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Friday, 29 August 2008

Happy Birthday, Happy New Year!

Towards the very end of 1990, I was booked to perform on what TV people like to refer to as "event television". This was in the days before event television meant twelve property show presenters competing to eat the most fresh effluent on live TV to be crowned this years "King of the Sewer". Someone somewhere had worked out that the 100th anniversary of the London Palladium coincided with the coming new years eve, so the plan was hatched to stage a big song, dance and variety spectacular from the Palladium and broadcast it live, incorporating the traditional midnight countdown into the bash. Sounds awful, doesn't it? But it was, at least, an event. They called it "Happy Birthday, Happy New Year".

They needed a bunch of jugglers to dick about on stage and generally get in the way of the dancers during a few big musical production numbers, so, essentially someone was dispatched to go to Covent Garden with a big net and bring back a few of us. They ended up with me, Polish Pete, Dave the actor, Digby, Queenie Gandini and the great Tony Anthony. I know it sounds like a list of names you'd more readily associate with a bank job, but they were all jugglers, and all instructed to be at the Palladium early the day before New Years Eve for a long day and night of rehearsals.

Rehearsing any variety show is a long boring process but when you factor in that it was over three hours long, and had to be timed perfectly for live TV (complete with commercial breaks and a countdown to midnight that HAD to be right), and that instead of normal variety schmucks, every section involved someone who was in some way famous, it was bound to be a long day.

Our stuff was fine, just a matter of "wait for this bit in the music, the go over there and juggle, then when we get to this bit, go over there and juggle". Not rocket surgery, even for a circus performer. The whole cast, of course, had to hang around getting bored all day, and since most of the cast were famous, most of our day was spent sitting around, recognising people and grading their celebrity-ness. This had both positive and negative outcomes.

I spotted Ernie Wise standing in the auditorium aimlessly watching rehearsals. I waited a while, making sure he wasn't doing anything. He wasn't. This is a legitimate comedy legend, I thought to myself. I won't get this chance twice. I took a slow breath, carefully worked out what I was going to say, and aproached. "Excuse me, Mr.Wise", I said, "I'm performing on the show as well, and I just wanted to say thank you for the enjoyment that you and your late partner gave me over the years". He looked at me for a second, his face completely blank save for the slightest hint of disdain. Then he turned his back on me and continued pretending to look at the nothing that was happening on stage. He might as well have punched me in the nuts. Had he heard me? Was he in fact needed on stage? Had a committed some major showbiz faux-pas. No. He'd heard me. He wasn't doing anything. He was blanking me and waiting for me to walk away. He was just a dick. I walked away.

All the other people were much nicer, however. When it was lunchtime they laid on huge amounts of sandwiches in the theatre bar and everyone pitched in, famous or not. That was fun. Felt like a show should. I ended up sitting on a staircase sharing a plate of cheese salad sandwiches with Suzi Quatro. One of my favourite name-drops, that.
Jim Dale walked up to me and mentioned that he'd heard we were street performers. I confirmed the rumour and he grinned widely and started telling me how great he thought we were and what a fan he was of what we do. Always nice to hear. He told us how he opened Barnum on Broadway and during rehearsals got friendly with a bunch of New York's street performers to learn a little about what it's like to be a circus-type showman/shyster, and in doing so, he'd become a fan. For the Palladium show he was doing a song about Lupino Lane called "Son of a song and dance man", an old fashioned soft shoe, waistcoat and bowler hat type number. It would climax, he hoped, with a trick with the bowler hat where he would throw it high into the air and catch it a certain way exactly as the music ended. He couldn't make the catch in rehearsals. Did I have any ideas, he asked. I mumbled a few ways to throw and catch hats, still a little overwhelmed at someone I'd heard of giving me praise. He shook all of our hands and disappeared. Firm handshake, full of energy, still slim and tap-dancing. Fuck Ernie Wise, Jim Dale's the man.

During the show all went well, even if I did drop a ball exactly as one of the TV cameras cut to a close-up. Backstage, as you can imagine, it was chaos. You know how they portray backstage in old comedy films? Full of showgirls and cowboys and romans and people in alligator suits and opera singers and clowns? In real life, during these kind of big shows, it's exactly like that. Except it's full of Tiller Girls and Russ Abbot and Bea Arthur and someone dressed as Little Titch and Max Bygraves and (shudder) Bobby Davro. The best thing you can do is keep out of the way, find somewhere quiet and watch the show on the internal TV system. I found one of the wardrobe rooms. After a while, so did Madge and Harry from Neighbours. So that's how I spent the show, sitting next to Madge and Harry watching the little TV. Occasionally either me or them would go and do a bit, then when we'd come back lavish praise would be administered and drinks would be drunk. It was like sharing a silly joke with a long-lost aunt and uncle. Fun.

Jim Dale did his bit and it was good. Sang, danced a little. Made me cry a bit, and dammit if he didn't catch the hat perfectly. Bang. Exactly on the final beat of the music. Pro.

The last part of the show we were all required to be on stage for. It was the big countdown to midnight. Russ Abbot, in his "Jimmy the Scotsman" outfit was, of course, doing the countdown because, well, y'know, Scottish. We had been told simply to hang out on stage and, when the bongs bonged, just mill around a bit and wish whoever is closest to you a happy new year, as if it's a party. All casual like. It all went off without a hitch and by the nature of randomness, the first people I ended up talking to that year were Gary Wilmot and Russ Abbot himself, who, although his mic was off and only I could hear him, stayed gloriously in character and shook my hand saying "Seeyouhappynewyearyaknowjimmy". This made me giggle.

There was a party afterwards at the beautifully-named "Cinderella bar", so we all got a glass of champagne and toasted the ridiculousness of a bunch of Covent Garden buskers having just been on national TV at the Palladium, and now drinking champagne in something called the Cinderella Bar. Absurd. Pete, me and Pete's girlfriend went out on the balcony and watched all the new years drunken fun in the West End below us. Pretty soon I left Pete and his girlfriend and went back inside to find that Digby had discovered that his stage costume was almost identical to the Cinderella bar waiters outfits, and had therefore decided to spend the night delivering canapes to only the famous and/or attractive. "Best way to meet people", he'd explain.

I was living in Wood Green at the time. That's quite a long way North of the Palladium. I walked all the way home that night.

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