the social-climbing Joe Lampton’s hapless fiancée in Room at the Top with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret.

   Why are the worst memories sometimes the strongest? All I really remember of my first professional appearance at Windsor is someone’s devious attempt to murder me. During the performance one night, having to eat a bowl of porridge, I was about to shovel a spoonful into my mouth when I noticed something glinting in the bowl, catching the light. It was a pin. I tried to appear unruffled, but my cereal was full of pins, concealed just beneath the surface. It had to be deliberate. But why? Are cute-looking child actors in sailor suits so puke-making as to provoke someone to attempt infanticide? Maybe it was a test to see how I would cope. I did my best to eat heartily while I avoided swallowing the killer pins. And if it was a test, I think I may have passed, carrying on as if nothing had happened.

   I never mentioned the pins to anyone. I ate cautiously for the remainder of the run, but the pins didn’t appear again. It was very strange.

  My parents bought me a lucky mascot black cat for the show, a mascot which I still have, and that little puss is now 67-years-old, which also means I have been an actor for 67 years.

And just when I thought retirement had come along uninvited about six years ago, along came Misty Moon, and here I am reviving a character I played between 1968 and 1973. 

 

COMING UP ROSES

 

I think it is common knowledge how precarious the business of acting can be, and there are often great periods of unemployment, which we never call ‘resting.’

   In the early 1990s I went through a long period when that phone call from my agent remained mute. But I still needed to support my family and pay the mortgage. So I worked nights driving a taxi. And I can truthfully say it was one of the worst, badly-paid jobs I have ever done, which is why I tend to tip taxi drivers well, and also because I have experienced the late-night pick up of drunks when the pubs turned out. So, why didn’t I work during the day? Daytime I attempted to be creative by writing the next script that might alter our situation.

   I worked in the garden shed, and I was almost in tears one morning, after a particularly depressing night, and then my agent rang. At last! The phone call that took me from between three and five pounds per hour, to a £3,000 job for just three weeks’ work.

   Bob Clark, the producer of Visage Productions had used me about five years earlier for some Pepsi Cola conferences, playing a newspaper reporter called Wilkins, And now he wanted to resurrect my character for some Nationwide conferences. He wanted me to rehearse in London for the best part of a week and also do a little filming at some Nationwide branches. And in order to save them the trouble of sending motorbike messengers to Tunbridge Wells where I live with script changes, they put me up at the Holiday Inn, Swiss Cottage for the week.

   I segued from driving my miserable taxi to being picked up by a chauffeur-driven car on the first day to drive me to London. And when I later checked in at the Holiday Inn I discovered that everything was paid for, including the booze. One night I invited my agent to join me for dinner at the hotel, and we had a lavish meal with all the trimmings, all ultimately paid for by Nationwide.

   The first conference was in an aircraft museum just outside Swindon. The set, an enormous traditional newspaper office, dominated the aircraft hangar. There were about ten desks with ten telephones and the same amount of typewriters. The set wouldn’t have looked out of place on the West End stage.

    I spent a day just hanging around while they worked on getting the technical side of things right. When it reached 5.30, and Bob Clark saw me looking excruciatingly bored, he asked me if he could help in any way. I said it was a shame we were a long way from the town, and there was no pub I could pop into for a pint. Now Bob did a lot of work for the automotive industry and owned a top-of-the-range BMW, and he offered to get his chauffeur to drive me into Swindon for a pint. When I returned from the pub, he asked me if I’d had my pint, so I told him the car  had broken down and we had trouble bump starting it. He looked really angry and began striding across the hangar, presumably to call BMW. But his wife Sally, noticing the cheeky smile on my face called him to stop, and said I was winding him up.

   The crew also wound people up, especially Bob’s chauffeur, who wore the proper uniform and hat. But Bob had added to the car’s front a large Comedy Relief Red Nose. They kept on at the poor chauffeur, saying how could it be a proper chauffeuring job driving an expensive car with a red nose on the front, and the poor man, who had no sense of humour, took it really seriously.

    My part consisted of running to answer this plethora of phones on the set, and each time the audience heard the distinctive voice of John Baron, who was speaking from a booth somewhere, saying things like ‘I didn’t get where I am today, Wilkins, by…’ And I would reel off a load of facts I had discovered about Nationwide; which could have been difficult to learn, but I doctored all the typewriters with pages from my script, so that when I was talking to CJ on the phone, I was actually reading from the script.

   Bob Clark always wore cowboy boots or Cuban heels. And he always dressed casually, but the Nationwide clients had insisted that he and the crew wore dinner jackets for the event. So he donned a dinner jacket, but still wore his cowboy boots. Then he happened to glance down and saw that every member of the crew were wearing cowboy boots, having each gone out and bought a pair as a wind-up.

   Following the Swindon conference, a second conference was held at a large hotel in Coventry. It would take them a day to erect the set, plus all the lighting and sound equipment needed, Bob Clark, his wife and most of the Visage personnel, headed back to London, returning to Coventry the next day for the rehearsal. I was alone for the entire day and did nothing but swim in the hotel pool between eating and drinking.

   After the conference I shared a car back to London with John Barron, and it was the first time we had had a long conversation. And we both got the conference job because Bob Clark happened to like both Please Sir! and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

   The car dropped John Barron off in London and then took me home to Tunbridge Wells.

   I was so grateful for that job and could now relax financially for a while. I often wondered what happened to Bob Clark and his Visage company. Our paths would never cross again, but that is not so unusual in the acting profession.

 

FOOD, DRINK, MUSIC AND SEX

 

On last Monday’s news I saw that many pubs in Soho had tables out in the streets, and many of those thoroughfares had been blocked off to traffic. It was as if many street parties were taking place throughout the district, the only difference being that pubs and restaurants would only serve customers outside and seated at tables.

   So why is the district of Soho so popular? Food, drink and music, maybe, which attracted people to that district ever since the 16th century. The name Soho is believed to be the call of the huntsmen crying, ‘So-Hoe’ as they chased game in those under-populated fields back then; afterwards, the dignitaries adjourned to a nearby banqueting house to feast on their catches. In the early 17th century a parish grew bit by bit north of Leicester Fields (later Leicester Square). From France, the Huguenots escaped to an exile in London to avoid Catholic persecution, gravitating towards Soho and opening French shops, cafes and restaurants. Many other migrants were also attracted to the area, often exiled from far-flung eastern European countries because of their religion or simply to search for a better life. Greek Street, at the heart of Soho, takes its name from the arrival of many Greek Christians fleeing from persecution in the Ottoman Empire.

   One of my favourite Greek restaurants in this street was Jimmy’s, which opened just after the second World War. It was subterranean, you would climb down steep narrow stairs into a room which wasn’t exactly pleasing aesthetically, as it was plain white tiles, a bit like eating in an underground toilet. But the food was excellent and not expensive. Sadly, Jimmy’s closed about six years ago.

   But it is not just food and drink that is Soho’s main attractions. Music has always been a magnet to the area. In 1866 it was recorded that there were more than 30 music halls in the square mile. In the 1930s American jazz was imported to the area, and in 1932 Louis Armstrong performed at Soho’s most renowned theatre, the London Palladium. The famous Marquee which debuted many aspiring rock musicians and bands has long since gone, but  Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club is still going strong, although Ronnie passed away many years ago.

    I can remember in the late 1950s the tacky tourist coffee shops that sprang up. On many occasions I and my mates sat in a coffin in a coffee bar named Heaven and Hell which was decorated like the set of a Hammer horror film. I was only 16 or 17 at the time, so I guess I could be forgiven for this lapse of street credibility.

   Many tourists do not get beyond the confines of Leicester Square and miss out on, not only Soho’s rich history, but some of the less expensive London eateries. No so long ago I stopped outside the Angus Steak House at a corner of Leicester Square and looked at the menu unchanged since the 1960s, when we always ate prawn cocktail, followed by Steak, and finishing off with Black Forest gateau, washed down with Mateus Rosé.

   Of course, Soho did also have a sleazy reputation and was known as London’s red light district, and sex shop and strip clubs were abundant. Recently I watched on Talking Pictures The Small World of Sammy Lee, about a Soho reprobate, played by Anthony Newley, dashing around Soho while he tried to raise money to pay off a loan shark. Shot on location in the district, while Newley dashed around I recognised most of the clubs and shops from the 1960s, and even glimpsed the men’s outfitters Cecil Gee where I used to shop for my clothes.

   No wonder, then, that I used the area as inspiration for my anthology Tales from Soho, eleven fictional stories, but also a brief history of Soho and some of its famous pubs. Many famous people have lived in the district at one time, including Casanova, Karl Marx, Shelley, Canaletto and Isaac Newton – the list is endless. If you want a more extensive list, visit the Soho Society website, www.thesohosociety.org.uk and you will find a list of blue plaques on buildings.

   Having mentioned the 4 main ingredients of Soho, these days I limit myself to two - food and drink, not necessarilly in that order.

 

Fun With The Addicted

 

Many years ago I remembered reading in a Sunday broadsheet research into the occupations of people with the highest addictions to alcohol. I think actors came about fourth on the list. Having worked with many who suffered from this addiction I wondered if it had something to do with nerves or insecurity, or perhaps both.

   In my book Please Sir! The Official History I mentioned quite a few incidents and performers who suffered from this malaise and sometimes made spectacular fools of themselves on stage. In the book I have written about meeting or working with these problem drinkers: Bob Todd, Charles Hawtrey, James Beck, Bill Simpson, Edward Chapman, Ralph Reader, Eddie Braden and Rodney Bewes. There were a few borderline alcoholics, but two of them were so very professional that I won’t mention them.

   When I toured with Rodney Bewes in Funny Money he had varying degrees of his drink problem. Years after the tour finished, to promote a book I had written, I was invited to be interviewed by Steve Allen at LBC, who told me that a few weeks earlier Rodney Bewes turned up for an interview pissed, having come from a session at the Garrick Club. So slurred was Bewes that Steve Allen told me the programme controller happened to be listening in and phoned him to ask what was wrong with the interviewee. Allen made an excuse for Bewes and told the controller he was ill, something about palsy.

   Although there is a certain sadness about addiction, whether it be from drugs, alcohol, tobacco or overeating, the alcoholics can sometimes give us a laugh, because many of them were highly intelligent and witty. One of the most notorious of these drunks was the legendary W. C. Fields  who was famous for his drinking, and while he was never a falling down drunk, except when he once fell downstairs while carrying a glass of martini. Legend has it that he never spilt a drop due to his juggling abilities for which he was renowned. But alcohol didn't help his disposition. He was notorious for carrying a flask on movie sets, claiming to interested parties that it contained nothing stronger than pineapple juice While he was performing, a fellow actor stole it, emptied the contents and poured real pineapple juice in it. Fields unwittingly took a swig and almost choked. ‘Who's been putting pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?’ he spluttered. But many of the Fields’ stories could fill a book, but I think my favourite was the one where he was being interviewed by a journalist and she asked about his hard upbringing. He told her that because he had been a deprived child he made himself a promise, that should he one day become successful, he would make sure that underprivileged children were catered for. And then the journalist asked him if he had made good that promise. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I thought fuck ‘em!’

   And many of the so-called bloodshot brigade came out with some interesting last words prior to the curtain coming down. Richard Harris lived at the Savoy Hotel in London. When he collapsed and had to be stretchered out of the main entrance, he called out: ‘It was the food.’  Another fond of a drop actor was Humphrey Bogart who shuffled off this mortal coil with the words, ‘I should never have switched from Scotch to Martini.’

   Wilfrid Lawson and Robert Newton were appearing in Richard the Third, one of them as Lord Hastings and the other as Duke of Buckingham. Both had been out drinking during the day and were inebriated for the night's performance. Several members of the audience spotted Hastings was clearly drunk and complained loudly. The actor playing Lord Hastings stopped his inebriated Shakespearean speech, turned to the audience and said: 'You think I'm drunk. Wait till you see the Duke of Buckingham!'

   Because of his alcoholism, Robert Newton, found it increasingly difficult to get work. His friend David Niven was to star in Around the World in Eighty Days, produced by Mike Todd. Niven had a word with the producer, and suggested Newton for a part. When Todd met Newton, he said, ‘You're friend Niven says you are a big drunk.’ Newton replied, ‘My friend Niven is a master of understatement.’

   Wilfrid Lawson again. He was appearing at the Arts Theatre, London, in Maxim Gorki's Lower Depths, the classic play about the Russian underprivileged. He was about to exit a scene, and he had of course been drinking, and was supposed to leave the stage singing a Russian hymn, a real dirge. Instead, he turned full-on to the audience and sang: ‘Some enchanted evening...’ Another time, he went drinking all day with a friend, and they ended up in the circle bar of the theatre where he was performing that night. The curtain had gone up on the show, and they both stood at the back of the circle and watched some of it. Suddenly, Lawson turned to his friend and whispered: ‘It's very good this bit. It's where I come on.

   Peter O'Toole, having given up alcohol after his years as a hellraiser, reminisced about the days when he was a heavy drinker, and confessed he missed situations like the time he was in Paris and woke up to discover he was in Corsica. And Richard Burton once said, ‘I was so drunk I thought I was Peter O’Toole.’

   Finally, my friend Peter Cleall, who played Duffy in Please, Sir! was working in a sitcom Spooner’s Patch with Ronald Fraser. I met Peter one day, wondering why he wasn't rehearsing and he told me the cast had taken a week off so that Fraser could dry out and get himself sober in order to continue the series. ‘But,’ I told Peter, ‘I was in the Pickwick Club last night, and there was Ronnie Fraser, pissed as a rat, as you might expect.’ Peter couldn't quite believe it. So much for plan A.

(To read about the aforementioned performers I met or worked with, read Please Sir! The Official History, and signed copies are available from this website)

 

The Truth About Fiction

 

Why do people read crime novels? I suppose the flippant answer would be because people write them. And you could guess what question might follow on from that.

   Here is my own theory for what it’s worth. I think there is only one truly moral philosophical answer as to why we shouldn’t kill another human being, one of our own species, and that is because it has been instilled in us from birth that it is wrong – Thou Shalt Not Kill. And the other sins may be languishing in a grey area, depending on varying attitudes. So, knowing how wrong it is to commit murder, how enjoyable then to read or watch a film about the killing of a person who either does or doesn’t deserve to die. I guess it’s a sort of vicarious pleasure as we step into someone’s shoes and perhaps identify with a murderer now and again, not just the protagonist. Add a puzzle to the brew, get the reader guessing whodunit, and there you have a good recipe for crime fiction.

   My own taste for detective fiction has changed over the years. I began with cosy crime, many Agatha Christies ago, and then discovered the hard-boiled private eyes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which have always remained my preference. And in recent years, I suppose as we learn more about forensic science, crime fiction has become ever more sophisticated, and occasionally searches for deeper meanings and truth.

   One of my favourite crime writers is John Grisham, whose criminals often get their comeuppance in a fitting courtroom dénouement. But one of the things I find so attractive in his writing is that his stories go beyond mere murder mysteries, and he writes about more controversial issues, for instance, about corruption in the pharmaceutical industry (The King of Torts), or racial violence (A Time to Kill), and homelessness in Washington D.C. (The Street Lawyer), or one of my favourite books of his, Gray Mountain, about open pit mining and the ecological disaster it causes when corruption is rife. And all of his books are extremely well-written, with great characters, plots, suspense and surprises.

    Something for me to aspire to then. And the issue I picked for my last crime book, Before They Die, is the one that has been hidden away somewhere, one that appears to have vanished from the threat of investigation. That of child abuse in the Establishment.

   In 1983, Conservative MP for Huddersfield West, Geoffrey Dickens, handed a dossier of 114 files about child abuse to Leon Brittan, the then Home Secretary, yet these serious allegations went missing. The same week that the file was handed in to Brittan, Dickens’s London flat and his constituency home were broken into and ransacked, yet nothing was stolen. And in the late sixties, a senior police officer revealed that a thick file on Cyril Smith’s repulsive practices was handed to an MI5 officer and was told it would be looked into. Nothing more was heard about it, and decades later Smith continued his abhorrent abuses of deprived children.

   And then decades later along comes compulsive liar Carl Beech, who researched the internet and made up stories about well-known Establishment figures being involved in not only child abuse but the murder of children as well. This case is well documented. And since he was convicted as an absolute fraudster, I bet there may be a few Establishment figures breathing a sigh of relief because they would be let off the hook now.

   Child abuse is something I find hard to understand, yet it seems prevalent in many aspects of society, as witness recent scandals about football coaches, churchmen and schoolteachers.

    As far as conspiracies go, the cover-up of child abuse is dreadful, and I only hope Before They Die, although a fictional murder mystery, delves into a truth that has long been supressed.

    As writer and philosopher Albert Camus quoted, ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’

 

Craven, Abbott and the Conman

 

On page 41 of my book, Please Sir! The Official History, there is the story of the rather smooth record producer, who having made a record with us, vanished into thin air having left the musicians unpaid. I don’t know whether any of them did get any money, because this so-called record producer named Barry Gout was like most smooth-talkers, untrustworthy.

    Long after The Fenn Street Gang ended on television, perhaps three or four years, I really can’t remember and have no record of the events that were about to unfold, I got a call from Malcolm McFee who told me that Barry Gout was in the Netherlands, and had a contact at NCRV, the Dutch TV company that used to broadcast Please Sir! and wanted Malcolm and me to write a sitcom about a Dutch amateur football team, with me and Malcolm in two of the starring roles. At first, I told Malcolm if it had anything to do with Barry Gout, I was not interested. But Malcolm told me persuasively, that Barry Gout was a changed man, and had promised that airline tickets would be waiting for us at Heathrow for our trip to Amsterdam. We, I suggested to Malcolm, would use this as the test. If Barry had genuinely supplied the return flight tickets, then it was probably kosher.

   The tickets were waiting for us at Heathrow, so that put paid to any doubts we might have. It gave us a week to work on the first draft of a script, with Malcolm providing the information about football, of which I know nothing. Once we were satisfied with the script’s first draft, we picked up our tickets and headed to Amsterdam, and a small restaurant where we were met by Gout, who informed us he had a share in this restaurant, and he ordered us a steak dinner and beers, which as part owner he put on the tab. He also introduced us to a young Dutch actor, whose surname escapes me, but I can remember his first name was Gus. And Gus would put us up at his flat for the duration of our stay as he would also be starring in the sitcom.

   But things soon began to go wrong. We discovered Gout had promised the restaurateurs that he would be bringing John Alderton over for them to meet, and not only that but he had lied about having a share in the establishment, and all the food and beer we consumed there during our stay was on his promise to the proprietors that he would eventually settle his bill. Then, one day, Gus was showing us round Amsterdam, and he happened to tell us about a sentimental trip that Gout had taken to Arnhem, where he claimed his father was buried as he was a paratrooper killed in the war. That was when Malcolm gave a bitter laugh and told us that as far as he knew, Gout’s father was alive and well and living in Tottenham.

   And then we discovered a tough Dutch stevedore – someone you don’t mess with – had loaned Gout a substantial amount of money and was on the warpath (this loan probably financed our plane tickets).

   Suddenly, Gout was taken ill and hospitalised. Hoping we might salvage something from this disastrous trip, we went to visit Gout, hoping to get the name of the head of programming at NCRV. We had Gout’s room number at the hospital, but the receptionist said he had been moved from the second floor to a room on the ground floor for safety reasons. We wondered if he had attempted suicide but were told that the day before our visit the angry stevedore visited Gout and had to be restrained from throwing him out of the window. When the stevedore calmed down and was about to be escorted from the room, his parting shot was, ‘The boys will be along to see you tomorrow, and they’ll want answers.’ Meaning Malcolm and me. Which was why they moved him to another room, thinking these ‘boys’ were mafia hitmen, maybe. But when Malcolm and I turned up, we were recognised and shown to Gout’s new room. We managed to extract the name of the decision maker at NCRV, and we phoned his secretary and made an appointment to visit him, taking the script with us.

   NCRV was a train ride from Amsterdam, and when we were shown into the programme controller’s office he seemed pleased to meet us. We mentioned that Barry Gout told us he had already been in touch with him and sent him the first draft of the script. He shook his head and said he had never heard of Barry Gout, and had never received a script. It was just another of Gout’s lies.

   But still hoping to retrieve a possible deal, we explained what the script was about. Unfortunately, we were told, NCRV could buy Please Sir!, (taking them high in the ratings) for less than 2,000 guilders an episode, so to make their own sitcoms would cost maybe fifty times that per episode, and it didn’t make financial sense.

   So that was that. We came away from the meeting wondering why he had so readily agreed to the meeting and came to the conclusion that perhaps he wanted to meet two of the Please Sir! actors who had given NCRV such high ratings.

   That same day we said goodbye to Gus and flew back to the UK.

   I never heard anything more about Barry Gout ever again, and I sometimes tried to imagine what became of him. It was mind-boggling what he put us through in Amsterdam, and I and Malcolm should have known better.

  Ho-hum! Maybe that will find its way into a story or script one day, so the trip and the con will not have been wasted.

 

Dylan Thomas and Please Sir!

 

The first time I read Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and got to draper Mog Edwards saying, ‘I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires,’ it brought back memories of North Wales in the late 1940s.

   My mother occasionally shopped at a small department store called Polikoff. I used to love going in there and was fascinated by the contraption that dealt with my mother’s transaction. She would hand money to the shop assistant, who placed it with a docket in a small cylinder. Then, just slightly higher than head-height, the cylinder was attached to a wire, and it would go zooming off to a cashier in another part of the building, and we waited until the cylinder zoomed back to us containing my mother’s change. Hence Thomas’s line about ‘where the change hums on wires.’

     The first time I performed in Milk Wood was when I played Frankie Abbott in Please Sir! Richard Davies, who played Mr Price in the series, had been asked by the manager of Lewisham Concert Hall, close to where he and his wife Jill lived at the time, if he could get the cast of the sitcom together for a show. Richard, or ‘Dickie’ as we called him, suggested we perform Thomas’s wonderfully lyrical play, staging it as simply as possible as it was to be a one-night stand. Lewisham Concert Hall was an enormous venue, and we were sold out. Possibly because the theatre had advertised it in the Evening Standard London Theatre Guide, and we were billed as stars from Please Sir! in Under Milk Wood, with Duffy, Sharon, Abbott, Maureen, Dunstable, Craven and Mr Price, instead of our own names.

   Under Milk Wood would feature largely throughout my career. Months after the Lewisham performance, Malcolm McFee and Peter Denyer hired Theatre Royal E.15 and staged a full-scale production where we all spent a happy fortnight performing it, and in 1975, Malcolm and I formed a production company and toured nationally with the play, with Ian Talbot, Liz Gebhardt’s husband, as the Narrator. Then in 1978, I was offered the parts of Sinbad Sailors, Dai Bread and Jack Black in a BBC Radio 4 version, with Glyn Houston as First Voice.

   But my favourite production was in the 1980s, when I and my wife Pat formed a small-scale touring company, and we got together with Richard Davies, his wife Jill, and Peter Cleall, touring to small arts and community centres in the south east. And the play, with its powerful imagery, continues to resonate with me. When I performed it on tour in 1975, Welsh actor Meredith Edwards, told me an allegedly true story about Dylan Thomas hiring a dinner jacket at the Covent Garden branch of Moss Bros. I wrote this as a short story The Poet in Soho which I included in my anthology Tales from Soho, published in 2014 by Andrews UK, who have published my more recent Please Sir! The Official History non-fiction book.

    It is many years now since I have performed in Thomas’s great play, but the writing is so memorable that I can remember great passages from it and can even recite the opening speech of the First Voice, which runs to at least six minutes. Who could possible fail to remember alliterative lines like: ‘It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning, in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow…?’ And this form of alliteration I used as a sort of tribute to Thomas in my Soho story which describes him going to get kitted out and ‘cutting a dash in ballot box black and butterfly bow.’

    But I often wonder if anyone reading or listening to Milk Wood puzzles over ‘change hums on wires'? Might I suggest you just point them to this blog for an explanation? Because I’m old enough to remember the meaning of that line.

 

Adrift in The South Atlantic

 

Aged thirteen, I was offered a part in my first feature film, Seven Waves Away. Every weekday morning, extremely early, a car picked me up at our home in Hounslow to take me to Shepperton studios, where I had a tutor to give me lessons in between takes. Thankfully, these lessons were more for the sake of appearances as the entire film took place in a lifeboat, so most of my days were spent filming.

   Seven Waves Away was based on a true incident of a transatlantic liner which hit a mine in the South Atlantic and sank. The story was of the 26 survivors drifting helplessly in an overloaded lifeboat in shark-infested waters. When the film was released in the US, it was called Abandon Ship, and the poster logline stated “14 of these survivors must be cast adrift. Which will the captain choose?”

   The captain faced with this difficult decision was played by Tyrone Power, and Mai Zetterling played the ship’s nurse, whose love for the captain is put to a severe test when he must choose which passengers to abandon or risk flooding the overloaded boat. The other survivors were played by mainly British actors, including Stephen Boyd, as the ship’s purser, Gordon Jackson, as a seaman, Marie Lohr as a frail, retired opera singer, and James Hayter as the ship’s cook, in charge of the meagre rations in the lifeboat. Little did I know then that I would work in the theatre opposite James Hayter in my early thirties. Seven Waves Away was written and directed by Richard Sale, an American writer who wrote The Oscars, a novel exposing the build-up to the Academy Award ceremonies, later made into a film.

   For my first visit to a major film studio I didn’t know what to expect but was surprised by the scruffy and temporary look of everything. Prefabricated huts, abandoned scenery and vehicles, strewn haphazardly between large unglamorous-looking sound stages and smaller offices that looked like military buildings. The main sound stage, resembling a massive aircraft hangar, housed the near Olympic-sized tank, filled with thousands and thousands of gallons of water, with a depth of five feet, and two enormous wave machines, plus wind machines. And the full-sized lifeboat itself, which was not floating freely but attached to machinery at the bottom of the tank so that it could be rocked, but controlled to avoid random fluctuations, keeping the camera reasonably steady, or to stop the actors from bobbing in and out of shot when camera was positioned.

   A nine week shoot, having warm water chucked over us before we climbed aboard the lifeboat, and make-up that looked like salt crystals in hair and eyebrows, with dark oil smears on faces. Having been shipwrecked in the night time, most of the actors playing passenger survivors were dressed in nightclothes or evening wear. I wore pyjamas and a dressing gown, clutching a toy London bus as a comfort blanket, and crying out dramatically in a scene where the captain decides my mother must be cast adrift, despite the pleas of my father, played by Ralph Michael, who has oil on his lungs, and must also be cut loose. Having screamed the loss of my parents, I am comforted and cuddled by Mai Zetterling.

   Most of the actors, especially the older ones like Marie Lohr, found the discomforts of sitting in a rocking lifeboat, with wind machines blowing, while stage-hands hurled buckets of water over us, arduous and couldn’t wait for the nine weeks to end. Me, I loved every moment of it. Although I had spent most of my childhood by the sea in North Wales, I had never learnt to swim. I learnt aged ten at the public baths in Richmond when I attended St. John’s Primary School, and any opportunity to swim in the faux South Atlantic was a treat and a chance for me to show off. Some of the actors, though, couldn’t swim, and were traumatised by a scene where the lifeboat capsizes, hurling us all into the water, and it took many of them a long time to recover.

   Richard Sale was a very patient and methodical director, and hugely friendly, as were Tyrone Power, Mai Zetterling and Lloyd Nolan. And I was very impressed that Danny Green was in the film, as I had recently seen him in The Ladykillers, which became one of my all-time favourite comedies. He played a character called One-Round, and I pondered for many years the meaning of his nickname, and it came to me years later: of course, he was probably a boxer who was always knocked out in the first round.

   Something I found puzzling was my first glimpse of racist behaviour. Orlando Martins, a Nigerian who came to Britain at the end of the war, played Sam Holly, one of the survivors in the water hanging on to the side of the boat, and Stephen Boyd, along with some of the other actors in the boat, would look down on him and say things like: ‘Who dat down dere!’ Although I was only 13-years-old, I could sense the Nigerian actor didn’t like it and pretended not to hear most of the time. And then, when the boat jerked suddenly during a scene, Stephen Boyd’s knee knocked into my back. It was extremely painful, and he must have known it, yet he never bothered to apologise. This, coupled with his mockery of Orlando Martins, made him my least favourite actor in the picture. But the Americans, Tyrone Power and Lloyd Nolan were utterly charming, and when the last scene had been shot, they really made a fuss of me before I left.

   Getting the part in Seven Waves Away had been effortless, all I’d had to do was meet Richard Sale and look cute.

   A year after the film was made, my parents took me to see Tyrone Power in the West End when he starred in Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. It was only recently when I looked it up online that I discovered Erik Chitty was in it, and when I worked with Erik in Please Sir! I had no idea he was in the Tyrone Power production I had seen.

 

 

Blame Frankie Abbott

 

I first worked and met Peter Childs when I appeared with him in The Boys in the Band in Cardiff, in which we both played gay characters. I was interested to read recently that Russell T Davies who wrote the TV drama It’s A Sin thinks that only gay actors should play gay characters. I think I know what Peter Childs would have had to say about that. No doubt he would have pointed out a long history of gay men who have played heterosexuals.

   When I worked with Peter in Cardiff we hit it off and became longstanding friends. He loved working in Wales and had an affinity with us Welsh. We used to drink with the Welsh National Opera cast and musicians, and Peter went to the trouble of learning ‘Myfanwy’ in Welsh, and one evening gave us a rendition of the entire song. At the end of the opera’s run, they presented him with an LP of the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, and signed it, ‘To Peter, an honorary Welshman’. And by God did we sink a few that night.

   After the production ended, I used to travel from London to stay in Tunbridge Wells with Peter, and we tried to get some writing off the ground, although we never managed to get anything going. If ever we did, Peter decided that the best writers he thought were Jewish, English and Irish, and so he was going to use the pseudonym Leo O’Goldharris.

   Peter had a rather ne’er-do-well Tunbridge Wells friend, Richard Billington-Cook, and one hot summer’s day, Richard drove the three of us out to a country pub not too far from Tunbridge Wells, the Rock at Chiddingstone.

   The pub’s landlord was Peter Cook (not the comedian), and we stood at the bar drinking our beer and having an amiable chat to him. When he disappeared into the other bar, and noticing a fire was made up in the enormous fireplace, Richard or Peter egged each other on for one of them to light it on this sweltering summer’s day. One of them did – I can’t remember who, and it immediately began blazing. Because the landlord couldn’t see the fireplace from his position behind the bar, he wasn’t aware that it had been set alight. But the three of us began giggling, and he did as well, not realising that the joke was on him. When he twigged, and saw the smoke billowing into the bar, he said something like, ‘You bastards! The chimney hasn’t been swept yet.’

   Richard decided we ought to continue drinking back at the ‘Wells’ and drove us back. Along the way, we passed a fire engine speeding towards Chiddingstone. Peter laughed and said, ‘That’ll teach him for not having his chimney swept.’

   Later, as I didn’t live in Tunbridge Wells then, Peter asked if it was all right if they blamed me for setting the Rock’s chimney alight, just in case they bumped into Peter Cook, telling him it was that nutter who played Frankie Abbott who did it. And little thinking that I would eventually move into the district.

   Peter was a very mischievous person. I can imagine Terry Jones had him in mind when he said, ‘He’s a very naughty boy.’

   In our local pub in Tunbridge Wells, The Mitre, Peter was barred on darts night when the local team was at home. This was for his own safety, as he used to give the opposing team such a devastating commentary, they almost threw him out of the door one night. But all the locals loved him, and he was very entertaining and witty.

   Sadly, Peter was only fifty when he died from leukaemia, and I did miss him and his cheeky wit. I continued to drink at our local for many years. Then one day a new landlord took over, and it was none other than Peter Cook, the Rock’s landlord whose chimney had been set on fire by either Peter or Richard.

   Peter Cook told everyone in the pub how I had set his chimney on fire. I swore to him that it wasn’t me, it was Peter Childs or Richard Billington-Cook, but I don’t think he believed me. Besides, it made a much better story to say, ‘That Frankie Abbott once set fire to my pub!’

 

Fenn Street Goes to Llareggub

 

I was delighted in 1978 when I was offered  three roles in Under Milk Wood for BBC Radio 4, playing Sinbad Sailors, Dai Bread, Jack Black and a few other sundry characters. I was already very familiar with the play, having performed it first of all for one night at Lewisham Concert Hall, organised by my dear friend Richard Davies, then at Theatre Royal E.15 for a fortnight’s run with many of the same Lewisham cast, and in 1975 Malcolm McFee and I toured a full-scale production to theatres nationwide. While on tour one of the cast members, Meredith Edwards, who played Captain Cat, told me what he believed was a true story about Dylan Thomas, and four decades later this story became The Poet in Soho in my anthology Tales From Soho.

   But my favourite production was the one in the 1980s that I directed, and in which I played the First Voice, and my friend Peter Cleall was Second Voice, as well as a very memorable and funny Willy Nilly the postman. This production was a small-scale tour, performing in small studio theatres, community centres and village halls. I staged it very simply, with a rostrum and two bentwood chairs for Peter and myself, and we looked down from the rostrum at the other four members of the cast, also seated on bentwood chairs, as though we the narrators operated them like puppet masters, and we had a certain amount of movement within the play as not every character remained seated at all times.

   Wherever we performed this production we played to full houses. I can remember the Community Centre at Rye in East Sussex, having to squeeze in extra seating as it was sold out.

   So just why does Thomas’s play remain so popular? After all, it is quite bawdy. He was known for his impish sense of humour. Even Llareggub, the name of the village in which it is set, is buggerall backwards! But mainly it is the wonderfully lyrical language, the prose poetry and imagery of this play, set in its quaint Welsh seaside village with its bizarre and eccentric characters. And some of the characters are downright wicked, like Mr Waldo, who is always being given another paternity summons. And promiscuous Polly Garter, who has a garden that nothing grows in except babies, whose fathers live over the hills and far away. One of the most popular characters is henpecked Mr Pugh, who dreams of killing his wife and has bought a book entitled Lives of The Great Poisoners…the play is filled with characters that create gossip and speculation about their wicked and suspect secret lives, as in many small towns. But what I think is the most appealing aspect of this play is the fact that audiences can get lost for almost two hours with the foibles and follies of these characters, knowing that there is no evil in this town, in fact Thomas treats this mythical and mystical place with great love and affection, and as the narrator explains at the end of the play, the Reverend Eli Jenkins gives a ‘greenleaved sermon on the innocence of men’.

   The play ends where it began, at the beginning, as it has come full circle and completed its cycle of 24 hours.

    The first BBC production with Richard Burton as First Voice was recorded in 1954, a year after Thomas’s death. He had already done a try-out production in New York not long before his death at only 39 years of age. I once heard this recording, with the poet himself as First Voice, and all the other characters were American actors, didn’t attempt Welsh accents, and the actress playing Lily Smalls I seem to remember had a distinctly Bronx dialect. And you know what? It still worked beautifully.

   I have tried to get a copy of the BBC 4 version I appeared in, but I don’t think it exists. Glyn Houston was First Voice, and three years later I worked with him again when I wrote Keep It In The Family for Thames Television. Also in the Radio 4 version of Milk Wood was Talfryn Thomas, excellent as the would-be poisoner Mr Pugh. But my favourite Mr Pugh remains Richard Davies, although I may be a wee bit biased.

   The most popular recorded version is obviously the 1954 Richard Burton version, but I bought a copy of a 1988 version, with Anthony Hopkins as First Voice and Jonathan Pryce as Second Voice. This was produced by George Martin and has Tom Jones as Mr Waldo, Mary Hopkin as Polly Garter, and a host of Welsh actors, including Anghared Rees, Nerys Hughes, Philip Madoc, Sian Philips, Victor Spinetti, Windsor Davies, Ruth Madoc, Harry Secombe and many others too numerous to mention.

   If you have never heard this play, this is a version I can thoroughly recommend. And on Monday I will listen again to this wonderful recording. Why Monday? Well, it’s the first of March, St David’s Day, so I think it might be appropriate.

 

Good Old Frisby Dyke

 

I had wanted to be an actor for as long as I could remember. Growing up in North Wales, first in Bangor, and then in Amlwch in the northern part of Anglesey, there were no theatres. The nearest theatres were summer season playhouses in Colwyn Bay and Llandudno, and I don’t ever recall a visit to one of those theatres. The nearest I got to seeing a theatre production was when my parents took me to the Liverpool Empire to see a touring production of Carousel, and I can recall being confused after the death of Billy, when he goes ‘up there’, then seeing him returning to earth as an angel wearing a lounge suit. But I did come away humming one of the memorable songs, little knowing that in about three and a half decades it would become the Liverpool Football Club anthem.

   I think my parents had friends or relations in Liverpool, and so we often went there, staying over one or two nights, and my mother loved to do the shops. There was John Lewis, of course, and the well-known Frisby Dyke, which I think had ceased to exist since it was bombed during the war. But its name returned to my consciousness years later when I discovered that in the ITMA radio comedy, they named one of the characters after the store. And Frisby Dyke was played by Deryck Guyler, who talked about this during our stint in Please Sir! But I’m jumping ahead of myself here.

   Most of my early acting influences came from the silver screen. The Royal cinema in Amlwch showed the latest films, and an outing to the cinema was a great event in those days. Prior to the feature film we were not subjected to fifteen minutes of advertisements. Instead, as only the privileged few had a television set in those days, we were shown at least five items of news both nationally and internationally, either from Pathé News or Movietone, always with that stentorian voice-over which sounded the same alarming note whether it was reporting the Korean war or the latest catwalk fashion. The news was invariably followed by a cartoon or a short comedy film and then the B-feature. All of this was a build-up to the main event, following an interval when the ice cream lady would walk backwards down the aisle, picked out by a spotlight, and there would be a rush for ice creams and orange drinks. But it was always the main feature that influenced me the most. To this day I can remember seeing films like Moulin Rouge, The African Queen, The Quiet Man, High Noon and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I think I must have attended the cinema at least once a week. I can remember my father taking me to see Viva Zapata, with Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, a film with a screenplay by John Steinbeck. I was nine-years-old then and seeing Brando as Zapata riding into a deadly trap on a white horse had me hooked. I definitely wanted to be an actor when I grew up. I was never interested in playing with toy cars and trains. It was always ‘dressing up’.

   Once, walking from our home in Amlwch Port to the cinema to see José Ferrer in Moulin Rouge for the second time, we met a friend of my father, who presented us with complimentary tickets for a Noson Lawen (Joyful Evening), a sort of variety show. To say I was cross about missing the colourful story of Toulouse Lautrec was putting it mildly. Until we arrived at the church hall where this far from joyful evening was to take place, I threw a few tantrums before falling into a petrified sulk. And imagine my horror when this performance turned out to be everything I had suspected. Dreary soprano followed dreary tenor, and the highlight of the evening was a one-act play which ended with an appallingly bad stage fight. Even at the age of nine, I had enough critical acumen to know that this was a sham and no match for what the Royal had to offer.

   Less than a year later, we moved to Richmond, Surrey. I failed the 11-plus and was sent to Mortlake Secondary School, an institution I loathed with every fibre of my being. But, as I had witnessed on many a night at the Amlwch Royal, the 7th Cavalry came to the rescue.

   My parents were involved in an amateur production of The Corn is Green by Emlyn Williams. I was given the part of a Welsh speaking schoolboy, and an English boy played one of the other boys. He attended Corona Academy Stage School and had already appeared in several films.

   I pestered my parents to send me to this school. But it was a private, fee-paying school and my parents couldn’t afford it. But they decided there was no harm in at least making enquiries, and so we went along to the Corona offices in Chiswick, and when they spotted this twelve-year-old who looked like a nine-year-old, they realised it was a distinct casting advantage and assured my parents that enough work would wing its way in my direction to cover the school fees. Which was exactly what happened throughout my time at Corona.

 

A Wizard Lock-In

 

One of my happiest Christmas shows was in 2000/2001, and instead of a pantomime I appeared in The Wizard of Oz, playing the Wizard and Uncle Henry in the Kansas scenes. But the biggest bonus was working in a professional show practically on my doorstep. I lived in Rusthall then, just a mile and a half from Tunbridge Wells, and the show was at the Trinity Theatre within walking distance.

   Although rehearsals were due to take place in Tunbridge Wells, to get the part I had to audition for it in London. Also attending the audition was another Tunbridge Wells actor, Michael Elliot, who was up for the same part, but it was offered to me. Years later I worked with Michael when we both appeared in The Duck Variations by David Mamet. Michael being six feet tall and stout, I was able to explain to him that the reason I was offered the wizard was because I fitted the costume.

   What was so good about the show was that it was the MGM version, and Dorothy was played by a 17-year-old from Aberystwyth, who was excellent and had a great voice. The Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man were played respectively by Christopher Howell, Tim Laurenti and Mark C Pollard, who were friends from the same drama school, and had appeared in many West End Shows. And a great character, both on stage and offstage, was Katerina Jugati, playing Miss Gulch and the wicked witch, who played Ariadne in many episodes of London’s Burning.

   It was a very happy cast, and I was able to walk into rehearsals most days, which were held at the Toc-H Hall in the older part of Tunbridge Wells, and what was so great about working with these actors, was the fact that we all had our lunch in the Compasses pub, and nobody seemed to mind us having a few beers before continuing with the rehearsals.

   Of course, most of the cast lived in London and commuted to Tunbridge Wells. But towards the end of the second week, prior to the opening of the show, Chris, who played the Cowardly Lion, suggested that as a cast bonding exercise, the entire cast would stay in Tunbridge Wells on Friday night, and we would all go out for dinner.

   Following dinner we adjourned to a busy and noisy pub, so I suggested a visit to my friendly village pub, the White Hart in Rusthall, and we all piled into taxis. Unfortunately, I was in the last taxi. I say ‘unfortunately’ because of what happened when the first taxi arrived at the White Hart.

   Another Rusthall pub, the Oak, which was the rough bar in the village, had been raided for drugs the previous night, and was temporarily closed down. So when the first taxi dropped off some cast members, one of the young performers, thinking about the storm cellar in Kansas just before the twister arrives, jumped on the pub cellar doors. Ken the landlord happened to be in the cellar getting ice when he heard this almighty bang overhead, thought it might be ‘that lot from the Oak’, came tearing upstairs just as Chris the Cowardly Lion entered the friendly village pub, to be confronted by an angry landlord, pointing a finger at him, and yelling, ‘And you can fuck off for a start.’

   When Chris explained that it was David (me) who had suggested that the Trinity cast drink here, Ken immediately morphed into a cross between Uriah Heap and Basil Fawlty, apologised profusely, and hurried to pour a pint for Chris. And then we all arrived and had a great  evening session, resulting in a lock-in until two a.m. Resulting in a bleary-eyed rehearsal on Saturday morning.

   The show opened the following week and was hugely successful. And Toto was played by two real dogs, Sparky and Jenny-Bell, And of course the children in the audience loved seeing real dogs playing Toto. The dogs alternated shows, unlike us humans who have to do two shows a day.

   At the White Hart, Marion, the landlady, had put up details of our show in the pub, and customers could put their name down for a block booking. So one Wednesday, we had 60 regulars from the pub in attendance, followed by about 30 of us at the local Indian restaurant afterwards, and then another late session in the pub.

   But the guys, Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man had so enjoyed their Friday night lock-in at the Hart, they asked me to ask Ken and Marion if for our last night party after our penultimate show on the Friday, if they would host our party and run a karaoke. This they did, and the pub was heaving that night.

   It had been in the local paper that Nina Keevan who played Dorothy was just 17, and Ken whispered to me during that boozy session, and pointed to a dozen empty Vodka Ice bottles, that they had all been consumed by Dorothy. Although she was clearly underage for drinking, I have to admit she could probably have drunk me under the table. And Ken was also amused by Katerina Jugati, who used to drink Carlsberg Special Brew.

   Following this heavy session came our final two shows, and in the Trinity bar afterwards, before most of the cast dashed off to catch a train for London, programmes needed to be signed. One of the technical crew, John Dartnell, who was our sound man, had shoulder length hair, and long straggly beard, and wore black leather with chains and studs, and looked as if he had stepped straight off a Hell’s Angels movie set. John got everyone to sign his programme, and I put something bland like, ‘To John, thanks for the great sound.’ Others put something similarly bland too. And then John spluttered with laughter when he showed me what Katerina had written. Above her signature, her message read, ‘Fuck off you bearded wanker.’

   He loved it! And that’s what working in this show was about. We all got on great guns and shared many a laugh. And one of my favourite spots in the show was the curtain call when the entire cast reprised ‘Over the Rainbow’, and usually most of the audience joined in.

 

Doubling for Richard O’Sullivan

 

When we attended Corona Academy, the stage school in Chiswick, Richard O’Sullivan and I became great friends. We were both the same age, and when we were 17-years-old, he was contracted to play Hugo, the villain’s henchman in a Walt Disney film, The Prince and the Pauper, being shot at Shepperton Studios. Richard knew I was desperate for work, so he put in a word for me to work as his double and stand-in. I was keen to earn some extra money and reckoned it would be fun to knock around with my friend and was delighted when they agreed to employ me. Soon we were both zooming out to Shepperton Studios on our motor scooters (I occasionally borrowed my brother’s when he wasn’t using it).

   The Prince and the Pauper was a hugely prestigious Disney picture. The story was from a late 19th century novel by Mark Twain, about Tom Canty, the pauper, who meets Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward, when loitering near the palace gates and they exchange identities for a bit of fun. The dual leading role of both pauper and prince was played by 13-year-old Sean Scully. Richard’s scenes were mainly with Donald Houston, Tom’s villainous father. When I wasn’t standing-in for Richard during studio scenes, I would be taken to the second unit, and some of the time during my first week’s work I doubled for Richard in exterior scenes, long shots of me and Donald Houston’s double hurrying towards a solitary large oak door in the middle of a field. It was explained that this was what they called a matte shot, and the complete set of a medieval building would be superimposed onto celluloid, painted on to complete the building. It was, after all, a Disney Picture, and they knew one or two things about adding background pictures onto film frames.

   The film was way over budget and three weeks behind schedule. When we reached the end of the first week, Richard had only been involved in one scene and as we parted on Friday evening, he tapped the side of his nose and muttered something about me having an especially good time next week. I wondered what he meant, but he didn’t let on. When I got to Shepperton on Monday morning, I was taken aside by the producer and told that Richard’s contract had expired and today he was starting work on Cliff Richard’s film The Young Ones, and would I like to take over the role. I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

   Now my salary and status changed. Not only did my salary go up to £150 per week for the remaining two weeks – a not inconsiderable sum in 1961 – I was offered a share of Sean Scully’s car to give me a lift home from the studio every day. The trouble with this rise in my good fortune, thanks to Richard, was the fact that I would have to wait until after the film finished shooting before I saw any money. So, I used to pretend I lived near Shepherd’s Bush Green, and I got the car to drop me not far from the British Motor Company HQ, where I cleaned their offices every weekday evening. After a glamorous day on Walt Disney’s set, I came crashing down to earth, and reflected on how I could never become starry, and promised myself to always take life as it comes.

   Shooting this costume drama was hugely exciting as it would be my first choreographed fight in a film, challenged to combat by quarter staff against Tom Canty. A fight arranger rehearsed Sean Scully and me, and as his character was really Prince Edward, he wins the contest. But I was determined I was going to make it difficult for him to beat me. We had done some second unit exterior scenes and, while hanging around, he had found some frogs near the river, and mistreated and tortured them. I can’t stand cruelty to animals. And although I, and others hanging around, told him to stop, he ignored us, shrugging it off as the star of the picture’s privilege. Right, you little brat, I thought, when it comes to our fight, I’ll get my own back on behalf of the frogs. But, I had to admit, not only was he a good actor, but he was also a great quarter staff fighter, and never once did he falter in the routine. It didn’t matter how aggressively I charged at him, he never once lost the ability to parry my lunges and swipes. The fight was done in one take, using two cameras to give different angles when it came to editing, and because of the way Sean Scully and I battled it out, the fight scene worked brilliantly.

   One scene, however, might be described as abysmal. Richard’s first scene as Hugo, established him as Houston’s henchman. Now that I was stepping into Richard’s shoes, we had to do some sort of a changeover. We were called for a Sunday shoot, as Richard had begun shooting The Young Ones, and a scene was inserted where he and Donald Houston drag Sean Scully into a barn, where I happen to be sitting – back to camera. Houston’s black-toothed villain asks me what’s been going on, and I mutter something about robbing and pillaging. Then, as Houston hurls Scully onto a pile of straw, he mentions something about me being Len. Fade out. Most audiences would have missed it, and when I cropped up in my first big scene, they must have wondered who this character was.

   My final scene involved attacking Scully along the branch of a tree. Naturally, he wins, and I end up falling backwards into the river. This was done by a stuntman, and I waded into the river afterwards, to splash about and cry for help, having first been given an anti-tetanus shot.

   I must admit, the film was not one of Disney’s most notable pictures, although I enjoyed every minute of the three-week shoot. But the man himself flew over for the wrap party, and I am thrilled to be able to say that I once met Mickey Mouse’s creator.

   If only I had kept the script and got Disney to sign it. Imagine what that would be worth now. But you don’t think of stuff like that when you are a teenager.

 

Frankie Goes to Edinburgh

 

Prior to Anita Graham and I meeting on King’s Cross Station at noon on Wednesday 3 August, flyers, badges, and T-shirts promoting the show needed to be designed. I was always amazed by Stuart’s designer, an American who lives in Minneapolis I believe, how he latched onto the character straight away and came up with the teddy bear and machine gun design, which I thought was spot on.

   There are so many events at the Edinburgh Fringe that their shows brochure is as immense as a Yellow Pages directory, and I am not exaggerating. And because we were a last-minute booking, we were not in it. And from what I had read about shows going to the festival, they encouraged gimmicky publicity stunts, and so when I set off with Anita from King’s Cross, on the Inverness train, with all my props and costume in my suitcase, I came up with the idea of having an extra teddy bear with me.

   Just before we alighted less than four and a half hours later at Waverley Street Station, I made certain the alternative teddy bear was left tucked away on the luggage rack. After I had seen Anita into a taxi taking her to her digs in Leith, I telephoned the Edinburgh Evening News, told them who I was, and about the show, and said our vital teddy bear prop had been left on the Inverness train and could they possibly put out an appeal so that the show could go ahead. But the tone of the world weary reporter made me doubt that it would make the next edition of the paper. He said, ‘This is a stunt, isn’t it?’ I admitted it was, and he said he would see what he could do but, as I thought, it didn’t make the papers.

   My digs were with Caroline Walker, a fifteen minute walk from the venue. She included in the reasonable price she charged, an enormous, cooked breakfast every day, and a massive evening meal, which is probably why I put on weight during my two weeks in Edinburgh.

   That same evening there was a meeting at the New Town Theatre, which was to be our venue for our 5 p.m. show for the next two weeks. Having put our props and costumes in a dressing room which we would be sharing with several other performers, Anita and I hung around in the main hall and watched as the venue manager, an American who was a singer and guitarist, entertaining the other performers who seemed to know him, and applauded heartily, and when he spoke they all laughed dutifully in the right places. Then he organised them to perform extracts from their respective shows. It had been a long day, and Anita and I seemed to be his last choice to perform an extract. By now it was quite late, and we were both shattered, so we told him politely that we would not be giving him an extract. On the plus side, every performer at this venue was given a token for a free pint of beer, and as Anita didn’t drink beer she gave me hers, so I had two free pints.

   The next day was our first preview, and as Stuart, our producer, and his wife Jen were not arriving until Monday the 8th, we had difficulty getting someone to agree to operate the lights for us. And then when I checked my props I was mortified to discover I had left a vital prop behind – a nail through finger trick.

   Having asked around, I was told there was a joke shop in the Grassmarket in the Old Town, which is where I had to dash off to prior to our preview. And then I had difficulty locating a small black coffee table we needed for the show, and which I had ordered within plenty of time from Amazon, to be sent directly to the New Town Theatre. I eventually located and assembled it, and we were off for our first preview which we performed to no one. But at least Anita managed to get some much-needed rehearsal. Our first, proper show to paying customers was on Saturday, only there were no paying customers, and we treated it as yet another dress rehearsal. Sunday we had an audience of paying customers – three of them.

Things were looking up.

   And then on Monday Stuart and Jen arrived, and Stuart was able to operate the lights every evening. No show in the festival must run for more than an hour, and you are allowed 15 minutes to remove your props and/or scenery. And then the next performer has 15 minutes to set up.

   One night Micky Flanagan and his family came to see the show. Stuart had a word with him and he said he really enjoyed the show. Also, Arthur Smith had publicised his top four plays to see, and ours was one of them. And slowly the audience began to build. Our venue only seated about sixty, so even playing to nine or ten people felt reasonable.

   During the fortnight, I didn’t get to wash any clothes, I bought new gear at Primark, and as the weather was reasonably warm, it meant mainly T-shirts and underwear.

   In the middle of our second week we had a 5-star review in the Edinburgh Evening News and of course it boosted our audience attendances. The review was written by Liam Rudden, himself a writer, who invited us to see his play about the Bay City Rollers, and we met their lead singer Alan Longmuir, who wasn’t in the play but he made an appearance at the end of it.

   We all had a great time in Edinburgh, wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and instead of losing our shirts on this venture, we all made eighty pounds!

   Just one minor disappointment though. I am a great Inspector Rebus reader, and his creator, Ian Rankin, mentions the Oxford pub in most of the books, and it is a pub used by Rankin himself. I went there several times, hoping I might bump into him, but our paths didn’t cross.

   I would have liked to tell him the story about my children’s book The Ice Cream Time Machine which is about time travel of two children, their uncle and his Irish wolfhound. Prior to the publication the editor e-mailed me, saying she was a doggie person, and her dogs on every walk spent their time sniffing and cocking up their legs. So I e-mailed back and said that I had read every Inspector Rebus novel, and do you know, he hasn’t had a shit in thirty years.

 

A Day in The Lives of Frankie Abbott

 

In my book Please Sir! The Official History I wrote about taking A Day in The Lives of Frankie Abbott to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016. What I didn’t write about was all the obstacles we encountered along the way, but also all the small triumphs. Long before we even considered taking the play to Edinburgh, we needed to rehearse, and Stuart Morriss, who was producing it for his company Misty Moon, needed to find us a London venue in which to rehearse. I came up with the idea of hiring the Club for Acts and Actors in Covent Garden, opposite the Actors’ Church. In return for using their small theatre to rehearse for free, we offered to perform a preview there and wouldn’t charge entrance. They still demanded £20 per hour to rehearse, and told Stuart that to give a preview performance, we would have to pay for the theatre, but we would be allowed to sell tickets.

   Thanks but no thanks, Stuart told them. Now we were panicking, because we were due to open at the Phoenix Artist Club in Charing Cross Road in just over a week’s time and we had nowhere to rehearse. Then Stuart phoned the Cinema Museum in Kennington, and the curators lets us have it for free.

   We opened at the Phoenix in April, giving two performances on the first night. Unfortunately, their bar next to the room in which we performed was so busy and noisy, that a few audience members complained. And it took Linda Regan (who was playing Frankie’s carer) and me, all our mental energy to concentrate in the battle against the bibulous noise. Fortunately, for our second performance, the bar was a little less crowded, and the noise level diminished.

   Two days later we played one night at the Epsom Playhouse in their studio theatre, and this was one of our better venues, and the show was reasonably well attended. The following night we performed at the Cinema Museum, and we also played to a large audience here too.

   But our smiles were soon wiped off our faces as we had to battle it out at Battle, near Hastings. Stuart had paid to hire Battle Memorial Hall, which was a mistake. Once you pay a venue, they are getting their money so they don’t need to do anything to promote your show. Which is exactly what happened. A fortnight earlier Stuart and I had taken a trip to Battle to leaflet the town in the hopes of finding an audience, but we were left completely to our own devices at this venue and were given a code to let ourselves into the building; there wasn’t even a single person belonging to this venue who would help us in any way. In fact, it was a miracle we performed to even 12 in the audience.

   The next three venues were reasonable: Cranleigh Arts Centre in Surrey, Sarah Thorne Theatre in Broadstairs, and the Lost Theatre in Stockwell. It was at the Stockwell date that the theatre technician told us that a date at the Edinburgh Fringe had become available, at the New Town Theatre, and would we like to take it. We discussed this with much trepidation over the next week or so because it was already May and opening in Edinburgh would be in less than three months away.

   Linda Regan backed out of Edinburgh as she had heard of people losing their shirts at the Edinburgh Fringe. After all, how might we get an audience when there are nearly 3,000 other shows performing there each year? But we went for it, and I’m glad we did, because it is something that every performer should experience.

   But first came the organising of Public Liability Insurance, marketing, publicity and a million and one other things. So that we wouldn’t suffer a great loss, Stuart set about crowd funding, and Jason Read shot a comedy video for it. We managed to raise a substantial amount, but the biggest expense would be accommodation, as every hotel or B & B in Edinburgh at that time of the year charge excessive rates.

   Having cast Anita Graham as Marion the carer, we now needed to rehearse her into the  show. One rehearsal was in Stuart’s local library at Crofton Park, and we had to ignore the funny looks we got from library customers as we rehearsed in a corner. Anita and I also rehearsed during coffee mornings at the Phoenix Artist Club, having to drop our voices to an acceptable conversational level. And then, after less than a week’s rehearsal, I set off with Anita from King’s Cross for Edinburgh on the 3rd of August. Stuart and Jen planned to arrive the beginning of the following week. And Anita and I were due to open for a preview show the day after our arrival and opening the day after on the 5th.

  During this second 2021 lockdown, news came through that the Glastonbury Festival has been cancelled this year, and I wondered about the fate of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

What a shame this will be if that happens. Although the Fringe is difficult, traumatic  sometimes, there is no getting away from the excitement and atmosphere of the event. And I will share those two weeks with you in next Friday’s blog.

 

Clerical Errors

 

Last Wednesday’s media brought us news of the Republic of Ireland’s shameful past, when unmarried mothers were taken in by nuns and their babies taken away from them. This can happen when a country is governed by a religious order, whose beliefs are not only misguided but intolerant to the point of depravity.

   In 1962, when I was still a student at Corona Academy Stage School, I became involved in playing a small part in the Jean Genet one-act play Deathwatch. The play concerns a homosexual ménage a trois between three convicts and I played the prison guard. We performed this play along with The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco and Hello from Bertha by Tennessee Williams at Corona’s own theatre for one night. Rhona Knight, the principal of the school and a passionate Shakespeare buff, came to see them, but I don’t think she was impressed by the subject matter of any of these plays. However, the director, Fiona McCleod, arranged for us to present them as part the Dublin Theatre Festival, at a tiny fringe venue, The Pocket Theatre, situated down some steps in a basement at Ely Place in central Dublin. As there were seven of us performers, we would be lucky to receive anything other than copper coins as our share of the box-office, but we were offered accommodation at the home of one of the actors, Declan Harvey, whose parents lived in a large house on the outskirts of Dublin.

   And I can remember Declan talking to us about his father, who was a high-ranking civil servant in the Irish government, and one of the archaic customs in offices of authority was that if a minion wanted to get married, they had to approach their boss to ask permission.

   But my strongest recollection of this trip was of handing out flyers for our show on St Stephen’s Green one sunny afternoon. And then I saw a man in black gliding ominously towards me, his hand held out for a leaflet. It was a Catholic priest. Now, bearing in mind that back in the sixties the priests wielded so much power, and we had heard that priests on masse attended a showing of the Tennessee Williams film adaptation of Suddenly Last Summer, starring Elizabeth Taylor, and on the cinema’s opening night they stood up, declaiming how disgusting the film was, and the audience – or should I say congregation? – had no option other than to walk out after their spiritual leaders. The film closed after the first showing as it was always the Catholic priests who called the shots back then.

   So, it was with great trepidation I handed the priest a flyer. He took his time reading it, clearly trying to intimidate me with his theatrically unhurried examination of the leaflet. ‘Hmm,’ he rumbled like the distant threat of thunder. ‘Tennessee Williams, eh? I think we shall be along to see this.’

   When I mentioned this incident to the cast, Declan Harvey threatened to kick any priests in the balls if they tried to disrupt a performance. And he meant it. He hated them with a vengeance bordering on psychotic. His mother, who was an alcoholic, had a reputation in her parish for inviting young curates into her study, and then she would lock the doors to prevent them escaping, and lecture them at length on atheism. Which only partly explained why Declan, who came from this rather unconventional Catholic family, had a long history of priest hatred, and we all hoped the clergy might attend a performance, and speculated on what great publicity our plays would have if Declan attacked any of them. Of course, they never attended a performance, knowing that actors in the theatre can answer back. Films were an easier target for the cowardly priests.

 

My New Year’s Resolution

 

No I am not giving up alcohol or even having a dry January. I am stuck indoors, as in “’im indoors, Terry”, so I will take comfort in the odd bottle or two of wine. I am not even going to give up colourful language…no, fuck that for a game of tin soldiers. And I am not dieting or committing myself to anything physical. No, what I am going to try to do is – and I am the first to admit I may not succeed – I am going to try to not make assumptions about people.

   We all do it, don’t we? We might spot that dickhead who wears socks and sandals and write him – it’s usually a ‘him’ – off as a total wally. Whereas that sock and sandal clad person may well be a professor of physics or a brain surgeon. It’s doubtful, but you never know. In the brain of a badly dressed person there may well be tomorrow’s Stephen Hawking or the next Man Booker Prize winner.

   We tend to judge on appearances, when we may well turn out to be wrong about a person. And the police do it all the time, don’t they?  Oh, that black person driving a Mercedes must be a drug dealer, else why would a black person be driving such a high-status car? Let’s have him, shall we? And while we are at it, let’s search the baby in the back seat for drugs. They don’t fool us. Nah! Good place to conceal drugs that.

   You see how thick those coppers are. Whoops! Did I just make an ‘assumption’ then?

   I must stop doing it. Remember this year’s resolution? Thou must not assume by a person’s appearance, or where the police are concerned I must not judge them by the behaviour of the odd bad apple. Or where the Mercedes stop and search was concerned, three bad apples I believe.

   Pamela Anderson has been in the news recently, and in the past whenever I thought of her in Baywatch, I wrongly assumed she was a stereotypical bimbo. How wrong I was. She has become a close friend of Julian Assange and has been campaigning on his behalf.

Recently she said, ‘The case is simply a criminalisation of a free press. Julian is being charged with journalism. Documents that have exposed war crimes and human rights abuses. Now the US wants to punish him for exposing those crimes.’

    And Assange himself has created a multitude of people who have made assumptions about him. He is a spy, and what he wrote about in Wikileaks endangered the lives of US troops and allied soldiers. But whenever I challenged this, no one could give me an example, no facts to back it up. Even the Americans couldn’t come up with anything, which is why they want him on the trumped up charge of spying by hacking their war computers, a charge which he categorically denies.

    But he has seriously upset the Americans, exposing them as war criminals. For instance, he posted military video footage of a 2007 Apache helicopter air strike near Baghdad that killed civilians, including Reuter’s correspondents, who had children with them in their van, and a little girl was seriously wounded in this carnage.

    This disgraceful slaughter of civilians from the Apache helicopter is posted on YouTube should you wish to see it, but I must warn you it is seriously upsetting. And you can hear the helicopter personnel laughing and joking about the slaughter, almost as if this is nothing more serious than a video game. And when the ground troops discover the little girl in the van is wounded, one of the helicopter crew says, ‘It’s their fault for bringing children to a battle.’

    If this was from a fictional film you would think it was overdone.

   Anyway, that is my resolution. Not to assume anything about anyone based on appearances. It will all be existential from now on. I will attempt to only judge a person by their  actions or behaviour. Of course, I may fail. In fact watching the news today I think I may have failed already.

   I may have mistakenly assumed that there must be at least 70 million Americans who are as dumb as shit!

 

Aladdin’s Magic Computer

 

Wishee’s Log…Star Date 23.12.20

Chief Engineer Wishee Washee reporting from the Starship Twankey. Our mission: To find the Dreaded Waffling Monster from the Bullingdon Planet and recover the magic computer. I turn to my trusted robot Aladdin. He seems a little down in the dumps. In fact, a hypo-glycerine tear has fused his circuits, and I know he’s sad because he’s in love with the humanoid Princess. I thump him with a laser head. ‘How can a humanoid love a robot like me?’ he moans.

   ‘Especially a robot in fishnet tights,’ I tell him.

   He looks like blowing another fuse.

   ‘Holy electron!’ I exclaim. ‘I’ve had an idea. Find the magic computer and the Universe shall be yours.’

  ‘I don’t want the Universe,’ he squeaks. ‘I just want the Princess.’

   I am about to tell him that the Princess is included in the Universe in a package deal when we are interrupted by Widow Twankey entering the control room. She has pointed ears and ‘Made in China’ tattooed on her arm.

   ‘And how’s my little invention today?’ she addresses Aladdin in her big bass voice. Her robot bleeps sulkily.

   ‘Suit yourself,’ she snaps and turns to me. ‘Now then, Chief Engineer, have you reactivated the retro-booster rockets yet? Fixed the spark plug in the transmogrification unit and changed the porthole abstersive  oscillators?’

   ‘What’s that?’

   ‘The windscreen wipers. And have you reassembled the megaton tackling regenerator, repaired the electric toaster and the space shuttle?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘Why not?’

   ‘I lost my screwdriver.’

   Suddenly, we are hurled sideways. ‘Our ship is heading straight for a chrono-synclastic infundibulum,’ I scream.

   ‘Don’t panic,’ Twankey yells. ‘I know exactly what to do?’

   ‘What?’

   ‘Look it up in the dictionary.’

   But it’s too late! We are swallowed up by a big Black Hole and are bombarded by what appears to be Big Macs, at least 500 feet in diameter.

   ‘Oh no!’ cries Twankey. ‘We are heading into a fast food belt. And it’s takeaway only these days.’

   Bleep. Bleep.

   ‘Mistress,’ announces Aladdin. ‘The control console tells us we are nearing a small asteroid called Tier 4. And there appears to be some life down there. Look at all those strange lights.’

   ‘I’m going down to take a look,’ I say, and beam down.

   They’re lights all right. Hundreds of them, changing from red to amber to green and back again. But there is very little life as far as I can see. I beam up again and report my verdict to Twankey.

   ‘Aladdin,’ she instructs the robot. ‘Increase our speed to 186,000 miles per second.’

   And before you can say Steven Spielberg, here we are on the other side of the Universe, and below us is the Green Planet, what used to be known as Earth. ‘Ah!’ I nod knowingly. I expect they changed the name from Earth to Green Planet because of all the trees they planted.’

   ‘Wrong!’ bleeps Aladdin. ‘It’s because of their obsession with the green folding stuff that you keep in a wallet.’

   Suddenly, I have the answer. It’s the Waffling Unkempt Monster from the Bullingdon Planet who has the magic computer, and he has left it in charge of his other evil minion Pratty Pathell. I know what I have to do. Reconnoitre the Green Planet and find the Magic Computer, which will save us all.

   ‘Take the space shuttle,’ Twankey suggests. ‘But beware of the Alien.’

   ‘Is that the slimy thing that bursts out of your stomach?’

   ‘Yes, so don’t eat at Motorway Services.’

   Aladdin and I bid Mrs Twankey farewell and climb aboard the space shuttle, and we soon touch down on the Green Planet, which doesn’t seem as green as I imagined. Then, as soon as we leave our craft, a hideous, horrible thing collapses across our path.

   ‘Sensors indicate that this is a common disease of earthlings, ‘ Aladdin explains. ‘Known as Bacchanals Compotation.’

    ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘He’s been defying earth curfew and drinking with his mates.’

   The thing croaks and whines unintelligibly, sounding not unlike one of those Karaoke Androids. But there is worse to come.

   With a waffling roar the Unkempt Waffler from Planet Bullingdon confronts us with a waved fist, who thinks he’s the ruler of the Universe, but even his evil minions have begun deserting him.

   Aladdin confirms this, saying, ‘Yes, his most sacred advisor has flown the planet.’

   ‘What was his name?’ I demand.

   ‘First name initial D,’ confirms the robot.

   ‘Of course. Darth. The D stands for Darth, Evil ruler of the Empire.’

   ‘Wrong,’ Aladdin says. ‘D is for Dominic. The Power behind the throne, until he decided to take a trip to the moon to test his eyesight.’

   ‘Enough!’ screams the Waffler. ‘Now it is time for my evil minion Ms Pathell to torture you with her rhetoric.'

   But I am saved by an idea. ‘The pound is mightier than the dollar,’ I yell.

   They are both so elated by the news that they take their eye off the ball for a moment and Aladdin reaches the Magic Computer. ‘It won’t do you any good, ‘ screams Pathell while fondly fondling her Waffler. ‘The computer is programmed for evil.’

   ‘Want a bet?’ bleeps Aladdin, his mechanical buttons pressing digits. He types out four letters:

   L-O-V-E.

   ‘Aaagh!’ screams the Waffling Monster and shrivels to an oily pulp. While Pratty Pathell screeches before vanishing to a distant galaxy to write her memoirs.

   ‘Ah!’ says the Princess dreamily, appearing magically in soft focus and running to Aladdin. She gazes into his electronic optics.

   ‘I’m rich,’ Aladdin shouts. ‘Rich! Beyond my wildest dreams.’

   ‘Ooh,’ the Princess coos dreamily. ‘A perfect match.’

   Of course, I think: many girls marry automatons just as longs as they have wealth.’

   It was time for me to leave. ‘May the force be with you,’ was my parting shot as I beamed up to Starship Twankey.

   Chief Engineer Wishee Washee Over and Out.

   Last message received was:

   Be back in another earth year when we will find out if the rulers of the universe have stopped waffling, which is a bit like asking a tiger if it likes salad.

 

THE POET IN SOHO

 

As the beer-fuddled poet blinked the sleep from his eyes, he knew there was something he had to do, or something he had already done, but his mind was a raging blank. Raging blank! He made a mental note of the phrase before staggering into the bathroom, promising himself he would write it down before it was lost forever in his booze splattered brain cells, and wondered how many millions of the little grey devils he had slaughtered in last night’s binge.

      As soon as he had urinated copiously, he went into the hit-by-a-bomb kitchen, and found her note on the table. The note from his lovely love, his dearest treasure, and easier to love now that she had caught yesterday’s late afternoon train for Swansea, leaving him alone which was how he wanted it to be. No fussing, arguing, or expectation of performing now, left in peace to be creative and write that poem that was buzzing in his head, tormenting him with words that he relished like liquorice sweets, chewy and sickly.

      Scowling as he lit a cigarette, inhaling smoke deep into his lungs, he stared at the note as if it was a mysterious wartime code, though it was merely a briefly scrawled reminder, unsigned. ‘Don’t forget tonight’s reading. And the suit from Moss Brothers.’

     It started to come back to him, dripping into his brain like a leaky tap, cryptic clues of his impending poetry reading. Not just any old poetry reading. It was something significant, that much he remembered. A reading in front of – was it a royal personage or an important member of the cabinet, someone connected with the arts? What did it matter? He would give his best undying performance whether it was prince or pauper. But where was the venue? Was it Wigmore Hall or perhaps the self-important Guildhall in the City? His memory filtered slowly like coffee in the Swansea Kardomah, and he remembered they were sending a car for him at five-thirty, so the driver would have been given instructions. And he felt it was better not to know where they were going; that way he could surprise himself, indulge in a mystery trip and catch the venue unawares. He chuckled, coughed, and ash fell from his cigarette. Peering again at the note, he saw a writhing snake, a higgledy-piggledy underlining of the second sentence. Of course! She had emphasised the need for sartorial elegance. A dinner jacket needed to be rented for this truly important reading, for a performance which could lead to greater affluence and sustain his family and holy treasure for many months. Much as his mind was torpedoed with bombastic broadsides about bourgeois preening and prancing, he was nonetheless comforted by the delight of dressing up, which would remind him of his stage performances when a mere stripling at the Little Theatre in the ghastly, glorious town of his birth.

     Later in the day – but not much later, as his surfacing had been way past noon – he sustained himself with two pints of bitter before staggering into the Moss Brothers gentleman’s outfitters in Garrick Street, Covent Garden. The first member of staff to greet him was tall and stately, and he could imagine this dignified butler dishing out brandy sodas in some vast drawing room in a country house somewhere in the shires. And if this almost credible Jeeves registered alarm at his dishevelled appearance, it was but a brief flicker of the eyes, and the shop assistant soon resumed impassive dignity in dishing out the same restrained service on offer to every client. Soon the poet was kitted out in evening wear, admiring himself in a full-length mirror. No longer looking like an unmade bed, as some wag had once described him, but now cutting a dash in ballot box black and butterfly bow.

      Careful to avoid temptation and the lure of the alehouse, he returned to his borrowed residence and soaked indulgently in a steaming hot bath, sucking boiled sweets and cigarettes. Proud of his almost two hours of abstinence, he dressed hurriedly at five-fifteen and glanced at his image in the mirror. Bow tie slightly skew-whiff but at least an improvement on his usual tangled appearance. Hair deliberately let loose in uncombed raffishness so as not to pander completely to the bureaucratic whim of the bourgeoisie.

     His car, an impressive Austin Princess, arrived bang on the dot of half-five. The chauffeur saluted him smartly and opened the rear door for him. But, as poet and man of the people, in spite of the upper crust outfit, he refused the open door invitation and let himself into the front passenger seat. The chauffeur slid huffily into his driver’s seat, and he could tell the man was a grovelling forelock puller, streets more snobbish than many of his passengers. So when he was gruffly informed they were heading for Wigmore Hall, he felt a strong desire to puncture the chauffeur’s pompousness and instructed the man to head for a Soho pub instead. The man started to object but the poet waved it aside demonstratively, showing the fellow who was in charge.

     They parked outside the York Minster in Dean Street, the pub everyone knew as ‘The French’, and without a backward glance the poet dashed inside. His intention was perhaps one pint and a whisky chaser, just to show the wretched driver how free he was from the constraints of convention; and then, having made his point, he would be a good poet and allow himself to be chauffeured on best behaviour to the venue. But there is many a slip, as they say. And the slip was the bibulous atmosphere of the pub, beckoning him away from duty, along with the other ragbag of artists, actors and writers, some of whom he knew, propping up the bar and imbibing as though their lives depended on how much booze they could slosh down their throats. Three pints and two whisky chasers later, his mellifluous voice soared in the blue fog of the bar as he belittled Wordsworth. His voice, cut with glass vowels from Oxford, still rose and fell in sing-song Welsh, and stories sprang from his lips with abandon, often punctuated by nicotine coughs. He was great company, and so was everyone in the bar. This was phase one of the evening. Next came the offer to his dearest friends, even ones he had only just met, of a lift to the next boozer, the Coach and Horses. Two of them took him up on the offer, while others walked the short distance round the corner. By now the driver was resigned to his fate, stiffly obedient, but comforted by the thought that he might get home early and still be paid the same rate..

      An hour later the poet, in the company of an actor and a musician, tumbled out of the ‘Coach’, and the chauffeur-driven car was dismissed with a grandiloquent gesture. Every pub was now within weaving distance, and next on the agenda was the Dog and Duck in Bateman Street where, after their noisy entrance, the poet abandoned the bow tie in an ashtray and spent much time discussing Marx Brothers films. By now he was well into his cups, and after another hour of rambling conversations about Stravinsky and surrealism, he and his tipsy companions staggered to the Nellie Dean, where they consumed alcohol in vast quantities, drinking faster as their pub crawl degenerated into a race towards oblivion. Clinging to hazy parodies of sobriety, they then reeled into the Intrepid Fox, where they reached the penultimate phase of the night, becoming argumentative and contradictory. The final phase came a little bit further up Wardour Street at The George, where the poet fell over, tried to pick a fight with the musician over slurred disagreements about jazz and opera, before blundering into the Gents, where he bounced into the door, impaled his coat pocket on the handle, and ripped an ugly gash in it as he pulled himself free. A sudden agitation in his stomach was his last surviving memory of the evening.

     Stirring the following day, a mouth like the ashes of the dead, and eyes that seemed to be glued together, he felt his bladder bursting, and groaned loudly as he dashed to the bathroom and made it just in time. The relief was unbelievably enjoyable, like sitting down and getting one’s breath back after hill walking. When he returned, swaying, to the bedroom, and stood framed in the doorway clutching the doorknob for support, he spotted the sad bundle of his evening wear, discarded in a heap on the floor by the end of the bed. Head bent, he shuffled closer to the bundle, moved the jacket with his foot, and was horrified to see the vomit clinging to it like cereal in an unwashed bowl. He tried to recall the butt end of the night, vaguely remembering arguments and a fuzzy recollection of being thrown out of The George. Everything was hazy, like dream sequences in films. He gave up trying to stitch the pieces together and went back to bed where he slept for another two hours. When he awoke at well past two o’clock, his eyes focused on the degraded bundle of his rented dinner suit. He shivered from blood-lowering excess and finger-pointing accusations of his third-rate antics of the night before, then suddenly remembered the chauffeur and his appointment at the Wigmore Hall. He swung his legs out of bed and sat up, cupping his throbbing head in his hands. How could he have forgotten the poetry reading? And how could he now repair the blunder? There was no telephone in the basement flat so he resolved to go out and make his almost-needing-hospital-treatment excuses from a call box. But first there was the problem of the dinner jacket to sort out.

     Still swaying and muddle-headed, he carried the Moss Brothers bundle into the small back garden. Rummaging in the garden shed, he found a spade, then buried the stinking bundle in a small patch of soft earth in the flower bed. Once he had patted the soil down with the back of the spade, and returned it to its shed, he went indoors to make himself a cup of tea and erased the tawdry crime from his brain.

     Almost a week passed before the evening wear was noticed missing by Moss Brothers. A letter arrived, polite at first, wondering if the return of the suit had been overlooked. But the poet, busy broadcasting for the BBC, conveniently forgot about the reminder. A second letter arrived, now more assertive and demanding. This too was shoved into the part of the poet’s brain reserved for trivialities, while he concentrated on creating a masterpiece of metaphors and imagery. But when the third letter arrived, this one more threatening in tone, and even hinting of legal action, he decided it was time to act. He dashed out and purchased brown paper and a ball of string. Then, returning to the scene of the crime, he went back to the garden and dug up the offending suit from its burial ground. Back in the kitchen he laid the sodden article carefully on two layers of brown paper. Lumps of clay now clung to the disgorged contents of his stomach and, holding his breath, he quickly folded the brown paper over the carcase of his evening wear.  Never clever with his hands, except for wielding a pen, he struggled to tie the parcel and swore profusely. Eventually the misshapen object was tied with so much string it looked like an escapologist trying to fight his way out of a strait jacket, but at least it was secure. He stared at the slipshod parcel for a while, wondering what might mitigate the offence, and then it came to him. Of course! Why hadn’t he thought of it? He was, after all, a regular broadcaster for the BBC and a poet about to have a five-thousand print run of his latest anthology. He would write a poem for the gentleman’s outfitters which should appease the hardest heart.

      He scribbled the poem, which took him no longer than five minutes, on a sheet of paper from a writing pad, slipped it into a matching envelope, attached it to the parcel and, feeling pleased with a job well done, rushed out to the post office. Once the parcel had been despatched, he jumped in a taxi and headed for the Star and Garter in Soho where he sat on a bar stool and regaled some of the regulars with amusing stories and filthy rhymes.

     He never ever thought about the dinner jacket again. As far as he was concerned, the generosity of his poetic gift had wiped the slate clean.

     When the parcel arrived two days later at the gentleman’s outfitters in Garrick Street, staff stared at it suspiciously, and one of them suggested humorously that they ought to call out the army bomb disposal unit. The manager of the store was summonsed to review the situation as not one member of staff wanted to touch the errant package. The manager sniffed suspiciously, certain he could detect an unpleasant, earthy smell, then removed the envelope and slid out the note. His eyes bulged as he tried to comprehend its message. It read:

Dear Brothers Moss,

Sorry for the loss.

Dylan Thomas”

 

No Deal in The Fifties

 

I can’t help wondering what a ‘No Deal’ Brexit would mean for us British tourists entering France. After all, almost twenty years before we even joined the Common Market, two of our then biggest stars in the United Kingdom found entering France difficult. Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, the most famous theatrical couple in the fifties were held up at the  French border for well over an hour. I can honestly testify to that happening. I was there, aged fourteen.

    We were about to tour in Shakespeare’s  Titus Andronicus, the most prestigious theatre tour of all time, visiting Paris, Venice, Belgrade, Zagreb, Vienna and Warsaw, and I was playing Young Lucius, Titus’s grandson.

    We set off one bright and sunny day in May from Victoria, on the boat train. After the channel crossing, after we had disembarked, and wanting to get to our chartered train, eager to be in Paris, I couldn’t believe how severe the French customs officers were as they regarded the Titus company with deep suspicion. They fiddled, fussed and procrastinated until everything ground to a halt, so that we were holed up for what seemed like an eternity in the heat of the customs shed, with actors becoming severely tetchy. I watched Vivien Leigh’s dam about to burst, restraining herself from grabbing an official by the throat. From her body language I could see how much she hated authority and petty mindedness. I think I must have been gaping open-mouthed, watching Scarlett O’Hara, and seeing why she was perfect casting for the role. As the customs officers dithered and shrugged in their offhand Gallic manner, a volcano inside Vivien Leigh seemed about to erupt. But she must have realised that she was one of Britain’s cultural ambassadors and managed to calm herself as she turned away from the heated arguments taking place as Patrick Donnell, our company manager, attempted to reason with the officials.

   Fascinated, I stared at the scene, frowning in concentration. Suddenly, Vivien Leigh marched over to me and told me not to frown, telling me it would age me as an adult. ‘Never frown,’ she advised. Which I thought was choice coming from someone who had been scowling at the customs officers. But perhaps I had saved the day and she had used me as a distraction to revert to diplomacy, tearing herself away from the petty officials she wanted to slap. However dazzling her husband’s reputation was, it didn’t seem to cut any ice with the customs officers. Perhaps they held him personally responsible for Agincourt. Whatever the reason, we spent a long time entering France, and it was well over an hour. But I didn’t mind, I was too busy taking it all in, staring at gendarme with a gun in a holster, because in those days we never saw armed British policemen on the streets.

    Eventually, after a good 90 minutes, this enormous cast of 40 actors, plus the stage management, electricians, props and wardrobe, making a total of 60 in the company, was permitted to board the Paris train.

    Now, if Sir Kenneth Branagh, thinks entering France will be easy, he must think again. He did, after all, follow in Sir Laurence’s footsteps and play Henry V on film, and if the French get word of this that yet another thespian walloped them at Agincourt…although it is far more likely that any hold up at the French border is more likely to be caused by our prime minister’s lack of a deal.

 

 

And in The Beginning was The Potter’s Wheel

 

My family had resisted buying a television set up until 1955. There were all sorts rumours about the ‘goggle box’ or the ‘one-eyed monster’ and how it was blamed for many social evils and was responsible for all kinds of physical deformity; anyone who had a squint, naturally it was television to blame. But the worst thing about television back then was the way the BBC operated, shutting down at 10.45 p.m., first of all playing ‘God Save the Queen’. (Did the BBC expect us to stand to attention at home, as was expected of us when they played the National Anthem at the end of the main feature at the cinema?) And there were the mind-numbing interludes between programmes when they played drippy music while showing hands making a vase on a potter’s wheel or a windmill turning, a form of hypnosis as if Big Brother was lulling us into a soporific state. And the programmes themselves were not much better. Often I and my family preferred to sit by the wireless and listen to the anarchic comedy of The Goon Show or some of the brilliant lugubrious humour of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock of Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, in Hancock’s Half Hour. At first, it was hard to accept live television shows, often ruined by many technical cock-ups, with sound booms or a camera lens coming into shot. In the early days of television, a teenage girl remarked, ‘I prefer radio to television, the images are so much better.’

    My parents, and my older brother, preferred the theatre and cinema, which also rubbed off on me in a big way.

    But there was one American comedy my father loved, which was The Phil Silvers Show, in which he played army Sgt Bilko, performing with immaculate timing. Of course in those days most of the American imports were Westerns. But BBC’s output then was ever so twee, with programmes like What’s My Line, hosted by Gilbert Harding, a headstrong schoolmasterly man who often upset people with a caustic remark and his panel consisted of well-spoken and well-mannered ladies like Lady Barnet, Lady Boyle and Barbara Kelly. And this was the quiz show where a guest had to mime their occupation, and the panellists had to guess what he or she did for a living. Riveting! But maybe we were easily pleased back then. (Perhaps we still are judging by some of the reality TV programmes showing these days.) But surely our gratification was easily satisfied in the fifties when we were amused by some of the variety shows like The Billy Cotton Band Show, where we marvelled at Cotton,* the entertainer and host, an overweight man who was able to do cartwheels as he yelled, ‘Wakey! Wakey!’

    Little wonder that television remained socially low and inferior on the cultural scale. And when ITV began broadcasting in 1955, it created social divisions with the viewing public, many snobbish viewers preferring the cosiness of the BBC, with Dixon of Dock Green  and his catchphrase (it was the era of catchphrases) ‘Evening all,’ which was perhaps more comforting than ITV’s Dragnet and ‘My name’s Friday. I’m a cop.’

    Then on ITV there were the commercials, which loyal BBC viewers tried to avoid, like the first ever TV advert for Gibbs SR toothpaste informing viewers that it was tingling fresh.  And a washing powder commercial stated that ‘Omo improves even on perfect whiteness.’ (Did anyone stop to wonder how you can improve on perfection?) ITV stations soon became known for a ‘licence to print money.’ A commercial during peak time between 7.00 p.m. and 10.30 p.m. could cost as much as £2,000 per minute (roughly £36,000 in today’s money). But it was ITV who became more innovative when a Canadian, Sydney Newman, who left the Canadian Broadcasting Company to work for ABC Television, founded Armchair Theatre, a series of hour-long plays broadcast every Sunday night after Sunday Night at The London Palladium. Many of the plays were written by renowned writers like Alan Plater, Alun Owen and Harold Pinter. These plays, which gave many young writers their first opportunity in writing for television, ran for 452 episodes. At last television was getting somewhere.

 

*His son, Bill Cotton junior became Controller of BBC 1 in the 1970s. When the violent borstal play Scum was made for television, it was banned. In certain circles Scum became known as ‘The Billy Cotton banned show.’

 

Trailer extracts for Please Sir! The Official History

 

On the day of the first episode in Wembley Studios, all of us 5C actors had to go early to wardrobe and get into the costumes we would be wearing, so that we were in our costumes for the technical camera rehearsal, when everything runs very slowly as the crew deal with all the problems we might encounter prior to the dress rehearsal, which would be in the afternoon of the following day.

   After I got kitted out in my combat jacket, I went into the studio to find John Alderton already sitting at his desk in the classroom, looking just like a young teacher fresh out of teacher training college, wearing a drab, brown tweedy jacket. I went up to him and said something like, ‘That is a brilliant costume, John, just the sort of naff thing a young teacher would wear.’

   By reply I got a funny look, as if I was winding him up.

   Later on I discovered he hadn’t yet been to wardrobe to get kitted out, and those were his own clothes!’

 

Mark Stuart’s direction, we soon discovered, could be very basic. Once I asked him what my motivation was for a certain line, to which he replied, ‘It’s because you get fucking paid to say it.’ And if any characters ended a scene with a visual shot, Mark’s direction would be along the lines of, ‘Come on, give me a mixed bag of reactions.’

 

Although the second series of Please Sir! was not due to start rehearsing and recording until early September, John Alderton invited most of us to an Apollo 11 moon landing party on 20 July at his London flat, where we stayed up all night to see the memorable event. A friend of John’s, Geoffrey Hughes, who was due to play a painter and decorator in the first episode of the second series of Please Sir!, attended the party and cooked us pancakes throughout the night. However shadowy the moonwalking astronaut figures of Armstrong and Aldrin were, we were all enthralled as we talked about the enormity of this technological achievement, and the distance that separated them from the earth. We all agreed it was a staggering achievement, although we did enjoy a few laughs that night as well, especially when President Richard Nixon came online to speak to the astronauts, saying it had to be the most historical phone call ever made, and Geoffrey Hughes wondered how much the call was costing, and if he had enough coins to feed in before the pips went. It was a great night though, and wonderful being part of this historic and memorable event, sharing it with our work colleagues, although I don’t think Peter Cleall attended because he lived in Brighton, but I can certainly remember Peter Denyer and Malcolm McFee being there.

 

Erik Chitty occasionally behaved just like his Smithy character. When we were about halfway through the series, he approached Peter and me, and asked why Eric Duffy was called El. We explained that East Londoners often do that – calling someone by the name of Derek ‘Del’ or Terry ‘Tel’, which was why the script often referred to Eric as ‘El’. There was a pause before Erik Chitty said, ‘Oh, I see. But no one has ever called me El.’

   It gave us the giggles, and we later referred to him as El Chitty.

 

The Fenn Street Gang

 

Another time one of the prop men showed me a butterfly bookmark which if you folded it and inserted it in the pages of a book, then opened it at that page, it would fly out. Feeling I needed to indulge in a childish prank, I borrowed the butterfly and a book, and in the middle of a camera rehearsal of a scene I wasn’t in, a scene in which Carol sat at a dinner table, I crawled on my hands and knees unseen by the cameras, looked up at Carol and told her to open the book at a certain page. I hadn’t expected quite such a startled reaction when the butterfly flew out. She jumped and screamed, while I crawled hastily away. And then I heard John Quilty, our floor manager, explaining to the director that it was just an Abbott creature playing a silly joke. I think the director of this particular episode was Phil Casson who was always laid back. Had it been Mark Stuart in the control room I dread to think what an earful I would have got.

 

The book also contains many colour photographs and is currently available in hardcover priced at £16.99, with free postage on Amazon.

 

 

Never On A Sunday

 

As we are in a lockdown at the height of a pandemic, I often wonder what day it is, as they are all the same now. And what is even worse, every day is like a Sunday, my least favourite day. For me, the Boomtown Rats got it wrong with their song about why they hated Monday. I always looked forward to Monday, because it meant I had survived another Sunday.

    So why do I loathe Sundays so much? It was to do with my childhood, growing up in North Wales where everything was shut on a Sunday: no pubs, restaurants or cinemas, everything except chapel was forbidden on a Sunday. During my teens, after we had moved to the south east, with my family I returned to Holyhead to visit my grandmother. Even though the pubs were closed on Sundays, some headway had been made and the cinemas could now open on a Sunday. My brother and I went to see a film early one Sunday evening, and when my grandmother found out she admonished us as she sat in front of her television set watching Sunday Night at The London Palladium. We tried to explain that a visit to the cinema was no different to watching TV, but she didn’t see it that way.

    In the early sixties, each county in Wales held polls to decide which ones would remain dry, and several counties voted to remain dry on Sunday. Which didn’t do a lot for drinking and driving if you enjoyed a drink and lived not far from the border of a ‘wet’ county. Many residents of Holyhead – those who liked alcohol – belonged to a yacht club and could have a guilt free drink on Sundays, even though they might never have been on a yacht in their life. And there were some crazy anomalies. In the late sixties the county of Gwynedd had voted to remain dry on Sundays, and my wife and I, while paying a visit to my cousin in Holyhead one Easter, were surprised to learn that we could have a drink on the Christian religious day, Good Friday. But we said, the pubs are still shut on Sundays. Then my cousin explained, we could go to a pub on Good Friday, but they only opened normal Sunday hours!

    And it wasn’t just Wales that suffered such angst from boozing on a Sunday. Scotland was the same. In 1974, they were still dry then on a Sunday, and Peter Cleall, Malcolm McFee and I were on tour in The Lads From Fenn Street, and performing at Kirkcaldy in Fife. When we arrived on the Sunday, prior to opening on the Monday, we checked into a hotel and, because we were residents, we could at least enjoy a drink after our long journey from England. At the finish of this date, our next venue was in Hull and we set off on Sunday morning. As we drove to our next venue and crossed the border, we stopped for some liquid refreshment during lunchtime at the first pub in England. We had just got our drinks when someone said, ‘How’s your tour going?’

   The chap introduced himself. He recognised us because he was an actor touring in another show, on their way from Bournemouth to Aberdeen, and decided to stop off for a final drink before the last leg of their marathon journey.

    Although certain areas in Wales remained dry on Sundays right up until the early ‘90s, thankfully during our tour most of Wales had seen the sense in conforming with the rest of Britain, and the three of us enjoyed a boozy week when we performed at the Swansea Grand Theatre. During that week, I had to rise extremely early one morning to catch the 125 train to Paddington, where I was picked up and driven to a film studio for a half day’s shoot with Caroline Munro, which I have written about in my recently published Please Sir! The Official History.

    When I returned to Swansea, just in time for the evening show, Malcolm and Peter were in one of the hotel rooms, tucking into chips and scallops bought from a local chippy. When they complained that the scallops tasted of potato, I explained that in Wales what are known as scallops in chippies are thin slivers of potato dipped and fried in batter. They had just been eating a double portion of potato. I laughed as I told them the price should have given them a clue. Seafood scallops for the price of a bag of chips!

 

Death of a Musical

 

In 1978 I was offered three roles in a Radio 4 version of Under Milk Wood. I was thrilled at being asked to play Dai Bread, Sinbad Sailors and Jack Black. The First Voice was played by Glyn Houston, and the rehearsal and recording lasted a week, an almost unknown luxury for radio.

   After this bright start to the year, a phone call came out of the blue from Bill Kenwright. ‘Can you sing?’ he asked me. When I told him I could, he laughed and said, ‘Of course, you’re bound to say that just to get the job, you wanker.’

   He invited me to visit his office that afternoon, and he and his general manager, Rod Coton, took me to a coffee bar in The Strand for tea. Bill switched on the charm and told me he wanted me to take over from Jack Wild in a pre-West End tour of a new musical, Big Sin City. He gave me an LP, a cast recording of the show, signed the front cover wishing me luck, and promised to re-record the track with me singing Jack Wild’s solo song. When I asked him why Jack Wild was leaving the show, all he said was something like, ‘Because he’s a useless little fucker.’

   Big Sin City was a rock musical, a modern reworking of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was written by three brothers: John, Neil and Lea Heather, and tried hard to be a parody of other musical shows. I went to see it almost every night at Wimbledon Theatre, which was to be Jack Wild’s last date on tour. After that it was a week’s rehearsal, not only for my benefit but so they could make much needed rewrites to the show.

   The part was a character called Slic, a teddy boy, and the show opened with him sitting and snogging with Su Pollard in the auditorium (I didn’t get paid any extra for this!). A spotlight picked us out, then I stood up and spoke some brief dialogue prior to a rock ‘n’ roll number bursting into life on stage. We opened at Brighton Theatre Royal for this part of the tour. During the midweek matinee, as soon as the spotlight picked me out, and as I was about to start my prologue, an irate pensioner sitting on my other side to Su, grabbed my arm and tried to pull me back into my seat. ‘Sit down, son,’ he said. ‘This is a show. Behave yourself.’

   Even though Jack Wild had left the show, he had become great mates with some of the cast and musicians, and attended almost every performance at Brighton, then came to the pub with us afterwards. I felt there was something fishy going on, I still couldn’t work out what it was. Some of the cast must have known, but nobody had the decency to tell me. And throughout the tour the Heather brothers encouraged my ad-libs while one of them stood in the wings making notes. They also told me we would definitely be going into the West End.

   As soon as the tour ended, I sat at home waiting for the phone call about the West End transfer. When I didn’t hear anything, I telephoned one of the cast. His wife answered. ‘Michael’s not here,’ she said. ‘He’s rehearsing.’

   When I asked her what he was appearing in, there was a pause before she answered. ‘Oh, haven’t they told you? The bastards! Mike’s rehearsing Big Sin City. It opens next week at the Roundhouse, prior to the West End. And Jack Wild’s back in it.’

   So, as I deep-down suspected, that was why he kept visiting us on tour. He’d been keeping abreast of all the script changes we made. Kenwright and the Heather brothers knew all along that Jack Wild would come back into the show for the London run. He’d left the tour due to a

prior television commitment. What I couldn’t get over was why everyone found it necessary to lie to me. If they’d offered me the job saying it was only for the five week tour, I would still have done it.

   I made an angry phone call to Kenwright’s organisation. They still owed me ninety pounds for my rail travel, so I went storming down The Strand towards his office. While I waited for a lull in the traffic to cross the road, I spotted the Heather brothers arriving at his office. Pleased I could watch them wriggle with embarrassment, I followed them into the building.

They must have been warned of my imminent arrival because they had disappeared into the inner sanctum of Kenwright’s office and clearly had no intention of showing their faces in the reception area where I sat.

   Rod Coton pleaded poverty and promised there would be a cheque in the post. Along with the other broken promises, I thought. As it was gone five in the evening, I said I refused to budge, and would remain in the office until I was paid. Eventually, Rod managed to borrow eighty pounds from an assistant and I settled for that. I never did get the outstanding balance. 

   Big Sin City opened at the Roundhouse and was unanimously slated by the critics. It lasted a week.

 

Stranger than Fiction

 

A Deadly Diversion, my crime novel, which was published in 2014 by Acorn Books, an imprint of Andrews UK Ltd, has suddenly become topical as an enquiry has just begun into the SDS (Special Demonstration Squad) and their undercover and fraudulent activities.

   The SDS was an undercover unit of the Metropolitan Police, and part of the Special Branch, set up in 1968 to investigate mainly left-wing anti-Vietnam war protesters at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, but over many decades the undercover officers have investigated animal rights and environmental protesters, and even Labour politicians. Undercover police officers were given the nicknames of ‘the hairies’ because of their hippie appearances.

   In my thriller, private detective Freddie Weston investigates the murder of a young woman’s family, a crime the police failed to solve more than eleven years ago, and this takes him and his partner on to discovering the false identity of a suspected killer, thought to be an undercover police officer, who has taken the identity of a child who died years ago. And the investigation reveals that the suspected undercover police officer has been leading a double life, living with a woman who has fathered his child and knows nothing of his true identity.

   If you think that is fiction, think again.

   The inquiry into the SDS activities, which has already cost almost £30 million, will take at least three years. For instance, in 2014 the Met agreed to pay out almost half a million pounds to a woman whose child was fathered by undercover SDS officer Bob Lambert. And Mark Kennedy who spent years masquerading as a left-wing activist had several long-term relationships with unsuspecting women. And most of these undercover officers took the identities of children who had died, and became fictional characters, living a lie for many years, disappearing occasionally to liaise with their handlers and MI5 officers.

   Although the SDS was disbanded in 2008, because of so much adverse publicity and criticism, another undercover squad has been set up called the National Domestic Extremism Unit but doing pretty much what the SDS did. A rose by any other name!

   But that was what gave me the basis for writing my crime novel, which took my protagonist to Krakow in Poland, then on a perilous visit to a derelict night club on the Isle of Sheppey, where the fun really starts – or nearly ends for Freddie and his daughter.

   When writing fiction I often use real locations, and spend time getting to know the districts, as I did for this novel in Krakow and on the Isle of Sheppey, and at the latter I came across a real derelict nightclub, perfect for what I had in mind for the climax of the book.

   And so I will be following the ongoing investigation into the victims and undercover SDS officers over the next three years with great interest, to see just how bizarre and stranger than fiction the investigation discloses.

 

A Deadly Diversion link to Amazon on Crime Books page

 

 

What’s In A Name?

 

Quite a lot, actually. Think about the naming of some of your favourite characters when it comes to fiction. How many fictional dynamic detectives do you know who go by the name of John Smith? They need good names like Phillip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Nick Carter or Hercule Poirot. And not just in detective fiction. Look at all the wonderful Dickens characters that are aptly named. Everyone from Fagin to Micawber.

    And nicknames are great, although it sometimes takes me a while to imagine how a character came by that particular moniker. One of my favourite films is the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Danny Green, the gentle giant, is named One-Round. It took me years to realise why this was his particular nickname before it struck me that the screenwriter has imagined him as a boxer who is almost always knocked out in the first round. And then there is the duality of Budgie. He is called Ronald Bird, so yes that makes sense. But why Budgie? Why that particular bird? Well, observe a budgerigar walking and you will see the way it ducks and dives. And our eponymous character played by Adam Faith is one of Soho’s duckers and divers. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall the creators and writers of the series knew what they were about, it wasn’t random.

   Nicknames are great for creating characters and they are better when they defy explanation, leaving the viewer or the reader to use their imagination, as I eventually did with One-Round. Also, they can be used from real people into characters with no fear of libel. In one of my locals there was a large chap and his nickname was Whisky. I never saw him drinking whisky, he was strictly a lager man. I never did find out why he was called Whisky, but I imagined either he once got blotto on the drink and behaved outrageously or it was because he was bult like a whisky barrel. Whatever the reason I used that nickname for a character in one of my books.

    Pubs are great for nicknames. A bloke who came in my local in Rusthall was called Clippo. I did eventually discover the origins of his name. It came about because he was a postman, and after work he hurried to get in that first pint during early doors without first removing his bicycle clips.

   Wales, of course, is rife with nicknames, but there is a very good and obvious reason for this; with so many of the population called Jones, Owen or Evans, nicknames come to the rescue. I remember once hearing about a young man who after he got married was nicknamed Griffiths Quiet Wedding. When I enquired about this, I was told his wedding was anything but quiet, in fact it was quite wild. He had drunk so much the night before, and was excessively hungover, and he walked silently down the aisle wearing trainers, hence his nickname.

   But it is also the ordinary naming of characters that is important, even those who are never seen. We can all of us imagine what Norman Potter’s wife Ruby was like, even though she never once appeared in Please Sir! And I cannot now imagine any other name for Norman Potter.

   And all the characters were well named. I cannot possibly think how my character would have developed had Esmonde and Larbey named him anything but Frankie Abbott. And Eric Duffy was aptly named, who we all called ‘El’ in the script.

   Once, during rehearsals, Peter Cleall and I were approached by Erik Chitty who played Smithy, and he was confused, wanting to know why we referred to Eric as ‘El’. We explained that it was an East End trait, when Derek becomes Del, Terry becomes Tel and so on.

   There was brief pause before Erik said, ‘No one has ever called me El.'

   From that moment on, we often referred to Erik, when he couldn’t hear us, as El Chitty!

   That one little anecdote is from my new book Please Sir! The Official History, with a foreword by Peter Cleall, and will be released next month in time for Christmas.

 

Performing with Peter Childs

 

In 1975 I played Michael in the ‘gay’ play, The Boys in The Band at Cardiff New Theatre, and became a great friend of Peter Childs, who played Hank in the production. Following our two week run in Cardiff, the production was scheduled to go to the MacRobert Centre at Stirling, and we had concerns about some sort of moral backlash. According to some of the cast members, the homosexual bill had never been ratified in Scotland, and sexual relations between consenting members of the same sex was still against the law. Mind you, to say we were concerned was probably an exaggeration. I mean, who in the theatre doesn’t like a drama? And so we looked forward to anything the Scottish audiences might throw at us, either metaphorically or literally.

   But the trouble in Scotland came from an unexpected source – the Scottish Gay Liberation Front. They reckoned the play was an insult to gays and the play didn’t deserve to be taken seriously. But the show went brilliantly on its first performance. We knew some of the Gay Lib members were in the audience and in the bar afterwards the head of the Gay Lib Front introduced himself, then launched into an argument about how clichéd the play was, with stereotypical, limp-wristed gays giving out the wrong messages.

   Most of us in the cast pointed out that Emory was the only effeminate character, and the play showed an entire cross section of the gay community. But he was so intent on getting his point across, he didn’t accept or listen to our arguments. He charged in bitterly with a diatribe on all limp-wristed gays like Larry Grayson and John Inman, who were a disgrace and a pathetic travesty.

   Knowing Barry Howard, who played Emory, had once been the long-term partner of John Inman, I saw him bristle, and I waited with eager anticipation for the explosion. Instead, he decided it was time to buy an enormous round of drinks. ‘David, what’ll you have, love? And for you, Peter?’ He went round the entire cast, and there were nine of us, plus the stage management. Finally, he came to the Gay Lib bloke at the end of the row, looked him right in the eye, and said, ‘I’m not buying you one, because you’re a cunt!’

   It was a costly round of drinks, but I guess Barry thought it was worth it to make a point.

   After Stirling we played at Norwich Theatre Royal for a week, and then suddenly the last night was upon us, phone numbers were exchanged and promises to keep in touch. Like holiday friendships or romances, it rarely happens. The actors you were bosom friends with on tour become just a passing experience, like a book you enjoy reading, but you know you will never read again. But there are exceptions, and Peter Childs and I had formed a firm friendship, and when we said we would keep in touch when the play was over, we both knew we meant it.

   Although Peter occasionally appeared in Minder in the 1980s, playing DS Rycott, I hadn’t expected him to show interest in my small-scale production of Under Milk Wood in the ‘80s which needed at least two weeks’ solid rehearsal, followed by just three performances at Stafford. But he loved the play and the language, and launched himself into the roles of Mog Edwards, Cherry Owen and Mr Waldo with enthusiasm. If Peter was keen to do something, he gave himself to it one-hundred per cent.

   Later in the decade I was devastated by Peter’s death from leukaemia at the age of 50. I went to see him at his cottage in Hawkhurst just four weeks before the end, and despite his shrunken, hollow appearance as he lay in his bed, he still had a cheeky smile as he laughed and joked, his eyes sparkling with each witticism. I often catch repeats of his Minder episodes, and I am always staggered by how good he was. One of the things Peter enjoyed was making up rhyming slang, and as he suffered from piles, he referred to the disorder as his Chalfonts – as in Chalfonts St Giles. One night I watched an episode of Minder which Peter wasn’t in, and Arthur Daley said to Terry McCann, ‘My Chalfonts ain’t half playing up, Terry.’ I wondered if Peter had been drinking with one of the Minder writers.

   Peter’s Chalfonts got so bad at one stage, he had to go into hospital for an operation to have them cut out. Afterwards he told me it was horrendous because halfway through the op the anaesthetic wore off, and he said he was screaming with pain. And then he added, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Mind you, I know how I could play Edward the Second now.’

   When I attended Peter’s memorial service at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden, Michael Elwyn, an actor friend of his, paid a tribute to him with a funny story about a time when they toured together.

   They shared the journey to each venue in one car. Michael was a keen golfer and had an expensive set of golf clubs on the back seat. Peter had a plastic supermarket bag containing his theatre make-up and shaving tackle. The car was broken into, and the thief stole Peter’s flimsy bag of make-up but left the golf clubs behind. They informed the police about the break-in and later that day a young constable was sent to interview them at the theatre.

   ‘Have you any idea who might have stolen this item?’ the constable asked Peter.

   ‘Well, constable,’ Peter replied, ‘I suggest you scour the town and search for a clean-shaven, non-golfing tramp, wearing Number Five Eye-liner.’

 

Characters from Crossroads

 

When I began my professional acting career at the age of 12, it was as the real Meurig Jones. My middle name is Wyn, and a year later a pretentious hyphen joined it to my surname. Whether it was my parents’ idea or a suggestion of the stage school I attended, I have no idea. Then, in the mid ‘60s, an older actor pointed out that when I attended auditions, producers and directors would be expecting to meet a young actor speaking with a strong Welsh accent instead of the homogenized received pronunciation I had been forced to adopt at the Corona Academy Stage School. Rhona Knight, the principal of Corona worked me hard to get rid of my strong Welsh dialect, and it wasn’t long before I was speaking like a proper English person, as if I’d been brought up with that silver spoon in my mouth – because in 1955, the year I started at Corona, kitchen sink drama had yet to hit our screens, when regional dialects became de rigeur in films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Cathy Come Home and television dramas like Up the Junction. 

   My first job as David Barry was in eight episodes of Crossroads, a five-nights a week soap opera where actors struggled to remember their lines, camera shots were often focused on the wrong characters, and occasionally the set shook if an actor slammed a door too forcefully.

   But however bad Crossroads was five decades ago, it became comedy gold for Victoria Wood when she created Acorn Antiques, with Julie Walters as the inept Mrs Overall, a parody of Ann George, who played Amy Turtle in the soap. And although I wept when I saw my terrible performance as a character called Ross Baxter in Crossroads, I wept with laughter every time I watched Acorn Antiques.

   Having worked with actors like Paul Scofield and Sir Laurence Olivier in my early teens, giving a shit performance in Crossroads as the rechristened David Barry didn’t seem to bode well for working under my new name. In those days, an actor appearing in a soap was just one notch up from a serial killer. I remember Peter Cleall, who played Duffy alongside me in Please, Sir! drawing my attention to a BBC soap called The Newcomers (1965-69), about a new town. Peter told me to watch the actors carefully, who seemed to sigh before delivering their lines. And he was right. The meaningless pauses spoke louder than the dialogue.

   But who am I to talk after giving that dreadful performance in Crossroads? Not only was my performance inadequate, I had been totally miscast. Ross Baxter should have been played by a mature actor, instead they got a boy to do a man’s job. And how did this happen? I hear you ask.

   Peter Lawrence, a roguish actor, had played a policeman in quite a few episodes of Crossroads, and I had had a general audition for the soap, which meant I was not interviewed for a specific part, but should a suitable part come up then the casting director, Margaret French, would bear me in mind. A week after my interview, I became involved in a pub crawl with Peter and his boyfriend in Wimbledon Village. When we were well and truly plastered, he suggested I send Margaret French a bunch of flowers, with a note saying, ‘Thank you for one of the nicest interviews I’ve ever had in this business.’ And I was drunk enough to do it. Which explains how the new David Barry played a tough, go-getting theatrical agent who talks Carlos the chef into becoming a singing chef. Carlos was played by Anthony Morton, a robust man, struggling to inject life into a usually moribund script as beads of sweat broke out on his pasty forehead. In one scene we cut thirty seconds from the script, which was almost a hanging offence as half-hour slot ITV shows had to be as tightly near to 24 minutes and thirty seconds as possible. They needed to make up the time, and once the director had glowered at Carlos and Ross Baxter, rather than do a retake, at the start of the second half, after what was to be the commercial break, he asked Sue Nicholls to talk on the telephone at the motel reception. ‘What about?’ she asked. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she was told. ‘Anything, just as long as it’s thirty seconds.’

   And that was Crossroads. I never did include it on my CV.

   But four years later, when I began life as Frankie Abbott in the Please Sir! series, Peter Cleall told me he had also been in Crossroads, playing a character called Chuck Feeney. We both agreed with how bad the series was and had a few laughs when we imagined a drama with the leading characters of Ross Baxter and Chuck Feeney, and how naff that would be!

   And in 1974 when Malcolm McFee, Peter and I toured in The Lads From Fenn Street, Malcolm played Meg Richardson and I played Amy Turtle in a Crossroads spoof, which was a hundred times more enjoyable than the real thing.

 

Did Laurence Olivier Watch Please Sir!?

 

At the age of 14 I toured Europe in 1957 with Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Titus Andronicus, and after a six week season in London ended, our paths would never cross again. But I occasionally bought either film magazines like Films and Filming or its sister journal Plays and Players. So I was aware of what was going on at the National Theatre at the Old Vic, with Sir Laurence in charge.

    Obviously going to the cinema was much less costly than the theatre, and I hated having to sit in the gods with a bird’s-eye view of the actors’ heads. But if there was ever a Vivien Leigh or Laurence Olivier film showing I always made a point of seeing it. About this time I saw Bunny Lake Is Missing, directed by Otto Preminger, with Laurence Olivier as the calm, methodical Scotland Yard detective, a fairly average psychological mystery which I watched recently on Talking Pictures TV, which was a little dated, but Olivier gave a very credible performance. I don’t recall seeing Vivien Leigh’s The Roman Spring Of Mrs Stone, but I did make a point of seeing Ship Of Fools, her final screen appearance in which she was terrific, and how terrifying it must have been for the cowering Lee Marvin, physically punished by her manic temper when she beat him up, which looked horribly real. How he must have suffered, unless he was numbed through doctor alcohol.

   Vivien Leigh died in July 1967 aged only 53. Two years later she was commemorated with a plaque at St Paul’s, the actors’ church in Covent Garden, unveiled on the occasion of what would have been her 56th birthday on 5 November. I liked to imagine that the rockets that lit up the sky that night were to celebrate her life.

   Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I had worked with Laurence Olivier, often the first thing I was confronted with was, ‘Oh, didn’t he once have a fling with Danny Kaye?’

    Which, according to Tarquin Olivier in his biography My Father Laurence Olivier, the Danny Kaye homosexual affair was merely the invention of biographers titillating their readers. He makes the point that it is garbage and gossip, and had there been any truth in the rumour, Vivien Leigh, who was terribly indiscreet about those sorts of peccadilloes when Larry left her, she would have made it public.

    I think Tarquin Olivier makes a powerful point. It was just gossip which people love. And we have to bear in mind that Olivier so admired Danny Kaye’s talent and they were such close friends, who possibly kissed and cuddled in public as far back as the thirties and forties, when masculine men didn’t do those things – it was a handshake or a slap on the back, even on the football field back then.

    In 1971, while we made a feature film of Please Sir!, Olivier was playing Count Witte in the film of Nicholas and Alexandra. He was out in Spain shooting some scenes and producer Sam Spiegel said they were having trouble finding someone to play Rasputin. Olivier said there was someone in his company at the National who would be ideal, and Tom Baker was flown out there for a screen test. A year later he stepped onto the red carpet at Leicester Square for the Royal Premiere of the film.

    In 1972, while I worked on the second series of the spin-off sitcom The Fenn Street Gang, and my friend Peter Cleall, who played Duffy in the series, thought a career change might be a good idea, he auditioned for Oliver at the National Theatre. After Peter had performed his two audition monologues, Olivier said to him, ‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’

    Peter, thinking that Lord Olivier surely wouldn’t have seen him in Please Sir!, and knowing he lived in London-by-the-Sea, replied uncertainly, ‘I live in Brighton. Perhaps you’ve seen me on the train to Brighton.’

    He didn’t get accepted at the National.

    When Peter told me of this exchange between him and Olivier, I said to Peter that he (Olivier) and Joan Plowright had young children, and for all Peter knew he might have sat down and seen an episode or two of Please Sir! with his young son. And had Peter mentioned this, rather than the feeble train to Brighton explanation, it might have swung the audition for him.

    Much later I was struck by a bizarre thought. If Olivier had seen an episode or two of us cavorting in Fenn Street School, in which I played a 15-year-old, perhaps I hadn’t changed that much since Titus Andronicus. Would he have recognized me, I wondered? But, like Peter, I felt that Baron Olivier of Brighton watching our sitcom was a fanciful thought.

 

The Return of Malcolm McFee

 

For the second series of The Fenn Street Gang in 1972, all six of us were contracted to do 14 out of 18 episodes, but this time the series was recorded at LWT’s new studio, the South Bank Television Centre, near the site of the new National Theatre.

   It was great to be in central London after Wembley, where we had been limited to either Chinese or Indian restaurants after the recordings. Now we had an unlimited choice of where we could eat after the show, and we could even go on and do a little bit of extra late night drinking afterwards.

   The new LWT studio was very close to the site of the new National Theatre, the building of which had commenced in 1970 and it would be another four years until the opening. It was great to be working in this district overlooking the River Thames, and the lovely Somerset House on the other side of the river, which looked magnificent when it was lit up at night. But it was even greater to have Malcom returning as Peter Craven which made such a difference to the dynamic of each scene. I felt sorry for Léon Vitali, who had replaced Malcolm for the first series, and often wondered how he must have felt, unless he concluded that his engagement had been, like a theatre understudy, a temporary measure. But I needn’t have been concerned as in 1975, having played Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, he became the director’s assistant, working on many of his films, including The Shining, in which he is credited as Assistant to the Director.

   In 1979 I toured in Pauline Macauley’s play The Creeper, playing opposite Bill Simpson of Doctor Finlay fame. Just before the tour finished, a couple of acquaintances of mine visited London and I took them on a riverboat trip from Tower Bridge, travelling upstream. A tour guide gave us a non-stop commentary on all the sites and buildings, and as we cruised past Somerset House on our right, he pointed out that it was where they kept the national records of births, deaths and marriages. Then said, ‘Or as they say, hatch ‘em, match ‘em and dispatch ‘em!’ But when he pointed out the theatre on our left, he said disparagingly, ‘That building on the left, ladies and gentlemen, is the new National Theatre. I think it’s an eyesore meself and the geezer what designed it must either have been a raving lunatic or had shares in Ready-Mix.’

   Not many of the mostly German and Japanese tourists on the boat knew what he was talking about!

    No doubt Prince Charles, never a lover of modern buildings, would have agreed with the tour guide. In 1988 the Prince of Wales described our National Theatre as ‘…a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.’

    But probably most detractors of the building have never been inside the National, let alone seen a production there. Each time I visit the theatre I marvel at its functionality, its space, clear views and acoustics. And even from the outside I love the angles that seem to blend with the environment.

    Sir John Betjeman, a lover of traditional architecture, who was mostly responsible for saving many wonderful buildings such as the St Pancras Station hotel and the Black Friar pub opposite Blackfriars Station, wrote to architect Denys Lasdun and said he gasped with delight at the National Theatre, which he praised as a lovely work and so good from so many angles.

   So there you go: if it was good enough for Sir John Betjeman…and you know what he said about Slough!

 

Experiment With Alcohol

 

Have you ever watched a television drama where there is a short scene in a pub and someone has just bought a fresh pint of beer, and the character exits leaving most of the pint? I don’t know about you but I find this unrealistically annoying, especially as a pint costs almost a fiver these days. So, is this the fault of the writer or the director, I wonder? I also wonder why they don’t give the characters shorts to drink if the scene is too short to sustain drinking a pint. And the amount of alcohol that is consumed, which we know is coloured water, couldn’t possibly be consumed without the characters becoming incomprehensible. That is what is termed the suspension of disbelief.  But in 1976, when I played Michael in The Boys in the Band at Cardiff New Theatre, the director Martin Williams tried excessive alcohol consumption in a play as an experiment.

   The play has an all-male cast and is about a group of gays during one night at a party in a New York apartment, all drinking too much and getting belligerent.

   Someone I got along with in the cast was Peter Childs, and we stayed in touch following the production and became close friends. (Peter went on to play Detective Sergeant Rycott in Minder.)

   During the third rehearsal week, when we had got as far as running it from start to finish, Martin Williams instigated a somewhat crazy experiment. Throughout the play, heavy drinking is done by most of the characters, and my character ends up pretty plastered. Without any prior warning, Martin substituted the prop bottles of booze that were filled with tap water with the real thing. If a character drank whisky, then that’s what he found on the makeshift rehearsal room set. And if it was mentioned that he drank Chivas Regal, then that’s what Martin purchased, being lavish with the council-run theatre budget. My character Michael doesn’t drink until the end of Act One, when he suddenly weakens, goes off the wagon, then drinks neat gin by the tumbler full.

   The rehearsal began. Well into Act One the actors began knocking back the booze. Then, not far into the second act, some of us started to giggle. Martin became annoyed. ‘OK!’ he said. ‘Go back to the top of Act Two and start again.’ Which meant we would consume more booze than the script required. After half an hour we began to slur our words. By the end of the play some of us were legless. Peter drew my attention to the fact that I was the only character drinking gin and pointed to the almost empty bottle. ‘And that’s in less than an hour,’ he chuckled.

   And what did we prove with this experiment? Only that alcohol consumed by characters in a play demands a huge suspension of disbelief from the audience. Nobody was capable of drinking that much alcohol.

   And on the subject of alcohol, Peter was a member of the BBC Club and one day, while the play was up and running, I accompanied him to the BBC Llandaff club where we were soon imbibing with a crowd of directors and writers. One of them told a joke about a nun outside a convent telling some pigeons to Fuck off! The mother superior came out and said, ‘No, no, you mustn’t say that to the little pigeons. You must say, Shoo, shoo, little pigeons, and they’ll fuck off just the same.’

   As we laughed at this joke, a figure loomed over the BBC director and tapped him on the shoulder. It was a uniformed commissionaire, complete with mandatory row of medals. ‘I heard you,’ he warned the director. ‘Using language. Now cut that out.’

   Quick as a flash the director asked him if he spoke Welsh. The commissionaire admitted he didn’t.

   ‘Ah, well, there you are you see,’ began the director. ‘You obviously misheard what I was saying. I was speaking Welsh. And in the Welsh language there are mutations. And you may or may not be aware of the fact that there is no letter V in our alphabet. This is replaced by the letter F. So what you heard was the word Buck, and because it was mutated, it became Vuck, spelt with an F but pronounced as a V.’

   We all stared at the commissionaire and saw the rising tide of redness which engulfed his cheeks. ‘I’m sorry, he mumbled. ‘I didn’t realize.’

   The director smiled pleasantly. ‘That’s all right,’ he said. ‘Now you can fuck off!’

   I had to admire the way he was so quick thinking in dealing with the jobsworth. Me, I’d have thought of it after the event.

 

Abbott in the Blind Beggar

 

If a young actor appeared in a beer commercial, it was a hard-and-fast rule that the actor had to be over the age of 24, otherwise it was tantamount to encouraging young men to drink. Of course, advertisers could get round this Independent Television inflicted rule by casting actors who were over the required age but looked very much younger. And so I benefited from my television image from the Please Sir! and Fenn Street Gang TV series in which my playing age was probably late teens or early twenties top whack, and by the time the latter series ended I was 31 and appeared in many booze commercials. No commercials could be conflicted within a three year time span. For instance, it was not acceptable to appear in two beer commercials within three years, but it was permissable to appear for other booze products, or you could appear in beer commercials for other countries which was how I came to appear in three beer commercials in less than three years, one for Heineken in Italy, one for Guinness in the Republic of Ireland, and one for the UK. In the latter I was cast as a leather-jacketed yob – surprise, surprise! – for a bottled beer – McEwen’s Export, I think – for showing in Northern Ireland. The ad was shot in an Irish pub in Whitechapel Road, on the corner of Cambridge Heath, opposite the Blind Beggar on the other corner, which was the pub notorious for the Ronnie Kray murder of George Cornell in 1966.

   I and another actor drank beer from early in the morning, and the drinking lasted as long as the shoot, which was all day. The message of this ad was a simple one. You might be a loser it implied, but drink our beer and you’ll be a winner, because as we leant on the bar sipping the brew, the door opened and in came Joanna Lumley, looking radiant in a diaphanous dress, and naturally the Greek goddess was attracted to these two yobs.

   It was a simple minded ad for simple minded people.

   There was a small location catering wagon outside the pub, where I spotted the chef with a fag in his mouth, ash dropping into the food. I got on well with the cinematographer and when we broke for lunch we decided ash-free pub grub in the Blind Beggar was preferable to the chuck wagon. We crossed the street and entered the pub. As we walked up to the bar, the young barmaid recognised me and got quite excited. ‘Frankie! What are you doing here?’ she said, smiling. Without hesitating I dropped into character. ‘I heard there was a spot of bother in here,’ I replied, ‘So I thought I’d come down and sort it out.’

   The pub went quiet, the smile left the barmaid’s face and she excused herself to serve another customer further along the bar.

   Perhaps a gin and tonic in the Blind Beggar was a bad idea on top of all the strong beer I’d drunk, because by late afternoon I was feeling very pissed, and the final shot of the day was a dirty great close-up of me seeing Joanna Lumley’s entrance into the pub. My reaction now would have been over the top viewed from the upper circle at Drury Lane. John Crome, the director, asked me if I could give a smaller reaction. My next reaction was numbed inscrutability. ‘You didn’t do anything that time,’ he said. Eventually, he kept the camera rolling and I gave many different reactions, some big, some small. After this mixed-bag of reactions he got what he wanted, because it was a wrap and they poured me into a car and gave the driver my address.

   But I had other ideas. Instead of heading for Kingston-upon-Thames where I lived, I redirected the driver to Gerry’s, an actor’s club in Soho. I can’t recall what happened after that.

 

The Heart of London

 

I would love to hear repeats of BBC Radio 4’s Love Letters to London, which was presented and written by Madness’s talented vocalist Suggs, four half-hour programmes covering Spitalfields and Shoreditch, Soho, Hampstead, and Camden Town, each episode containing a little quirky history, some gags, a few songs, and comic observations of the city where he was born and bred, and which he clearly adores. These programmes were so enjoyable, they flew by as if they were only ten minutes long. London has always fascinated me, as it has many others. No wonder Peter Ackroyd called his history of the city London The Biography, thinking of it as a living organism, and his lengthy book is an entertaining and animated read about the great city and its personality.

   One of my favourite areas in London is Soho.  I was first attracted to visiting Soho along with some of my school friends in 1959 when I was only 16-years-old. The attraction was obvious to us young rites of passage teenagers. This was London’s red-light district and trips out from the suburbs by underground train to this iniquitous district, just yards from the exit at Piccadilly Circus Tube station, was an audacious adventure. Prostitutes, in high heels, garish make-up and tight alluring dresses, still walked the streets plying their trade. Not that we could do anything but think wishfully at that age, but it was watching this daring and dangerous slice of immoral life, that was intoxicating to us libidinous, hormonal teenagers. When we got tired of merely watching the streetwalkers, we headed for the frothy coffee bars, the places that attracted tourists and out-of-towners that knew no better. Coffee bars like Heaven and Hell, a tacky joint done out like a Hammer Horror film set. We thought we were sophisticated sitting in a coffin in the darkened ambience of the establishment, sipping our foamy brew. In that same year, the Street Offences Act, made it illegal for prostitutes to solicit for trade on the streets and they became call girls, euphemistically calling themselves “models”, in what might have been a pathetic attempt to fool the law but actually fooled no one. They advertised with notices stuck to seedy shop doorways or postcards distributed to telephone boxes where punters could find whatever was on offer, ring up, make an appointment and climb those rickety stairs to see if the “model” looked anything like the photograph on the postcard. And sex shops were on the increase during the sixties. Then there were the bookies runners, the guys who would stand on the street corners, take punters bets on the horses or dogs, always keeping an eye out for the ‘fuzz’ or the ‘rozzers’. This was before betting shops became legal.

   And Talking Pictures has been repeating Budgie, starring Adam Faith in the title role, with Iain Cuthbertson as the Glaswegian crime boss Charlie Endell. This is a witty and enjoyable series, made in the early seventies by London Weekend Television, about of one of Soho’s duckers and divers, written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Budgie, although warm-hearted and unlikely to resort to violence, nevertheless has criminal tendencies as he strives to pull a lucrative stunt or two while keeping on the right side of Charlie Endell.

   But not everything in Soho was about criminality. It was as much about food and drink, and music has always been a magnet to the area. In 1866 there were more than 30 music halls in the square mile and, in the 20th century, famous music venues sprang up, like Ronnie Scott’s and the Marquee. Soho has been a cosmopolitan area, vital with many attractions, both legal and illegal, for hundreds of years, fostering a village atmosphere for regular customers in its many favourite watering holes and restaurants, and pubs which once tolerated outrageous behaviour from some of its famous habitués.

   No wonder, then, that I used the area as inspiration for my anthology Tales from Soho, eleven fictional stories, but also a brief history of Soho and some of its famous pubs. If you have never been to Soho, and you’re planning a visit, don’t be alarmed; as a distant relative of mine from North Wales once was, thinking a toe dipped into that den of vice might lead to violence or murder. It’s probably one of the safest areas in London. And many famous people have lived in the district at one time, including Casanova, Karl Marx, Shelley, Canaletto and Isaac Newton – the list is endless. If you want a more extensive list, visit the Soho Society website, and you will find a list of blue plaques on buildings.

   Enjoy the trip! I always do, and on a regular basis until more recent times. As soon as we return to normal, I will be back and enjoying a glass of wine in The French House or the Dog and Duck. I can’t wait.

 

There is a link from Page 1 on the website to Tales From Soho at Amazon.

 

The Urge to Act

 

I had wanted to be an actor for as long as I could remember, which was unusual for a youngster growing up in rural North Wales, first in Bangor, and then in Amlwch in the northern part of Anglesey, where there were no theatres. The nearest theatres were summer season playhouses in Colwyn Bay and Llandudno, and I don’t ever recall a visit to one of those theatres. The nearest I got to seeing a theatre production was when my parents took me to the Liverpool Empire to see a touring production of Carousel, and I can recall being confused after the death of Billy, when he goes ‘up there’, then seeing him returning to earth as an angel wearing a lounge suit.

   Most of my early acting influences came from the silver screen. The Royal Cinema in Amlwch showed the latest films, and an outing to the cinema was a great event in those days. Prior to the feature film we were not subjected to fifteen minutes of advertisements. Instead, as only the privileged few had a television set in those days, we were shown at least five items of news both nationally and internationally, either from Pathé News or Movietone, always with that stentorian voice-over which sounded the same alarming note whether it was reporting the Korean war or the latest catwalk fashion. The news was invariably followed by a cartoon or a short comedy film and then the B-feature. All of this was a build-up to the main event, following an interval when the ice cream lady would walk backwards down the aisle, picked out by a spotlight, and there would be a rush for ice creams and orange drinks. But it was always the main feature that influenced me the most. To this day I can remember seeing films like Moulin Rouge, The African Queen, The Quiet Man, High Noon and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I think I must have attended the cinema at least once a week. I can remember my father taking me to see Viva Zapata, with Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, a film with a screenplay by John Steinbeck. I was nine-years-old then and seeing Brando as Zapata about to ride into a deadly trap on a white horse had me hooked. I definitely wanted to be an actor when I grew up. I was never interested in playing with toy cars and trains. It was always ‘dressing up’. And I became one of those obnoxious kids who lost his temper with other children if we were playing Cowboys and Indians and they didn’t die properly.

   Once, walking from our home in Amlwch Port to the Ritz to see José Ferrer in Moulin Rouge for the second time, we met a friend of my father, who presented us with complimentary tickets for a Noson Lawen (Joyful Evening), a sort of variety show. To say I was cross about missing the colourful story of Toulouse Lautrec was putting it mildly. Until we arrived at the church hall where this far from joyful evening was to take place, I threw a few tantrums before falling into a petrified sulk. And imagine my horror when this performance turned out to be everything I had suspected. Dreary soprano followed dreary tenor, and the highlight of the evening was a one-act play which ended with an appallingly bad stage fight. Even at the age of nine, I had enough critical acumen to know this was a sham and no match for what the Ritz had to offer.

   Less than a year later, we moved to Richmond, Surrey. I failed the 11-plus and was sent to Mortlake Secondary School, an institution I loathed with every fibre of my being. But, as I had witnessed on many a night at the Amlwch Ritz, the 7th Cavalry came to the rescue.

   My parents, keen amateur actors, joined the Whitton Welsh Society, not far from Twickenham, and they became involved in a production of The Corn is Green by Emlyn Williams. I was given the part of Idwal, a youngster who was required to speak Welsh, and, because there were not enough Welsh-speaking children to fill the other roles, an English boy, Richard Palmer, stepped in and learnt the lines. He attended Corona Academy Stage School and had already appeared in several films.

   I pestered my parents to send me to this school. But it was a private, fee-paying school and my parents couldn’t afford it. However, knowing how unhappy I was at the Mortlake school, they decided there was no harm in at least making enquiries at Corona. We went along to their office in Wellesley Road, Chiswick, and when they spotted this twelve-year-old who looked like a nine-year-old, they realised it was a distinct casting advantage and assured my parents that enough work would wing its way in my direction to cover the school fees. Which was exactly what happened throughout my time at Corona.

   When I first attended Corona aged twelve, I can’t recall being nervous. I was probably relieved to escape from the clutches of those sneering bullies at Mortlake school, who picked on me because of my Welsh dialect. And even worse, the teachers, who were both embittered and wished they were somewhere else, without appreciating how mutual that feeling was between them and their pupils. But at Corona I could put all that behind me.  This school was radically different and unlike any I had so far experienced. The usual academic subjects were taught every morning, but the afternoons were filled with drama, ballet, tap dancing, play-reading, modern dance, mime and voice production. This was more like it - except for the ballet dancing, when I loathed seeing reflections of my skinny legs in the mirrors behind the barres. I lived for the afternoon subjects. And what was so great was the fact that so many of my new Corona Academy contemporaries were already regular film actors. Richard O’Sullivan, with whom I became close friends a few years later, was in the same class as me, as were Carol White, Frazer Hines, Jeremy Bulloch and Francesca Annis.

    This was more like it. These pupils were different from the Mortlake thugs who had done everything to make my life a misery.

 

The Ocean at Shepperton

 

In 1956 I was offered a part in my first feature film, Seven Waves Away. Every weekday morning, extremely early, a car picked me up from our maisonette home above an optician’s shop in Hounslow to take me to Shepperton studios, where I had a chaperone, and the education authorities insisted on my having a private tutor to give me lessons in between takes. Thankfully, these lessons were more for the sake of appearances as the entire film took place in a lifeboat, so most of my days were spent filming.

   Seven Waves Away was based on a true incident of a transatlantic liner which hit a mine in the South Atlantic and sank. The story was of the 26 survivors drifting helplessly in an overloaded lifeboat. When the film was released in the US, it was called Abandon Ship, and the poster logline stated “14 of these survivors must be cast adrift. Which will the captain choose?”

   The captain faced with this difficult decision was played by Tyrone Power, and Mai Zetterling played the ship’s nurse, whose love for the captain is put to a severe test when he must choose which passengers to abandon or risk flooding the overloaded boat. The other survivors were played by mainly British actors, including Stephen Boyd, as the ship’s purser, Gordon Jackson, as a seaman, Marie Lohr as a frail, retired opera singer, and James Hayter as the ship’s cook, in charge of the meagre rations in the lifeboat. Little did I know then that I would work in the theatre opposite James Hayter in my early thirties. Seven Waves Away was written and directed by Richard Sale, an American writer who wrote The Oscars, a novel exposing the build-up to the Academy Award ceremonies and which was later made into a film.

   It was my first visit to a major film studio. I don’t know what I was expecting but I was surprised by the rather scruffy and temporary look of everything. Prefabricated huts, abandoned scenery and vehicles, all strewn haphazardly between large unglamorous-looking sound stages and smaller offices that looked like military buildings. The main sound stage, resembling a massive aircraft hangar, housed the near Olympic-sized tank, filled with thousands and thousands of gallons of water, with a depth of five feet, and two enormous wave machines, plus wind machines. And the full-sized lifeboat itself, which was not floating freely but attached to machinery at the bottom of the tank so that it could be rocked, but controlled to avoid random fluctuations, keeping the camera reasonably steady, or to stop the actors from bobbing in and out of shot when camera was positioned elsewhere.

   It was to be a nine-week shoot. Nine weeks of having warm water chucked over us before we climbed aboard the lifeboat, and make-up that looked like salt crystals in hair and eyebrows, with dark oil smears on faces. Having been shipwrecked in the night-time, most of the actors playing passenger survivors were dressed in nightclothes or evening wear. I wore pyjamas and a dressing gown and cried dramatically in a scene where the captain decides my mother must be cast adrift, despite the pleas of my father, played by Ralph Michael, who has oil on his lungs, and he also must be cut loose. Then, having screamed the loss of my parents, I am comforted and cuddled by Mai Zetterling. Worth it, just for that.

   Most of the actors, especially the older ones like Marie Lohr, found the discomforts of sitting in a rocking lifeboat, with wind machines blowing, while stagehands hurled buckets of water over us, arduous and couldn’t wait for the nine weeks to end. Me, I loved every moment of it, and any opportunity to swim in the faux South Atlantic was a treat and a chance for me to show off. Some of the actors, though, couldn’t swim, and were traumatised by a scene where the lifeboat capsizes, hurling us all into the water, and it took many of them a long time to recover.

   Richard Sale was a very patient and methodical director, and hugely friendly, as were Tyrone Power, Mai Zetterling and Lloyd Nolan. And I was very impressed that Danny Green was in the film, as I had recently seen him in The Ladykillers, which became one of my all-time favourite comedies. He played a character called One-Round, and I pondered for many years the meaning of his nickname, and it came to me years later: of course, he was probably a boxer who was always knocked out in the first round.

   Something I found puzzling was my first glimpse of racist behaviour. Orlando Martins, a Nigerian who came to Britain at the end of the war, played Sam Holly, one of the survivors in the water hanging on to the side of the boat, and Stephen Boyd, along with some of the other actors in the boat, would look down on him and say things like: ‘Who dat down dere!’ Although I was only 13-years-old, I could sense the Nigerian actor didn’t like it and pretended not to hear most of the time. But the Americans, Tyrone Power, Lloyd Nolan and Richard Sale were utterly charming, and when the last scene had been shot, they really made a fuss of me before I left.

   Abandon Ship was remade in colour as a TV movie, starring Martin Sheen as the captain, and on American television it was called The Last Survivors. But it is the 1957 version I will look out for on Talking Pictures.

 

 

A Surcharge for Actors

 

About six or seven years ago, when I was a committee member for the Kent Equity branch, I attended an Equity area conference in Birmingham. One of the items on the agenda was a BBC technician’s strike and should Equity members support them and not cross a picket line – in other words, not enter the studios, and risk breaking a contract. I voted against this motion because I felt it was unfair. I felt that most of the technicians were in permanent employment, whereas a young actor’s first television role might be compromised, thus robbing him or her of a step up that precarious ladder. And there was also a more personal reason for voting against it because of something that happened in 1970, during camera rehearsals for the third series of Please Sir!

   Halfway through the series, during rehearsals, we ate at Wembley Studio self-service canteen. One lunchtime we arrived at the cashier with our food to be told there would be a two-shilling surcharge on all meals for freelance employees as opposed to LWT’s permanent staff (Roughly equivalent to £1.40 in today’s money). We objected to this because we felt actors might earn good wages but only for a limited time, whereas technicians and permanent staff were employed 52 weeks a year with paid holidays and sick leave. As our Equity Deputy, Peter Denyer, who played Dennis Dunstable in the series, approached the NATKE (National Association of Theatre and Kine Employees) shop steward to request support. But he was met with a cold shoulder. The NATKE shop steward shrugged it off, saying something like, ‘Well, actors earn enough money.’ Peter was incensed by his attitude, as we all were. We acted by refusing to eat in the canteen, told Mark Stuart, our producer and director, the predicament, and said we intended leaving the studio each lunchtime to get some food somewhere in the Wembley district. Mark offered to send out for takeaways which he paid for. He occasionally surprised us by his supportive actions. Also, he may have feared us getting back late from lunch. As soon as the catering manager saw what was happening, with all our takeaways spread out over the canteen tables, it wasn’t long before the surcharge was removed.

    For some reason the way they intended treating the actors reminded me of a couple of lines from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, when Max Bialystock suggests killing one of the actors, and Leopold Bloom protests that actors are human. To which Bialystock replies, ‘Have you ever eaten with one?’

   I was also reminded of when I worked backstage, mainly at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and if ever there was a function to which all the stage crew and performers were invited, I can always remember the advice of many of the crew suggesting all the backstage staff better get there before the actors, otherwise all the food would be gone!

   And there is also an old joke about an actor on tour and looking for digs, and when he knocked on a bed and breakfast door and asked, ‘Do you have any special terms for actors?’ He was met with, ‘Yes, fuck off actors!’

 

 

The Biter Bit

 

Are we living in more violent times? Or is the view looking back rosier? I can remember as a young adult walking back from Chiswick to Brentford late at night, and finding milk, confectionery and cigarette machines outside corner shops. Despite there being no CCTV on almost every street then, those dispensing machines often remained free from vandalism. But over the years they have vanished from outside the small newsagent shop. Whether this was because they were no longer safe from being broken into, or for economic reasons, such as costly insurance rates.

    In 1979, Meibion Glynd┼Ár (Sons of Glendower), a Welsh nationalist movement, angered at the many well-off English people buying second homes in villages in Wales, resorted to arson and set fire to many holiday home cottages. But back in the 1960s, the objections to holiday cottages was different, as I witnessed one night during a run of the second series of Please Sir! in 1969.

   

    Liz Gebhardt, who played Maureen in the series, was married to Ian Talbot, who became the artistic director at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. My wife Zélie and I became close friends with them and on several occasions we were invited to stay with them at their holiday cottage in Llanberis, where Liz’s maternal grandmother lived. One evening, during the run of our series, we were round at Liz and Ian’s flat in Kentish Town and Liz’s mother, who lived upstairs, told us to switch on News at Ten. One of the news items showed their holiday cottage, being occupied by Plaid Cymru or the Free Wales Army. I can’t remember which group it was, but I suspect it was the former, as Plaid Cymru early on adopted a pacifist political doctrine. However, they still opposed the purchase of second properties for holiday use only. They probably picked Liz and Ian’s cottage because she was an actress, her surname was Gebhardt (her father Joe was American) and thought it might be positive publicity for their cause. But what they hadn’t realised, when they broke a back window to gain access to the cottage, was that Liz’s mother was Welsh, and there was a solid local connection to the village. Her grandmother, who had lived in Llanberis all her life, tore round to the occupied cottage and gave the rebels a piece of her mind in the Welsh language. The dissidents then abandoned the cottage, having first left a cheque to pay for the broken window. 

 

Zélie and I stayed in Liz and Ian’s cottage with them for a week one summer. Drinking in one of the pubs some of the locals invited Ian and me to join them for a game of five card brag for money. As they knew me as Frankie Abbott, none of them guessed that I was born and bred in North Wales, brought up by Welsh-speaking parents. And one of their pals stood behind me, saw what cards I had in my hand, and told his friends sitting opposite at the table what they were in Welsh. Not realising I could understand what he was saying, I soon managed to turn the tables on them, only letting the cheating friend see my cards when I had a very low hand, hoping Ian had a good hand; and whenever I had a good hand I made certain he only saw the low cards. Consequently, Ian and I cleaned up that evening, winning about £15 between us, reasonable money in 1970.

   When they called Last Orders and we were about to leave, I thanked and said goodnight to our opponent card players in perfectly pronounced Welsh. Their collective jaws dropped and they blamed the pal who had looked over my shoulder. Liz’s Uncle Peter, who was with us, and a regular at the pub, fell about. Liz told me that over the succeeding years that her uncle had never forgotten the incident, and always enjoyed winding up the regulars at the pub, reminding them of the incident every time the cards came out.

    And I always allowed myself a chuckle when I thought of those Llanberis locals who never suspected Frankie Abbott could speak Welsh.

 

From Fact to Fiction

 

I began writing Before They Die – which was published in March this year - quite a few years back then put it to one side. Although it was in a way a conventional murder mystery with all the usual elements of a thriller, it was also controversial inasmuch as I had based it on my investigations of child abuse by politically powerful people.

   My early discoveries began with Geoffrey Dickens, a Conservative MP for Huddersfield West, whose investigations into a Westminster ring of paedophiles resulted in a dossier of 114 files, naming at least six prominent MPs as paedophiles. This dossier was given to the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan, and not surprisingly the dossier went missing and has never been seen since.

   This was a springboard for my thriller when missing files such as these resurface in 2006 on a USB stick belonging to John Kenneally MP (fictional), who is subsequently murdered and the files are destroyed to conceal evidence of a ring of Westminster child abusers. But, unlike the Lord Brittan files, these resurface, and ex-Metropolitan Police detective, Mike Halliday, now working as a private investigator is hired to trace the origin of the missing files.

   During the course if his investigation, Halliday sees a photograph of Jimmy Savile’s funeral, attended by quite a few freemasons dressed in their regalia, and one of them he singles out from the way he seems reluctant to be recognised, half-concealed by a pillar. This actual photo I used as a device for my investigator to recognise the man as a secret service spook from when Halliday was in Counter Terrorism Command.

   Of course, cover-ups like this do not happen in real life, do they? Especially as more than two years ago Carl Beech told lies about being abused by prominent politicians such as Edward Heath, resulting an in 18 year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice and fraud. (Compare his sentence to that of Jeffrey Archer, who for being found guilty of perverting the course of justice got a three year sentence in an open prison.)

   Now since it was discovered that Carl Beech lied, the entire Westminster paedophile ring story has blown away. No truth to it at all. It was all just damaging lies.

   Or was it? Here are some facts. Sir Peter Morrison, Margaret Thatcher’s Private Parliamentary Secretary was exposed as a pederast by Edwina Currie, and in her diary she noted that he had a liking for young boys, and even admitted it to Norman Tebbit, but added, ‘However, I am very discreet.’ And in a 1986 memo by Eliza Manningham-Buller, later Director General of MI5, she said that allegations against Morrison were tolerated and that the prime minister was aware of it and was supporting Peter.

   So, why was Thatcher so tolerant of her private secretary’s perversions? Could it have anything to do with her upbringing by her hypocritical father who espoused Victorian values but was a serial groper of the young girls who worked in his grocer’s shop in Grantham?

   And it gets a lot worse, believe me, and this is all on record and won’t go away. Like the Elm Guest House in Putney that was used for orgies with prominent people abusing under-privileged children. The guest house was eventually raided in the late-eighties and Carole Kasir who ran it committed suicide in 1990.

   Then there is the strange case of a man named Henderson, who inadvertently left extreme images of child porn on a bus. He was a member of PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) and when his house was searched it transpired that he was actually Sir Peter Hayman, HM High Commissioner to Canada 1970-74. Sir Michael Havers, Attorney General at the time, defended his position not to prosecute Hayman on the grounds that as he was not on PIE’s executive committee, and he was not therefore part of a conspiracy.

    I could go on and on, listing prominent politicians who have been child abusers. But conveniently they are often named and shamed after their death, as in the case of Cyril Smith, whose depravities were on record as far back as the late sixties. An enormous file of his heinous activities was in the hands of Lancashire police until MI5 collected it, allowing him to continue his depravities for many decades, and even being given a knighthood in 1988.

   Yes, depressingly, this list is endless. But now, since Carl Beech’s lies, this has all been buried, as if it never happened. And is unlikely to happen in the future.

   But, to use a Shakespearian cliché: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

 

Please Sir! and Dylan Thomas

 

The first time I read Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and got to draper Mog Edwards saying, ‘I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires,’ it brought back memories of North Wales in the late 1940s.

   My mother occasionally shopped at a small department store called Polikoff. I used to love going in there and was fascinated by the contraption that dealt with my mother’s transaction. She would hand money to the shop assistant, who placed it with a docket in a small cylinder. Then, just slightly higher than head-height, the cylinder was attached to a wire, and it would go zooming off to a cashier in another part of the building, and we waited until the cylinder zoomed back to us containing my mother’s change. Hence Thomas’s line about ‘where the change hums on wires.’

     The first time I performed in Milk Wood was when I played Frankie Abbott in Please Sir! Richard Davies, who played Mr Price in the series, had been asked by the manager of Lewisham Concert Hall, close to where he and his wife Jill lived at the time, if he could get the cast of the sitcom together for a show. Richard, or ‘Dickie’ as we called him, suggested we perform Thomas’s wonderfully lyrical play, staging it as simply as possible as it was to be a one-night stand. Lewisham Concert Hall was an enormous venue, and we were sold out. Possibly because the theatre had advertised it in the Evening Standard London Theatre Guide, and we were billed as stars from Please Sir! in Under Milk Wood, with Duffy, Sharon, Abbott, Maureen, Dunstable, Craven and Mr Price, instead of our own names.

   Under Milk Wood would feature largely throughout my career. Months after the Lewisham performance, Malcolm McFee and Peter Denyer hired Theatre Royal E.15 and staged a full-scale production where we all spent a happy fortnight performing it, and in 1975, Malcolm and I formed a production company and toured nationally with the play, with Ian Talbot, Liz Gebhardt’s husband, as the Narrator. Then in 1978, I was offered the parts of Sinbad Sailors, Dai Bread and Jack Black in a BBC Radio 4 version, with Glyn Houston as First Voice.

   But my favourite production was in the 1980s, when I and my wife Pat formed a small-scale touring company, and we got together with Richard Davies, his wife Jill, and Peter Cleall, touring to small arts and community centres in the south east. And the play, with its powerful imagery, continues to resonate with me. When I performed it on tour in 1975, Welsh actor Meredith Edwards, told me an allegedly true story about Dylan Thomas hiring a dinner jacket at the Covent Garden branch of Moss Bros. I wrote this as a short story which I included in my anthology Tales from Soho, published just a few years ago.

 

 

The book contains 11 entertaining stories from London's famous square mile. Plus a history of the area and some of its famous pubs.

 

To purchase a copy go to Page one and you will find a link to Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and Kobo

 

Live TV Drama

 

In 1956 I played Ginger in the first ITV production of Just William. This was called Over to William, a series of 13 episodes directed by Cecil Petty. The other outlaws were played by Keith Crane (William), Michael Saunders (Douglas) and John Symonds (Henry). They were all fellow pupils at Corona Academy, the stage school I attended, including Margaret Sawyer, who appeared in several episodes as Violet Elizabeth Bott.

   We rehearsed in a church hall in west London each week, sometimes a day was set aside for telecine (filmed inserts), then every Friday we travelled on an early train to  Birmingham, and then by cab to the studio, where we began the technical camera rehearsal, so that the technicians, sound and camera operators, could get to grips with the action. The cameras used were like outside broadcast cameras, large cumbersome brutes with different lenses which swivelled, a red light which lit up on top, indicating which camera was live, and these clumsy-looking beasts trailed yards of cable. Each studio used about four cameras, and it was the vision mixer in the control room who called the shots and pressed the buttons, with the director giving him or her directions. In the ‘William’ studio, unlike the set up for comedies where about four sets face an audience, our sets were placed in a circle, so that the cameras and sound booms held a central position and manoeuvred into each set when they were required. And as this was live television, allowances had to be made for errors. If any of us dried, the assistant floor manager had a button to press, called a cut key, which would take the sound off the air, give us a prompt, and whoever had dried could continue, with the assistant floor manager restoring the sound, so that viewers thought it was a technical rather than human error. The biggest culprit for drying was Michael Saunders who often had to take a prompt. In fact, it happened so often that once, when I dried, they thought it should have been Michael’s line, thinking he had dried yet again, and they prompted him instead of me.

   But far worse things happened than forgetting lines. In one episode, we the outlaws were peering over a brick wall. Someone had forgotten to brace the wall, and it started to rock, prior to being knocked over. The cameraman, knowing there was nothing behind the wall, panicked and swivelled the lens of his camera in a 360-degree pan around the studio, giving audiences at home a view of every set, including actors idly waiting their turn to perform, make-up artists and technicians. 

     When in the same year I appeared as a Mexican boy in The Power and the Glory, starring Paul Scofield, one member of the cast, Gareth Jones, was a fluent Welsh-speaker, and when my parents came to see the play at the Phoenix Theatre they conversed with him in Welsh. So, it was with great interest my mother, father, my brother Mervyn and I sat in the front room one Sunday night in 1958 to watch Gareth Jones, who was playing a leading part in an Armchair Theatre play. These television plays were hugely popular, did well in the ratings, especially as each play followed Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Produced originally by ABC Television, most plays were televised from their northern studios at Didsbury in Manchester, were broadcast live, and were written by some notable writers, including Harold Pinter, Alun Owen, Alan Plater, Brian Clemens and Ludovic Kennedy, to name just a few of the hundreds of writers who wrote for this long-running series of almost five hundred episodes.

   But the episode we were most interested in watching was called Underground, mainly because Gareth Jones had a leading role. The play was about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and took place in the London Underground where surviving Tube travellers have become stranded. The character Gareth Jones played had to crawl from one Underground station to another, then discovers the tunnel is blocked. There was a dramatic cliff-hanger before the commercial break, but when the drama resumed, Gareth Jones had disappeared. It didn’t make much sense. The tunnel was blocked, so where did the character go? A drama which began with a straightforward narrative suddenly became confusing and we soon lost interest in the play, although we stuck with it until the end, just in case Gareth Jones reappeared.

   My father, who was always an early riser, banged on my door the following morning and entered, excited and distressed. He showed me the headlines in his newspaper. Gareth Jones had dropped dead during the commercial break, suffering a massive heart attack. I imagined the chaos in the studio. Less than three minutes until they were back on the air, minus one of their leading actors, distributing his lines to the other actors as best they could, and Ted Kotcheff the director having to improvise camera shots. It’s a wonder there weren’t any more heart attacks in Didsbury Studios. What a way to go. No time to grieve, that would come later. The show must go on!

 

The Boys in The Band

 

Out of the blue in 1977 I was offered the leading role of Michael in The Boys in the Band at Cardiff New Theatre. It came about because Martin Williams, the manager, had booked our production of Under Milk Wood for a week at the New just over a year ago, and I got on well with him.

   I had seen the play when it opened in the West End with the original American cast in 1969, and I never imagined I would play the part of Michael, who goes on an emotional roller-coaster throughout the play, culminating in a breakdown. But the play was also very funny, and one of its funniest lines was delivered by the effeminate character, Emory. ‘Who do you have to fuck around here to get a drink?’

   (An actress who saw the original West End show found this line so funny, she committed it to memory, and determined to use it some time. The next time she was at a party, she said loudly – and wrongly – ‘What do you have to drink around here to get a fuck?’)

   The play has an all-male cast and is about a group of gays during one night at a party in a New York apartment. ‘ The part of Emory was played by Barry Howard and it was great to work with him again. He often used the line, ‘I’m not really gay. I just help them out when they’re busy.’

   Someone else in the cast I got along with was Peter Childs, who had a wicked sense of humour. Anyone with pretentious leanings would often be reduced to jelly by his caustic barbs. But he never picked on anyone who didn’t deserve it, and he usually brought people down to size with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous giggle.

   During our rehearsal period the Welsh National Opera Company performed at the New and we used to drink with them in the bar of a bistro opposite the theatre. Peter learnt to sing “Myfanwy” in Welsh and on the last night of the opera company’s appearance, they presented him with an LP of the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, and signed it ‘To Peter, an honorary Welshman.’

   When the play opened, we were concerned about some of the language, worried that there might be some sort of chapel backlash. But it was received with laughter and a great deal of applause at the end, and our fears were unfounded.

   Following the two week run at Cardiff, the production was due to go to the MacRobert Centre at Stirling and Norwich Theatre Royal. The former theatre was on the university campus, and again we had concerns about some sort of moral backlash. According to some of the cast members, the homosexual bill had never been ratified in Scotland, and sexual relations between consenting members of the same sex was still against the law. Mind you, to say we were concerned was probably an exaggeration. I mean, who in the theatre doesn’t like a drama? And so we looked forward to anything the Scottish audiences might throw at us, either metaphorically or literally.

   But the trouble in Scotland came from an unexpected source – the Scottish Gay Liberation Front. They reckoned the play was an insult to gays, and audiences were merely being entertained by ‘laughing at poofs’, and the play didn’t deserve to be taken seriously. When we arrived in Stirling, we were shown all the newspaper cuttings condemning the play by the Gay Libs, and the chief in charge of this minority group would be attending our first night.

   The show went brilliantly on its first performance. We knew some of the Gay Lib members were in the audience, and thought they probably squirmed as Barry Howard’s Emory minced and camped it up. In the bar afterwards, the Gay Lib chief introduced himself, and immediately launched into an argument about how clichéd the play was, with stereotypical, limp-wristed gays giving out the wrong messages.

   Most of us in the cast pointed out that Emory was the only effeminate character, and the play showed an entire cross section of the gay community. But he was so intent on getting his point across, he didn’t accept or listen to our arguments. He charged in bitterly with a diatribe on all limp-wristed gays like Larry Grayson and John Inman, who were a disgrace and a pathetic travesty.

   Knowing Barry had once been the long-term partner of John Inman, I saw him bristle, and I waited with eager anticipation for the explosion. Instead, he decided it was time to buy an enormous round of drinks. ‘David, what’ll you have, love? And for you, Peter?’ He went round the entire cast, and there were nine of us, plus the stage management. Finally, he came to the Gay Lib bloke at the end of the row, looked him right in the eye, and said, ‘I’m not buying you one, because you’re a cunt!’

   It was a costly round of drinks, but I guess Barry thought it was worth it to make a point.

   After Stirling there was just one more week at Norwich Theatre Royal. The part of Michael was a demanding role and I was almost relieved when it ended, although I would have liked a few more touring dates. The four weeks of performances had flown by, and suddenly everyone was shaking hands in the bar on the last night. Johnny Worthy, who played Bernard in the production, was also a singer, choreographer and tap dancer, and had been in the controversial sex musical Let My People Come. Knowing how much I like Dylan Thomas, on the last night he presented me with a parting gift of a book of the poet’s short stories and poems. It would be well over twenty years until I met with Johnny again.

   During the last night farewells, phone numbers were exchanged and promises to keep in touch. Like holiday friendships or romances, it rarely happens. The actors you were bosom friends with on tour become just a passing experience, like a book you enjoy reading, but you know you will never read again. But there are exceptions, and Peter Childs and I had formed a firm friendship, and when we said we would keep in touch when the play was over, we both knew we meant it, and I often visited him at his home in Tunbridge Wells throughout the late seventies.

    Sadly, Peter died from leukaemia aged 50 in 1989. He is still fondly remembered by many pub regulars in Tunbridge Wells.

 

Death of Babes in the Wood

 

In 1975 I was offered, along with Malcolm McFee, a pantomime, Babes In The Wood, at the Gaumont Cinema, Doncaster, starring Cy Grant as Alan A Dale. Grant was well known for providing topical calypso numbers for the BBC news show Tonight.  Originally from Guyana, in 1941 he joined the RAF, became a Flight Lieutenant navigator, and on his third mission was shot down over the Netherlands. He was captured and spent the next two years in the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III until the allied liberation.

   Another company member with wartime experience was Edwin Braden, our musical director, who provided mid-show music for Round the Horne and Beyond Our Ken, as Eddie Braden and the Hornblowers. Malcolm, Eddie and I stayed in the same hotel, and Eddie, after he usually topped his breakfast tea up with a generous measure of whisky, regaled us with his stories. He served in the army during World War II and was in the North Africa campaign. He told us that one Christmas, their unit came across an abandoned village, in which there was a large vat containing red wine. It was apparently a rule that soldiers serving in the desert must never waste water from their canteens, but as it was Christmas Day, and there was a well in the village with enough water to refill everyone’s canteens, a special dispensation was granted from the CO that every soldier would be allowed to empty their canteen and fill up with wine to celebrate. Pretty soon all the wine was drunk. At the bottom of the vat it was discovered there were belt buckles, gold teeth, and metal buttons. It looked as if bodies had been disposed of in the vat, and everything that wasn’t metal had been eaten away over time by the wine. Eddie chuckled and said, ‘Mind you, that wine had a fine body to it!’

   The pantomime was produced by Alexander Bridge of West End Artists and directed by Michael J. Smith, who knew as much about directing a show as I know about the laws of thermodynamics. And we only had about eight days’ rehearsal. We began rehearsals in Doncaster on Monday 15 December. Friday came and went, and we weren’t paid, but we were told that because the production company had so many other productions running concurrently, they didn’t have anyone able to make the trip to Doncaster to pay us. Instead, we were offered two weeks’ money the following Friday after the show had opened. We should have been suspicious, but as we were playing to large audiences, we assumed everything was above board.

    In the wings every night, as we waited to make our entrance, Malcolm and I spluttered as we watched the actor playing Will Scarlet saying his lines as he accidentally discovers the red tunic that gives him his name. There was an error in the script, and rather than tell him so that he could correct it, we thought it much more fun to hear his camp delivery every night as he said, ‘Well, here is a fine jerking.’

   Despite financial problems, and the deceit of the management, there were positive encounters when we became great friends with Bernie Higginson, the pit drummer, and the three of us hardly stopped laughing during this disaster-filled show.

   The following Friday was our next pay day when we had been promised our money. It was Boxing Day, and we were told as the banks were shut no one could be paid until they opened. By now we all knew something was very wrong with this company. But they promised us full payment by Friday the 1st of January, another bank holiday when the banks would be shut.

   On Friday, an Equity representative arrived on the scene, who turned out to be less than useless and we all performed the show that evening. The show was scheduled to run for another two weeks until January 17th, but the Gaumont Cinema management said West End Artists had gone bankrupt, and they had no option but to end the show on Saturday, and the bookings for Saturday were excellent. During a heated company meeting, most of the cast suggested it would be awful to cancel and disappoint all the kiddies and parents who had booked tickets. It was a show must go on attitude, even though none of us had seen a single penny in three weeks. I have to admit I was one of the few in the company who said we were within our rights not to perform, but when it came to a vote I was outnumbered.

   Following our two final (unpaid) performances, the Gaumont Cinema advertised a film opening on Monday 4 January. The Towering Inferno.

   I had no cash, and no cheques left in my chequebook, so how was I able to get home? I had heard somewhere that provided you have all the account details etc., and a bank guarantee card, you can write a cheque out on ordinary paper and this will be legally binding. I wasn’t certain it would work, so what I did was drive into a petrol station, fill up the tank, then explain my predicament to the cashier. I wrote out my cheque on half a sheet of A4 paper, and it worked. The payment was honoured.

 

Private Abbott

 

The eighth episode in the first series of The Fenn Street Gang was written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey. It was called The Thin Yellow Line and was about Abbott joining the army, with Tony Selby as the corporal. Graham Evans directed this episode, and for some reason became annoyed by one of the actors and bullied him. Royce Mills who played the Commanding Officer was his bone of contention and on the first day of rehearsal, as Mills spoke in his terribly, terribly upper-class voice, Evans told him to play it straight and not as a silly toff. Unfortunately, this was Mills’ natural voice. There are some actors who can do various accents and voice changes, but clearly Mills wasn’t one of them, and Evans became aggressive as he kept stopping Mills every time he opened his mouth, demanding that he play it straight. We were all hugely embarrassed and wondered why Evans took against him so. When I spoke to Peter Cleall about it, we both agreed, that a toff’s voice was perfect casting for the C.O., especially as this was a comedy.  The second day of rehearsal, Royce Mills was gone and had been replaced by Colin Farrell. I had already worked with Colin, as had Peter Denyer, in Zigger Zagger, the play about football hooliganism, which lasted only 10 days in London’s West End. In case you are thinking this is the Colin Farrell who was in Ballykissangel, who then went on to Hollywood stardom, think again. Every actor who is an Equity member has their name registered, so that no one else can use their name. Perhaps Colin Farrell the Hollywood star never joined Equity, so it is the Colin Farrell I knew who had to alter his name slightly to avoid confusion.

   Much was made of the fact that my hair was shorn for this episode and, in the opening scenes before I enlisted, I had to wear a wig. One of the filmed sequences took place on army ground, and many squaddies hung around watching. One of the scenes was target practice, in which Abbott gets over-excited by his fantasy of firing a real gun coming true and runs along the firing range shooting from the hip at the target. After Graham Evans shouted ‘Cut!’, I held the barrel of the rifle. Having never fired a rifle before, and nobody having told me the barrel of a gun gets red hot after firing so many rounds, I yelled and dropped the rifle, blowing on my hands.

   The squaddies fell about with laughter and most of them commented, ‘What a wanker!’

   One of the joys of working in this episode was because Barbara Mitchell was in it, and her character was now going from strength to strength, especially when she became a wheelchair user in one scene, playing the grieving war widow to the hilt.

    As the corporal Tony Selby was excellent, and I can recall his entrance when he soon snapped, ‘I am bomb proof, waterproof, fireproof and always bleeding right.’ And after more of his swagger, Abbott opines, ‘I like your style, sonny.’ His damn about to burst, Selby says, ‘There is always one, and you are him, aren’t you?’

    Fenn Street was a spin-off from Please Sir!, which in turn produced another one called Bowler. But I often wondered if the episode with Tony Selby inspired Esmonde & Larbey to write Get Some In, with Tony Selby starring as the RAF corporal. If that was the case, I guess that would have made the RAF series indirectly the third Please Sir! spin-off.

 

BACK TO SCHOOL

 

For me, the sixties was a wonderfully childish decade. Not just because soup tins had become works of art, and Yoko Ono had made a film about naked buttocks and not much else, but mainly because I was about to start school again at the age of 25.

   I nearly didn’t get to sit behind that desk, though, because early in 1968 I auditioned for the hippie, draft-dodging musical Hair, and the anonymous producers in the darkened auditorium loved my audition. There had been so much publicity about the show and its Broadway success, I knew exactly how to dress the part: shirt hanging out of torn flared denims, and a waistcoat made of what looked like an old carpet, and flip-flops on my feet. At least my attempts to look like an actor who knew what the show was about seemed to go down well. Unlike the young actress who auditioned before me. She wore a cute party frock, and in her total ignorance of knowing what the show was about, she sang “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Flower Drum Song.  I don’t know how many bars into her song she got before they hooked her. ‘Next!’ Which was me, and I managed to get through to the end of my song, singing (angrily) an Irish rebel song, which ended with ‘Fuck the British Army’, followed by my gesture of a V-sign – not the Churchillian one for victory. They loved it, and I made the recall audition. The first audition I had treated light heartedly, not really expecting a great response and not caring whether it was sink or swim, but now I was recalled I began to take it seriously. Big mistake. I should really have given them the same song again at the next audition. Instead, I sang a Manfred Mann number: “My Name is Jack”. I don’t think they liked it as much as the Irish rebel song, and so that was that. Which was just as well, because a part in Hair would have meant the loss of the Please Sir! and The Fenn Street Gang series that ran between 1968 and 1973. Maybe my failed Hair audition was meant to be.

   In the autumn I auditioned, along with about 30 other young actors for the series called Rough House. The auditions were held at Station House, the head offices and rehearsal rooms of LWT, the television company not yet a year old, which had won the franchise from Associated Rediffusion, and would be transmitting from early evening on Fridays until late on Sundays. Station House was a 20-storey building near Stonebridge Park station, not far from Wembley and the studios which were used by London Weekend Television.

   Mark Stuart, the producer and director, and the writers, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, sat in front of a long table. We the actors waited in another room and then three of us were ushered in to stand before them and read from a script. As soon as I read for the part of Frankie Abbott, I shrugged my shoulders audaciously and imagined reaching for the semi-automatic pistol concealed under my arm. I saw John Esmonde laugh and tug his goatee beard, which I took to be a good sign.

   Once we had read, we were sent back into the other room, and Mark Stuart’s PA would enter at odd intervals, tap someone on the shoulder and say, ‘Thank you. You can go.’ Then three of us would go in again to read for Dunstable, Craven and Abbott, which were the parts they were casting that day. Whenever I had given my reading, I dreaded the PA’s dismissive tap on the shoulder. Eventually, after nail-biting minutes, three of us were left in the other room: Malcolm McFee, Peter Denyer and yours truly. Then Mark Stuart came in and announced with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Well, I guess you three will have to do. We’ll be in touch with your agents.’

   The read-through took place just over a week later, and it was exciting sitting around a table listening to the actors playing the staff members, many of whom I had seen in other comedies. Following the read-through, as we helped ourselves to coffee and got to know one another, we became aware of a conflab going on between Mark Stuart, Esmond and Larbey and Frank Muir, who was Head of Light Entertainment. Then we were told that the title was changed to Please Sir!’ And I can’t remember the original ending to the first episode The Welcome Mat, but now in the story Hedges unwittingly gains a reputation as a karate expert. It was established that the classroom desk was rotten, and towards the end of the episode he enters the rowdy classroom and attempts to keep order by striking the worm-eaten desk, which is split in half by what the pupils think is his karate chop. The show went from a weak ending to a big finish and we wondered if this suggestion came from Frank Muir.

    The series became popular and reached a high of number nine in the ratings, which meant serious lunchtime boozing in the LWT bar, because in those days it wasn’t considered bad form to lubricate one’s tonsils during a break in the rehearsals.

 

Y Viva Espana

 

In 2010 I spent a memorable five days with Carol Hawkins, her husband Martyn, and their friends Henry Holland and Mark Andrews at Carol and Martyn’s villa in Spain, and we didn’t stop laughing during our time there. I already knew Henry and Mark from when they had looked after Carol, Peter Cleall and me when we attended  a Memorabilia convention at Birmingham earlier in the decade. Sadly, Martyn died of cancer about four years later, but up until the Corona virus hit us, Henry, Mark and I continued to fly out to visit Carol each year.

    I belong to the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, and for many years at meetings and events I met another writer, who had written a couple of sitcom series. She now lived in Spain, and we kept in touch by phone or email. She kept inviting me to visit her, and in 2011 I relented,  booked a flight to Malaga, caught the airport bus to Marbella, where she picked me up and drove me to her flat in another town along the coast.

   No sooner had we walked through the door than the television was switched on as she never missed an episode of EastEnders. All this way, I thought, and here I am forced to watch a soap I’ve never seen before and have no intention of watching in the future. Not that I have anything against it as such, but I am an avid reader and can’t imagine reading a book in the same setting with the same characters in volume after volume ad infinitum. Surely there has to be an end somewhere?

   Over dinner later on I happened to pour myself a second glass of wine, and my host said, ‘You drink a lot, don’t you?’

   God! I can remember thinking. I have four nights of this to get through. This is worse than being married.

   In fairness to her, being a guest in someone’s home is not the easiest way to get to know a person, especially when you early on discover you have little in common, and mistakenly think being fellow writers is enough of a bond.

   I spent two dreary days pretending I was enjoying this brief holiday and putting a brave face on it. But the crunch came on day three. She had adopted a stray cat, which feared strangers. Her bedroom had an en suite bathroom, and so did the guest bedroom, where she had placed the cat’s litter tray, telling me not to shut the door, in case the cat needed to go in the night. She called it in for the night after I had gone to bed, because the cat was too scared to come anywhere near me. The next morning, I heard a yell, and then as I took a deep breath I was overwhelmed by the most disgusting reek of diarrhoea. The cat had shit in her wardrobe, and she accused me of shutting my bathroom door, depriving it of access to its litter tray. But I didn’t believe her. The cat, being too scared to venture near me, took the easy way out, and did its business in some comfy clothing and shoes at the bottom of her wardrobe.

   This event triggered the end for me, and I still had the third and final day to get through before my flight home. I was relieved when she suggested I spend the day in Marbella because she had some work to catch up on. I caught the bus to Marbella and had the best time of the entire trip, sitting in a café in the old town, drinking beer with a light tapas lunch, exploring the harbour, and seeing all the Salvador Dali statues.

   That night, back from my great solo day at Marbella, I took my host for a Chinese meal to thank her for – er – introducing me to the one episode of EastEnders I had ever seen up until then. As I ordered a second glass of wine for myself, again she said, ‘You drink a lot, don’t you?’

   I pointed out that as she used to be an actress, she must have worked with actors who drank a lot more. She told me all the actors she had worked with didn’t drink much.

   I wanted to say, ‘You can’t have worked much then.’ But I hushed my mouth.

   My flight from Malaga was at 3.15, and at 10.30 I suggested we might leave, just in case the airport bus from Marbella was delayed. I arrived at the airport with three hours to spare before the flight, and it was my best airport experience ever. As I sat in the airport bar, enjoying a few beers, I almost expected the barmaid to say, ‘You drink a lot, don’t you?’

    Another visit to Spain in October, but this was relaxing and fun, staying with people I knew and loved. It was my second visit to see Carol Hawkins and her husband Martyn. I flew from Gatwick with Mark Andrews and Henry, and during the visit we never stopped laughing. When I related my tale of the earlier trip to Spain, everyone fell about. Especially the story about the cat shitting in the wardrobe. And as we sat by the pool, every time I poured myself another glass of wine, Carol quipped, ‘You drink a lot, don’t you?’

 

In Praise of Barbara Mitchell

 

I couldn’t have wished for a better fictional mother than Barbara Mitchell as Mrs Abbott in Please Sir!. Her first appearance was in the third episode of the second series, Panalal Passes By in which Bernard Hedges meets her, accompanied by Frankie, in a café and she puts him off his food when she talks about her operation and haemorrhaging. She also reveals herself to be a racist, and Barbara played the character with such conviction and still made this monstrous mother funny.

   Mrs Abbott didn’t appear again until series three, Hitches and Stitches, when Abbott is taken to hospital for an appendectomy. But it was in the film that Barbara really made her mark, with her show-stopping scene in the kitchen when Frankie is seen squirting their budgerigar with washing-up liquid, and she perfectly delivers the line, ‘Don’t do that, my duck, you know Dickie don’t like it.’

   She was great to work with, and it was often difficult to keep a straight face performing with her. When she was in The Fenn Street Gang, when her character really took off, there was one time when some of us ‘gang’ members couldn’t stop corpsing. It was in an episode I wrote called ‘When Did You Last See Your Father?’, and I must confess I couldn’t resist indulging her character in this episode. It was directed by Alan Wallis, and after the dress rehearsal, just hours before the episode was recorded before a studio audience, Alan had to plead with us not to corpse, because in a café scene with Barbara we were reduced to tears of laughter when she performed, up to and including the dress rehearsal. That is how funny she was, and in each rehearsal, she always managed to add a little something extra and funny to each scene.

    Offstage she was wonderful, and a lovely person. My wife Zélie and I had moved to Park Road in Kingston-upon-Thames, and Barbara, her husband Rex and their two children lived just around the corner in Crescent Road. Not long after we had just moved in Barbara came round to welcome us and gave us a cup of sugar! She was incredibly involved in raising money for charity, and on several occasions she and Rex asked me to attend some events with her, which I was delighted to do.

    She became a regular character in the comedy For the Love of Ada, which I have been watching on Talking Pictures, and it reminded me of just what a fine comedy actress she was. She also played Vi Tonks in Beryl’s Lot in dozens of episodes.

   And I don’t know whether it was a producer, a researcher, or Bob Monkhouse himself who asked for us both to appear as guests of The Golden Shot. Monkhouse treated us royally, and it was clear he loved our two characters from the show. And going on the train up to the Birmingham studio where the programme was recorded gave me an opportunity to chat to her at length.

   Sadly, she was only 48 when she died of breast cancer in 1977. It was such a great loss, not only for her close family, but for her fellow actors and the general public. She was such a positive person, and there was never a dull moment when you were with her.

   And one of my fondest memories was of bumping into her, which I often did, in our local shops in Park Road, and she would always shout loudly and outrageously across the road to me, ‘Just shopping for chips, Frankie?’

 

 

 

Tragic Start to The Fenn Street Gang

 

It wasn’t long after the release of the Please Sir! film that we began rehearsals for The Fenn Street Gang spin-off.  Six of us were contracted to appear in 16 out of 21 episodes which ran consecutively with the fourth series of Please Sir!  Class 5C was recast with other young actors playing different characters,

   Now John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s writing was put to the test. Of the first series of 21 episodes of Fenn Street Gang, they wrote 11 episodes, and of the 21 episodes of series four of Please Sir! they wrote eight episodes, plus working as script editors on the other scripts for both series. Two of The Fenn Street Gang and five episodes of the new Please Sir! were written by Tony Bilbow, who presented BBC Television’s Film Night between 1970 and 1973, and Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker wrote seven episodes of Please Sir! and seven of Fenn Street Gang. I wrote one episode of the latter.

   Mark Stuart, as executive producer was still in charge of both series, but we now had other alternating producers and directors.

   John Alderton was contracted to appear in two episodes of the new school series and three episodes of The Fenn Street Gang. Malcolm McFee was unavailable to continue as Peter Craven because the production company, Memorial Enterprises, wouldn’t release him from a West End play. He had an understudy, and only one week after our series started they gave notice that the play would finish in two weeks. You would have thought that a production company run by two actors, Albert Finney and Michael Medwin, would have been understanding and let Malcolm go before the end, since the end was imminent, and Malcolm would lose out on 16 episodes of a TV series. But no, they insisted on him staying until the final curtain, even though his understudy could have played the part for the last two weeks. Léon Vitali was cast as Peter Craven

   The first episode, Should Auld Acquaintance, was not a happy memory. Nothing to do with any aggravation with the cast or production. It was directed by David Askey and on the second day, when producer Mark Stuart came into the rehearsal room to watch a rehearsal, he seemed to be staring at me which I misinterpreted as his dissatisfaction with my performance. At the end of a scene, he came forward, took me by the shoulders, saying he wanted a word with me, and I was taken into an adjoining empty rehearsal room. He then told me he had bad news. My brother had died in Australia.

   My first inappropriate thought was relief that I wasn’t being sacked. This terrible immediate thought has filled me with such guilt that I have been unable to wash it away. It has haunted me ever since.

   When I look back at that first episode, I think how kind and understanding Mark was. He took me into his office, then left me to telephone my wife Zélie, who told me Jenny, my brother Mervyn’s wife, would be ringing me later that evening from Australia. We broke for lunch and I went home early.

   The cause of Mervyn’s death was pleurisy, which is not usually life-threatening, but Mervyn had been in a bad motor accident a year before they emigrated, and he spent over six weeks in hospital. I guess his body had weakened considerably and was unable to cope with a defence against illness.

   The next few days were a blur, and I suppose a sort of ‘Doctor Theatre’ got me through the recording. Everyone was supportive and understanding. The first episode was written by John and Bob and opened with us playing tenpin bowls. Christopher Biggins was in this episode, as a Royal Mail employee. He had a scene with Peter Craven, now played by Léon Vitali. I felt sorry for Léon, because he was thrown in at the deep end, and they had obviously cast him on his looks, whereas he never really nailed the character, because there wasn’t really a big enough contrast between him and Peter Cleall. It wasn’t Léon’s fault, he just played it differently to Malcolm, who had been laid-back and understood the art of less is more. But as Sharon, Carol Hawkins, although different from Penny Spencer, managed to take the character to another level, and succeeded in making it her own.

   I guess I managed to get through these early episodes because I was kept busy and didn’t have time to dwell on Mervyn’s death. Besides, he had left the UK more than five years ago, and a vast distance lay between us. The wrench at that time was like a bereavement, never knowing when we might meet again, and never suspecting that we never would.

 

 

The Mystery of The Missing Photographs

 

During the first series of Please Sir! London Weekend Television realised they had a huge hit on their hands. But you would never have guessed it from their glossy photographs of all their shows in reception at Wembley Studios. There wasn’t one of Please Sir! And it wasn’t the cast members being paranoid. Whenever any of our wives, friends or agents came to a recording, they invariably noticed how our series was overlooked as far as the studio promotion went. It was as if the company resented the success of its own series, which was very strange, and several times our series hit Number One in the television ratings, even topping Coronation Street, Dad’s Army and Steptoe and Son.

   Often, following the recording of our shows, we would go for an Indian or Chinese meal. John Alderton for the first two series of our show, used to do the studio warm-up, thus saving Mark Stuart money in his episode budget for a professional warm-up man. So John asked Mark that it might be only fair that the warm-up money should go towards our meal after the recordings. Mark point blank refused, and so John refused to do the warm-ups for the third series, which was when Mark hired comedy actor John Junkin. John was fun and entertaining, and the audience seemed to like him because he was a well-known face, and he always joined us for a meal after the recording. But his warm-up days were numbered because of the sensitivity of our bosses. It happened during one warm-up, when John Junkin told the audience that LWT stood for ‘Low Wages and Tat!’ The curtain came down, and for the next episode we had another warm-up man. We couldn’t work out why the LWT bosses were so hyper-sensitive, unless it was a follow on from their resentment of our success.

   Someone who clearly disapproved of the way we behaved as characters, and our sometimes risqué dialogue (although mild by today’s standards) was Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. LWT often got complaints from her organisation, which we all thought was strange. Because our programme was broadcast at 7.25 p.m., way before the nine o’clock watershed, it was a rule that each weekly script had to be sent to ITA (Independent Television Authority) to monitor their suitability for transmission during the early evening. It transpired that Mark’s P.A. had been posting the scripts to the wrong address, and they lay abandoned on the floor of a vacant office building in Knightsbridge along with piles of junk mail.

   This couldn’t have happened with the first series, as two out of the seven episodes were moved from their earlier transmission of 8.30 to a 9.15 slot, so I guess ITA must have insisted on this having read the scripts.

   The last three episodes of the third series were broadcast in black and white because of a colour technicians’ strike. The first of these episodes was Situations Vacant, and we were introduced to Mr Dunstable, Dennis’s ghastly, drunken father. The part was played by eccentric actor Peter Bayliss, who arrived at rehearsals looking dapper, wearing a collar and tie and blue serge suit. He threw himself into the role, and you often wondered what strange exclamations would spring from his larynx, groans and grunts from deep down in his chest, and uncoordinated arm movements. His character took over, and the dapper actor went home at the end of rehearsals looking like a tramp. But we all loved Peter, who was a lovely man.

    Our final episode was a Christmas special, And Everyone Came Too, about Bernard and Penny’s wedding to which we were all invited (they gave us prop wedding invitations, and I’ve still got mine!). It could have been a colourful ending, but the strike was still on and it was recorded and transmitted in black and white, which was disappointing. It would have been good to finish with the eye-catching colourful fashions at the end of the swinging sixties and the beginning of the early seventies.

   The series became so popular it was sold to more than 40 countries, and still reception at Wembley Studio didn’t display any photographs from the show, even though they had pictures of On the Buses, Within These Walls, The Gentle Touch, and many others.

   But if anyone had told me back then that the series would find an audience in the next century, I would have thought they were off their trolley. Soon the series is to be repeated on Forces TV, well into the 21st Century, and there was me thinking back then that in 2001 a computer like HAL would take us whizzing into infinity. Just goes to show, some things are still more down to earth.

 

 

Living Language

 

Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Do you ever remember English teachers telling you this? Maybe they don’t anymore, but once upon a time those pompous, pedantic Malovolios mistakenly thought it was a hard and fast rule, and if in our English lessons we wrote something like ‘There is a theme park I would like to go to.’ This would be biroed (no such verb but who gives a monkeys) in red, and we ignorant little schoolkids would be corrected, and the preposition would be put in its place, reading, ‘There is a theme park to which I would like to go.’ Which to us kids sounded very formal and not the way we would talk in the playground.

    A friend of mine who was a schoolteacher, although his subject was maths, used to argue with me incessantly in our local pub (and this was only 20 years ago) about not beginning a sentence with a conjunction, until I eventually took in a Charles Dickens novel to show him that even writers of great literature ignored this suspect grammatical rule. I would have taken in the Complete Works of Shakespeare to show my friend that even the Bard of Avon could use conjunctions at the start of a sentence, but the tome was too cumbersome to lug to the pub.

    I had just begun writing my first novel Each man Kills when my friend argued about this factitious grammatical rule and I looked on starting a sentence with a conjunction as a challenge. Not much of one, I must admit, so I went a little further and began a chapter with ‘And that was that as far as the police were concerned.’

    In 1973 I performed in Peter Nichols’ splendid play, Forget-Me-Not Lane, in which Nichols gets many laughs out of the way the father is obsessed with correcting his son about never ending a sentence with a preposition. At one point Young Frank says, ‘Perhaps it was something he was driven to.’

    ‘Driven to? What’s “driven to”? admonishes Charles his father. ‘He was driven to it as pointlessly as you seem to be driven to end sentences with prepositions.’

   ‘Obsolete!’ Frank protests. ‘That’s one of the set of obsolete taboos you expected me to face my twentieth-century adolescence with.’

   ‘With which you expected me to face my—’ begins the father.

   Which always got a big laugh.

   Language is fluid, like Shakespearian and American/English, using new words, with old words taking on new meanings. Many new words survive and many fall into disuse throughout changing generations. How many people in 50 years’ time will be using the word Brexit, or even much earlier than that? And phrases, especially American ones, tend to become media clichés, such as ballpark figure meaning an approximate sum. And we have adopted so many American slang words and phrases, many of which are very imaginative. I often use the term ‘taking the back doubles’ to describe an alternative route somewhere, and it doesn’t mean the same as a short cut. If you try to analyse it’s true meaning, you may find it difficult. But we all know what it means without resorting to analysis. Much of our language, when used aurally, is emotional rather than intellectual.

    Frank Norman, who wrote the script and book of the Lionel Bart musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, in which I toured in a revival in 1979, was illegitimate and a Barnardo’s boy, who received five prison sentences, mainly for burglary, was recognised as a talented writer, even though he had had no formal education and couldn’t spell or write perfect grammatical English. When he wrote his first book, based on his prison experiences, Bang to Rights, it was great writing from the heart, giving the reader his honest emotional experiences rather than a formal intellectual opus. And his publisher had the courage to publish it exactly as he wrote it, warts and all. Here is a brief extract:

    ‘The fact is the nicks stink the screws are ignorant inhueman sadistic and a percentage of them are bent, so why don’t you face it and do something about it instead of hideing all the time.’

    So impressed was crime writer Raymond Chandler by Norman’s writing that he wrote a foreword to the book, saying things like: ‘He has a clever eye and swift observation and the power to put those qualities on paper and make you see with him. There is no damned literary nonsense about his writing.’

    One of my favourite writers, Bill Bryson, in his book Mother Tongue, which is hugely informative and funny, as most of his books are, gives as an example the way we Brits find it curious how Americans say ‘gotten’, whereas we say ‘got’. The point Bryson makes is that Shakespeare would have used ‘gotten’, and it has fallen into disuse in the UK, whereas the Americans have kept it alive over the centuries. Yet we still use phrases like ‘ill-gotten gains’.

    But for me, I still like to keep abreast of the words we use in our everyday speech, and also what is grammatically acceptable and correct. Only then can I dare to break rules.

    And finally: A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with.

    And here is what it should be: A preposition is not a good word with which to end a sentence.

    You choose!

 

 

 

 Scenes of Murder

 

Let me begin this blog with a rhetorical question. How important are real locations in crime novels? My personal preference is for real locations, in fact all of them described in my crime novels I have visited at one time or another. But that’s a personal thing. Not all crime novels need real locations, many can be fictional, and a good many of those crime novels which have fictional locations I have enjoyed.

    The first crime novels I devoured were the Enid Blyton Famous Five books, all of which took place in fictional areas, and involved the four children and the dog solving a crime of smugglers or foreign secret agents. And although there is no such place as Kirrin Island, it became very real to me. Later my reading tastes gravitated towards Agatha Christie, whose murders often took place in country houses or vicarages, locations I found it difficult with which to identify, and were more like puzzles in a game of Cluedo. Of course, Christie did occasionally use real locations such as Murder On The Orient Express, but even that one was a murder mystery set in a drawing room which just happened to be on a train.

   And then I discovered Raymond Chandler, in the very real Los Angeles, and his private eye Philip Marlowe had an office on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. And when I saw his novels translated into film, I realised just how important using a real location was. And much, much later another private eye, or gumshoe as they are sometimes known, was Lew Archer, also set in Los Angeles, excellent mysteries written by Ross Macdonald, whose hero was portrayed by Paul Newman in the films.

    In the Dr Tony Hill and detective Carol Jordan novels by Val McDermid, these are located in the fictional town of Seafield in East Yorkshire, which is a hybrid city and could be a mixture of Leeds, Scarborough and Middlesborough. But it doesn’t really matter where it is set, because unlike detective fiction set in real locations, she is asking readers to use their imagination.

    But my own preferences are for real locations. One of my favourites being Rebus’s Edinburgh, which is also his creator’s city. Ian Rankin even writes about the very tiny pub, the Oxford Arms, as one of Rebus’s regular haunts, a pub which Rankin uses himself.

    Each Man Kills, which was my first Harry Lambert crime novel, is set in Swansea, and also West Wales and Aberystwyth, all locations with which I am familiar. And when I used DI Harry Lambert in two more novels, The Wrecking Bar and Missing Persons, written in my birth name of Meurig Jones, I returned to Swansea and spent some time there getting to know the city and surrounding areas more intimately, which resulted in my writing scenes in which I had a massive explosion blowing up the marina at Burry Port. No one ever complained about my destruction of their lovely location. Unlike a slightly peeved email I received from a resident of the Isle Of Sheppey.

    When I began writing A Deadly Diversion, I visited the island over two days and took loads of photographs as I usually do. In the novel, I had one of my characters say, ‘What a karzy that place is. Don’t bother to send me a postcard.’ The email complained about the way I had written the island off, saying there was a great deal to recommend it. I wanted to write back and say it wasn’t me saying it, but a fictional character. Unfortunately the email got inadvertently deleted. I also wanted to send two photographs as proof of what I had seen on the island: one of a caravan park with a rust-bucket abandoned van; the other a derelict night club.

    The night club I discovered was a gift as it became the location for the climax of the novel after my protagonist flees from Krakow in Poland, which I have also visited.

 

 

 (Below you will see the rust bucket from the Isle of Sheppey Caravan Park and the night club

 which once knew better days, but became perfect for what I had in mind)

 

This same protagonist, Freddie Weston, in a previous novel Muscle, is set mainly in London’s West End and East End which I know very well, although I was able to take a nostalgic walk one sunny day along the River Thames to the weir and lock at Teddington, where the climax of Muscle is set.

    And in Walking Shadows, which was published in 2019, I returned to the Richmond area, where I spent my teens, and had a murder take place in a house on Richmond Green, one on a  marina by the Menai Straits, where I grew up, and another at Cruden Bay near Aberdeen, where I worked for a year as a Writer in Residence. So all of these locations are very real, and I even had characters meeting in a pub I drank in several times in East London, the Eagle at Snaresbrook.

   In my latest book, Before They Die, details of which you will find on the link below, much of the action takes place in London, but I did visit Docklands over two days, took loads of photographs, preparing to write an exciting car chase that features in the novel, with an escape onto the DLR. I also had two villains of the novel meeting in a pub I knew, The Anglesey Arms in South Kensington.

   The book I have recently completed is a horror anthology, The Great Lucifer & Other Horror Stories, so it is very much a novel of the imagination, and most of the locations are fictional. Although there is one story that…but you will just have to wait and see.

   Meanwhile, I have just bought another Michael Connelly novel, featuring Harry Bosch, and set in Los Angeles, and look forward to reading it, knowing that the author will take me to some very real places that I have never visited. But I think, because it is the city that Raymond Chandler introduced me to, he should have the final word. Of Los Angeles he said, ‘A big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.’

 

BeforeTheyDie

DeadlyDiversion

Muscle

EachManKills

WalkingShadows

 

A Desert Rat on VE Day

 

If the morning rehearsals for Please Sir! went well, which they invariably did, the lunchtimes became boozy affairs, playing silly games in the bar. One lunchtime, our producer and director Mark Stuart, who was in his early fifties, accused writer John Esmonde, who was much younger than him, of being far less fit. A challenge reared its ridiculous head. A fiver was wagered on the writer attempting to beat the director, running from the ground floor to the bar on the twentieth floor, a punishing forty flights of stairs. They went down in the lift while we all waited. A little while later Mark strutted into the bar, breathing heavily but otherwise quite relaxed. John Esmonde stumbled in later, panting and pale-faced, barely able to speak. But he was too competitive to acknowledge defeat. He claimed age was on his side and challenged Mark to run the race again. Double or quits. But Mark was an ex-dancer and choreographer, a champion diver, regular squash player and trampolinist. He was genuinely fit. The only thing John had going for him was his competitive personality. When they ran the second race, we thought Bob Larbey would have to find another writing partner. Not only did John lose the race, he looked as if he was about to expire. He shook and couldn’t speak for quite some time and had to be given another cognac transfusion.

   Mark used to direct some of the Tommy Cooper shows. The comedian was at the bar one day and Mark brought him over and introduced us. The great accident-prone magician sat at our table and made a great big fuss of wanting to buy us all a drink. Unfortunately for us, and fortunately for him, he kept his money in a handkerchief, with at least half a dozen knots surrounding it. As he struggled to undo a single knot, not only did he make us laugh but he managed to get out of buying a round.

   Mark had already told us the story of one of Cooper’s favourite tricks. If a car was sent to pick him up, at the end of the journey, the comedian would say to the driver, ‘Thank you. Have a drink on me.’ And he would shove what felt like a wad of notes into the driver’s breast pocket. It turned out to be a tea bag.

   As Tommy Cooper used his avaricious hankie trick on us, Mark was equally keen to get some good-humoured revenge. Cooper began telling us a long and elaborate joke. Mark whispered to someone in our group, ‘Make an excuse and walk away. But first pass it on.’ It took a while for the comedian to cotton on to what was happening, but by the time he neared the tagline of his gag he had lost his audience, and there was a look of desperation on his face as he belted out the punchline to the one person he physically restrained.

    As I write this on Friday 7 May, I am reminded that it is 75 years since Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe. And during a break in the Please Sir! rehearsals, I can remember Deryck Guyler telling us that one of the most memorable moments of his career was when he worked in a West End show in 1945, and on 7 May, the day before the official VE Day celebrations, word came that Germany had surrendered, and it was Deryck who, with tears in his eyes, announced to the audience that Germany had surrendered and peace had been declared in Europe. The audience went berserk, he said. It was a very moving moment and a treasured highlight of his career.

    Of course, he wasn’t really a Desert Rat!

 

 

Early Days of Television

 

My parents resisted buying a television set up until 1955. There were all sorts rumours about the ‘goggle box’ or the ‘one-eyed monster’ and how it was blamed for many social evils and was responsible for all kinds of physical deformity; anyone who had a squint, naturally it was television to blame. But the worst thing about television back then was the way the BBC operated, shutting down at 10.45 p.m., first of all playing ‘God Save the Queen’. (Did the BBC expect us to stand to attention at home, as was expected of us when they played the National Anthem at the end of the main feature at the cinema?) And there were the mind-numbing interludes between programmes when they played drippy music while showing hands making a vase on a potter’s wheel or a windmill turning, a form of hypnosis as if Big Brother was lulling us into a soporific state. And the programmes themselves were not much better. Often I and my family preferred to sit by the wireless and listen to the anarchic comedy of The Goon Show or some of the brilliant lugubrious humour of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock of Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, in Hancock’s Half Hour. At first, it was hard to accept live television shows, often ruined by many technical cock-ups, with sound booms or a camera lens coming into shot. In the early days of television, a teenage girl remarked, ‘I prefer radio to television, the images are so much better.’

    My parents, and my older brother, preferred the theatre and cinema, which also rubbed off on me in a big way.

    But there was one American comedy my father loved, which was The Phil Silvers Show, in which he played army Sgt Bilko, performing with immaculate timing. Of course in those days most of the American imports were Westerns. But BBC’s output then was ever so twee, with programmes like What’s My Line, hosted by Gilbert Harding, a headstrong schoolmasterly man who often upset people with a caustic remark and his panel consisted of well-spoken and well-mannered ladies like Lady Barnet, Lady Boyle and Barbara Kelly. And this was the quiz show where a guest had to mime their occupation, and the panellists had to guess what he or she did for a living. Riveting! But maybe we were easily pleased back then. (Perhaps we still are judging by some of the reality TV programmes showing these days.) But surely our gratification was easily satisfied in the fifties when we were amused by some of the variety shows like The Billy Cotton Band Show, where we marvelled at Cotton, the entertainer and host, an overweight man who was able to do cartwheels as he yelled, ‘Wakey! Wakey!’

    Little wonder that television remained socially low and inferior on the cultural scale. And when ITV began broadcasting in 1955, it created social divisions with the viewing public, many snobbish viewers preferring the cosiness of the BBC, with Dixon of Dock Green  and his catchphrase (it was the era of catchphrases) ‘Evening all,’ which was perhaps more comforting than ITV’s Dragnet and ‘My name’s Friday. I’m a cop.’

    Then on ITV there were the commercials, which loyal BBC viewers tried to avoid, like the first ever TV advert for Gibbs SR toothpaste informing viewers that it was tingling fresh.  And a washing powder commercial stated that ‘Omo improves even on perfect whiteness.’ (Did anyone stop to wonder how you can improve on perfection?) ITV stations soon became known for a ‘licence to print money.’ A commercial during peak time between 7.00 p.m. and 10.30 p.m. could cost as much as £2,000 per minute (roughly £36,000 in today’s money). But it was ITV who became more innovative when a Canadian, Sydney Newman, who left the Canadian Broadcasting Company to work for ABC Television, founded Armchair Theatre, a series of hour-long plays broadcast every Sunday night after Sunday Night at The London Palladium. Many of the plays were written by renowned writers like Alan Plater, Alun Owen and Harold Pinter. These plays, which gave many young writers their first opportunity in writing for television, ran for 452 episodes.

    I often think it’s a  great shame we can’t have one off single plays on television anymore.

    I mentioned the Billy Cotton Band Show. John Judd, with whom I worked with in pantomime in the 1970s, I interviewed at the Phoenix Artist Club just over a year ago, and he talked about his role of Sands in the violent borstal drama Scum, and how Billy Cotton’s son, Bill Cotton Junior became Controller of BBC1 in the 1970s and banned it from being televised. John Judd told us how in certain circles Scum became known as ‘The Billy Cotton banned show.’

 

 

 

Bad Timing

 

In 1988 I was asked to direct the Sevenoaks Stag Theatre’s first professional pantomime. This came about because I had been instrumental in helping to raise money to get this new theatre off the ground, by organising evenings of Poems and Pints, in which I managed to persuade Valentine Dyall, Peter Cleall, Richard Davies and his wife Jill Britton, Christopher Timothy, and my wife Pat Carlile to appear. Then, Margaret Durdant-Hollamby who ran the theatre, asked me if I would direct their first professional pantomime and I was offered a Cinderella script by Christopher Timothy. I agreed to play one of the Broker’s Men and I asked Malcolm McFee if he would join me as the other Broker’s Man. I managed to hire some excellent scenery and a Cinderella coach from Norwich Theatre Royal, and also two Shetland ponies to do the pulling and thrill the children at the closing of the first half.

Meanwhile, Maggie Durdant-Hollamby wanted a name to top the bill as Buttons. I had been watching The Lenny Henry Show, and I thought the young actor, Vas Blackwood, who played Winston in that show was rather good and very funny. We cast him, and on the first day of rehearsal at Sevenoaks, which I called for 11.00 a.m. to allow the actors to get the cheaper fares, Blackwood did not turn up until nearly 11.45, saying he’d left his wallet at home. Fair enough, I thought, that was just bad luck. But he was late most days, and often he didn’t even bother to make excuses. Because I called rehearsals for eleven, I expected everyone to work until six – at least. Not Blackwood, who left dead on half-five, saying, ‘I’ve got a train to catch, man.’

   To say I regretted casting him is an understatement, but the buck stopped with me.

   I have been in some technical rehearsals in productions which go on until very late at night. This particular one, with Malcolm’s help, was reasonably smooth and we were well into the second half by six o’clock with only another hour to go. But Vas Blackwood said he was going. Walking out. The stage manager went ape, screaming at him and swearing, and in the end a cowed Buttons stayed until we finished the tech. But Malcom and I had wanted Blackwood to walk out, because then we could have sacked him without pay, and got David Sargent, who played the Major Domo to take over the role, as he was so much better.

   But we were stuck with Vas Blackwood for the entire run. And I can remember Malcolm whispering to me in the wings, as he watched Blackwood’s performance as Buttons, ‘You would think some of Lenny Henry’s professionalism would have rubbed off on the bloke, wouldn’t you?’

    I can also remember warning Blackwood during the rehearsal period about his time-keeping and having to phone up his agent to complain. Now most actors’ agents stick up for their clients. Not this one. He blithely told me he had had many complaints from other theatre companies about his client and reluctantly agreed to have a word with Blackwood.

    Fat lot of good it did. And I do so wish it had been David Sargent playing Buttons instead. But many years later I would eventually get to work with David again, who appeared in my play Mr Micawber, based on my novel Mr Micawber Down Under, which toured the South East in 2013, and he was excellent playing multi roles.

 

 

Lads From Fenn Street…Further Adventures Of

 

The Lads From Fenn Street was booked for a week at Hull Arts Centre, a small theatre which later became the base for Hull Truck Company. Advance bookings were poor, and Ken Shaw, an Australian actor who worked as our Publicity Manager arranged for us to make a brief appearance at a cabaret club, where the resident DJ would plug our show prior to Gerry and the Pacemakers performing. We stayed to watch the show, and Gerry Marsden not only sang all his popular hits, but invited some members of the audience to participate in “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”, which worked well, as many of the participants were uninhibited through alcohol, and prepared to be the butt of Gerry’s jokes.

   The singer heard that some of the Please Sir! cast were visiting and invited us to join him in his dressing room after the show for a few drinks. As Gerry’s cabaret performance wasn’t until quite late, we invited him to see our show on Tuesday night. He came and liked the show so much, he returned to see the midweek matinee, bringing his wife and family. Then he invited us to have a drink with him after his performance on Friday night.

   We arrived a bit early and he was still on stage. But he had left word to expect us and we were shown into his dressing room and told to help ourselves to the Scotch he had left out.

Suddenly his manager or roadie barged in, behaving as if he owned the place. He began criticising Gerry’s act and we thought this must be Mister Ten Per Cent. Definitely his agent, the way he spoke about his client. When Gerry arrived, he gave the man a cursory nod. Then the bloke launched into a criticism of his act, going on and on in running down Gerry’s performance. Suddenly, the singer could take it no more, pointed his finger at the man and demanded, ‘What do you do, pal?’

   ‘I’m a gas fitter.’

   Gerry exploded. ‘You’re a gas fitter and you’re telling me how to do my act. Go on, clear out!’

   The man exited hurriedly, and Gerry turned to us and apologised. ‘I’m sorry, lads, if he was a colleague of yours. But I couldn’t take all that shit after a show.’

   We said we’d never seen him before. ‘The way he spoke we thought he must have been your agent,’ Malcolm McFee said.

   Gerry laughed. ‘Good job I thought he was with you lads, else I might have chinned him.’

   Our show did well in the south, and in Scotland and Wales, but not so well in the north of England. I often used to wonder if this was because of some myth about northerners not liking southerners. One small venue in the north, and I really can’t remember where it was, we played for two nights. Prior to our tour they demanded a great deal of publicity material. When we arrived at the venue I could see in the box office a huge pile of our posters lying around. It put me in a terrible mood, angry not so much about the cost of the posters but the fact that they hadn’t been used to publicise the show. I demanded to see the manager who was not available until the interval. After the first half the manager came into the dressing room and I launched into a tirade about how badly run the theatre was. I expected Malcolm at least to back me up, but he snuck out of the dressing room, stifling a smile. I was astounded. When he returned I asked him why he hadn’t stayed to back me up. And he told me he found it difficult to keep a straight face.

   ‘How can anyone take you seriously, ranting and raving, when you’re dressed as Little Bo-Peep?’

   Another northern date we played was in Preston, Lancashire. The first night at the hotel I hardly got any sleep as my room backed onto the railway lines, and diesels hummed and throbbed all night long. Unable to sleep, I telephoned reception and asked, ‘What time does this hotel arrive at Euston?’

   The three of us moved to a quieter hotel in Lytham St. Anne’s for the rest of the week.

   But we did have a lot of laughs on this 18 week tour. It was in Peterborough I seem to remember coming down to breakfast in the hotel we stayed at, and one of the chambermaids recognised us and said, ‘Fenn Street Gang! I recognised you. You look just like yourselves.’

   And at another venue the theatre manager accompanied us to the bank to cash a cheque for the week’s takings, and the female bank teller recognised us and asked for our autographs. After we gave her our signatures, then pushed the cheque across the counter, she said, ‘Could I see some ID please?’

   But one of the biggest laughs we had on the tour was at the expense of Peter Cleall. We were at Torquay and Peter went into a public convenience. When he came out, nonplussed and shaken, he told us he’d been standing at the urinal enjoying a pee when a man standing at the next stall recognised him and demanded an autograph, thrusting pen and paper at him while they were both still urinating.

 

 

The Three Amigos On Tour

 

 

When Malcolm McFee and I first began booking dates for our tour of The Lads From Fenn Street, we hoped to get a few reasonably close to London so that we could invite a few television producers along to see it; but the nearest venue we managed to book was at East Grinstead. We invited Michael Grade, who was Head of Light Entertainment at LWT, never thinking he would accept our invitation, so we were surprised and pleased when he made the journey one rainy midweek night, and we picked him up at the railway station. We had a drink with him after the show, which he said he enjoyed, but no offers of sketch shows were ever forthcoming from LWT after that.

   We discovered the greatest difficulty in booking tours is in trying to get them within reasonable travelling distance of each other. I think the longest journey we had to make was from a few one-night stands in the Cheshire area to Kirkcaldy in Fife. At least we could relax at the Adam Smith Centre because we were booked for the entire week on a guarantee, and the bookings were reasonably good. We stayed at the Station Hotel, conveniently close to the theatre, and on Friday night after the show we were in the bar when the hotel manager said there was an event going on in their function room and people would love to meet us. We joined the event, which looked as if it might have been some sort of dinner and dance which started much earlier in the evening. Thinking we might plug our show for the last two Saturday performances, we got up on the stage and performed a couple of short sketches, and I sang a short song from the show.

            Sweet Fanny Adams,

            Always bright and gay

            In the old apple tree in the orchard

            We carved our names one day.

            But the woodpecker came in September

            And woodpecker wood peck away,

            Now all we can see on the old apple tree

            Is sweet F.A!

Then Malcom said something like, ‘I hope you are all having a good evening, and are a bit pissed like we are, and please come and see our last two performances at the Adam Smith Centre.’

   The organiser of this event, a dour looking giant in a kilt, came over and said, ‘I’d like you to leave now.’

   We laughed. This guy had a real dry sense of humour, and because we’d entertained them at his function free of charge, we waited for him to say something like, ‘What’ll you have to drink, lads?’ Then we realised by his sour expression that he was deadly serious. What had upset him we wondered? Was it my sweet F.A. line? Or was it Malcolm using the word pissed. Whatever it was, his attitude was extreme. When several woman asked us for autographs, we apologised, saying we had to leave as their organiser was throwing us out.

   We never found out what his problem was, unless he was some nutty Bible-thumping bigot who hated The Fenn Street Gang. But at least our theatre performances went down well at Kirkcaldy.

   In 1974, like Wales, the pubs shut on Sundays in Scotland, so on the Sunday morning as we drove to our next venue and crossed the border, we stopped for a lunchtime drink at the first pub in England. We had just got our drinks when someone said, ‘How’s your tour going?’

   The chap introduced himself. He recognised us because he was an actor touring in another show, on their way from Bournemouth to Aberdeen, and decided to stop off for a final drink before the last leg of their marathon journey.

   Ken Shaw, who played the detective sergeant in Just Plain Murder, in which we toured in 1973, we employed to market the show, which is how I ended up fighting two rounds wrestling Albert ‘Rocky’ Wall. We’d been playing a few one-night stands up north, and we had a Saturday free. Our next venue was the Pier Pavilion Cleethorpes, so we decided to drive over there, book into a hotel, then have a look at the venue. When we arrived at the theatre, a band was getting their equipment into a large vehicle. We asked them what the venue was like, and they gave us their eye-rolling verdict of terrible, having played to only a dozen people. We asked the name of their group and were told it was Showaddywaddy, soon to reach number two in the charts with “Hey Rock and Roll”.

   Our publicity stunt took place on the Sunday night when I climbed into the boxing ring to challenge ‘Rocky’ Wall. I wore a great cape, Bermuda shorts and boxing gloves. Peter and Malcolm, as my seconds wore snazzy sequined jackets and bowler hats. I pranced around the ring, waving gloved fists in the air, saying ‘I am the greatest.’ It was then I got a bit worried because ‘Rocky’ looked towards his manager as if to say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this stunt?’ Then he grabbed me, raised me above his head, and slammed me on to the canvas. But he knew exactly what he was doing, and I didn’t feel a thing. He grunted and shouted, squeezing me in a neck lock as I struggled to think what happens next. ‘Submit, you idiot!’ Malcolm and Peter shouted. After I’d capitulated, we fought another round, I submitted again, and the champion wrestler retained his title. Not that he was ever in any danger from Frankie in his Bermuda shorts. Afterwards, he fought his proper round and beat his opponent. Following the match, we met both the wrestlers and their wives for a pint in the nearest bar. Later, I admitted ‘Rocky’ was an excellent actor who had me worried for a moment.

    I guess that’s what wrestling’s about. Good performance. Otherwise a wrestler’s forearm smash might break an opponent’s jaw.

 

The Lads From Fenn Street

 

Liz Gebhardt, who played Maureen in Please Sir! was married to actor and director Ian Talbot, who for many years was Artistic Director of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and he and I wrote a sketch show, The Lads from Fenn Street. We had talked about this during the last series of Fenn Street, and as we needed permission to use the television characters, we approached John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, who happily gave their consent. Malcolm contacted Peter Denyer, who was doing his summer season in Bournemouth, but he wasn’t interested in either performing or directing it. We asked Christopher Timothy to direct and he agreed, also adding some great ideas and sketches to the script. At that time, Chris was contracted to do hard sell television commercials for the Sun newspaper, and he wrote one of the sketches, a spoof of himself, with Malcolm playing him.

   As Malcolm, Peter and I met for the first time at Stonebridge Park, which was then where LWT's offices and rehearsal rooms were located, we decided to call our production company Stonebridge Productions. First, we played some small halls in the suburbs of London to try our show out initially before taking it on an 18 week tour, a tour which varied from one- and two-night-stands to a week in some of the larger theatres, such as Swansea Grand Theatre.

   This became one of my favourite venues, run by John Chilvers, who watched our show several times, and told us his favourite sketch was the Crossroads spoof with Malcolm as Meg Richardson and me as Amy Turtle. When I mentioned working in Roy Plomley’s Just Plain Murder in which I toured the previous year, he told me the radio presenter kept submitting terrible plays to him which he always turned down.

   One of the notable features backstage at the Grand, which has disappeared since the theatre was revamped, was a ladder halfway up the stairs leading to the dressing rooms. At the top of the ladder was a hatch, and if you knocked on this door it would slide open to reveal a barmaid’s ankles. The hatch was on the floor behind the counter in the dress circle bar and it enabled performers or stage crew to purchase a drink, but only during the running of the show when the audience was seated in the auditorium, never during the interval. It would be disconcerting for a member of the audience to see an actor’s face peering from a hole at shoe level like a wee timorous beastie.

   We three were never able to make use of the hatch as we rarely left the stage, except for quick costume changes.

   Another feature of this theatre was Sir Henry Irving’s signature on his baggage label, encased in glass on the door of the number one dressing room. John Chilvers told us about a touring rock ‘n’ roll show visiting the theatre. He showed the lead singer around backstage and explained about the legendary actor’s signature. ‘This is Sir Henry Irving’s signature,’ he said. ‘The Grand Theatre Swansea was his penultimate performance. After that he went up north, where he died.’

   ‘Well,’ replied the rock singer, ‘don’t they all in those northern clubs?’

   During the week in Swansea I had to catch an early train back to London for a half day’s filming – a religious film made by Churches Television and Radio Centre. The film was called Support Your Local Poet and I performed a voice-over poem while sitting opposite Caroline Munro at a candlelit dinner. Caroline was hugely familiar from the Lamb’s Navy Rum campaign and also became a Bond girl as Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me. As I sat opposite her, playing a rather smooth young man who wondered where this dinner would lead, my voice-over suddenly revealed to me a spiritual truth that I was being rather shallow, and I suddenly saw the light and was saved. And if you believe that…

 

Next week's blog will continue the tour story, telling how we were thrown out of a venue in Kirkcaldy, Fife.

 

 

Please Sir! Stories

 

One lunchtime, during a Please Sir! camera rehearsal we were on the studio floor, surrounded by all the mess and tangle of camera cables. Apart from us ‘kids’, and John Alderton, the studio was empty, everyone having gone to lunch. John suddenly folded his arms and began hopping on one leg. It was a game we all knew, where you hop about, barge against someone and try to knock them off balance. The loser is the one who must use both legs or risk being pushed over. We had only just started the game when John tripped on one of the camera cables and sprained his ankle. While we helped him out of the studio we agreed to keep quiet about the ridiculous game. As he limped badly, we helped him to where Mark sat in the canteen. At first, Mark looked worried, wondering how his leading actor was going to get through the night’s recording. After John had visited the studio nurse, got his ankle bound up, and limped back into the canteen, he told Mark he couldn’t possibly drive to Weybridge and the studio must provide a car to take him home after the recording. Mark then went into cynical overdrive and point blank refused to increase his budget for a car, telling John he would have to pay for his own taxi. John protested that it was a studio accident, tripping over the camera cables. But Mark then said something along the lines of: ‘I know you were mucking about, John. You know you were mucking about. And you know I know you were mucking about.’

   After the recording, which John managed to get through without much obvious limping, we all headed for the bar. By now, Mark and John were in deep sulks and not talking to one another.

   When we began rehearsals for the next episode, Peter Cleall and I watched as John stood awkwardly next to Mark at the coffee point. Then one of them made a move, offering to pour coffee for the other, which was accepted gracefully. The quarrel was over. As we observed this touching, cinematic scene, Peter and I giggled as we imagined how it would look in slow motion and soft focus.

   Mark was a very active man, and once he’d completed his camera script by the morning of day three, everyone relaxed, and most of us younger cast members would disappear into an adjacent and empty rehearsal room to play handball on a court Mark had mapped out with gaffer tape. He provided gloves and tennis balls, explained the rules to us, then enjoyed beating us. God knows what guest actors coming in to do one episode thought as the producer/director disappeared to play games with some of his actors.

   We also played cricket with balls made from compressed newspaper covered in gaffer tape. These elliptical missiles were quite hard, and John bowled as if it was county cricket he was playing. Strip fluorescent lights got smashed, crashing spectacularly to the floor, then the shards had to be swept up and concealed behind cupboards. Strangely, nobody from LWT ever mentioned this damage.

   Eric Chitty occasionally behaved just like his Smithy character. When we were about halfway through the series, he approached Peter and me, and asked why Eric Duffy was called El. We explained that East Londoners often do that – calling someone by the name of Derek ‘Del’ or Terry ‘Tel’, which was why the script often referred to Eric as ‘El’. There was a pause before Eric Chitty said, ‘Oh, I see. But no one has ever called me El.’

   It gave us the giggles, and we later referred to him as El Chitty.

    Whenever we did exterior filming, the series was so popular with young people, we were invariably mobbed as they clamoured for autographs. When we finished rehearsals, which always coincided with the time secondary schoolchildren went home, we tried to keep a low profile. Hiding behind sunglasses and broadsheet newspapers. On our own we were less of a target. Collectively there was more of a chance of being recognised.

   Once, on our journey to Euston from Stonebridge Park where we rehearsed, in one of those single compartment carriages, Peter Denyer got off at Queens Park to cross to the other side of the platform to catch a Tube train. The platform swarmed with teenagers, and Peter kept a low profile, head buried in his newspaper. He went unnoticed as he stood in the heart of the throng. Until our train began to pull out. Peter Cleall, Liz Gebhardt and I lowered the carriage window, pointed excitedly at the poor sod and yelled, ‘Look! That bloke in sunglasses. That’s Dennis Dunstable.’ The teenagers descended on the unfortunate actor like a plague of locusts.

   Although working in Please Sir! sounds as if it was all just fun and games, it had its downside. Occasionally we became nervous, gibbering wrecks, and it was all down to Mark Stuart who used to rule his actors like a demented cattle-trail boss. Rehearsals were not so bad, it was when we got into the studio that the fireworks would start. Whenever he shouted at the slightest noise, the veins stood out on his neck and people feared for their lives. I was doing a scene with John Alderton in an episode, and Mark asked me to pause for a quick reaction shot from John. During the camera run-through I forgot. The floor manager told me to hold it. And then I heard the control room door being flung open and feet pounding along the catwalk above the studio. And then a let-there-be-light voice blazed across the studio, ‘Barry! What about that pause?’

   During the camera rehearsal of a boxing scene in The Sporting Life, Mark came pounding down onto the studio floor, stormed up to an extra and screamed at him, ‘Your lifeless, boring face is in the back of my shot. For Christ’s sake react. Do something.’ The extra turned to jelly. Unconcerned, Mark turned away and delivered his next line to the studio. ‘Wood. Fucking wood.’

   Mark knew how to play to the gallery. Always. But he didn’t fool many with his temper tantrums. Like the camp vision mixer who, having listened to one of his tirades, threw out an aside. ‘I missed his last Western.’ Or the world-weary prop man behind the scenes, who muttered following one of Mark’s slavering outbursts, ‘I’ve seen them come, and I’ve seen them go, but that cunt’s the biggest actor of them all.’

   As far as the studio staff and technicians were concerned, these outbursts were interesting incidents to break up the rehearsal. But for us, the younger actors, it was nerve-wracking. We knew Mark hated to do much editing, which was time and money, so he instilled so much fear into us so that when we performed the shows in front of the studio audience, we didn’t dare stumble, fluff or dry. Our shows were complete theatre performances with no retakes. Retakes were verboten. If there were any mistakes, these were broadcast, so that millions of viewers witnessed our gaffs. Consequently, we rarely made mistakes.

   In fairness to Mark, his tyrannical behaviour vanished after the recordings, and he often pushed the boat out in the bar to make amends. He was never a person to hold a grudge.

 

FICTION FROM FACT

 

When I came to write my thriller with a political slant, Before They Die, I had read in the mainstream media reports about Cyril Smith’s child abuse at his constituency in Rochdale. What disgusted me as much as anything was the fact that he managed to get away with it for so many decades, even though the Lancashire Constabulary had a thick file on his abhorrent practices as far back as the late ‘60s, yet he was never prosecuted. And then I read reports that MI5 had removed the dossier with the connivance of the Special Branch in Lancashire.

   I was so appalled that I began to look into allegations of child sex abuse by high profile Establishment figures and celebrities.

   Then in recent years Carl Beech made accusations about many Establishment figures who had been named in the press, claiming he had been abused by them, and some friends of his had been murdered. These turned out to be lies, and it transpired that he was himself a paedophile, now serving an 18 year prison sentence. But what happened after his lies were found out was the fact that high profile suspected child abusers were now let off the hook. Suddenly everything was a lie and a conspiracy. However, the wall of truth of what went on should not be whitewashed over.

    In 1983 Geoffrey Dickens, Conservative MP for Huddersfield West claimed he gave the names of eight prominent people who were child sexual abusers to the DPP but nothing was done about it.

    Jimmy Savile spent 13 Christmases with the Thatcher’s at Chequers, and at this serial abuser’s funeral many Freemasons attended in their arcane regalia.

    Margaret Thatcher’s PPS Sir Peter Morrison was a paedophile, and Edwina Currie exposed him as a ‘pederast’. Many people speculated that surely the Prime Minister must have known. Could it be that she didn’t consider these sorts of sexual propensities as important? After all, Alderman and Methodist preacher Alfred Roberts, her revered father, from whom she espoused her Victorian values was a hypocritical lecher and groper who harassed the young female assistants who worked in his Grantham grocer’s shop.

    And PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) member Henderson was arrested after extreme child porn addressed to him was found on a bus. A search of his flat revealed he used a false name and he was in fact Sir Peter Hayman KCMG, CVO, MBE and High Commissioner to Canada 1970-74. Sir Michael Havers, Attorney General at the time, defended his decision not to prosecute Hayman on grounds that he was not on PIE’s executive committee and therefore not part of a conspiracy.

    Then there are the children’s homes like Bryn Estyn in North Wales where prominent people abused underprivileged children. Or the Elm Guest House in Putney, where parties took place involving Establishment figures abusing youngsters, and which was raided in 1982. Father McSweeney, the priest who presided over Frank Bruno’s wedding, was arrested in connection with the VIP paedophile ring at the Elm Guest House.

    Jimmy Savile visited Broadmoor with Frank Bruno and introduced him to Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and there is a photograph of the boxer shaking hands with the serial killer. There is also one of Bruno giving Prince Charles a Masonic handshake with Savile present in the background.

    If all of this wasn’t bad enough, the worst was the missing dossier, 114 files which were handed to Home Secretary Leon Brittan by Geoffrey Dickens, details of a Westminster paedophile ring that should have led to a major enquiry. Now, after Brittan lost the files, many people accused him of being a paedophile himself. But I think we ought to give the late Home Secretary the benefit of the doubt…until proven guilty. But I would have accused him of total incompetence, which meant that no enquiry took place, leading to three more decades of child abuse.

    So, how does this fit into Before They Die? Alfred Hitchcock had a name for the reason a mystery kicks off. A McGuffin. The McGuffin is the springboard to a plot, it is the missing microfilm, or the stolen money or incriminating evidence. In my book it is a dossier that Lord Albion, not Home Secretary but Minister of Information and Home Affairs, has conveniently lost. But there remains a copy of the inflammatory document (the McGuffin) which now leads to all sorts of complications and many murders, and a mystery of who is behind it all.

    And I have introduced a fairly flawless character. Ex-Met detective Mike Halliday who has now gone private, and he is on a mission to expose these abusers. His only shortcoming is a deep desire to pummel child abusers, and he often has to check his vigilante behaviour.

    If I were to write a logline, it would be:

    One man seeks justice for the victims before the perpetrators die.

 

 To go to Before They Die on Amazon, go to my Homepage David Barry Actor & Writer and click on Amazon next to the book's image. If you purchase a copy, and you enjoy the read, please consider reviewing it on Amazon. Thank you.

   

 

 

CHUKLEVISION NIGHTMARE

 

An 85 mile drive along the traffic-heavy M25 for a second day’s filming for Chucklevision almost became a guilty nightmare until the make-up woman assuaged my feelings of remorse. It happened like this:

     The locations were well north of London, roughly in the Hemel Hempstead area – so quite a distance from Tunbridge Wells where I live. For the first day’s filming I wasn’t called until around 11.30 a.m. and finished around 5.00 p.m. So, that was fairly easy to cope with, although the drive home took me nearly two and a half hours.

    I was called the next day for 10.30, and I set the alarm for seven, knowing I would have to cope with the M25 during rush hour, and I thought leaving at 7.45 would allow me plenty of time to reach the location. What I hadn’t realised, or I had forgotten, was that my alarm clock was battery driven and – yes, you’ve guessed it – it chose that morning to run out. Exhausted from my long drive the previous day, I slept until almost nine o’clock. When I looked at my alarm clock, my eyes sprung from my head like a Tom & Jerry animation. I was in my car and set off just after 9.15. And I knew there was no way I was going to make it clockwise around the motorway, then up a stretch of the M1 by 10.30. And this location I knew would be more difficult to find as it was in a disused quarry, a more rural location than the previous day.

    As I left the 15 mile stretch of the A21, and eased down the slip road onto the M25, I saw that it was now nearly quarter to ten. This was when I began to think about my survival and decided as I was never going to make it in time, I would have to tell whopping great lies. Aware that any crew members for the shoot may have negotiated the M25, I decided I couldn’t blame that particular road, so in my head I made up a story about being stuck in a very nasty accident on the A21, on the dual carriageway not far from Tunbridge Wells.

    Once I had this lie worked out, I remember thinking that there was nothing I could do to quicken the journey and might as well just accept my fate. It was well past 10.30 when I reached the Heathrow turn-offs, and a rough guess told me I wasn’t going to make the location until at least 11.30, maybe later. I wondered why my mobile hadn’t rung with someone from the film unit asking me where I was. I had my lie all prepared. But no one rang.

    When I left the M1, desperately searching for the right direction to this quarry, I guessed I must have been only fifteen minutes away from it. Then my phone rang. It was one of the runners, who said, ‘We’re just about to get to you? Where are you?’

    I breathed a sigh of relief when I realised they must have been an hour behind on their schedule. But I still had a little way to go yet, and so I let me voice tremble with shock while I described the terrible accident, which by now had become very real to me.

    When I arrived at the location at 11.40, everyone had heard the story of this mythical accident, and the director placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, told me to take my time and have some breakfast before I began filming.

    He was so nice about my predicament, that I was struck by remorse and guilt. But after a bacon butty I began to feel a lot better. And then after going to make-up, I was asked where it was I lived. I told them it was in Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

    ‘What?’ the make-up woman shouted indignantly, almost as if it was she who had made the journey. ‘That’s disgusting making you drive all that way. In the good old days they’d have forked up for an overnight at a nearby hotel.’

    And that was when all my guilt vanished completely. Even though it was all the fault of my alarm battery running down, now I could shoulder the blame to the BBC for their parsimonious attitude to a featured actor.

 

 

Comedy Nostalgia

I often hear people saying you don’t get great comedies on television anymore, like the good old days of Please Sir! Which pleases me, of course, because I was a regular character in it, and remember it with fondness. But are these people who hark back to the good old days missing something? Like the “Wandering Star” song, and the line ‘I’ve never seen anything that didn’t look better looking back’. Do some – even youngish people – live in a sort of false memory, residing in a cosy Nostalgia Land?

    By all means travel back to the sixties and seventies and enjoy those TV sitcoms, but don’t let any of us lose sight of more recent comedies which have been great, starting in the nineties with Father Ted. I must confess that I saw one episode back then, and I missed something (stupid me) and didn’t continue watching the series. But when I began watching repeats in the early noughties, I couldn’t stop laughing and it became one of my favourites shows of all time. And this was the decade of The Office, a classic comedy if ever there was one, and on a par with Fawlty Towers. Of course, when I say something like that, people are bound to disagree because it’s subjective and we all have our particular favourites.

    But when I hear people in a pub, and on discovering I played Frankie Abbott, becoming nostalgically excited and then usually they end up moaning and wishing they still made comedies like that. Again, is that just the better view looking back? Because I might say to them, what about Still Game. Blank look. Or Two Doors Down. Another blank look. What about Toast of London or This Country? Even blanker looks.

    Now I appreciate there are more channels now but it can’t be that difficult to find programmes, can it? But I expect many of you reading this have eclectic tastes and have seen those comedies I just mentioned.

   But when I go back to those good old comedy days, I have to confess to sometimes being glad I missed many of them. I was never that fond of On The Buses (which is where some dyed-in-the-wool fans are going to fall out with me). And one of my reasons is this: it was because I always found Stephen Lewis’s performance as Inspector Blakey embarrassing. Reg Varney, Bob Grant, Michael Robbins and Anna Karen were funny, but gave reasonably realistic performances. Whereas I always thought Lewis was ‘trying to be funny’ and it was a sketch show parody of a jobsworth man. And for me it was a near miss.

    But for a big miss watch Ron Burgundy, Anchorman. Now it was I confess a hugely popular film, and by criticising it I might be stepping into a crocodile infested swamp, but here goes. I watched half an hour of this most cringe-making comedy before I switched off. The cast were all mugging like mad, pulling funny faces and trying to be funny. Now, compare that to a film like Airplane where all the actors play it for real as if they are in a real disaster movie. It is left to the writers to make it funny, and the actors get the laughs from the delivery of their lines and their reactions.

    Being funny playing a character is a thin dividing line. Steve Martin does it brilliantly. Behind the character, there seems to be a twinkle in Martin’s eye, sharing with the audience his personal criticism of the character and what a jerk he is. It’s a very subtle comedy trait that many great comedy performers have mastered.

    However crazy and bizarre the behaviour of Father Ted (Yes, all right, so it’s my favourite.) was, Dermot Morgan gave it some reality. Which I always think it’s what it’s about really.

    When I first began working on the first series of Please Sir! I used to internally question everything about the character before making an entrance. What does he want as soon as he enters the classroom? Does he want to show off, show he’s a hard man? And what sort of mood is he in? Of course, by the time the second series began, I stopped doing this and switched the character’s behaviour on and off like a light switch.

    I remember once asking Mark Stuart, our director, ‘What’s my motivation for this line, Mark?’

    His reply: ‘It’s because you fucking get paid to say it!’

 

Turn The Volume Up!

 

During rehearsals for the third series of Please Sir! Richard Davies engineered a production of Under Milk Wood with himself and us six Fenn Street Gang actors, and several others in the cast.

    Penny Spencer played Mae Rose Cottage, Mrs Pugh and Mrs Dai Bread Two. There were no radio microphones that we could use, and Penny often had difficulty being heard when she played Sharon in the studio, and the boom operator came in as close as he dared without throwing shadows across faces. We knew that being able to hear Penny in the vast Lewisham Concert Hall venue was going to be a problem, but Peter Denyer came up with a solution. He had an actress friend who concealed herself behind the masking curtain behind Penny. As Penny delivered her lines, Peter’s friend said them in unison so that the audience could hear them. This double-tracking effect, for all I know, was probably the first time anyone has been dubbed in live theatre.

    Now, of course, radio microphones are often used in the theatre. I recently saw Jesus Hopped the A Train at the Young Vic. It’s a fairly intimate space. I can understand  actors having to use mics in vast theatres like Drury Lane, but the trouble with using them in a small theatre, and the close proximity to the audience, means an actor will resort to dropping the voice to a sometimes unbelievably tiny level. In this production I sometimes found myself straining to hear actors who were using a mic, for God’s sake. The trouble is, everyone involved in the production has read the script, and the director knows the part thoroughly, so of course they can hear, because they know what the actor is saying. But we the audience are hearing it for the first time.

    And this is a problem in television. Some actors drop their voices to a level of whispering, thinking that it probably gives the scene a greater intensity, and again the directors know what their performers are saying and don’t stop to consider that it might be lost on the person watching at home, and increasing the volume on the remote, then decreasing it hurriedly when it switches to a visual scene and that sudden blast of music.

    This is, some directors might argue, the push for greater reality. But just think, the next time you are talking to someone in the pub, do you drop your voice to a whisper. The reality is that you probably raise the level of your voice.

    Of course, not all actors were difficult to hear and, having been properly trained in voice production, even their smallest whispers could be heard. Remember Richard Burton in A Spy Who Came in From The Cold in which he gave a very realistic and believable performance? Despite the film’s realism, I heard the actor’s every spoken word.

    But I have found the perfect solution as far as watching television is concerned. I watch mainly foreign drama and read the subtitles.

    Finally, have you noticed the contrast between reality shows and drama? In reality and chat shows they shout everything at mega decibels, probably in the deluded belief that it gives greater energy to a programme that has very little to say.

    I think I’ll pick up a book instead and have a nice quiet read!

 

 

Please Sir! Pranks

 

Playing practical jokes and winding people up happened regularly during rehearsals of Please Sir!. LWT had small pads of notepaper with their logo at the top, and occasionally someone would get a message scribbled on one of these pads to call their agent during a break in rehearsals. We the naughty grown-up kids played a joke on Richard ‘Dickie’ Davies once. He got a message from his agent to ring such and such a number and speak to Mr Lyon or, if he wasn’t there, to ask for Mr Fox. When Dickie made his call, he came back and told us how the conversation went.

   ‘Hello. Could I speak to Mr Lyon?’

   Pause. Then, ‘Are you trying to be funny?’

   ‘No, no. If he’s not there I was told I could speak to Mr Fox.’

   ‘This is Regent’s Park Zoo.’

   Another time, during a break in camera rehearsals at Wembley Studios, we were sitting in the canteen, when I brought out a page I had torn out of a copy of the Irish Spotlight when I was in Ireland. (Spotlight is a publication containing photographs of actors which casting directors can view when casting.) I handed my page round the canteen table. The photographs were three amateurish poses of an actor called Ben Bristow. The first photograph was captioned ‘Drama’ and was a picture of the Irish actor wearing a dreadful make-up, including an obviously false moustache, posing in fear as if a Hammer House of Horror ghoul was about to drag him to hell. Beneath the next picture it said ‘Comedy’ and showed Ben in an enormous plaid jacket, like an itinerant bookmaker, a finger pointing upwards, highlighting a brilliant punchline. The final picture was ‘Variety’, and the actor now had a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on his lap.

   As the picture was passed around the table, everyone had a laugh at Ben’s expense. Until it came to John Alderton. Stony-faced. Not the trace of a smile. ‘What’s funny about this?’ he demanded.

   I was taken aback. At first, I tried to explain what was funny but soon realised it was self- explanatory. Then John went on to say that Ben was an old friend of his and a very fine actor. ‘You’re winding me up, John,’ I protested. He threw the page onto the table and looked disgusted. I began to squirm. And others at the table began to shift uncomfortably and stared into their coffee cups. Then John went too far, telling me that Ben’s wife had just died of cancer, how much he missed her and was finding it hard to cope. Now I knew I was being sent up.

   We also found a great way to entertain everyone in the studio canteen. If any of the studio floor managers needed someone paged to the studio, they used an internal phone, usually situated between two heavy doors leading to the studio. We began to put in some false calls. Sitting in the canteen, people often heard announcements along the lines of: ‘Could Mr Albert Bridge go to Studio Three in five minutes, please?’

   None of the telephonists seemed to twig. We got away with all kinds of names, everyone from Joe Stalin to Bill Shakespeare or Jane Austen. Then one day I picked up the internal phone and put in a call for Miss Connie Lingus to go to Studio Three. ‘Who’s that?’ the telephonist demanded. ‘This isn’t a proper call, is it?’

   Clearly there was nothing wrong with the telephonist’s sex education.

 

 

BACK INTO THE FRYING PAN

 

Following my stint in Forget-Me-Not Lane in Hornchurch, another phone call to my agent from Bill Kenwright’s office. Davy Jones was returning to America for the final two weeks of their tour. Would I take over? No way, I said. I emphatically did not want to be involved in this production. Bill must have guessed my reason for turning it down and reassured my agent that Edward Chapman had been replaced by James Hayter, and everything now ran smoothly.

      But trouble this time came from Dave King. ‘We’ve changed some of the lines,’ he told me. Meaning he had changed the lines. Because he came from somewhere east of London, and was unable to portray a Bristolian, Peter Nichols’ wonderfully evocative script no longer conjured up images of Frank’s commercial traveller father as he travels from Yeovil to Minehead but wanders instead to Southend and Basildon. Essex man had brought it closer to home.

   ‘By all means change your lines,’ I said. ‘But I would sooner stick to Peter Nichols’ script. I don’t mind what you say, but I’m sticking to the script.’

   After this little speech, an Arctic wind blew into the theatre. If I stuck to the script then clearly others in the cast would have to, otherwise none of it would make sense. We broke for coffee and there were huddled discussions. When the rehearsal resumed, King agreed that we could still set it in the west country – which was big of him, since he hadn’t written the play – but he would have to insist, he said, on one of my lines being changed, the one where I talk about a ‘woman’s minge’. He said many people walked out of the audience when they heard that line. ‘So, it’s got to be changed, son.’

   I asked him what I should change it to, and he told me to say ‘woman’s thingee’ instead. I agreed, and we carried on rehearsing. But I could tell he really hated me now. And he had never once, I noticed, called me by name. It was always ‘son’ in a condescending, sneering manner.

   During the week at Bath Theatre Royal, the tour from hell began. Admittedly it was only for two weeks, but I could imagine if I was really bad in this life, my everlasting punishment would be working for eternity with Dave King.

   At Hornchurch I always got a laugh on a certain line, but in Bath the silence that followed was because of Dave King’s sudden move as he deliberately killed my line. I didn’t know what I could do about this. Then on Wednesday night’s performance, hatred struck in a big way. About to deliver the ‘woman’s thingee’ line, a slight hesitation on my part, and then ‘minge’ inadvertently slipped back into the dialogue.

   Cut to my dressing room in the interval. John Ingram, company manager, asked me to put ‘thingee’ back in. I explained about it being a mistake because I knew the lines from the Hornchurch version, which was, after all, Peter Nichols’ scripted lines.

   Suddenly, the dressing room door flew open and in barged King. ‘You,’ he yelled, doing a lot of finger waving, ‘are fucking deliberately ruining everything I’m trying to do on stage.’

   I explained that it was a mistake, but it was a waste of time. He was in an abusive mood and looking for trouble.

   ‘You are fucking useless,’ he screamed and began to exit.’

   Perhaps it was a mistake to have the last word, but I was damned if I was going to let him get away with that. ‘That’s the trouble with allowing red-nosed comics into the legitimate theatre,’ I said.

   Which was unfair and untrue about comedians and variety artistes. But this was a fight. And in fights you have to go for where it hurts the most. Unfortunately, although I am not a moral coward, I’m not the bravest person when confronted by fisticuffs.

   Fists clenched, he spun round and came towards me. ‘I’ll smash your fucking head in, you little cunt.’

   I remember thinking at the time that if this was a man who had a go at Lew Grade, managing director of ATV, then he wouldn’t hold back on pummelling me. And I made a split-second decision that if I did nothing, received a blow, the play would be cancelled, resulting in a major lawsuit. Perhaps he realised this. Without saying another word, he stormed out.

   We were called for Act Two. I had to stand by in the wings, and when I got there, Dave King also stood by, a smug, self-satisfied look on his face, the trace of an evil smile. I was suddenly so enraged, I went over to him, grabbed his wrist and raised his hand over his head.

   ‘What are you doing,’ he snarled, snatching back his hand.

   ‘Congratulations!’ I said. ‘You wanted to upset me, and you succeeded.’

   He made a move towards me. ‘I’ve a good mind to smash your fucking head in.’

   The curtain began to rise on Act Two. ‘OK,’ I whispered. ‘Cool it. Cool it.’

   His upper lip curled angrily. ‘Don’t start that jazz talk with me, son.’

   After the performance, I phoned my agent at his home, told him about the incident, and said I was leaving the show. First thing in the morning I intended driving home. He sympathised with me but asked me to wait until he’d had a word with Kenwright.

   The following morning Bill phoned me at the Garrick’s Head, where we were staying. He was supportive and told me he wanted to ‘get rid of that cunt’ but couldn’t find anyone to replace him. He pleaded with me to stay with the show, especially as it was only another week and a half to go. Reluctantly, I agreed.

   When I got to the theatre that night, James Hayter was also very supportive. ‘If I was a younger man,’ he said, ‘I’d have kicked that cunt down the stairs for you.’

   For the rest of the run there was a terrible atmosphere. Dave King and I never had to look at one another on stage, as I was playing his younger self. That was a blessing I suppose. But whenever we passed each other backstage, we both avoided eye contact. We hated each other. In fact, I’ve never known anything like that much hatred between two performers before or since.

   The final week at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, couldn’t come quickly enough. And throughout that final week we still avoided eye contact and each other. And then I was slightly cheered up by a form of petty revenge, provided by courtesy of Tom Owen.

   Bill arranged to visit the penultimate performance and take the cast out for a meal afterwards to an Italian restaurant. King asked Tom if everyone was dressing for it, and Tom told him, yes, it was the works, black tie do.

   I was delighted to see Bill arrive on Friday evening wearing a denim jacket. I almost punched the air jubilantly. And everyone else was casually dressed. The only one feeling more than a little over-dressed at the dinner was Dave King, wearing a dinner jacket, black bow tie and horrendously over-the-top frilly shirt.

   Yes, I thought. A vengeance of sorts.

   After that fiasco, I couldn’t wait to see my Fenn Street friends again for the third and final series.

 

 

A Better Production

 

In 1972 the Queens Theatre Hornchurch offered me the part of Young Frank in Forget-Me-Not Lane. This was the play I had seen, which featured Malcolm McFee playing Ivor, Young Frank’s friend, at Greenwich Theatre. I loved the play and didn’t hesitate to accept the role. The post West End tour of the play was produced by Bill Kenwright, with Davy Jones of the Monkees playing Young Frank. Prior to my Hornchurch engagement, Bill contacted my agent and asked if I would take over from Davy Jones for one week at Weston-Super-Mare, because for some reason the singer had to dash back to the US for that week. On a Tuesday I picked up a copy of the script at Kenwright’s office, then the next day I travelled to Bournemouth where the play was currently performing. Playing the leads in the cast were Dave King as Frank, and the father was played by Edward Chapman, known as Mr Grimsdale from the Norman Wisdom films. Tom Owen played Ivor and Young Ursula was played by Wendy Padbury from Crossroads.

   When I got to Bournemouth, I spent every waking moment learning the lines. I would walk along the street muttering them, getting weird looks from people. The rehearsal time I was allocated wasn’t enough. The cast was reluctant to devote more than a few hours a day as they had to perform the show every night and twice on Saturday. I had to make do with remote and intensive line learning, catching an hour here or there with some of the more obliging members of the cast, and of course I watched the show every night.

   One of the major obstacles was working with Edward Chapman who was an alcoholic. We had a dress rehearsal for my benefit on Saturday morning, and in one scene he entered not knowing where he was, having cut something like ten pages. David Buck, the director, stopped him, saying with as much patience as he could muster, ‘Ted, you’re two scenes too early.’

   Confused, Chapman paused. You could see his fuddled brain trying to grasp at clues for which scene or what play he was in. Then, clearly deciding attack was the best form of defence, he cursed the stage management. ‘Well, why can’t that girl set the props in the correct place?’ he yelled.

   It was a shabby way to transfer the blame and everyone felt embarrassed.

   When I got home that weekend, I spent the entire time going over the lines, drumming them into my head. When I arrived at Weston-Super-Mare on Monday, I saw my name was emblazoned across the front of the theatre. Dave King went berserk because his contract with Kenwright gave him top billing. It led to a heated argument with the manager, and I later discovered the change of billing may have been because King had upset Weston-Super-Mare audiences in the past. Having died a death at the venue, as the curtain came down one night he told them to ‘Piss off!’

   Eventually, because it looked as if Dave King was not going to back down and refused to go on stage unless the billing was changed, John Ingram, the company manager, came into my dressing room and asked if I would mind if the billing was changed.

   ‘I couldn’t care less if you take my name off completely,’ I said carelessly. ‘Because I’m only here for a week.’

   Having seen the excellent pre-West End production at Greenwich, I didn’t tell him how disillusioned I was with this production. The billing was changed, and the play opened. There were a few mistakes but nothing major. I got through it, despite Edward Chapman’s erratic entrances and exits, and the scenes I most enjoyed were with Tom Owen and Wendy Padbury. But by Saturday I was relieved it was over. Apart from my scenes with Tom and Wendy, the production had been a huge disappointment.

   After the curtain fell on Saturday night, I said goodbye to the cast. I didn’t want to bear a grudge and part bad company with Edward Chapman, so I entered his dressing room to say goodbye.

   ‘Would you like a drink for the road, son?’ he offered, clearly trying to make amends for any shortcomings in his performance during the week. I was puzzled. Where was the booze? He was barred from bringing it in to the theatre. My eyes quickly scanned the dressing table and I saw no alcohol. He then picked up a shampoo bottle with amber liquid inside. ‘It’s whisky,’ he whispered, glancing furtively over his shoulder. I declined the drink, explaining that I had a long drive ahead.

   Soon after, I began rehearsals at Hornchurch, one of the most relaxed rehearsal periods I can ever remember. I already knew the lines and could enjoy the in-depth exploration of the play, and not go home every evening to learn lines. This production was far superior to the Kenwright tour. The cast worked as a team, with everyone pulling their weight, and when it opened the audiences laughed uproariously at every funny line.

 

 

Classic Film Photography

 

I watched on television recently back-to-back two Billy Wilder films, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Both great comedies, with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in the former, and Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in the latter. But what is so very great about these black and white classic films is the stunning photography. Every shot is clearly focused, there is none of that pulling the focus which I find so irritating in modern films and has become a cinematograph cliché.

    If you are not technically minded, let me explain. If there are perhaps two people in a scene, and one of them is out of focus, the person in focus is the subject of attention, then the focus is pulled and changes to the other person, and they become the subject. So, someone in a two-handed scene is always out of focus.

    You probably know the scene, having endured it hundreds of times on television. Two people talking in a car, with the focus switching between whoever happens to be speaking. The trouble with scenes like this is it makes me very aware that what I am watching is a piece of film and I cease to become so involved in the action or the dialogue, watching as the camera switches from one subject to another. Of course, some viewers are never fazed by this, never notice it even, which is fair enough.

   But there is often a reason for using this technique. It is a cheap and quick way of filming. A scene can be shot with a one camera set-up, and if the actors know their lines, the scene can be achieved rapidly, and then it’s on to the next location.

   Often the size of a film or television’s budget is why you will rarely see the clichéd Focus Pull used in an American series like Breaking Bad. Sometimes, when used sparingly, it can be used for good dramatic effect, but when a director is not under pressure from a small budget, he or she can spend the time with varying camera set-ups.

   Many moons ago, when it was first used, it probably had an artistic justification for its use, but now the cinematographic cliché has become as well-worn as the car chase driving through a wedding reception party or the fruit and veg stall being trashed.

   But how I miss those early films where you could take any image from the entire film and it would work as a great still photograph that could be hung on the wall of an exhibition. The photography in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is wonderfully atmospheric with its chiaroscuro lighting. Of course, I do appreciate that a shooting schedule of seven or eight weeks to produce a 100 minute feature allows the director far more time than two weeks to shoot a 60 minute television drama, although I sometimes think that it’s occasionally a question of imagination that is lacking. And it’s not just the classic black and white movies that avoided any focus pulling. I recently watched  Jacques Tati’s colour film Mon Oncle which was shot perfectly. And even some of the TV spin-offs, including Please Sir! in which I was involved, avoided the focus pull, despite having a limited shoot time.

   At one stage in his career, Billy Wilder said to his lighting cameraman, ‘Keep that shot out of focus. I want to win the Best Foreign Film Award’. If he was still alive today, he might say, ‘Lose focus, I want to win a Bafta for the Best British Film.’

   On another light note, one of the funniest out-of-focus performances is Robin Williams, playing Mel an actor in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, and when the cameraman/focus puller can’t seem to get Williams in focus, and they wrap up for the day, the actor goes home to his wife who sees him – or rather doesn’t see him – because he’s permanently out of focus. Robin Williams performed his part in the film entirely out of focus. 

 

 

Benefit of Hindsight

 

In 1970 I attended a casting interview for the Granada Television comedy The Lovers, starring Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox. I was interviewed by writer Jack Rosenthal and director Michael Apted. When I was asked about what recent work I had done, I naturally mentioned Please Sir! Rosenthal and Apted turned to each other and had a long discussion, almost as if I wasn’t in the room, about how much they disliked the series, saying they thought the characters were clichéd and stereotypes. Their behaviour was rude and unsettling, and I should have said something. But I didn’t. I only thought of what I should have done when I came away from the interview.

    Often in my head I have fantasized about how the interview went, with me admonishing Jack Rosenthal for his rude behaviour, after which he becomes quite contrite, apologetic, and of course he and the director offer me the job because they were so deeply sorry for their bad behaviour. It was another of my life’s if only moments, and I wish I’d been possessed of that rewind button.

    Perhaps Peter Cleall, who played Eric Duffy in Please Sir! and Fenn Street Gang, felt the same way after he auditioned for Laurence Olivier. This was, I think, around the time we made the second series of Fenn Street Gang.  Lord Olivier, as he was then, was Artistic Director at the National Theatre, situated then at the Old Vic. After Peter had performed his two audition monologues on the Old Vic stage, Olivier said to him, ‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’

    Peter, thinking that Lord Olivier surely wouldn’t have seen him in Please Sir!, and knowing he lived in London-by-the-Sea, replied uncertainly, ‘I live in Brighton. Perhaps you’ve seen me on the train to Brighton.’

    He didn’t get accepted at the National.

    When Peter told me of this exchange between him and Olivier, I said to Peter that he (Olivier) and Plowright had young children, and for all Peter knew he might have sat down and seen an episode or two of Please Sir! with his young son. And had Peter mentioned this, rather than the feeble train to Brighton explanation, it might have swung the audition for him.

    Much later I was struck by a bizarre thought. If Olivier had seen an episode or two of us cavorting in Fenn Street School, in which I played a 15-year-old, perhaps I hadn’t changed that much since I appeared aged 14 as his grandson in Titus Andronicus and he might have recognized me, But, like Peter, I felt that Baron Olivier of Brighton watching our sitcom was a fanciful thought.

    And another hindsight moment, during which unlike Edith Piaf I am riddled with regrets, perhaps I should have auditioned for Olivier when he was at the National. After all, I had toured Europe with him and Vivien Leigh for six weeks and performed for another five at the Stoll Theatre in London. I might have stood a chance.

   Ah well, I’m not going to fantasize about that one. Too late for that!

THE IMPORTANCE OF COVER DESIGN

 

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I suspect this is not meant to be taken literally and is probably a metaphor for some greater truth, instructing us to admire another human being’s inner beauty rather than going on just looks.

    With books it’s a different kettle of fish. Of course people judge them on their covers, because people in bookstores have to be attracted enough by the design to pick them up in the first place. Half the battle is getting a potential customer to pick up a book, turn it over and read the blurb on the back. To achieve this obvious marketing strategy, the book needs a good design. 

My first novel was published in 2002. Each Man Kills is a thriller located in South

Wales,  and after many rejections with large publishing houses in London, I decided

to approach a small Welsh publisher. They liked it, and a year later it was almost ready for the printers. I had had good experiences with this publisher, the editor was friendly and approachable, and everyone seemed enthusiastic about my book. I was

asked for suggestions for the cover design. So far so good.

    The plot of my thriller hinges on Celtic mysticism, and an escape following ley lines and ancient druidic stones and monuments. I suggested a  black and white photograph of an ancient stone, surrounded by atmospheric mist on a gloomy day, and a red trickle of blood running down the stone, the only colour on the cover. A bit like Schindler’s List, which was shot in monochrome, but with occasional and unnerving glimpses of a would-be victim seen in red. My publishers seemed to like the idea and said they would soon be in touch with a proof. But a proof never came. As the launch date of the book drew close I was presented with a fait accompli; the book arrived in the post one morning and on the cover was a rather unsubtle photograph of a hooded man grabbing a woman from behind with a knife to her throat. My initial reaction was negative. But, as it was my first published book, I became impatient to see it released and pushed any doubts I had about the cover to the back of my mind, convincing myself that I liked it. This was consolidated by the enthusiasm of the editor informing me how pleased they all were with the design. I well and truly buried my doubts.

    Months later a friend of mine lent her copy of my book to a friend, who read it and said she was surprised at how good it was. I was told that had she not known about me, and seen the book in a store, she wouldn’t have bothered to pick it up because of the cover. I knew then I had made a grave error and should have trusted my first gut reaction. I had been too eager to become a published writer to form an objective opinion about the design. And I had no one else to blame but myself. I got on well with the editor and hadn’t even mentioned to her my concerns about the cover. 

    So what could I have done? I got on well with the editor, so I could at least have tried to gently persuade her that the cover was lurid. Of course, she might have told me it was too late to change the design, and maybe it was. But what really annoys me is that I didn’t even try.

    I suppose, if a writer is already famous and has a huge following, the book cover is not so important. On the other hand, years ago, when I was a young man, I saw East of Eden by John Steinbeck in a bookshop. It had a ghastly cover: a badly drawn picture of a half-naked woman in the arms of what looked like a western saloon gambler. But I had already read Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Grapes of Wrath, so the cover didn’t matter to me. I bought it and loved every page of it.

    But supposing someone who had never heard of Steinbeck bought a copy of the book, thinking every page had steamy sex scenes as promised by the book cover?  Perhaps the opening chapters and the descriptions of the Salinas Valley in California might prove to be a huge disappointment, however evocative and well written.

     Now here is the cover for Each Man Kills when it was republished by Andrews UK. So much better, wouldn’t you agree?

 

 

 

 Real Acting

 

In 1969 I was interviewed by television director John Glenister, and the producer of Thirty Minute Theatre, Innes Lloyd. I was offered the part of Gunther Goettling, a young East German student. The play was called Frontier, written by Don Shaw, based on a true incident when Peter Fechter, a young East German was shot trying to escape across the Berlin Wall. In Victims 2: Frontier, my character attempts an escape across a minefield and has his leg blown off, and while he lies in no-man’s land slowly dying, neither the East nor West German military attempt to rescue him.

   Having rehearsed in the usual west London church hall for three days, on Thursday evening we were taken for a night shoot at a remote Army training ground. Apart from the outside broadcast vans and unit vehicles, this no-man’s land looked authentic with its thick forest trees and high barbed wire fence through which I would use my wire cutters to escape across the minefield until my leg was blown off. An observation tower manned by a sentry rose out of the ground in the gloom, and scenic designers had built temporary huts for the military, both East and West Germans, to discuss the problem of who should risk going into the minefield to rescue the student. The O.B. cameras were positioned in the distance, as if they were covering sporting events, almost hidden behind the trees. Most of the scenes would be performed without a break, and we could see which cameras were shooting by the red lights glowing in the dark. Strange how this drama based on a true event became so very real as the recording progressed. Suddenly we were hit by a blizzard and the snow came down heavily. I lay for hours on the freezing ground while things went wrong because of the extreme conditions. Light bulbs exploded from the cold, and a technician had to climb a twenty-five-foot ladder to replace it. The cameras froze, and Innes Lloyd, the producer, came out of the O.B. vehicle to help unfreeze them. Someone managed to get me a wetsuit, and I changed into it in the Portaloo. There were no portable dressing rooms of course, because the dressing rooms were back at Television Centre in White City where we had changed into our costumes. Despite the wetsuit I was still frozen, my teeth chattering and my body trembling with the cold. But the most discomfort I suffered was because I needed a crap, and there was no way I was going to undress again in the unheated Portaloo. I clenched my buttocks tightly and ended up being constipated for the next three or four days.

   Now, what should have been a night shoot ending before midnight, went on into the early hours of the morning. And because cameras were still freezing as the blizzard raged, and light bulbs popped melodically, the production dragged on, and I was told I would have to suffer the same torturous performance the following night.

   Occasionally I was able to grab a hot drink and watch the other scenes, as Larry Dann as the East German Lieutenant Klein discussed the problem of rescuing the student with Corporal Schabe, played by Tom Baker.

   After the shoot, when taxis were summoned to take us home from Television Centre, they discovered Tom Baker lived in Archway, just a stone’s throw from Highgate Village, and we shared the ride home. We chatted and became friends, and Tom often came up to the Village for a drink. While we waited for the pubs to open, we walked round Highgate Cemetery. Tom pointed out that opposite Karl Marx’s tomb was the grave of a man named Spencer.

   When I watched Frontier on television, I saw how tense everyone was in the freezing temperature. No acting was required. Performing in those conditions was reality.

 

 A Sweetheart Deal

 

In 1996 UK Gold repeated the Please Sir! series, followed by The Fenn Street Gang. There were twelve regular characters in the former, and six of us in the latter. So it surprised me when a cheque for Fenn Street repeats came to only around half of the school series. I telephoned the Artiste’s Payments at Granada, the company who now owned the rights to the series and asked them why only half the money. Surely, I pointed out, as there were only six regular characters in Fenn Street, it should have been double the money. Then I was told that because the later series was less popular, Granada had leased it to Gold for less money.

   Earlier in the decade I was invited to an event at Planet Hollywood to celebrate the book launch of Paul Gambaccini and Rod Taylor’s Television’s Greatest Hits. I was invited because two episodes in which I was heavily featured, The Facts of Life in Please Sir! and The Thin Yellow Line in The Fenn Street Gang, both reached number one in the ratings. I met Brian Murphy again, and spent some time chatting to him. He was invited because two of his George and Mildred episodes reached the top slot.

   But a most fortuitous gift was a copy of the book we were all given. After I had telephoned Granada, I searched the book for the ratings figures and discovered Please Sir! spent 29 weeks in the ratings, whereas Fenn Street topped it at 31 weeks. And because Granada were hand in glove with Gold, it looked suspiciously like a sweetheart deal. Or as Equity liked to say, they didn’t have an ‘arm’s length agreement.’

   I got on to Equity and the Writers’ Guild armed with proof of Fenn Street’s popularity, they got in touch with the TV company, an independent arbitrator was appointed, and much later cheques arrived in the post for both actors and writers involved in the Fenn Street series.

    But they will try it on, those naughty TV executives.

Oxymoron Spotting

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Oxymoron as a noun (from the Greek, meaning pointedly foolish): a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.

    In other words a statement that is self-contradictory, like conspicuous by her absence, or pretty ugly. And in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare uses it throughout a speech of lover boy’s to play on the contradictions and confusions of love.

           

            Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love:

            Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

            O any thing! Of nothing first create,

            O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!

            Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

            Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

            Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

            This love feel I, that feel no love in this!

            Dost thou not laugh?

   

   You can amuse yourself next year by Oxymoron spotting, they are all around us. First of all here are some well-known ones as perfect examples.

 

Plastic glasses

Military Intelligence

Perfectly awful

Thunderous silence.

 

And it’s not just contradictory phrases you are looking for, how about an occasional lonely word like spendthrift?

 

Now here are some of mine which I spotted on my travels or just made up.

 

Gourmet hotdogs

Nobel Peace Prize

50% Extra Free

Intellectual Sun reader

Healthy Scottish diet

 

If you see or think of anymore, please send them to me on Facebook. So, good oxymoron spotting.

 

Oh, and one other thing: I have left out the most obvious seasonal one for someone who lives in England.

 

White Christmas!

 

Cinderella

          Caper

 

A spoof private eye story for Christmas - Merry Christmas

 

I was sitting in my office drinking neat Coke, gazing at the reversed lettering on the door, which read: ‘BUTTONS. PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR,’ when I felt a chill down my spine. I got up and closed the window.

   That was when he must have entered.

   ‘The boss wants to see you.’

   He was a short, swarthy-looking guy with an Italian accent.

   ‘Who are you?’ I asked him.

   ‘Name’s Dan Dini.’

   ‘And who is your boss, Mr Dini?’

   He jabbed a stubby finger at me. ‘Too many questions. You’re comin’ with me, Buttons.’

   ‘Oh no I’m not.’

   ‘Oh yes you are.’

   ‘Who says I am?’

   This time he jabbed a Colt .45 in my direction. I thought it was worse manners than the finger, but I refrained from mentioning it and grabbed my trench coat and fedora.

   Downstairs, by the main door of the building, we were met by a shifty pair of hoods. I recognized them as the notorious Broker Twins: Mugsy, the Blade, and Frank, the Bullet. They were dressed identically; double-breasted, pin-stripe suits, black shirts and white ties, and grey trilbies worn low over their eyes. It was regulation bad guy gear.

   I grinned at Mugsy. ‘How’s tricks?’

   He said, ‘You tell me, smart aleck.’

   I looked at Frank and quipped, ‘You said that without moving your lips.’

   Frank’s mouth went slack. ‘What’s he mean, Mugsy?’

   Dan Dini broke it up before it developed into a routine. ‘Button it, and let’s get Buttons up to the Palace.’

   The mode of transport was ostentatiously recognizable. A pink Rolls Royce with white-wall tyres and gold monograms on the doors. It belonged to none other than Don Canelloni – known as the Prince to his friends but nicknamed the Prince of Pasta by his enemies.

   The Brokers sat in the front of the Rolls, with Frank driving, and Dan Dini and I sat in the back. We left the city, took the mountain road and drove in silence until we reached the legendary, multi-million dollar home of Don Canelloni. It overlooked the city and was an impressive and impregnable fortress, built in Spanish style, complete with surrounding moat.

   Dan Dini leant forward, pressed a button, and a drawbridge was lowered. We drove across into a shadowy courtyard while I tried to shake off my growing fear. Before being ushered into the presence of the Prince, Mugsy insisted on frisking me.

   ‘OK. He’s clean,’ he told Dan Dini after he was through searching me.

   I said, ‘I ought to be. I showered this morning.’

   Mugsy looked baffled. ‘What’s he mean, Frank?’

   Dan Dini’s expressionless face suddenly became ugly with rage. ‘Scram!’ he screamed, so loud he almost damaged his larynx.

   The Brokers disappeared faster than hot lead. Dan Dini composed himself and whispered, ‘Don Canelloni will see you now.’

   I took off my fedora and handed it to him, saying, ‘If anyone tries to steal my hat just yell out “Buttons!” and I’ll come running. But you’ll have to yell loudly, I’m a bit short-sighted.’

   He gave me a look that would have frozen molten lava, then pushed open two enormous doors. I hardly noticed them closing quietly behind me as I stood before a long refectory table. Don Canelloni was sitting at the far end, stuffing himself with spaghetti bolognaise and guzzling Chianti. He dabbed his face with a silk napkin and looked up at with eyes as cold as a corpse.

   ‘I’ll tell you a story,’ he said. ‘So listen and listen good. Some cat they call the Baron is tryin’ to muscle in on one of my rackets. He has, he tells me, two daughters, and would I like to marry either of ‘em. But he don’t fool me none. These two so-called daughters of his I recognize as a couple of transvestites from a club on the Strip. But then I figure this Baron creep might be useful as a fall-guy, so I invite him and his daughters to one of my speakeasies. An’ whadda yah know: along comes this younger daughter of his that I ain’t ever seen before. A doll – a real doll. I am so overwhelmed that I drink champagne from her shoe.

   ‘Then, before you know it, cops is swarming all over the joint, and she disappears, leaving me holding the shoe. But before the cops arrive, I asked her what a swell dame like her was doing in a lousy dump like this speakeasy, an’ she tells me some fairy gets her there. Her Godmother. I says, if it’s a fairy it must be her Godfather. But she tells me it’s not that kind of fairy, but a real flying type of fairy. So I figure this fairy must be some hophead or pill-popper. Anyways, all I am left with is this crystal slipper. Size seven.’

   The only girl I knew with big feet was a client of mine called Cinderella. She had been to see me a couple of days ago and wanted me to trace a fat Italian whom she had met in a speakeasy and fallen in love with. Here was an opportunity to make a thousand bucks with a minimum of effort. But there was one small problem. I had fallen in love with her myself.’

   ‘Find her yourself!’ I told the Don.

   Risky, but a private eye has to get bopped on the head at least once in every story, and I found myself falling into that bottomless dark well. When I came to I found that I had been asleep for several hours and felt jaded and thirsty. I pulled open the desk drawer and reached for another bottle of Coke. There was knock on the door.

   ‘Yes?’

   A small, thin man entered, sporting a Charlie Chan moustache. He walked up to my desk and bowed from the waist.

   ‘Please, you are a detective?’

   ‘Correct. What can I do for you, Mr...er?’

   ‘Aladdin.’

   I replaced the Coke and reached for something stronger.

 

Oh Yes They Did!

 

‘Behind yer!’ Audience participation - that vital pantomime ingredient. And what hard hearts could fail to be moved by hundreds of screaming tots who are absolutely convinced  that the assistant stage manager in a white sheet really is a ghost threatening Buttons, Idle Jack or Simple Simon?

   Basically, the panto format is the same whatever the subject. But at Christmas, in hundreds of theatres all over the country, thousands of children will be thrilled and delighted by this uniquely-British theatrical phenomenon. And their parents and grandparents will have just as much fun. What better way is there to unwind after a surfeit of Christmas pud and arguments over presents?

   The panto tradition, with its roots in in the Italo-French comic ballets, began in the early-18th century when actor/manager John Rich established it at Drury Lane every Christmas from 1717 – 1760. But it was the famous 19th century English clown Grimaldi who introduced more earthy, verbal humour into his pantomimes and incorporated nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

   Pantomime owes much of its present form to a mixture of music hall, variety theatre, radio and television. In the early 50s many commercial pantos veered away from the traditional and plots were sacrificed to  serve variety artistes who insisted on doing their ‘act’, whether it was juggling, singing or playing a musical instrument. There is a showbiz story of a performer, a multi-instrumentalist, emerging as Robinson Crusoe after the shipwreck and lamenting, ‘Shipwrecked and far from home, I’ll play upon my xylophone!’ And there, miraculously washed ashore in pristine condition, is the performer’s instrument, concealed behind a cut-out rock or palm tree.

   But it was the vocalists who were mostly to blame for deviation from the plot. Comedian and radio star Issy Bonn starred as Baron Hardup in Cinderella at the London Palladium in the early fifties. During the transformation scene the Fairy Godmother asks Cinders what her first wish will be.

   ‘Oh, I should so like to go to the ball in a beautiful gown of spun silver and silk.’ A flash and Cinders is transformed into a princess.

   ‘And your second wish, my child?’

   ‘I should like a coach and six white horses to take me to the Palace.’

   Another flash and the Shetland ponies appear pulling a dazzling pumpkin-shaped coach. But it seems as if all her wishes have been granted but she still has one owing. ‘And what is your third wish, my dear?’

   ‘I should like to hear Issy Bonn singing ‘I’m In Love With Two Sweethearts’.’ Lighting change! And then the comedian launches into his popular sentimental ballad about his wife and daughter.’,

   Thankfully, in recent years, we have returned to the more traditional. Performers having battled against the crunch of popcorn or thunder of tiny feet running to the loo every few minutes have finally realised that children love nothing better than to follow a good story. And it doesn’t have to be conventional.

   Children will readily accept the surreal providing it is in the confines of a decent plot. After all, panto is a musical play inhabited by men dressed as women, girls dressed as boys and humans dressed as animals.

   Probably the most popular memories are the comedy routines – the front-cloth spots – usually performed by double-acts, with the Buttons character the willing dupe. Sometimes, though, gags can go horribly wrong.

   In the early 70s I played Buttons at the Intimate Theatre, Palmer’s Green, not far from Tottenham. I was performing the parcel gag with the Broker’s Men, which involved hurling my parcel filled with china about the stage. Knowing nothing about football, one night I happened to kick the parcel back and cried, ‘Up the Arsenal!’

   Chaos broke out. You could hear the boos of the Tottenham supporters as far away as Bow Street Police Station where I thought they might be getting ready to send a squad to quell the mob of deranged toddlers. There was nothing for it but to leave the stage, and I vowed never again would I mention football.

   Stanley Baxter actually capitalised on the pandemonium caused by opposing Rangers and Celtic fans when he appeared in a Glasgow panto. He entered in profile wearing a football supporter’s dame costume favouring Rangers. While the fans or enemies – depending which side you’re on, Jimmy – screamed and shouted, Baxter calmly turned from profile to reveal the other half of his costume was that of a Celtic supporter. The audience had been had and they brought the house down with their cheers and applause.

   So, take a generous measure of audience participation, add some glitter and spontaneity, then sir in that vital ingredient – magic! And the result is pantomime. Suitable for all ages.