It's been a bit of hard couple of weeks for fans of comedy, variety and pro-wrestling like me. We lost a lot of good ones. Paul Daniels sadly passed away (Something I wrote about for Chortle), as did the great Ronnie Corbett. British wrestler Kris Travis also left us, and all three were celebrated greatly by those who loved their work, and mourned by the same people who would have liked to have seen more of it.
And then, last night, as I checked my phone after coming off stage, I was told that Michael Pearse had joined them.
When I was in my teens, before I started performing professionally, I used to go to the Columbo Street sports centre in South London every Sunday afternoon. For a few hours every week, for years, there was a juggling workshop held there. The sports hall was crammed with pros, hobbyists and the curious, all trading tricks, stealing tricks, and eating crisps. When you're young and lonely, as I was, and have a crazy idea for a job, as I did, places like this are important. They show that there are others with the same crazy idea, and a few that are actually living that dream. They fill you with inspiration, ideas, fantasies and the knowledge of how good you'll have to be to compete in the industry you're dreaming of being a part of.
The people I met there became my peers, my influences, and in a couple of cases, some of my best friends, and none were more influential than the late Michael Pearse.
I was in the corner of one of the halls mucking around with my dirty yellow diablo when he bounded up to me, clutching his. “Show me yer tricks, will yer?”, he panted, as he untangled his strings, “Then we'll both know more tricks!”, and he grinned wildly. Can't fault that logic. For months, years afterwards, he'd always ask me to show him a new trick, and he'd always show me some of his in return, and in a hall full of sportswear-clad young men trying to see how many whatevers they could keep in the air, Pearse was different. His tricks were more creative, more interesting. He used household objects, sports equipment, props he'd made himself. I'd look around the hall and see pretty much the same trick being done over and over, and then I'd look at Pearse, and see a crazy, dapper old Irishman with a glint in his eye, showing me something I'd never seen before.
I immediately knew what kind of performer I wanted to be. I wanted to be Pearse.
(Oh, and you'll notice I'm calling him by his last name. That's how I knew him first. His name was Michael Pearse, but I knew him as Pearse Halfpenny, so that's how I'll always think of him)
I had the pleasure of booking him for one of my London Varieties shows, and of course, he brought the house down. I also took the opportunity to chat a little to him about his life. He caught the bug when he was 12, when, back in his native Ireland, he saw a juggler in a circus. All his skills were self-taught, and he worked off and on throughout his life. By the 80's he was working as a building site foreman in London, and in his lunchbreaks he'd go around the corner, to Covent Garden piazza, where he saw lots of young jugglers doing street shows. Pretty soon he was bringing in some of his props and showing the youngsters a thing or two under the church portico.
Seemingly he worked more and more as he got older, indeed, when Pearse was 65, Ken Dodd presented him with an award for “Best comedy newcomer”, which is as perfect as it is ridiculous.
He was working right to the end, and had dates in his diary for the future, too. Which is a fact that will make every performer reading this nod their head contentedly. That's how you want to do it.
He was fiercely original, always well-dressed, charming, witty, immensely skilled, and with a streak of beautiful craziness running through him that made anyone who met him never forget the event. I will miss him.
You can watch his act, as part of my London Varieties show, here. His bit starts at about 34 minutes.