The Lads From Fenn Street

 

Liz Gebhardt, who played Maureen in Please Sir! was married to actor and director Ian Talbot, who for many years was Artistic Director of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and he and I wrote a sketch show, The Lads from Fenn Street. We had talked about this during the last series of Fenn Street, and as we needed permission to use the television characters, we approached John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, who happily gave their consent. Malcolm contacted Peter Denyer, who was doing his summer season in Bournemouth, but he wasn’t interested in either performing or directing it. We asked Christopher Timothy to direct and he agreed, also adding some great ideas and sketches to the script. At that time, Chris was contracted to do hard sell television commercials for the Sun newspaper, and he wrote one of the sketches, a spoof of himself, with Malcolm playing him.

   As Malcolm, Peter and I met for the first time at Stonebridge Park, which was then where LWT's offices and rehearsal rooms were located, we decided to call our production company Stonebridge Productions. First, we played some small halls in the suburbs of London to try our show out initially before taking it on an 18 week tour, a tour which varied from one- and two-night-stands to a week in some of the larger theatres, such as Swansea Grand Theatre.

   This became one of my favourite venues, run by John Chilvers, who watched our show several times, and told us his favourite sketch was the Crossroads spoof with Malcolm as Meg Richardson and me as Amy Turtle. When I mentioned working in Roy Plomley’s Just Plain Murder in which I toured the previous year, he told me the radio presenter kept submitting terrible plays to him which he always turned down.

   One of the notable features backstage at the Grand, which has disappeared since the theatre was revamped, was a ladder halfway up the stairs leading to the dressing rooms. At the top of the ladder was a hatch, and if you knocked on this door it would slide open to reveal a barmaid’s ankles. The hatch was on the floor behind the counter in the dress circle bar and it enabled performers or stage crew to purchase a drink, but only during the running of the show when the audience was seated in the auditorium, never during the interval. It would be disconcerting for a member of the audience to see an actor’s face peering from a hole at shoe level like a wee timorous beastie.

   We three were never able to make use of the hatch as we rarely left the stage, except for quick costume changes.

   Another feature of this theatre was Sir Henry Irving’s signature on his baggage label, encased in glass on the door of the number one dressing room. John Chilvers told us about a touring rock ‘n’ roll show visiting the theatre. He showed the lead singer around backstage and explained about the legendary actor’s signature. ‘This is Sir Henry Irving’s signature,’ he said. ‘The Grand Theatre Swansea was his penultimate performance. After that he went up north, where he died.’

   ‘Well,’ replied the rock singer, ‘don’t they all in those northern clubs?’

   During the week in Swansea I had to catch an early train back to London for a half day’s filming – a religious film made by Churches Television and Radio Centre. The film was called Support Your Local Poet and I performed a voice-over poem while sitting opposite Caroline Munro at a candlelit dinner. Caroline was hugely familiar from the Lamb’s Navy Rum campaign and also became a Bond girl as Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me. As I sat opposite her, playing a rather smooth young man who wondered where this dinner would lead, my voice-over suddenly revealed to me a spiritual truth that I was being rather shallow, and I suddenly saw the light and was saved. And if you believe that…

 

Next week's blog will continue the tour story, telling how we were thrown out of a venue in Kirkcaldy, Fife.

 

 

Please Sir! Stories

 

One lunchtime, during a Please Sir! camera rehearsal we were on the studio floor, surrounded by all the mess and tangle of camera cables. Apart from us ‘kids’, and John Alderton, the studio was empty, everyone having gone to lunch. John suddenly folded his arms and began hopping on one leg. It was a game we all knew, where you hop about, barge against someone and try to knock them off balance. The loser is the one who must use both legs or risk being pushed over. We had only just started the game when John tripped on one of the camera cables and sprained his ankle. While we helped him out of the studio we agreed to keep quiet about the ridiculous game. As he limped badly, we helped him to where Mark sat in the canteen. At first, Mark looked worried, wondering how his leading actor was going to get through the night’s recording. After John had visited the studio nurse, got his ankle bound up, and limped back into the canteen, he told Mark he couldn’t possibly drive to Weybridge and the studio must provide a car to take him home after the recording. Mark then went into cynical overdrive and point blank refused to increase his budget for a car, telling John he would have to pay for his own taxi. John protested that it was a studio accident, tripping over the camera cables. But Mark then said something along the lines of: ‘I know you were mucking about, John. You know you were mucking about. And you know I know you were mucking about.’

   After the recording, which John managed to get through without much obvious limping, we all headed for the bar. By now, Mark and John were in deep sulks and not talking to one another.

   When we began rehearsals for the next episode, Peter Cleall and I watched as John stood awkwardly next to Mark at the coffee point. Then one of them made a move, offering to pour coffee for the other, which was accepted gracefully. The quarrel was over. As we observed this touching, cinematic scene, Peter and I giggled as we imagined how it would look in slow motion and soft focus.

   Mark was a very active man, and once he’d completed his camera script by the morning of day three, everyone relaxed, and most of us younger cast members would disappear into an adjacent and empty rehearsal room to play handball on a court Mark had mapped out with gaffer tape. He provided gloves and tennis balls, explained the rules to us, then enjoyed beating us. God knows what guest actors coming in to do one episode thought as the producer/director disappeared to play games with some of his actors.

   We also played cricket with balls made from compressed newspaper covered in gaffer tape. These elliptical missiles were quite hard, and John bowled as if it was county cricket he was playing. Strip fluorescent lights got smashed, crashing spectacularly to the floor, then the shards had to be swept up and concealed behind cupboards. Strangely, nobody from LWT ever mentioned this damage.

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

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

    Whenever we did exterior filming, the series was so popular with young people, we were invariably mobbed as they clamoured for autographs. When we finished rehearsals, which always coincided with the time secondary schoolchildren went home, we tried to keep a low profile. Hiding behind sunglasses and broadsheet newspapers. On our own we were less of a target. Collectively there was more of a chance of being recognised.

   Once, on our journey to Euston from Stonebridge Park where we rehearsed, in one of those single compartment carriages, Peter Denyer got off at Queens Park to cross to the other side of the platform to catch a Tube train. The platform swarmed with teenagers, and Peter kept a low profile, head buried in his newspaper. He went unnoticed as he stood in the heart of the throng. Until our train began to pull out. Peter Cleall, Liz Gebhardt and I lowered the carriage window, pointed excitedly at the poor sod and yelled, ‘Look! That bloke in sunglasses. That’s Dennis Dunstable.’ The teenagers descended on the unfortunate actor like a plague of locusts.

   Although working in Please Sir! sounds as if it was all just fun and games, it had its downside. Occasionally we became nervous, gibbering wrecks, and it was all down to Mark Stuart who used to rule his actors like a demented cattle-trail boss. Rehearsals were not so bad, it was when we got into the studio that the fireworks would start. Whenever he shouted at the slightest noise, the veins stood out on his neck and people feared for their lives. I was doing a scene with John Alderton in an episode, and Mark asked me to pause for a quick reaction shot from John. During the camera run-through I forgot. The floor manager told me to hold it. And then I heard the control room door being flung open and feet pounding along the catwalk above the studio. And then a let-there-be-light voice blazed across the studio, ‘Barry! What about that pause?’

   During the camera rehearsal of a boxing scene in The Sporting Life, Mark came pounding down onto the studio floor, stormed up to an extra and screamed at him, ‘Your lifeless, boring face is in the back of my shot. For Christ’s sake react. Do something.’ The extra turned to jelly. Unconcerned, Mark turned away and delivered his next line to the studio. ‘Wood. Fucking wood.’

   Mark knew how to play to the gallery. Always. But he didn’t fool many with his temper tantrums. Like the camp vision mixer who, having listened to one of his tirades, threw out an aside. ‘I missed his last Western.’ Or the world-weary prop man behind the scenes, who muttered following one of Mark’s slavering outbursts, ‘I’ve seen them come, and I’ve seen them go, but that cunt’s the biggest actor of them all.’

   As far as the studio staff and technicians were concerned, these outbursts were interesting incidents to break up the rehearsal. But for us, the younger actors, it was nerve-wracking. We knew Mark hated to do much editing, which was time and money, so he instilled so much fear into us so that when we performed the shows in front of the studio audience, we didn’t dare stumble, fluff or dry. Our shows were complete theatre performances with no retakes. Retakes were verboten. If there were any mistakes, these were broadcast, so that millions of viewers witnessed our gaffs. Consequently, we rarely made mistakes.

   In fairness to Mark, his tyrannical behaviour vanished after the recordings, and he often pushed the boat out in the bar to make amends. He was never a person to hold a grudge.

 

FICTION FROM FACT

 

When I came to write my thriller with a political slant, Before They Die, I had read in the mainstream media reports about Cyril Smith’s child abuse at his constituency in Rochdale. What disgusted me as much as anything was the fact that he managed to get away with it for so many decades, even though the Lancashire Constabulary had a thick file on his abhorrent practices as far back as the late ‘60s, yet he was never prosecuted. And then I read reports that MI5 had removed the dossier with the connivance of the Special Branch in Lancashire.

   I was so appalled that I began to look into allegations of child sex abuse by high profile Establishment figures and celebrities.

   Then in recent years Carl Beech made accusations about many Establishment figures who had been named in the press, claiming he had been abused by them, and some friends of his had been murdered. These turned out to be lies, and it transpired that he was himself a paedophile, now serving an 18 year prison sentence. But what happened after his lies were found out was the fact that high profile suspected child abusers were now let off the hook. Suddenly everything was a lie and a conspiracy. However, the wall of truth of what went on should not be whitewashed over.

    In 1983 Geoffrey Dickens, Conservative MP for Huddersfield West claimed he gave the names of eight prominent people who were child sexual abusers to the DPP but nothing was done about it.

    Jimmy Savile spent 13 Christmases with the Thatcher’s at Chequers, and at this serial abuser’s funeral many Freemasons attended in their arcane regalia.

    Margaret Thatcher’s PPS Sir Peter Morrison was a paedophile, and Edwina Currie exposed him as a ‘pederast’. Many people speculated that surely the Prime Minister must have known. Could it be that she didn’t consider these sorts of sexual propensities as important? After all, Alderman and Methodist preacher Alfred Roberts, her revered father, from whom she espoused her Victorian values was a hypocritical lecher and groper who harassed the young female assistants who worked in his Grantham grocer’s shop.

    And PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) member Henderson was arrested after extreme child porn addressed to him was found on a bus. A search of his flat revealed he used a false name and he was in fact Sir Peter Hayman KCMG, CVO, MBE and High Commissioner to Canada 1970-74. Sir Michael Havers, Attorney General at the time, defended his decision not to prosecute Hayman on grounds that he was not on PIE’s executive committee and therefore not part of a conspiracy.

    Then there are the children’s homes like Bryn Estyn in North Wales where prominent people abused underprivileged children. Or the Elm Guest House in Putney, where parties took place involving Establishment figures abusing youngsters, and which was raided in 1982. Father McSweeney, the priest who presided over Frank Bruno’s wedding, was arrested in connection with the VIP paedophile ring at the Elm Guest House.

    Jimmy Savile visited Broadmoor with Frank Bruno and introduced him to Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and there is a photograph of the boxer shaking hands with the serial killer. There is also one of Bruno giving Prince Charles a Masonic handshake with Savile present in the background.

    If all of this wasn’t bad enough, the worst was the missing dossier, 114 files which were handed to Home Secretary Leon Brittan by Geoffrey Dickens, details of a Westminster paedophile ring that should have led to a major enquiry. Now, after Brittan lost the files, many people accused him of being a paedophile himself. But I think we ought to give the late Home Secretary the benefit of the doubt…until proven guilty. But I would have accused him of total incompetence, which meant that no enquiry took place, leading to three more decades of child abuse.

    So, how does this fit into Before They Die? Alfred Hitchcock had a name for the reason a mystery kicks off. A McGuffin. The McGuffin is the springboard to a plot, it is the missing microfilm, or the stolen money or incriminating evidence. In my book it is a dossier that Lord Albion, not Home Secretary but Minister of Information and Home Affairs, has conveniently lost. But there remains a copy of the inflammatory document (the McGuffin) which now leads to all sorts of complications and many murders, and a mystery of who is behind it all.

    And I have introduced a fairly flawless character. Ex-Met detective Mike Halliday who has now gone private, and he is on a mission to expose these abusers. His only shortcoming is a deep desire to pummel child abusers, and he often has to check his vigilante behaviour.

    If I were to write a logline, it would be:

    One man seeks justice for the victims before the perpetrators die.

 

 To go to Before They Die on Amazon, go to my Homepage David Barry Actor & Writer and click on Amazon next to the book's image. If you purchase a copy, and you enjoy the read, please consider reviewing it on Amazon. Thank you.

   

 

 

CHUKLEVISION NIGHTMARE

 

An 85 mile drive along the traffic-heavy M25 for a second day’s filming for Chucklevision almost became a guilty nightmare until the make-up woman assuaged my feelings of remorse. It happened like this:

     The locations were well north of London, roughly in the Hemel Hempstead area – so quite a distance from Tunbridge Wells where I live. For the first day’s filming I wasn’t called until around 11.30 a.m. and finished around 5.00 p.m. So, that was fairly easy to cope with, although the drive home took me nearly two and a half hours.

    I was called the next day for 10.30, and I set the alarm for seven, knowing I would have to cope with the M25 during rush hour, and I thought leaving at 7.45 would allow me plenty of time to reach the location. What I hadn’t realised, or I had forgotten, was that my alarm clock was battery driven and – yes, you’ve guessed it – it chose that morning to run out. Exhausted from my long drive the previous day, I slept until almost nine o’clock. When I looked at my alarm clock, my eyes sprung from my head like a Tom & Jerry animation. I was in my car and set off just after 9.15. And I knew there was no way I was going to make it clockwise around the motorway, then up a stretch of the M1 by 10.30. And this location I knew would be more difficult to find as it was in a disused quarry, a more rural location than the previous day.

    As I left the 15 mile stretch of the A21, and eased down the slip road onto the M25, I saw that it was now nearly quarter to ten. This was when I began to think about my survival and decided as I was never going to make it in time, I would have to tell whopping great lies. Aware that any crew members for the shoot may have negotiated the M25, I decided I couldn’t blame that particular road, so in my head I made up a story about being stuck in a very nasty accident on the A21, on the dual carriageway not far from Tunbridge Wells.

    Once I had this lie worked out, I remember thinking that there was nothing I could do to quicken the journey and might as well just accept my fate. It was well past 10.30 when I reached the Heathrow turn-offs, and a rough guess told me I wasn’t going to make the location until at least 11.30, maybe later. I wondered why my mobile hadn’t rung with someone from the film unit asking me where I was. I had my lie all prepared. But no one rang.

    When I left the M1, desperately searching for the right direction to this quarry, I guessed I must have been only fifteen minutes away from it. Then my phone rang. It was one of the runners, who said, ‘We’re just about to get to you? Where are you?’

    I breathed a sigh of relief when I realised they must have been an hour behind on their schedule. But I still had a little way to go yet, and so I let me voice tremble with shock while I described the terrible accident, which by now had become very real to me.

    When I arrived at the location at 11.40, everyone had heard the story of this mythical accident, and the director placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, told me to take my time and have some breakfast before I began filming.

    He was so nice about my predicament, that I was struck by remorse and guilt. But after a bacon butty I began to feel a lot better. And then after going to make-up, I was asked where it was I lived. I told them it was in Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

    ‘What?’ the make-up woman shouted indignantly, almost as if it was she who had made the journey. ‘That’s disgusting making you drive all that way. In the good old days they’d have forked up for an overnight at a nearby hotel.’

    And that was when all my guilt vanished completely. Even though it was all the fault of my alarm battery running down, now I could shoulder the blame to the BBC for their parsimonious attitude to a featured actor.

 

 

Comedy Nostalgia

I often hear people saying you don’t get great comedies on television anymore, like the good old days of Please Sir! Which pleases me, of course, because I was a regular character in it, and remember it with fondness. But are these people who hark back to the good old days missing something? Like the “Wandering Star” song, and the line ‘I’ve never seen anything that didn’t look better looking back’. Do some – even youngish people – live in a sort of false memory, residing in a cosy Nostalgia Land?

    By all means travel back to the sixties and seventies and enjoy those TV sitcoms, but don’t let any of us lose sight of more recent comedies which have been great, starting in the nineties with Father Ted. I must confess that I saw one episode back then, and I missed something (stupid me) and didn’t continue watching the series. But when I began watching repeats in the early noughties, I couldn’t stop laughing and it became one of my favourites shows of all time. And this was the decade of The Office, a classic comedy if ever there was one, and on a par with Fawlty Towers. Of course, when I say something like that, people are bound to disagree because it’s subjective and we all have our particular favourites.

    But when I hear people in a pub, and on discovering I played Frankie Abbott, becoming nostalgically excited and then usually they end up moaning and wishing they still made comedies like that. Again, is that just the better view looking back? Because I might say to them, what about Still Game. Blank look. Or Two Doors Down. Another blank look. What about Toast of London or This Country? Even blanker looks.

    Now I appreciate there are more channels now but it can’t be that difficult to find programmes, can it? But I expect many of you reading this have eclectic tastes and have seen those comedies I just mentioned.

   But when I go back to those good old comedy days, I have to confess to sometimes being glad I missed many of them. I was never that fond of On The Buses (which is where some dyed-in-the-wool fans are going to fall out with me). And one of my reasons is this: it was because I always found Stephen Lewis’s performance as Inspector Blakey embarrassing. Reg Varney, Bob Grant, Michael Robbins and Anna Karen were funny, but gave reasonably realistic performances. Whereas I always thought Lewis was ‘trying to be funny’ and it was a sketch show parody of a jobsworth man. And for me it was a near miss.

    But for a big miss watch Ron Burgundy, Anchorman. Now it was I confess a hugely popular film, and by criticising it I might be stepping into a crocodile infested swamp, but here goes. I watched half an hour of this most cringe-making comedy before I switched off. The cast were all mugging like mad, pulling funny faces and trying to be funny. Now, compare that to a film like Airplane where all the actors play it for real as if they are in a real disaster movie. It is left to the writers to make it funny, and the actors get the laughs from the delivery of their lines and their reactions.

    Being funny playing a character is a thin dividing line. Steve Martin does it brilliantly. Behind the character, there seems to be a twinkle in Martin’s eye, sharing with the audience his personal criticism of the character and what a jerk he is. It’s a very subtle comedy trait that many great comedy performers have mastered.

    However crazy and bizarre the behaviour of Father Ted (Yes, all right, so it’s my favourite.) was, Dermot Morgan gave it some reality. Which I always think it’s what it’s about really.

    When I first began working on the first series of Please Sir! I used to internally question everything about the character before making an entrance. What does he want as soon as he enters the classroom? Does he want to show off, show he’s a hard man? And what sort of mood is he in? Of course, by the time the second series began, I stopped doing this and switched the character’s behaviour on and off like a light switch.

    I remember once asking Mark Stuart, our director, ‘What’s my motivation for this line, Mark?’

    His reply: ‘It’s because you fucking get paid to say it!’

 

Turn The Volume Up!

 

During rehearsals for the third series of Please Sir! Richard Davies engineered a production of Under Milk Wood with himself and us six Fenn Street Gang actors, and several others in the cast.

    Penny Spencer played Mae Rose Cottage, Mrs Pugh and Mrs Dai Bread Two. There were no radio microphones that we could use, and Penny often had difficulty being heard when she played Sharon in the studio, and the boom operator came in as close as he dared without throwing shadows across faces. We knew that being able to hear Penny in the vast Lewisham Concert Hall venue was going to be a problem, but Peter Denyer came up with a solution. He had an actress friend who concealed herself behind the masking curtain behind Penny. As Penny delivered her lines, Peter’s friend said them in unison so that the audience could hear them. This double-tracking effect, for all I know, was probably the first time anyone has been dubbed in live theatre.

    Now, of course, radio microphones are often used in the theatre. I recently saw Jesus Hopped the A Train at the Young Vic. It’s a fairly intimate space. I can understand  actors having to use mics in vast theatres like Drury Lane, but the trouble with using them in a small theatre, and the close proximity to the audience, means an actor will resort to dropping the voice to a sometimes unbelievably tiny level. In this production I sometimes found myself straining to hear actors who were using a mic, for God’s sake. The trouble is, everyone involved in the production has read the script, and the director knows the part thoroughly, so of course they can hear, because they know what the actor is saying. But we the audience are hearing it for the first time.

    And this is a problem in television. Some actors drop their voices to a level of whispering, thinking that it probably gives the scene a greater intensity, and again the directors know what their performers are saying and don’t stop to consider that it might be lost on the person watching at home, and increasing the volume on the remote, then decreasing it hurriedly when it switches to a visual scene and that sudden blast of music.

    This is, some directors might argue, the push for greater reality. But just think, the next time you are talking to someone in the pub, do you drop your voice to a whisper. The reality is that you probably raise the level of your voice.

    Of course, not all actors were difficult to hear and, having been properly trained in voice production, even their smallest whispers could be heard. Remember Richard Burton in A Spy Who Came in From The Cold in which he gave a very realistic and believable performance? Despite the film’s realism, I heard the actor’s every spoken word.

    But I have found the perfect solution as far as watching television is concerned. I watch mainly foreign drama and read the subtitles.

    Finally, have you noticed the contrast between reality shows and drama? In reality and chat shows they shout everything at mega decibels, probably in the deluded belief that it gives greater energy to a programme that has very little to say.

    I think I’ll pick up a book instead and have a nice quiet read!

 

 

Please Sir! Pranks

 

Playing practical jokes and winding people up happened regularly during rehearsals of Please Sir!. LWT had small pads of notepaper with their logo at the top, and occasionally someone would get a message scribbled on one of these pads to call their agent during a break in rehearsals. We the naughty grown-up kids played a joke on Richard ‘Dickie’ Davies once. He got a message from his agent to ring such and such a number and speak to Mr Lyon or, if he wasn’t there, to ask for Mr Fox. When Dickie made his call, he came back and told us how the conversation went.

   ‘Hello. Could I speak to Mr Lyon?’

   Pause. Then, ‘Are you trying to be funny?’

   ‘No, no. If he’s not there I was told I could speak to Mr Fox.’

   ‘This is Regent’s Park Zoo.’

   Another time, during a break in camera rehearsals at Wembley Studios, we were sitting in the canteen, when I brought out a page I had torn out of a copy of the Irish Spotlight when I was in Ireland. (Spotlight is a publication containing photographs of actors which casting directors can view when casting.) I handed my page round the canteen table. The photographs were three amateurish poses of an actor called Ben Bristow. The first photograph was captioned ‘Drama’ and was a picture of the Irish actor wearing a dreadful make-up, including an obviously false moustache, posing in fear as if a Hammer House of Horror ghoul was about to drag him to hell. Beneath the next picture it said ‘Comedy’ and showed Ben in an enormous plaid jacket, like an itinerant bookmaker, a finger pointing upwards, highlighting a brilliant punchline. The final picture was ‘Variety’, and the actor now had a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on his lap.

   As the picture was passed around the table, everyone had a laugh at Ben’s expense. Until it came to John Alderton. Stony-faced. Not the trace of a smile. ‘What’s funny about this?’ he demanded.

   I was taken aback. At first, I tried to explain what was funny but soon realised it was self- explanatory. Then John went on to say that Ben was an old friend of his and a very fine actor. ‘You’re winding me up, John,’ I protested. He threw the page onto the table and looked disgusted. I began to squirm. And others at the table began to shift uncomfortably and stared into their coffee cups. Then John went too far, telling me that Ben’s wife had just died of cancer, how much he missed her and was finding it hard to cope. Now I knew I was being sent up.

   We also found a great way to entertain everyone in the studio canteen. If any of the studio floor managers needed someone paged to the studio, they used an internal phone, usually situated between two heavy doors leading to the studio. We began to put in some false calls. Sitting in the canteen, people often heard announcements along the lines of: ‘Could Mr Albert Bridge go to Studio Three in five minutes, please?’

   None of the telephonists seemed to twig. We got away with all kinds of names, everyone from Joe Stalin to Bill Shakespeare or Jane Austen. Then one day I picked up the internal phone and put in a call for Miss Connie Lingus to go to Studio Three. ‘Who’s that?’ the telephonist demanded. ‘This isn’t a proper call, is it?’

   Clearly there was nothing wrong with the telephonist’s sex education.

 

 

BACK INTO THE FRYING PAN

 

Following my stint in Forget-Me-Not Lane in Hornchurch, another phone call to my agent from Bill Kenwright’s office. Davy Jones was returning to America for the final two weeks of their tour. Would I take over? No way, I said. I emphatically did not want to be involved in this production. Bill must have guessed my reason for turning it down and reassured my agent that Edward Chapman had been replaced by James Hayter, and everything now ran smoothly.

      But trouble this time came from Dave King. ‘We’ve changed some of the lines,’ he told me. Meaning he had changed the lines. Because he came from somewhere east of London, and was unable to portray a Bristolian, Peter Nichols’ wonderfully evocative script no longer conjured up images of Frank’s commercial traveller father as he travels from Yeovil to Minehead but wanders instead to Southend and Basildon. Essex man had brought it closer to home.

   ‘By all means change your lines,’ I said. ‘But I would sooner stick to Peter Nichols’ script. I don’t mind what you say, but I’m sticking to the script.’

   After this little speech, an Arctic wind blew into the theatre. If I stuck to the script then clearly others in the cast would have to, otherwise none of it would make sense. We broke for coffee and there were huddled discussions. When the rehearsal resumed, King agreed that we could still set it in the west country – which was big of him, since he hadn’t written the play – but he would have to insist, he said, on one of my lines being changed, the one where I talk about a ‘woman’s minge’. He said many people walked out of the audience when they heard that line. ‘So, it’s got to be changed, son.’

   I asked him what I should change it to, and he told me to say ‘woman’s thingee’ instead. I agreed, and we carried on rehearsing. But I could tell he really hated me now. And he had never once, I noticed, called me by name. It was always ‘son’ in a condescending, sneering manner.

   During the week at Bath Theatre Royal, the tour from hell began. Admittedly it was only for two weeks, but I could imagine if I was really bad in this life, my everlasting punishment would be working for eternity with Dave King.

   At Hornchurch I always got a laugh on a certain line, but in Bath the silence that followed was because of Dave King’s sudden move as he deliberately killed my line. I didn’t know what I could do about this. Then on Wednesday night’s performance, hatred struck in a big way. About to deliver the ‘woman’s thingee’ line, a slight hesitation on my part, and then ‘minge’ inadvertently slipped back into the dialogue.

   Cut to my dressing room in the interval. John Ingram, company manager, asked me to put ‘thingee’ back in. I explained about it being a mistake because I knew the lines from the Hornchurch version, which was, after all, Peter Nichols’ scripted lines.

   Suddenly, the dressing room door flew open and in barged King. ‘You,’ he yelled, doing a lot of finger waving, ‘are fucking deliberately ruining everything I’m trying to do on stage.’

   I explained that it was a mistake, but it was a waste of time. He was in an abusive mood and looking for trouble.

   ‘You are fucking useless,’ he screamed and began to exit.’

   Perhaps it was a mistake to have the last word, but I was damned if I was going to let him get away with that. ‘That’s the trouble with allowing red-nosed comics into the legitimate theatre,’ I said.

   Which was unfair and untrue about comedians and variety artistes. But this was a fight. And in fights you have to go for where it hurts the most. Unfortunately, although I am not a moral coward, I’m not the bravest person when confronted by fisticuffs.

   Fists clenched, he spun round and came towards me. ‘I’ll smash your fucking head in, you little cunt.’

   I remember thinking at the time that if this was a man who had a go at Lew Grade, managing director of ATV, then he wouldn’t hold back on pummelling me. And I made a split-second decision that if I did nothing, received a blow, the play would be cancelled, resulting in a major lawsuit. Perhaps he realised this. Without saying another word, he stormed out.

   We were called for Act Two. I had to stand by in the wings, and when I got there, Dave King also stood by, a smug, self-satisfied look on his face, the trace of an evil smile. I was suddenly so enraged, I went over to him, grabbed his wrist and raised his hand over his head.

   ‘What are you doing,’ he snarled, snatching back his hand.

   ‘Congratulations!’ I said. ‘You wanted to upset me, and you succeeded.’

   He made a move towards me. ‘I’ve a good mind to smash your fucking head in.’

   The curtain began to rise on Act Two. ‘OK,’ I whispered. ‘Cool it. Cool it.’

   His upper lip curled angrily. ‘Don’t start that jazz talk with me, son.’

   After the performance, I phoned my agent at his home, told him about the incident, and said I was leaving the show. First thing in the morning I intended driving home. He sympathised with me but asked me to wait until he’d had a word with Kenwright.

   The following morning Bill phoned me at the Garrick’s Head, where we were staying. He was supportive and told me he wanted to ‘get rid of that cunt’ but couldn’t find anyone to replace him. He pleaded with me to stay with the show, especially as it was only another week and a half to go. Reluctantly, I agreed.

   When I got to the theatre that night, James Hayter was also very supportive. ‘If I was a younger man,’ he said, ‘I’d have kicked that cunt down the stairs for you.’

   For the rest of the run there was a terrible atmosphere. Dave King and I never had to look at one another on stage, as I was playing his younger self. That was a blessing I suppose. But whenever we passed each other backstage, we both avoided eye contact. We hated each other. In fact, I’ve never known anything like that much hatred between two performers before or since.

   The final week at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, couldn’t come quickly enough. And throughout that final week we still avoided eye contact and each other. And then I was slightly cheered up by a form of petty revenge, provided by courtesy of Tom Owen.

   Bill arranged to visit the penultimate performance and take the cast out for a meal afterwards to an Italian restaurant. King asked Tom if everyone was dressing for it, and Tom told him, yes, it was the works, black tie do.

   I was delighted to see Bill arrive on Friday evening wearing a denim jacket. I almost punched the air jubilantly. And everyone else was casually dressed. The only one feeling more than a little over-dressed at the dinner was Dave King, wearing a dinner jacket, black bow tie and horrendously over-the-top frilly shirt.

   Yes, I thought. A vengeance of sorts.

   After that fiasco, I couldn’t wait to see my Fenn Street friends again for the third and final series.

 

 

A Better Production

 

In 1972 the Queens Theatre Hornchurch offered me the part of Young Frank in Forget-Me-Not Lane. This was the play I had seen, which featured Malcolm McFee playing Ivor, Young Frank’s friend, at Greenwich Theatre. I loved the play and didn’t hesitate to accept the role. The post West End tour of the play was produced by Bill Kenwright, with Davy Jones of the Monkees playing Young Frank. Prior to my Hornchurch engagement, Bill contacted my agent and asked if I would take over from Davy Jones for one week at Weston-Super-Mare, because for some reason the singer had to dash back to the US for that week. On a Tuesday I picked up a copy of the script at Kenwright’s office, then the next day I travelled to Bournemouth where the play was currently performing. Playing the leads in the cast were Dave King as Frank, and the father was played by Edward Chapman, known as Mr Grimsdale from the Norman Wisdom films. Tom Owen played Ivor and Young Ursula was played by Wendy Padbury from Crossroads.

   When I got to Bournemouth, I spent every waking moment learning the lines. I would walk along the street muttering them, getting weird looks from people. The rehearsal time I was allocated wasn’t enough. The cast was reluctant to devote more than a few hours a day as they had to perform the show every night and twice on Saturday. I had to make do with remote and intensive line learning, catching an hour here or there with some of the more obliging members of the cast, and of course I watched the show every night.

   One of the major obstacles was working with Edward Chapman who was an alcoholic. We had a dress rehearsal for my benefit on Saturday morning, and in one scene he entered not knowing where he was, having cut something like ten pages. David Buck, the director, stopped him, saying with as much patience as he could muster, ‘Ted, you’re two scenes too early.’

   Confused, Chapman paused. You could see his fuddled brain trying to grasp at clues for which scene or what play he was in. Then, clearly deciding attack was the best form of defence, he cursed the stage management. ‘Well, why can’t that girl set the props in the correct place?’ he yelled.

   It was a shabby way to transfer the blame and everyone felt embarrassed.

   When I got home that weekend, I spent the entire time going over the lines, drumming them into my head. When I arrived at Weston-Super-Mare on Monday, I saw my name was emblazoned across the front of the theatre. Dave King went berserk because his contract with Kenwright gave him top billing. It led to a heated argument with the manager, and I later discovered the change of billing may have been because King had upset Weston-Super-Mare audiences in the past. Having died a death at the venue, as the curtain came down one night he told them to ‘Piss off!’

   Eventually, because it looked as if Dave King was not going to back down and refused to go on stage unless the billing was changed, John Ingram, the company manager, came into my dressing room and asked if I would mind if the billing was changed.

   ‘I couldn’t care less if you take my name off completely,’ I said carelessly. ‘Because I’m only here for a week.’

   Having seen the excellent pre-West End production at Greenwich, I didn’t tell him how disillusioned I was with this production. The billing was changed, and the play opened. There were a few mistakes but nothing major. I got through it, despite Edward Chapman’s erratic entrances and exits, and the scenes I most enjoyed were with Tom Owen and Wendy Padbury. But by Saturday I was relieved it was over. Apart from my scenes with Tom and Wendy, the production had been a huge disappointment.

   After the curtain fell on Saturday night, I said goodbye to the cast. I didn’t want to bear a grudge and part bad company with Edward Chapman, so I entered his dressing room to say goodbye.

   ‘Would you like a drink for the road, son?’ he offered, clearly trying to make amends for any shortcomings in his performance during the week. I was puzzled. Where was the booze? He was barred from bringing it in to the theatre. My eyes quickly scanned the dressing table and I saw no alcohol. He then picked up a shampoo bottle with amber liquid inside. ‘It’s whisky,’ he whispered, glancing furtively over his shoulder. I declined the drink, explaining that I had a long drive ahead.

   Soon after, I began rehearsals at Hornchurch, one of the most relaxed rehearsal periods I can ever remember. I already knew the lines and could enjoy the in-depth exploration of the play, and not go home every evening to learn lines. This production was far superior to the Kenwright tour. The cast worked as a team, with everyone pulling their weight, and when it opened the audiences laughed uproariously at every funny line.

 

 

Classic Film Photography

 

I watched on television recently back-to-back two Billy Wilder films, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Both great comedies, with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in the former, and Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in the latter. But what is so very great about these black and white classic films is the stunning photography. Every shot is clearly focused, there is none of that pulling the focus which I find so irritating in modern films and has become a cinematograph cliché.

    If you are not technically minded, let me explain. If there are perhaps two people in a scene, and one of them is out of focus, the person in focus is the subject of attention, then the focus is pulled and changes to the other person, and they become the subject. So, someone in a two-handed scene is always out of focus.

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

   But there is often a reason for using this technique. It is a cheap and quick way of filming. A scene can be shot with a one camera set-up, and if the actors know their lines, the scene can be achieved rapidly, and then it’s on to the next location.

   Often the size of a film or television’s budget is why you will rarely see the clichéd Focus Pull used in an American series like Breaking Bad. Sometimes, when used sparingly, it can be used for good dramatic effect, but when a director is not under pressure from a small budget, he or she can spend the time with varying camera set-ups.

   Many moons ago, when it was first used, it probably had an artistic justification for its use, but now the cinematographic cliché has become as well-worn as the car chase driving through a wedding reception party or the fruit and veg stall being trashed.

   But how I miss those early films where you could take any image from the entire film and it would work as a great still photograph that could be hung on the wall of an exhibition. The photography in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is wonderfully atmospheric with its chiaroscuro lighting. Of course, I do appreciate that a shooting schedule of seven or eight weeks to produce a 100 minute feature allows the director far more time than two weeks to shoot a 60 minute television drama, although I sometimes think that it’s occasionally a question of imagination that is lacking. And it’s not just the classic black and white movies that avoided any focus pulling. I recently watched  Jacques Tati’s colour film Mon Oncle which was shot perfectly. And even some of the TV spin-offs, including Please Sir! in which I was involved, avoided the focus pull, despite having a limited shoot time.

   At one stage in his career, Billy Wilder said to his lighting cameraman, ‘Keep that shot out of focus. I want to win the Best Foreign Film Award’. If he was still alive today, he might say, ‘Lose focus, I want to win a Bafta for the Best British Film.’

   On another light note, one of the funniest out-of-focus performances is Robin Williams, playing Mel an actor in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, and when the cameraman/focus puller can’t seem to get Williams in focus, and they wrap up for the day, the actor goes home to his wife who sees him – or rather doesn’t see him – because he’s permanently out of focus. Robin Williams performed his part in the film entirely out of focus. 

 

 

Benefit of Hindsight

 

In 1970 I attended a casting interview for the Granada Television comedy The Lovers, starring Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox. I was interviewed by writer Jack Rosenthal and director Michael Apted. When I was asked about what recent work I had done, I naturally mentioned Please Sir! Rosenthal and Apted turned to each other and had a long discussion, almost as if I wasn’t in the room, about how much they disliked the series, saying they thought the characters were clichéd and stereotypes. Their behaviour was rude and unsettling, and I should have said something. But I didn’t. I only thought of what I should have done when I came away from the interview.

    Often in my head I have fantasized about how the interview went, with me admonishing Jack Rosenthal for his rude behaviour, after which he becomes quite contrite, apologetic, and of course he and the director offer me the job because they were so deeply sorry for their bad behaviour. It was another of my life’s if only moments, and I wish I’d been possessed of that rewind button.

    Perhaps Peter Cleall, who played Eric Duffy in Please Sir! and Fenn Street Gang, felt the same way after he auditioned for Laurence Olivier. This was, I think, around the time we made the second series of Fenn Street Gang.  Lord Olivier, as he was then, was Artistic Director at the National Theatre, situated then at the Old Vic. After Peter had performed his two audition monologues on the Old Vic stage, Olivier said to him, ‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’

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

    He didn’t get accepted at the National.

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

    Much later I was struck by a bizarre thought. If Olivier had seen an episode or two of us cavorting in Fenn Street School, in which I played a 15-year-old, perhaps I hadn’t changed that much since I appeared aged 14 as his grandson in Titus Andronicus and he might have recognized me, But, like Peter, I felt that Baron Olivier of Brighton watching our sitcom was a fanciful thought.

    And another hindsight moment, during which unlike Edith Piaf I am riddled with regrets, perhaps I should have auditioned for Olivier when he was at the National. After all, I had toured Europe with him and Vivien Leigh for six weeks and performed for another five at the Stoll Theatre in London. I might have stood a chance.

   Ah well, I’m not going to fantasize about that one. Too late for that!

THE IMPORTANCE OF COVER DESIGN

 

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

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

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

Wales,  and after many rejections with large publishing houses in London, I decided

to approach a small Welsh publisher. They liked it, and a year later it was almost ready for the printers. I had had good experiences with this publisher, the editor was friendly and approachable, and everyone seemed enthusiastic about my book. I was

asked for suggestions for the cover design. So far so good.

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

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

    So what could I have done? I got on well with the editor, so I could at least have tried to gently persuade her that the cover was lurid. Of course, she might have told me it was too late to change the design, and maybe it was. But what really annoys me is that I didn’t even try.

    I suppose, if a writer is already famous and has a huge following, the book cover is not so important. On the other hand, years ago, when I was a young man, I saw East of Eden by John Steinbeck in a bookshop. It had a ghastly cover: a badly drawn picture of a half-naked woman in the arms of what looked like a western saloon gambler. But I had already read Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Grapes of Wrath, so the cover didn’t matter to me. I bought it and loved every page of it.

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

     Now here is the cover for Each Man Kills when it was republished by Andrews UK. So much better, wouldn’t you agree?

 

 

 

 Real Acting

 

In 1969 I was interviewed by television director John Glenister, and the producer of Thirty Minute Theatre, Innes Lloyd. I was offered the part of Gunther Goettling, a young East German student. The play was called Frontier, written by Don Shaw, based on a true incident when Peter Fechter, a young East German was shot trying to escape across the Berlin Wall. In Victims 2: Frontier, my character attempts an escape across a minefield and has his leg blown off, and while he lies in no-man’s land slowly dying, neither the East nor West German military attempt to rescue him.

   Having rehearsed in the usual west London church hall for three days, on Thursday evening we were taken for a night shoot at a remote Army training ground. Apart from the outside broadcast vans and unit vehicles, this no-man’s land looked authentic with its thick forest trees and high barbed wire fence through which I would use my wire cutters to escape across the minefield until my leg was blown off. An observation tower manned by a sentry rose out of the ground in the gloom, and scenic designers had built temporary huts for the military, both East and West Germans, to discuss the problem of who should risk going into the minefield to rescue the student. The O.B. cameras were positioned in the distance, as if they were covering sporting events, almost hidden behind the trees. Most of the scenes would be performed without a break, and we could see which cameras were shooting by the red lights glowing in the dark. Strange how this drama based on a true event became so very real as the recording progressed. Suddenly we were hit by a blizzard and the snow came down heavily. I lay for hours on the freezing ground while things went wrong because of the extreme conditions. Light bulbs exploded from the cold, and a technician had to climb a twenty-five-foot ladder to replace it. The cameras froze, and Innes Lloyd, the producer, came out of the O.B. vehicle to help unfreeze them. Someone managed to get me a wetsuit, and I changed into it in the Portaloo. There were no portable dressing rooms of course, because the dressing rooms were back at Television Centre in White City where we had changed into our costumes. Despite the wetsuit I was still frozen, my teeth chattering and my body trembling with the cold. But the most discomfort I suffered was because I needed a crap, and there was no way I was going to undress again in the unheated Portaloo. I clenched my buttocks tightly and ended up being constipated for the next three or four days.

   Now, what should have been a night shoot ending before midnight, went on into the early hours of the morning. And because cameras were still freezing as the blizzard raged, and light bulbs popped melodically, the production dragged on, and I was told I would have to suffer the same torturous performance the following night.

   Occasionally I was able to grab a hot drink and watch the other scenes, as Larry Dann as the East German Lieutenant Klein discussed the problem of rescuing the student with Corporal Schabe, played by Tom Baker.

   After the shoot, when taxis were summoned to take us home from Television Centre, they discovered Tom Baker lived in Archway, just a stone’s throw from Highgate Village, and we shared the ride home. We chatted and became friends, and Tom often came up to the Village for a drink. While we waited for the pubs to open, we walked round Highgate Cemetery. Tom pointed out that opposite Karl Marx’s tomb was the grave of a man named Spencer.

   When I watched Frontier on television, I saw how tense everyone was in the freezing temperature. No acting was required. Performing in those conditions was reality.

 

 A Sweetheart Deal

 

In 1996 UK Gold repeated the Please Sir! series, followed by The Fenn Street Gang. There were twelve regular characters in the former, and six of us in the latter. So it surprised me when a cheque for Fenn Street repeats came to only around half of the school series. I telephoned the Artiste’s Payments at Granada, the company who now owned the rights to the series and asked them why only half the money. Surely, I pointed out, as there were only six regular characters in Fenn Street, it should have been double the money. Then I was told that because the later series was less popular, Granada had leased it to Gold for less money.

   Earlier in the decade I was invited to an event at Planet Hollywood to celebrate the book launch of Paul Gambaccini and Rod Taylor’s Television’s Greatest Hits. I was invited because two episodes in which I was heavily featured, The Facts of Life in Please Sir! and The Thin Yellow Line in The Fenn Street Gang, both reached number one in the ratings. I met Brian Murphy again, and spent some time chatting to him. He was invited because two of his George and Mildred episodes reached the top slot.

   But a most fortuitous gift was a copy of the book we were all given. After I had telephoned Granada, I searched the book for the ratings figures and discovered Please Sir! spent 29 weeks in the ratings, whereas Fenn Street topped it at 31 weeks. And because Granada were hand in glove with Gold, it looked suspiciously like a sweetheart deal. Or as Equity liked to say, they didn’t have an ‘arm’s length agreement.’

   I got on to Equity and the Writers’ Guild armed with proof of Fenn Street’s popularity, they got in touch with the TV company, an independent arbitrator was appointed, and much later cheques arrived in the post for both actors and writers involved in the Fenn Street series.

    But they will try it on, those naughty TV executives.

Oxymoron Spotting

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Oxymoron as a noun (from the Greek, meaning pointedly foolish): a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.

    In other words a statement that is self-contradictory, like conspicuous by her absence, or pretty ugly. And in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare uses it throughout a speech of lover boy’s to play on the contradictions and confusions of love.

           

            Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love:

            Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

            O any thing! Of nothing first create,

            O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!

            Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

            Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

            Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

            This love feel I, that feel no love in this!

            Dost thou not laugh?

   

   You can amuse yourself next year by Oxymoron spotting, they are all around us. First of all here are some well-known ones as perfect examples.

 

Plastic glasses

Military Intelligence

Perfectly awful

Thunderous silence.

 

And it’s not just contradictory phrases you are looking for, how about an occasional lonely word like spendthrift?

 

Now here are some of mine which I spotted on my travels or just made up.

 

Gourmet hotdogs

Nobel Peace Prize

50% Extra Free

Intellectual Sun reader

Healthy Scottish diet

 

If you see or think of anymore, please send them to me on Facebook. So, good oxymoron spotting.

 

Oh, and one other thing: I have left out the most obvious seasonal one for someone who lives in England.

 

White Christmas!

 

Cinderella

          Caper

 

A spoof private eye story for Christmas - Merry Christmas

 

I was sitting in my office drinking neat Coke, gazing at the reversed lettering on the door, which read: ‘BUTTONS. PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR,’ when I felt a chill down my spine. I got up and closed the window.

   That was when he must have entered.

   ‘The boss wants to see you.’

   He was a short, swarthy-looking guy with an Italian accent.

   ‘Who are you?’ I asked him.

   ‘Name’s Dan Dini.’

   ‘And who is your boss, Mr Dini?’

   He jabbed a stubby finger at me. ‘Too many questions. You’re comin’ with me, Buttons.’

   ‘Oh no I’m not.’

   ‘Oh yes you are.’

   ‘Who says I am?’

   This time he jabbed a Colt .45 in my direction. I thought it was worse manners than the finger, but I refrained from mentioning it and grabbed my trench coat and fedora.

   Downstairs, by the main door of the building, we were met by a shifty pair of hoods. I recognized them as the notorious Broker Twins: Mugsy, the Blade, and Frank, the Bullet. They were dressed identically; double-breasted, pin-stripe suits, black shirts and white ties, and grey trilbies worn low over their eyes. It was regulation bad guy gear.

   I grinned at Mugsy. ‘How’s tricks?’

   He said, ‘You tell me, smart aleck.’

   I looked at Frank and quipped, ‘You said that without moving your lips.’

   Frank’s mouth went slack. ‘What’s he mean, Mugsy?’

   Dan Dini broke it up before it developed into a routine. ‘Button it, and let’s get Buttons up to the Palace.’

   The mode of transport was ostentatiously recognizable. A pink Rolls Royce with white-wall tyres and gold monograms on the doors. It belonged to none other than Don Canelloni – known as the Prince to his friends but nicknamed the Prince of Pasta by his enemies.

   The Brokers sat in the front of the Rolls, with Frank driving, and Dan Dini and I sat in the back. We left the city, took the mountain road and drove in silence until we reached the legendary, multi-million dollar home of Don Canelloni. It overlooked the city and was an impressive and impregnable fortress, built in Spanish style, complete with surrounding moat.

   Dan Dini leant forward, pressed a button, and a drawbridge was lowered. We drove across into a shadowy courtyard while I tried to shake off my growing fear. Before being ushered into the presence of the Prince, Mugsy insisted on frisking me.

   ‘OK. He’s clean,’ he told Dan Dini after he was through searching me.

   I said, ‘I ought to be. I showered this morning.’

   Mugsy looked baffled. ‘What’s he mean, Frank?’

   Dan Dini’s expressionless face suddenly became ugly with rage. ‘Scram!’ he screamed, so loud he almost damaged his larynx.

   The Brokers disappeared faster than hot lead. Dan Dini composed himself and whispered, ‘Don Canelloni will see you now.’

   I took off my fedora and handed it to him, saying, ‘If anyone tries to steal my hat just yell out “Buttons!” and I’ll come running. But you’ll have to yell loudly, I’m a bit short-sighted.’

   He gave me a look that would have frozen molten lava, then pushed open two enormous doors. I hardly noticed them closing quietly behind me as I stood before a long refectory table. Don Canelloni was sitting at the far end, stuffing himself with spaghetti bolognaise and guzzling Chianti. He dabbed his face with a silk napkin and looked up at with eyes as cold as a corpse.

   ‘I’ll tell you a story,’ he said. ‘So listen and listen good. Some cat they call the Baron is tryin’ to muscle in on one of my rackets. He has, he tells me, two daughters, and would I like to marry either of ‘em. But he don’t fool me none. These two so-called daughters of his I recognize as a couple of transvestites from a club on the Strip. But then I figure this Baron creep might be useful as a fall-guy, so I invite him and his daughters to one of my speakeasies. An’ whadda yah know: along comes this younger daughter of his that I ain’t ever seen before. A doll – a real doll. I am so overwhelmed that I drink champagne from her shoe.

   ‘Then, before you know it, cops is swarming all over the joint, and she disappears, leaving me holding the shoe. But before the cops arrive, I asked her what a swell dame like her was doing in a lousy dump like this speakeasy, an’ she tells me some fairy gets her there. Her Godmother. I says, if it’s a fairy it must be her Godfather. But she tells me it’s not that kind of fairy, but a real flying type of fairy. So I figure this fairy must be some hophead or pill-popper. Anyways, all I am left with is this crystal slipper. Size seven.’

   The only girl I knew with big feet was a client of mine called Cinderella. She had been to see me a couple of days ago and wanted me to trace a fat Italian whom she had met in a speakeasy and fallen in love with. Here was an opportunity to make a thousand bucks with a minimum of effort. But there was one small problem. I had fallen in love with her myself.’

   ‘Find her yourself!’ I told the Don.

   Risky, but a private eye has to get bopped on the head at least once in every story, and I found myself falling into that bottomless dark well. When I came to I found that I had been asleep for several hours and felt jaded and thirsty. I pulled open the desk drawer and reached for another bottle of Coke. There was knock on the door.

   ‘Yes?’

   A small, thin man entered, sporting a Charlie Chan moustache. He walked up to my desk and bowed from the waist.

   ‘Please, you are a detective?’

   ‘Correct. What can I do for you, Mr...er?’

   ‘Aladdin.’

   I replaced the Coke and reached for something stronger.

 

Oh Yes They Did!

 

‘Behind yer!’ Audience participation - that vital pantomime ingredient. And what hard hearts could fail to be moved by hundreds of screaming tots who are absolutely convinced  that the assistant stage manager in a white sheet really is a ghost threatening Buttons, Idle Jack or Simple Simon?

   Basically, the panto format is the same whatever the subject. But at Christmas, in hundreds of theatres all over the country, thousands of children will be thrilled and delighted by this uniquely-British theatrical phenomenon. And their parents and grandparents will have just as much fun. What better way is there to unwind after a surfeit of Christmas pud and arguments over presents?

   The panto tradition, with its roots in in the Italo-French comic ballets, began in the early-18th century when actor/manager John Rich established it at Drury Lane every Christmas from 1717 – 1760. But it was the famous 19th century English clown Grimaldi who introduced more earthy, verbal humour into his pantomimes and incorporated nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

   Pantomime owes much of its present form to a mixture of music hall, variety theatre, radio and television. In the early 50s many commercial pantos veered away from the traditional and plots were sacrificed to  serve variety artistes who insisted on doing their ‘act’, whether it was juggling, singing or playing a musical instrument. There is a showbiz story of a performer, a multi-instrumentalist, emerging as Robinson Crusoe after the shipwreck and lamenting, ‘Shipwrecked and far from home, I’ll play upon my xylophone!’ And there, miraculously washed ashore in pristine condition, is the performer’s instrument, concealed behind a cut-out rock or palm tree.

   But it was the vocalists who were mostly to blame for deviation from the plot. Comedian and radio star Issy Bonn starred as Baron Hardup in Cinderella at the London Palladium in the early fifties. During the transformation scene the Fairy Godmother asks Cinders what her first wish will be.

   ‘Oh, I should so like to go to the ball in a beautiful gown of spun silver and silk.’ A flash and Cinders is transformed into a princess.

   ‘And your second wish, my child?’

   ‘I should like a coach and six white horses to take me to the Palace.’

   Another flash and the Shetland ponies appear pulling a dazzling pumpkin-shaped coach. But it seems as if all her wishes have been granted but she still has one owing. ‘And what is your third wish, my dear?’

   ‘I should like to hear Issy Bonn singing ‘I’m In Love With Two Sweethearts’.’ Lighting change! And then the comedian launches into his popular sentimental ballad about his wife and daughter.’,

   Thankfully, in recent years, we have returned to the more traditional. Performers having battled against the crunch of popcorn or thunder of tiny feet running to the loo every few minutes have finally realised that children love nothing better than to follow a good story. And it doesn’t have to be conventional.

   Children will readily accept the surreal providing it is in the confines of a decent plot. After all, panto is a musical play inhabited by men dressed as women, girls dressed as boys and humans dressed as animals.

   Probably the most popular memories are the comedy routines – the front-cloth spots – usually performed by double-acts, with the Buttons character the willing dupe. Sometimes, though, gags can go horribly wrong.

   In the early 70s I played Buttons at the Intimate Theatre, Palmer’s Green, not far from Tottenham. I was performing the parcel gag with the Broker’s Men, which involved hurling my parcel filled with china about the stage. Knowing nothing about football, one night I happened to kick the parcel back and cried, ‘Up the Arsenal!’

   Chaos broke out. You could hear the boos of the Tottenham supporters as far away as Bow Street Police Station where I thought they might be getting ready to send a squad to quell the mob of deranged toddlers. There was nothing for it but to leave the stage, and I vowed never again would I mention football.

   Stanley Baxter actually capitalised on the pandemonium caused by opposing Rangers and Celtic fans when he appeared in a Glasgow panto. He entered in profile wearing a football supporter’s dame costume favouring Rangers. While the fans or enemies – depending which side you’re on, Jimmy – screamed and shouted, Baxter calmly turned from profile to reveal the other half of his costume was that of a Celtic supporter. The audience had been had and they brought the house down with their cheers and applause.

   So, take a generous measure of audience participation, add some glitter and spontaneity, then sir in that vital ingredient – magic! And the result is pantomime. Suitable for all ages.