In the early 90's, I worked for a few years with the Hiss & Boo Music Hall company, a touring production that recreated old time music hall for packed houses of variety fans. It was great. Every show was made up of a regular cast of seasoned performers, a big name headliner, and a speciality act. Now, in the 90's the best place to find a decent speciality act was by trawling the street performers of Covent Garden, which is where I was at the time, and so - thanks for a recommendation from a certain Boxman, and a lucky try out show, I was in.
Immediately, this was a different world from the festivals and street shows I was used to. It was more grown up, and more exciting to a wet-behind-the-ears kid like me. The host of the show - the "Mr. Chairman" - was also the brains behind the enterprise, the marvellous Ian Liston. Ian was an old school impresario – he knew where the good restaurants in every city were – especially the ones that stayed open late enough to have dinner after the show. He knew the good wine to order, and had an endless cavalcade of anecdotes that made the social side of touring – which for a cripplingly shy newbie like me could be terrifying – a pleasure and an adventure. He was brilliant on stage too - with a bombastic roar of a laugh, and charisma enough to wrangle any show to a place of riotous fun.
It was my first time working in a lot of nice big old fashioned British theatres, and what an education it was. I learned stagecraft as I was doing it, and slowly that knowledge took over from the loudmouthed busker confidence that had got me this far. I truly loved every show.
As I mentioned, this was the early early 90's, just as the old guard of light entertainment were starting to, well, stop, or at least fall out of favour with younger consumers. And I knew even then how lucky I was to be able to work with some of the amazing headliners that we had topping the bills. I made damn sure that the memories I got handed stayed fresh in my mind and kept somewhere safe. So here are a few..
Leslie Crowther – Tall, classy, with a shock of jet black hair and a beautiful tuxedo. Slick and funny on stage, and finished every act by sitting down at the grand piano to play Moonlight Sonata. Nice. But anarchic too, for all the style and class, he had really funny bones. Once we went out to get fish & chips together, he got recognised in the chip shop and talked to everyone that wanted to meet him, cracking a joke for every person there. I stood next to him, holding the bags of chips, agog at how effortlessly charming and fun he was being.
Ray Allan & Lord Charles – Pretty much universally recognised as the best ventriloquist in the world, Ray was also very, very funny - a brilliant scripted act, honed over a lifetime. Once after chatting to myself and Peter John (more of whom later) in our dressing room, he casually left Lord Charles laying on his side, staring at us, unblinking, on the table while he went to his car to fetch something. On returning, he picked it back up and smiled, "Creepy enough for you?"
Danny La Rue – Shared a bill with him at a theatre in York for three nights – literally the only interaction I had with him was when he pushed past me in the hallway backstage and muttered “Excuse me...honestly...I was in frocks when you were in nappies!” - which I knew at the time, and still know, is great.
Ruth Madoc – Once, on one of those bizarre gigs that deserves it's own blog post one day, we took the Hiss & Boo Music Hall Show to a hotel theatre in Amman, Jordan. On one of our days off, myself, Ruth and a couple of other cast members went for a walk around the bustling markets. A man in long flowing white robes, on seeing Ruth, jumped out of his shop doorway and pointed at her. “Hi-De-Hi”, he yelled, with a grin. And without missing a beat, Ruth replied “Ho-De-Ho, camper”.
Barbara Windsor – In the days between Carry On, and Eastenders, Barbara was a regular headliner, and great, too. She had in her, I think, the spirit of music hall – saucy, heartfelt, and with a gorgeously rough edge. I used to suffer from epilepsy, and once, at Rhyl Suncentre, in the afternoon before a show, I had a small seizure. She took me into her dressing room, got me a glass of water, laid me down on her couch and sat on the floor next to me, gently holding my hand until I felt better. I'll never forget that.
A quick note about the poster image at the top of the page. Bit of a rarity, this, in that the show never happened. I was so excited about being given the chance to work with the great Roy Castle - fellow tap dancer, and showman, but tragically by the time the date rolled around, Roy had got ill, and the show was cancelled.
I took a lot away from my time touring with Ian and the Hiss & Boo gang – everything from dodgy and sexually alarming landladies to the choreography to “Down at the old bull and bush”, which, of course, twenty years on, I still know. There were many more headliners that I had the pleasure of supporting - the beautifully batty Dora Bryan, the brilliant Roy Hudd.. and I'll never forget watching from backstage as James Casey, the son of legendary music hall comedian Jimmy James, performed the "Animals in the box" routine with Eli Woods. One of the funniest sketches ever created. I remember watching in on TV with my dad as a kid, and seeing him literally cry with laughter, and here I was, watching it live, in a show I was a part of.
But the most precious thing was getting to know Peter John.
|Peter performing at one of my London Varieties shows in 2012|
Peter John is one of the funniest performers I have ever seen, let alone worked with. An actor at the National Theatre in the 60's, a light entertainment stalwart in the 70's, he's an encyclopedia of shtick and bits of business, and as a teacher of funny, I couldn't have had better.
Every single show I did with him, I'd stand in the wings and watch him. Part fan, part student. I knew he was as good as it got, and I knew I wanted to be better than I was. His acts are indelibly etched into the happy part of my brain – the past-it fairy, the crouch end over 80's nude gymnastic team, “My baby has gone down the plughole”..I'm giggling to myself as I type.
Peter was also the best person to share a dressing room with. To any other cast member who might visit, he'd politely inquire if they'd like to see his bottom. He always knew where to get the cheapest and best cooked breakfast in any town in the UK. And he'd gently let me know when I was being too much of a stupid young street performer, and not enough of a professional theatrical turn.
Peter is still working, and he is well worth seeking out. I did a show with him earlier in the year, and wore, as is my way, a nice suit. My pocket square was in a neat rectangle, rat-pack style. On seeing this, he immediately took it, shook it out, and put it back. “Handkerchiefs should look like handkerchiefs, Mr. Ricardo”, he said, smiling, “Not like a letter waiting to be posted”
Me and my wife watched him in a music hall show last year and she commented how when I'm on stage, even now, the rhythm of my patter and the way I stand is similar to his. I was totally unaware of that until she brought it up, but so glad that I was carrying a little bit of him with me.