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?’


   ‘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?’


   ‘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:


   ‘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.




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.


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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.




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.’








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.




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.






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.





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!



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!





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.


   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,’


   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.