DAVID BARRY Actor/Writer
The Boys in The Band 13/09/19
In 1975 I played Michael in Boys in The Band at Cardiff New Theatre, and became a great friend of Peter Childs, who played Hank in the production. Peter would go on to give a great performance as DS Rycott in Minder. Following our two week run in Cardiff, the production was scheduled 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.
Drinking with Charles Hawtrey 06/09/19
I had been in two series of Please, Sir! when I was offered a part in Don’t Tell the Wife, a farcical comedy starring Jack Douglas. Although Jack was very professional and quite funny, we never really hit it off. During rehearsals, he would ask me to put in lines about various brands of whisky or beer and was quite cagey about explaining the reasons for this when I asked him. Then it transpired, during the run at Torquay Pavilion Theatre, all kinds of freebie booze would be delivered to his dressing room, none of which he ever shared.
After more than six years of a Labour government, a general election was imminent. Jack Douglas was a fervent Tory and he made a curtain speech after the show extolling the virtues of Edward Heath and the Conservatives. Being a Labour supporter, I objected to having to stand on stage during the curtain call while he made a political speech supporting the Tories. Joan Mann, an actress who came from the South Wales valleys, also objected to his political curtain speeches, and we both went to his dressing room and suggested we might stand down from the curtain call if he continued to make a political speech. We pointed out that whatever a person’s political persuasion was, putting a political message across following a show was just not on. It didn’t go down well with Jack.
Another time, he was invited to a police event, a buffet and cabaret, and as my character from Please, Sir! was popular, I was invited as well. But when my wife Zélie and I watched a comedian, and heard racist jokes along the lines of, ‘There was this Paki running a bed and breakfast, and he answers the door to a guest while carrying a pitchfork, saying he was just about to make up the beds’, we decided it was time to leave. The police thought this sort of material was hilarious.
Our walking out of this event early didn’t go unnoticed by Jack, who clearly liked to keep in with people he thought mattered, and it was probably another bad mark against me. Which worked to my advantage because LWT got in touch with my agent about a third series of Please, Sir! Because Jack’s brother was one of the producers of the Torquay show, and from what Jack had probably told him about me, they were glad to see the back of me and agreed to let me go before the season ended. Max Bygraves’s son Anthony happened to live in Torquay, and he took over my part.
Several years later, Anita Graham and my wife Zélie were appearing in another comedy in Torquay with Kenneth Connor, Bernard Bresslaw and Charles Hawtrey. During my stint in the Jack Douglas play, Zélie and I had found a small out-of-the-way pub which became our bolthole, knowing that no other members of the Don’t Tell Your Wife company drank there. When I went down to see Zélie’s play, we went to our secret pub one night; we had been there only a few minutes when who walked in but Charles Hawtrey, looking exactly like he does in the Carry On films. From behind his glasses he looked like a cheeky schoolboy feigning innocence. Hanging from his shoulder was a little blue toggle bag which added to the cute effect. There was something rather sweet about him, almost like a puppy dog wanting to be patted.
‘Ooh, hello, Zélie,’ he said to my wife. Then, ‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your nice young man?’
When I went to buy the actor a drink, he wouldn’t hear of it. ‘No, you must let me get them,’ he insisted, oozing sweetness and light. The landlord and his wife, having recognised Hawtrey, were clearly too embarrassed to ask him for money – a round for which he had conveniently forgotten to pay.
At first, I was fooled by this, as were the publicans, but when I made a move to get the next round, he repeated the ploy, insisting that he wanted to get the drinks. By now it was becoming awkward because the landlord and his wife clearly didn’t know how to handle the situation. Hawtrey insisted on getting every single round and didn’t once put his hand in his pocket. I felt sorry for the publicans, and I suspected Hawtrey knew damn well what he was doing.
After closing time, he insisted we accompanied him to a club, where he did the same thing, probably knowing he could get away with it by pretending to forget, and confident that people were uneasy about demanding payment from a celebrity.
But at least I could say I had met and drank the night away with Charles Hawtrey. And the drinks were free!
Theatre Royal Windsor Memoir 30/08/19
The dress rehearsal on opening night of Funny Money at Theatre Royal, Windsor is shambolic, with Rodney Bewes shutting the door on the set when it should be left open and vice versa. Also, he seems to be taking a prompt for every other line. Panic starts to grip.
Sweating in the wings, prior to the performance, Gareth Hunt tells me he’s never been so nervous. And I’m just as bad. It’s the insecurity of not being able to rely on Rodney, playing the character who should be driving the play along. But suddenly we are on, and it’s like hitting a crash barrier doing a ton. The audience appear not to notice the many cock-ups and laugh uproariously at everything. But the second act is abysmal, like walking up sand dunes in wellington boots. Rodney has really lost it, and Trevor Bannister is doing his nut in the wings. Every time Rodney inadvertently shuts the door when it should be left open, Trevor hisses: ‘Leave the fucking door, stupid cunt.'
In the dressing room after the show, Mark Piper, the artistic director of the theatre, comes into the dressing room I share with Ron Aldridge, the director of the play, and I sense an atmosphere. I decide to head quickly for the bar, but not before I hear Ron telling Mark Piper, ‘We all make mistakes. I can accept that. But he’s done a bottle of port in the interval, and that’s something I find unforgivable.’
In the Stalls Bar, I sit beside Trevor, who runs Rodney down. And when Rodney appears, sheepish and quiet, clutching a glass of Coke, Trevor mutters, ‘The cunt has the cheek to drink Coke. He’s not fooling anybody.’
Ron calls a line rehearsal for tomorrow, which is Press Night. Bill Kenwright wants Rodney to go on for tomorrow – probably because he is very popular and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads is currently being repeated on BBC television. But unless Rodney improves following Press Night, Ron wants him out.
None of this is done behind Rodney’s back. He knows what the score is. He’s got to get it together or they might find someone to replace him.
The next day, Press Night, we start the line run at 5 p.m. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Rodney’s much better and has obviously spent the day working on the script. The performance, although still rocky in places, is a vast improvement on last night.
Sitting in the dressing room in the interval, I stare at my black cat mascot that my mother and father gave me at Windsor 43 years ago and try to remember what Life with Father, an American play was like. I played the youngest of three brothers and wore a cute little sailor suit in one scene. Playing one of the maids, was Irish actress Doreen Keogh, who would later feature in many TV comedies, including Father Ted and as Mary Carroll in The Royle Family. Mother was played by Noel Dyson, who became Ida Barlow in Coronation Street. Heather Sears played Mary Skinner, and shortly after her Windsor stint, she signed a contract with Romulus Films, earning a British Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in The Story of Esther Costello with Joan Crawford. She was only 21 at the time. But the film of hers which I remember most strongly was as the social-climbing Joe Lampton’s hapless fiancée in Room at the Top with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret.
Why are the worst memories sometimes the strongest? All I really remember of my first professional appearance at Windsor is someone’s devious attempt to murder me. During the performance one night, having to eat a bowl of porridge, I was about to shovel a spoonful into my mouth when I noticed something glinting in the bowl, catching the light. It was a pin. I tried to appear unruffled, but my cereal was full of pins, concealed just beneath the surface. It had to be deliberate. But why? Are cute-looking child actors in sailor suits so puke-making as to provoke someone to attempt infanticide? Maybe it was a test to see how I would cope. I did my best to eat heartily while I avoided swallowing the killer pins. And if it was a test, I think I may have passed, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
I never mentioned the pins to anyone. I ate cautiously for the remainder of the run, but the pins didn’t appear again. It was very strange.
Pepsi Taste Test 23/08/19
Singer Joe Brown made a series of television commercials, asking the general public to do a blind tasting of Coke and Pepsi, and four out of five people chose Pepsi. I was interviewed by producer Bob Clark, at his company Visage which ran conferences. He loved my Frankie Abbott character and wanted me for a very well paid series of conferences for Pepsi Cola. The character I was to play was a newspaper reporter, and he wanted it played realistically, telling me the conferences were to motivate their sales-people, who he said would not be convinced if the performance was exaggerated in any way. In other words, although he liked ‘Frankie’, this was to be performed differently from that character. Prior to the conferences, I was taken to Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre where Joe Brown was conducting the Pepsi Taste Test, and they then filmed me taking the taste test as the reporter character, which they planned on showing at the conferences. But my test had to be done in one take, as they worried I might select the Coke in front of the public. So they told Joe Brown to tip me the wink and secretly indicate which was the Pepsi.
The first conference was in Glasgow, and on the flight I sat next to Bob Clark. I asked him what would happen if I went to Coca Cola and said I and Joe Brown had fiddled the taste test on camera. He said Coke would probably pay me handsomely for the info, but as Pepsi was a vast corporation, and losing one point share of the market could run into billions of pounds, he advised me – if I was thinking of doing it – to look over my shoulder if I walked down any dark alleys at night.
(If anyone at Pepsi Cola reads this now, that fiddle happened thirty-five years ago, and there’s been a lot of Cola under the bridge since then.)
During a rehearsal in the conference, after I made my reporter’s findings about Pepsi, a man came up to me, took me aside and told me to ham up my performance. ‘You can’t be subtle,’ he said. ‘This sales force need it to be spelled out. It’s a village hall ethos.’
Thinking this was the client, Mr Big from Pepsi, I had a word with Bob Clark. He asked me to point the bloke out. When I did, he went over, and I saw some sort of heated argument going on. When he came back, Bob said to me, ‘Play the scene exactly as you were playing it. That bloke is less important than this table I’m sitting at. If he comes over and tries to say anything to you again, just tell him to fuck off.’
I never saw him again.
Commercial Break 16/08/19
In the mid-1970s, I was engaged to do a voice over with Barry Evans, who had been in Doctor in the House and Mind Your Language. It was an animated commercial for the cinema, advertising National Westminster Bank. I was told it was only a pilot, and might not be used, therefore the fee was only £15 for the hour, and if they decided to use it then the fee would be an additional £60.
Weeks went by and I heard nothing about whether they would use the pilot voice-over, so I gave the production company a quick ring and was told they hadn’t used it. That seemed to be that. I thought no more about it. Until I went to the pictures and saw a National Westminster Bank animation. Hang on, I thought, I recognize those voices.
The voices belonged to Barry Evans and me. The fiddling bastards at the production company claimed they hadn’t used it. Right away I got in touch with Equity. Waste of time that was. Equity claimed it’s difficult to prove it’s your voice on audio. Thanks, Equity.
So I invested in a solicitor’s letter, which came to about the same amount as my pilot fee. But it was worth it because a cheque for £60 dropped through my letter box within days.
At least I was paid above board with repeats for a thirty second Midlands beer commercial I appeared in, about three blokes heading for the pub, speeded up at 16 frames a second, with a racing commentary over it. Outside the pub we encounter someone reading Sporting Life. The man lowers the paper and we see that it’s Lester Piggott. Whereas we three filmed all day, Piggott got out of the car they provided for him, stood on his spot, and they filmed it quickly. Then, back in the car, and he was whisked away. His entire performance lasted less than forty-five minutes.
The ad agency account executive told us afterwards that Piggott insisted on £5,000 cash for his appearance. It was a huge amount for a back pocket job. It came as no surprise when I read years later that he got a custodial sentence for tax fraud.
Years later, somewhere in the 1980s, I managed to kill off a brand of beer in a can. It was Watneys Stag Bitter, and because it was a bitter, rather than a light ale, it was flat rather than fizzy.
I was cast with Al Ashton, an actor and writer who wrote a television drama about football hooliganism, The Firm. We were playing a couple of characters in a stag club (Stag Bitter, geddit?), where the stripper hasn’t turned up and the audience becomes rowdy. The MC
walks on to the stage with a large cardboard box, and my line was, ‘Must be a midget stripper!’
I kid you not. You wouldn’t get away with that line now. But that wasn’t what killed off the beer.
The MC took two cans of bitter out of the box, shook them vigorously, and threw them to Al and me. Fearing the fizz and spray, we held the cans at arm’s length to pull the rings. But they opened perfectly, because bitter is not gassy.
When the commercial was shown on television, one of the regulars in my local pub, who saw the advert asked what was wrong with the beer, because you expect beer in a can to fizz.
R.I.P Watneys Stag Bitter.
It reminded me of that old joke. Why is making love in a punt like drinking Watneys beer? Because it’s fucking close to water.
Musical Mayhem 09/08/19
When you search the London Theatre Guide there is no getting away from the fact that it is musicals that dominate. In the past the musical was mostly an American import, where it was first developed, although with Lionel Bart’s breakthrough Oliver! and then Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s great contribution to the homegrown musical, it became predominantly British in the latter part of the 20 century.
But with most musicals it was the singing and dancing which took precedence over plot. Although Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma had memorable songs and good dance numbers, I always thought the background setting of the range wars between cattlemen and farmers, was clumsy. Especially as the range wars, a bloody period in America’s history, with murders, arson, hangings and mass slaughter of sheep, was summed up with a jolly little ditty called ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends’. Perhaps it was intended as irony.
For me one of the all-time great musicals was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which opened in London in 1958. I played a non-speaking role for Granada Television, and was staying in digs in Manchester with my chaperone, where West Side Story was being previewed prior to its London opening. Several of the pit musicians also stayed at the same digs, and I asked one of them what the show was like. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s a sort of jazz/ballet. I don’t think it’ll run.’
When it opened in London, I paid six shillings to see it, standing at the back of the stalls, and I was knocked out by the sheer energetic force of it. It has become one of the most successful musicals of all time.
If ever composers needed inspiration for musicals or operas, Shakespeare was the go-to playwright, having given us The Boys from Syracuse, based on A Comedy of Errors, Kiss Me Kate from The Taming of The Shrew, Return to The Forbidden Planet taken from a sci-film film based on The Tempest, and the more recent The Lion King from Hamlet.
My own preferences when it comes to musicals has always been for ones with strong plots like Cabaret, Blood Brothers or Miss Saigon.
And I once turned to this hybrid art form to see if I could add to the genre. Dave Watts, a musical director I had worked with in panto, tried to write a musical with his lyricist, Andrew Birtles. Having read a book about the Great Train Robbery of 1963, I came up with the idea of writing a musical about one of the villains hiding out in Spain twenty years after the event, when there was still no extradition treaty with the UK. As a musical, along the lines of Minder, it appealed to Dave and Andrew, and songs were written and recorded.
The package, script and cassette of songs were submitted to the Half Moon Theatre, and artistic director Chris Bond, commissioned it, which I named El Sid. But he didn’t mention anything about rewriting it is a violent and dark musical play. He said something about not wanting it to be jolly criminals as in Guys and Dolls, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Whenever we gave him a fresh draft of the script, he demanded that it became darker and darker. At a session when we discussed the casting of the lead villain, I mentioned being able to contact Ray Brooks. Then, having read the script, Ray Brooks rang me and said it was much too dark, and he would sooner do a musical along the lines of Minder. I agreed, but it was Chris Bond who wanted it changed it into a film noir type of thriller, which I didn’t think would work as a musical. Can you imagine a Scandinavian thriller like The Bridge as a musical? Exactly.
I got a call from Dave and Andrew’s agent asking me to meet in a London pub. This triumvirate sat opposite me like magistrates and told me they wanted me out of the project and Chris Bond would take over the writing of the book. It was a fait accompli. Nothing I could do about it. When I told my literary agent, he said he couldn’t heal a rift, all he could do was make certain I got everything due to me as written in the contract. But having been paid the initial fee for the commission, there was nothing else to come from the production, because it got terrible reviews from most of the national newspapers and it flopped at the box office. Chris Bond said he couldn’t understand why it flopped. He also said he didn’t want a musical like Guys and Dolls. Presumably that was too successful for his taste.
But what of the future for musicals, I wonder? In plays the spoken word can communicate ideas, which makes it more appealing to the intellect. But music can have a powerful effect on our emotions, which may explain the popularity of musicals.
Cambridge Dictionary definition. Mashup. Noun. A musical track comprising the vocals of one recording placed over the instrumental backing of another.
And it struck me that one could also have a literary mashup, combining words, phrases, incomplete quotations and dialogue from different novels, poems, and all kinds of literary works. What would be the point of this, I hear you asking? I wondered that myself. And then I thought, school’s out, the summer is here, it’s holiday time, so why not relax and have a bit of fun?
So, here we go with possibly the first Literary Mashup.
As I walked along the bible black bible belt on the road to nowhere in the country of the blind, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I heard the clocks striking thirteen, and Mr Lewisham’s career to greatness, a charming introduction to a hermit’s life.
‘Because Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday,’ Bingo said as Jeeves cleared away everything the well-dressed detective ought to be as I was calling on a million skeletons. ‘I give the name violence to a boldness lying idle and sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three,’ retorted Jeeves. ‘A charnel house!’
General Miles with his gaudy uniform is a poem, a stink, a fabulous noise. ‘Look at it!’ said William gazing at the toy, and all this happened more or less as he sipped at a weak hock and seltzer. ‘It’s the journey not the arrival that matters,’ Alice said.
‘Off with her head!’ screamed Mr Tench, clutching his ether handbag.
‘A handbag?’ I cried falsetto, as the spirits melted into thin ice-nine, telling me it was the best of times and the worst of the grey country of Oklahoma, when the best minds of my generation destroyed by Home & Colonial, Star and the days of Uther Pendragon, rested heavily on my solid flesh. The past is a foreign car, they drive them differently there.
‘Only dull people are brilliant at golf,’ the general chimed, as the revels ended with a bang and a distemper. ‘And I love the smell of napalm in the ladies room.’
Mr Tench woke up and found himself transformed into a monstrous prime minister. He, having produced no male heir to his kingdom, to keep a diary in order to trail with daisies and barley.
‘All happy families are alike,’ I said. ‘Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
‘That was a complete quotation,’ objected the Literary Mashup Master. ‘You lose.’
By the mid-fifties commercial theatre had become monotonous, giving audiences star-studded casts in well-made plays in box sets. The choice was limited, and the excitement had dwindled as theatre became a social occasion rather than an artistic experience. It was time for a radical change.
In the early days of alternative theatre, performances were usually held in an attic or musty basement. The attitude seemed to be that if you were the sort of weirdo who craved avant garde theatre then you had to suffer discomfort in the cause of art. It was a period of adjustment as well as one of experiment. People began to re-evaluate the role of theatre in society. Suddenly plays began to stimulate audiences’ imaginations again, and the theatre entered another golden period, producing plays by Pinter, Becket, Osborne, Wesker – and many others too numerous to mention – many of whom startled theatre audiences by challenging convention, but who finally became accepted as part of our theatrical heritage. Many new plays were premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, under the initiative of George Devine, and their current policy is to promote new writing.
The Edinburgh Festival played an enormous part in establishing alternative theatre and provided us with the word Fringe to denote this optional extra to commercial theatre. Gradually the fringe has become accepted and respectable over the years and has changed the course of theatre. The term small or small-scale when applied to a production no longer meant inferior, because fringe theatre had become so popular by the late-sixties/early-seventies, new theatres and arts complexes started to incorporate small studio theatres in their designs, and many existing repertory theatres began to look for extra space in which to accommodate a studio theatre. And in recent years many so-called fringe productions have actually transferred to West End theatres or undergone national tours.
As an actor for almost sixty years, having started in professional theatre as a child actor, not only had I never worked the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I hadn’t even been to visit the city during that time. Not until 2016, when Stuart and Jen Morriss of Misty Moon produced A Day in The Lives of Frankie Abbott, which I wrote and appeared in, first of all touring small venues in the south east, playing opposite Linda Regan, and then for two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Anita Graham (where we received a 5-star review in the Edinburgh Evening News), before returning for two London dates with Marie Kelly playing Abbott’s carer.
Although taking the play to Edinburgh was hard work, it was rewarding, and at least I can say that I have worked at the Edinburgh Festival and can now cross it off my bucket list!
Thinking of appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2020, then get the Survival Guide
Salesman or Hit-man?
If you fancy writing the next hit-man movie, you can always pick up the lingo by getting a job as a sales rep. Even salespersons insinuate themselves into this quasi-twilight world of the macho male hunter, using aggressive terminology as a motivational stimulus in this predominantly male arena.
Before going out into the field, the rep does some probing by first of all sifting through trade journals in search of some likely suspects. Once the telephone canvassing has produced a few good leads, these suspects become monthly targets, which may add a few more notches to the rep’s monthly score if he succeeds in making a hit.
But first the salesperson has to get a foot in the door and get an appointment to see the M.A.N. (even when a female) who is the potential customer with the Means (power to sign an agreement or write out a cheque), Authority (the decision-maker)and Needs (require the product on offer). During the meeting the rep will either kick off with an open probe (question with ponderables) or closed probe, to which the buyer can respond with only one or two replies – a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. If the rep does badly, the sale becomes wrecked. But an experienced rep should have a thick hide under the collar, and pretty soon a good agent is ‘out there’ selling again.
Less than subtle, and blatantly atavistic, IBM salesmen used to have their own expression for disposing of a wrecked deal. Potash. Meaning Piss on the ashes!
Many reps work hard, and some work smart; but the really successful rep works hard and smart, the main motivation is having a goal to aim for, to beat your opponent, get a result and bring home the meat. A cancelled appointment means that the rep is blown-out and may resort to cold-calling (calling without an appointment), which is sometimes known as prospecting. Some reps have their own secret language, useful for passing messages in front of prospective clients. This is known as flagging. An easy target (gullible customer) could get stitched-up by a disreputable salesperson, if they don’t keep their eye on the small print!
But, honest or not, they are all out there to make a killing. Perhaps leading one to surmise that among all this verbal mayhem the ‘out there' has to be a battleground. Not necessarily. Although many reps have their own territory, generally speaking they all work in the less glamorous market-place. Despite the tendency to sound like cut-purses when they go for the rich pickings.
So, as reps arm themselves with samples and mobile phones, heading towards their cars, their cries can be heard in offices throughout the land: ‘Good hunting!’
Although, the real hit-men and the likes of Tony Soprano, use gentler euphemisms when ordering murder, telling their subordinates to ‘whack’ a victim, making the most brutal and savage killing sound like a slap on the wrist.
One of the best books about writing screenplays and novels is Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey. Check it out on
Creating Interesting Characters
Imagine you have written a script in which there is a scene with two leading actors and one very small cameo role. The actor with just one or two lines of dialogue as a taxi driver (say) is there to serve the interests of the leading characters, the two passengers in the back seat.
How much more interesting for the actor with only one or two lines if you write a line of dialogue that gives him something a bit more challenging. Perhaps the driver sees himself as a real cool cat, and on being given the address of a certain nightclub and, about to drive off, if instead of a mere “Yes, sir”, you write a line of dialogue which suggests the type of person he is. He might say something like: “I move – you groove.”
It might be corny, but this may then elicit a raised eyebrow or a smile of amusement from the two characters in the back of the cab, bringing a little extra something to the scene. Interesting for the actors and the audience or readers.
Why not write thorough biographies for all the characters before involving them in a plot? I’ve found that writing CVs for all my characters, whether it be in film, television or books, pays dividends and produces fresh ideas.
You’d be surprised at how many back-stories or subplots can arise from this type of exploration. Providing characters with a thorough background and history may lead to a plot heading in another direction, one which could really spice up the narrative.
Sometimes it’s the quirks and foibles, or the details in people’s lives, that make them interesting, helping to engage the reader. A character can be interesting in so many ways, without being too obvious, especially if they are borderline in some way. For instance, a person may not suffer from Obsessive Compulsion Disorder but could have difficulty sleeping if things in a room are not put into a certain order. Any subtle hints at the way a person might suffer from a particular weakness can make them all too human and identifiable.
What determines a character’s behaviour? Was it some parental influence, even though the parent may not appear in the story or be referred to in any way? Everyone’s life has been influenced or modelled by other people in some way, even if those people are not present in the story.
For instance, if an author or scriptwriter is creating a heist thriller, all the action taking place over twelve hours, the characters in the scenario still need to have a life outside of what is happening on the page or in a scene. And only the writer may need to know about that life. But how much more interesting that writer’s creation will be if he/she knows all there is to know about the characters.
Even minor characters should have an interesting background.
If you are in London, and somewhere in the Euston area, visit the Wellcome Collection, who are giving a free exhibition called “Smoke and Mirrors, the Psychology of Magic,” divided into three areas, Mediums, Misdirection and Mentalism. The exhibits are fascinating, some revealing the dishonesty of many Victorian psychics, and a history of how casualties of war and disease in the late 19 and early 20 centuries began showing an interest in spiritualism, believing that the dead can communicate with the living. Some of these psychics were exposed as frauds, often by magicians like Houdini, able to perform mind-blowing tricks. A magician’s deception is an honest one, and the psychology behind what we think we see is a revealing journey into our minds. If all of this sounds serious, let me assure you that you will see a large screen video of Tommy Cooper performing the egg in a bag trick, showing how his non-stop patter and failed trick might be just another type of misdirection.
It’s one of the best museum exhibitions I have seen in years, but then I have always been a sucker for magic tricks. About four years ago I saw Derren Brown at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells. At the start of the second half, he did a mind reading act, and when he revealed details about a woman sitting in the row in front of me, she began yelling excitedly that he was so accurate he had to be psychic. ‘How could he have possibly known that?’ she asked her partner.
But Derren Brown is honest about his tricks and illusions not being anything to do with superstition. He lets his audiences know these are tricks, despite concealing the truth of how they are done. Although, if I could hazard a guess on how he deceived the woman in front of me, might he have sent an assistant into the bar in the interval to eavesdrop on conversations?
And, although Derren Brown insists he is not a psychic, still there were people leaving the theatre that night who were convinced he had psychic powers. I guess it’s because people want to believe, even though science can demolish most beliefs that are taken on trust.
The way most magicians operate is through misdirection, drawing the observer’s attention to something else. As an actor I can appreciate that, getting audiences to focus on what we want them to see even when another actor is speaking. This type of misdirection can either be a positive focus or a negative one.
First, let me give you a negative example of misdirection. I was in a play called Forget-Me-Not Lane by Peter Nichols, and I had a line that was a sure-fire laugh but was greeted with silence. Behind me stood Dave King, who made a sudden move during my delivery of the line, so that the audience’s attention was distracted. Upstaging someone is a form of negative misdirection.
Now for the positive. I was performing, alongside Bob Grant, in Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton’s brilliantly constructed farce, One For The Pot. I played Hickory Wood, a trio of triplets using various dialects. I needed two assistant stage managers who would double for me as I ran backstage to make another entrance. There was one exit I had to make which involved stepping back to exit through French windows, being replaced by my double who entered and threw his arms around the actress playing one of the triplets’ girlfriend. I always felt insecure. Surely someone in the audience would notice this switch? But the misdirection worked like a dream. As the switch was about to happen, Ivor Salter, playing Jugg the drunken butler, crashed through the door on the opposite side of the stage, collapsing in a heap, and in that split second the switch was made. Some members of the audience saw the play a second time and still they couldn’t work out how it was done. Cooney and Hilton successfully used conjurors’ tricks in that farce.
The magic exhibition runs until 15 September at the Wellcome Collection.
SOHO: IS IT A LONDON VILLAGE?
On BBC Radio 4 recently, I listened to Suggs – Love Letters to London,presented and written by Madness’s talented vocalist, 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.
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 20 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 to see that 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.
Why do people read crime novels? I suppose the flippant answer would be because people write them. And you could guess what question might follow on from that.
Here is my own theory for what it’s worth. I think there is only one truly moral philosophical answer as to why we shouldn’t kill another human being, one of our own species, and that is because it has been instilled in us from birth that it is wrong – Thou Shalt Not Kill. The other sins may be languishing in a grey area, depending on varying attitudes. So, knowing how wrong it is to commit murder, how enjoyable then to read or watch a film about the killing of a person who either does or doesn’t deserve to die. I guess it’s a sort of vicarious pleasure as we step into someone’s shoes and perhaps identify with a murderer now and again, not just the protagonist. Add a puzzle to the brew, get the reader guessing whodunit, and there you have a good recipe for crime fiction.
My own taste for detective fiction has changed over the years. I began with cosy crime, many Agatha Christies ago, and then discovered the hard-boiled private eyes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which have always remained my preference. And in recent years, I suppose as we learn more about forensic science, crime fiction has become ever more sophisticated, and occasionally searches for deeper meanings and truth.
One of my favourite crime writers is John Grisham, whose criminals often get their comeuppance in a fitting courtroom denouement. But one of the things I find so attractive in his writing is that his stories go beyond mere murder mysteries, and he writes about more controversial issues, for instance, about corruption in the pharmaceutical industry (The King of Torts), or racial violence (A Time to Kill), and homelessness in Washington D.C. (The Street Lawyer), or one of my favourite books of his, Gray Mountain, about open pit mining and the ecological disaster it causes when corruption is rife. And all of his books are extremely well-written, with great characters, plots, suspense and surprises.
Something for me to aspire to then. And the issue I have picked for my next book is the one that has been hidden away somewhere, one that appears to have vanished from the threat of investigation. That of child abuse in the Establishment.
In 1983, Conservative MP for Huddersfield West, Geoffrey Dickens, handed a dossier of 114 files about child abuse to Leon Brittan, the then Home Secretary, yet these serious allegations went missing. The same week that the file was handed in to Brittan, Dickens’s London flat and his constituency home were broken into and ransacked, yet nothing was stolen. And in the late sixties, a senior police officer revealed that a thick file on Cyril Smith’s repulsive practices was handed to an MI5 officer and was told it would be looked into. Nothing more was heard about it, and decades later Smith continued his abhorrent abuses of deprived children.
As far as conspiracies go, the cover-up of child abuse is dreadful, and I only hope my next book, although a fictional murder mystery, will still delve into a truth that has long been suppressed.
As writer and philosopher Albert Camus quoted, ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’
Hypocrisy in High Places.
Do politicians think we’re stupid? They must do because of the way they lie to us. Take the recent admissions of cocaine sniffing from Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom’s smoking of a marijuana joint. Both of them when interviewed, knowing they couldn’t get away with a denial, said they deeply regretted doing it. Bollocks! They’re only saying that because they’ve been outed.
I smoked a joint when I was younger, and even when I was older too, and I have absolutely no remorse or guilt about doing it. And I would go on public record and admit that. But then I’m not a politician. And have you ever, dear blog reader, had a little puff or two of a joint in perhaps your younger days? And are you absolutely so consumed with guilt that you might spontaneously combust? Of course you’re not, any more than you beat yourself up about the day you drank too many lagers and fell down a London Underground escalator.
We’ve all been there – well, perhaps not all, but many of us have – and we wouldn’t think twice about admitting it. And because the view looking back is always rosier, we might even enjoy those after-dinner anecdotes about the time we got barred from such-and-such a pub.
But not Gove and Leadsom. Would we trust them more if they said it was just something they experimented with in the past, and that was that? End of story. But no, they have to peddle the hypocritical message that it was wrong, and they regretted doing it. And did you clock those oh-so-sincere expressions on their faces as they tried to hoodwink us about their trifling misdemeanours? Don’t they realise that when they lie about something that we the general public might actually sympathise with, what they are really doing is sending us messages that they might lie about much bigger issues.
And it’s even worse in Gove’s case. A science teacher was sacked after being found with cocaine in his car when stopped by the police. Even though this drug was purely for his own use, and he had never taken it in to school, his possession was enough to lose him his job. Even a teacher’s partner using drugs could get the teacher sacked, and these rules were sanctioned by Gove when he was Minister of Education, when he started his hypocritical crusade to drive up standards in education.
So, when neither of them have made it in the leadership race, they might just think it was because they were judged about the drug-taking and miss the point completely, not the fact that their over-the-top parodic sincerity fooled no one, and that their sheer hypocrisy was transparent.
Just Plain Murder 2.
If I said there was worse to come about the previous week’s gun incident, I take it back. The pistol hurling paled into insignificance with the next episode of theatrical embarrassment – again engineered by Desmond. After Bath and Bournemouth, the Corby Civic Theatre was strictly fourth division. So, performing to a house of senior citizens during the midweek matinee, we didn’t expect there to be an Equity member in the audience, let alone someone as esteemed as a Royal Shakespeare Company player who happened to be in the area.
Prior to the matinee, in a nearby pub, fond-of-a-drop Desmond met a man with a Pyrenean Mountain Dog, an animal built like a small pony. By now, flushed after several drinks, our stage manager persuaded the dog’s owner to let him borrow it for ten minutes, then talked Ken Shaw into taking the dog on stage as his police dog.
I wasn’t in that scene and watched from the wings. Cue Ken’s entrance. The set door opened and in strolled the humongous hound, dragging behind him a bemused detective sergeant, straining to control this friendly but awe-inspiring mutt. Once over their initial shock, Ian and Malcolm had difficulty getting their lines out as they attempted to suppress their giggles, watching as Ken struggled to restrain the dog who had the strength of an ox. They managed to recover slightly, and in between snorts managed to get out some essential plot lines. Until the dog, standing chest high to Malcolm and Ian, lowered his mighty head to sniff Ian’s balls. Tears of laughter from the actors. The dog, weary of this unprofessional behaviour, turned and exited through the open door, dragging the detective after him.
As we sat in the communal male dressing room after the show, a forceful knock on the door. Then it was flung open and in walked an angry man, accompanied by his partner. Ian, caught the man’s eye in the mirror, turned and greeted him, rather sheepishly. It was an actor Ian knew from the Royal Shakespeare Company. He told us what he thought of the show in no uncertain terms.
‘It has to be the worst performance I have ever had the misfortune to sit through,’ he barked. ‘There is no excuse for that sort of behaviour. There may not have been many people in the audience, but they still paid to sit through that unprofessional behaviour.’
Ian stammered and made excuses. The actor waved them aside and ranted about our unprofessional behaviour, while his partner tutted disapproval.
Suddenly, the actor rounded on heavily made-up Roy Hepworth. ‘As for you,’ he said, ‘you’re a clown. I’ve never seen such ridiculous make-up on a policeman before.’
Once they had departed, a deathly silence fell on the dressing room, as we were humbled by the truth. But Roy, recovering from the shock of being described as a ‘clown’, snapped, ‘Who does he think he is, barging into our dressing room like that?’
Embarrassed, Ian was full of abject apologies. But when the four of us were safely ensconced in the flat we rented, as we reminisced about the day’s events we were soon in stitches again.
At Horsham Capitol Theatre, our final week of the tour, there was another episode which ranked highly in theatrical bad behaviour, and while not in gold medal standard of the dog incident, it came close second with silver. Again, Desmond featured greatly in the incident.
One night something set us off again and we began snorting with laughter, and almost controlled ourselves, had it not been for Desmond deciding to admonish us while we were still performing. His florid face appeared in the set’s fireplace. If any of the audience saw it, glowing among the embers, they must have thought the play had taken a surrealistic turn. Then the florid face spoke.
‘Come on!’ it urged. ‘Pull yourselves together, you bastards!’
That finished us completely. Our last week ended in a blaze of shameful behaviour.
Looking back on it, I think it was probably the worst time of my career. I have always prided myself on behaving professionally, but the actor bursting into our dressing room in Corby was right. We behaved disgracefully, and it was unfair on audiences who paid good money to see the play.
But faced with this dichotomy, bad behaviour versus professionalism, if I’m really honest I have to admit I’ve never had so many laughs as I did on that tour.
Just Plain Murder 1.
So far this year I have been offered four talks called Actors Behaving Badly, mainly about alcohol inducing outrageous actor behaviour. But I have to hold my hand up here and confess to my own bad behaviour, although booze had nothing to do with it when I toured in Just Plain Murder, a mediocre play written by Roy Plomley, the creator of Desert Island Discs, in 1973.
Our first venue was Bath Theatre Royal. I played one of three brothers, the others being Malcolm McFee and Ian Masters, and we three are intent on murdering our millionaire father’s girlfriend, played by Penny Spencer. When we arrived backstage for a technical rehearsal, we were horrified to discover the set had been cobbled together, one half was painted magenta, and the other was beige, looking like an inner-city slum not a southern counties mansion. We became despondent and the rehearsal went badly.
The following morning, arriving for a dress rehearsal, we found the theatre manager staring at the scenery as if in a deep coma. He eventually came out of his trance and phoned producer Bill Kenwright, who agreed to catch the first train to Bath to sort something out. But we still had to open that night in front of a ghastly set, asking the audience to suspend their disbelief and pretend they were seeing a millionaire’s mansion, not a Glasgow tenement.
Despite the terrible scenery, the audience seemed to like the play, it got quite a few laughs, and we managed to get through the show without any major disasters.
Kenwright discovered the electrician’s wife was a scenic designer, and we later found out he asked her to repaint the set. During the negotiations she explained that magenta was difficult to cover, needing maybe three coats, which would mean three all-night sessions, and quoted him eighty pounds. Kenwright asked her if she would paint half of it for forty?’
Maybe he was joking, because the entire set got repainted in a Tudor style, so that by the end of the week we had half-decent scenery. But then the rot set in. We started to muck about. Kenneth Shaw, an Australian actor, played a detective sergeant, and when he called to question us three brothers, he nonchalantly picked up and examined various props. Picking up a vase he might find a picture of a kangaroo staring back at him. He managed to keep a poker face. It was Malcolm, Ian and me who spluttered with laughter and found it difficult to continue. We were constantly corpsing over something, and it became difficult to look at Roy Hepworth, a rather camp actor playing a detective inspector, who wore too much blusher and eyeshadow. One day we made a resolution: we would get through the show without laughing. That night, as the curtain rose, I was determined not to corpse. I had the first speech in the play, talking to Ian, plotting the murder of our father’s mistress. As I was about to speak, I could see in the wings, the Aussie detective sergeant wearing a clown’s nose. I tried to concentrate, but the clown’s face got to me. Ian couldn’t see it, and wondered why I snorted with laughter, unable to speak. He told me afterwards that he couldn’t quite believe it. Not five seconds into the play and I’m corpsing.
But there was worse to come. The following week in Bournemouth, our stage manager, Desmond Hoey, who was fond of a drop, was responsible for the most ridiculous blunder. Penny is alone on stage, and the scene is set for her attempted murder. Dim lighting. Flickering firelight. Penny picks up the phone, realizing it’s a set-up, there is no one at the other end of the line. Desmond's hand slides from behind a downstage door, holding a gun, doubling for one of us brothers. Penny turns on stage, a look of terror on her face as Desmond pulls the trigger. Click! Click! Nothing happens. The gun jams. Now anyone in their right mind would have stamped their feet or made a vocal simulation of a bang. Instead, he threw the gun at her, and there is a dull thud as it lands at her feet. Then, as we wait to enter, what we hear instead of her blood-curdling scream is a muffled giggle. Realizing something has gone wrong, we rush onstage to hear Penny’s speech, which went something like this:
‘I was wanted on the phone. But there was no one on the other end of the line. And then, in the flickering shadows of the fire, I saw a hand come from behind that door. And then someone…threw a gun at me.’
After that, we found it difficult to continue.
And there was still worse to come in Just Plain Murder. Read about it in next week’s blog.
From Please Sir! to L.S. Lowry
The first scene us 5C hooligans was involved in on the Please Sir! film was the scene near the beginning where we cause mayhem on a zebra crossing. Shooting began early on the Monday morning in the district of Primrose Hill. Although this was one of the early title scenes, it didn’t mean the film was necessarily being shot in sequence. It was simply that during the first week all the London exterior scenes were shot before we went to Pinewood Studios for the interior classroom scenes, and various other interiors, and the summer camp which was shot in Black Park.
We discovered when we arrived for these London exterior scenes they had skimped on the budget. There were very few location vehicles, no portable dressing rooms or Winnebagos in which to dress. We had to do the best we could by slipping into our costumes in the backs of cars. But as this was a feature film in which we all had plenty to think about, and a great script to work with, we tolerated the conditions uncomplainingly.
If you watch old British films on Talking Pictures TV, especially B-movies, look out for Edens Removal lorries in the background of many location shots. This was because the removal firm was often used to ferry props and equipment to various film locations, and sneakily let their vehicles be seen in the back of many shots, giving them free advertising. Edens was used for Please, Sir! and Pat Kelly, our first assistant director, was often beside himself as he shouted, ‘That fucking Edens van is in the back of every fucking shot. Get rid of the fucking Edens van.’
Years later my wife Zélie and I attended a Lowry exhibition at the Royal Academy. One of the exhibits was called “On Location” a painting of a film scene, and – you’ve guessed it – an Edens van even managed to get into Lowry’s artwork!
Made for television in 1983, Owain Glendower, Prince of Wales was shot back to back, a Welsh language version for showing on S4C and an English version for Channel 4. Both channels were less than a year old. The production company who made this film was English, as was the director, and the brief they were given by S4C was that they must cast bilingual actors who had never appeared in the Welsh BBC soap, Pobl y Cwm. I had never been in the programme, and as I speak a little bit of Welsh, my agent suggested me to the casting director. As they found it difficult to cast smaller roles in this production, I was accepted for the role of Second Soldier purely on the recommendation of my agent.
A few days later, two bulky scripts arrived, and I immediately read the English version with interest. I had often thought this great Welsh hero was a good subject for an exciting historical drama. But this wasn’t it. As I turned the pages, mouth agape, I became more and more disappointed. Whoever had written this seemed to be attempting a family adventure along the lines of the old 1950s and ‘60s series like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood.
A week later I caught the Holyhead train from Euston station, and I and Martin Gower, the actor playing the First Soldier, were met and driven up the beautiful Conwy Valley to a lovely country manor hotel at Dolwyddelan, about four miles from Betws-y-Coed, where most of the other actors and crew stayed.
For filming our first scene, we were picked up by ‘Mr Jones the Taxi’ who ferried many of the cast about. As we headed for the production office in Llanrwst, where make-up and wardrobe were based, Mr Jones told us he had been involved in many films, most notably The Inn of The Sixth Happiness which was shot in Snowdonia. Mr Jones reminisced about the halcyon days of chauffeuring Ingrid Bergman around when films were films, and well organized. ‘Not like this lot,’ he opined. ‘This lot don’t seem to know what they are doing.’
And to prove him right, when we got to Llanrwst one of the runners gabbled into his walkie-talkie about lost Portaloos for the location, leaving loads of actors and crew clutching the cheeks of their backsides tightly.
When I was kitted out in my chainmail I went to make-up, to be reminded of the fact that I had been cast merely because I fitted the brief – no Pobl y Cwm appearances. But I was supposed to be a tough soldier, one of Henry IV’s mercenaries, about to rape a fair maiden. The make-up woman stared at my face with concentration and declared, ‘You look like Noddy. How am I going to make you look tough?’ I suggested a scar, but in my balaclava-like helmet there wasn’t much room, and so I continued to look cute.
When we were ready, a unit car drove us to the location, the impressive Gwydir Castle, a fifteenth century fortified manor house less than two miles from Llanrwst. As soon as Martin and I arrived on the set and became acquainted with some of the other actors, we noticed a strange atmosphere, and discovered the director had shown little interest in the shooting of the Welsh version. This created a lot of resentment with all the Welsh actors, who now rechristened the production company ‘Mickey Llygoden Films.’ When the director heard this, and asked what it meant, he wasn’t pleased when he heard Llygoden meant ‘mouse.’
Also staying at our hotel was Dafydd, the location caterer, with whom we drank in the evenings, which explained our preferential treatment on the set at lunchtimes when we were offered a surreptitious ‘livener’ in our orange juice.
Dafydd had an assistant, Tom, who helped with the cooking. One morning I noticed Dafydd struggling on his own. I asked him what had happened to Tom. Looking over his shoulder and lowering his voice, Dafydd replied, ‘Tom had to go back to Caernarfon to sign on.’
Outside our hotel was a small railway station, a request stop, and one night the three of us caught a train to Betws-y-Coed to drink with some of the other actors. Just before midnight, when it looked like the bar was closing, I telephoned Mr Jones the Taxi but there was no reply. The barman looked at his watch and said, ‘Oh, you won’t get Mr Jones now. He takes tablets.’
The following day, feeling jaded, as soon as lunchtime came around, Dafydd stuck another ‘livener’ in our orange juice.
I never did see the end result of this film, and my tough soldier performance. But a friend saw it, and I was told I looked rather sweet.
Usually, when actors work in a large budget, made for TV film, over the years they receive small cheques for repeats or sales. I don’t think I ever received a residual cheque for the Owain Glyndŵr film, so presumably and deservedly it sank without trace.
The Mice That Didn't Roar
In 1968 the last episode of the first series of Please Sir! was recorded and broadcast close to Christmas, and LWT, knowing they had a hit on their hands, quickly negotiated a further seven episodes to start in the spring. The contracts arrived early in the new year, and I thought this done deal meant the money from the first series might last until the new series began. But none of us discerned that working for a big organization like LWT was like swimming with sharks. On reflection, swimming with sharks might have been less precarious or traumatic.
It wasn’t long before our agents got a call from casting director Richard Price, saying that LWT wanted to make thirteen episodes, but starting in the autumn. But, we all protested, what about the contracts that we had already signed for the seven episodes starting in the spring? A done deal, surely? A contract is a contract and must be honoured. Not if we wanted to be cast in the longer series starting in the autumn. If I didn’t tear up the seven-episode contract my agent was told, releasing LWT from having to honour it, then they would recast Frankie Abbott with another actor.
Because all six of us 5C actors had become friends, the telephone links between us now vibrated with our aggrieved calls, saying how LWT was shitting on us from a great height. I suppose we were all insecure as actors, wondering if it was a bluff about recasting if we insisted on them honouring the contracts. We probably thought that as our characters were not so firmly established with only seven episodes under our belts, and there being hundreds of other young hopefuls waiting for an opportunity to be cast in a television series, then LWT might pick on someone as an example and recast.
What we should have done, we all hypothesized years later, was to stick together and refuse to rescind the spring contract. It was doubtful they would have cast every single 5C character with entirely different actors. But doesn’t hindsight create easy solutions?
I agreed to allow them to revoke the contract and accepted the new one starting much later in the year, as did all the others.
The year was off to a terrible start. Thinking the second series of Please Sir! was imminent, I turned down a small theatre job. And money from the first series would barely last until the end of February. It now became a huge struggle to live. I was fortunate that my loyal past employers at Drury Lane Theatre gave me another stage-hand job, but this was part time, and just about covered the rent. I can recall one time not having enough fare to catch the Tube at Archway to get to Leicester Square for the evening show at Drury Lane, so I had to set off early and walk at least two Tube stops. I walked as far as Kentish Town, from where I could afford the return fare, and as I walked I kept looking at the ground, hoping I might find some money and be able to get on at Tufnell Park, having only walked one stop.
No such luck. Where is that coin in the gutter when you need it?
But, on a brighter note, who would have thought back when we recorded the first series in black and white there would be money from VHS sales in the 1980s with DVDs selling in the new millennium. And even the spin-off series, The Fenn Street Gang, recently came out in a box set, and the series was also sold for showing on cable TV in the USA. I suppose it goes a little way to make up for London Weekend Television's despicable deed.
A Minor Revolt
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 London Weekend Television’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 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?’
The View Back
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, I have no idea.
In 1979, Meibion Glyndŵr (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 realized, 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.
Where the Change Hummed on Wires
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.
But I often wonder if anyone reading or listening to Milk Wood puzzles over ‘change hums on wires,’ Might I suggest you just point them to this blog for an explanation? Because I’m old enough to remember the meaning of that line.
The Casting Couch
After Harvey Weinstein had fallen from his powerful perch, I couldn’t help wondering if my friend Malcolm McFee, who played Peter Craven in Please Sir! would have joined the Me Too Movement if he was still alive.
Of course, the Casting Couch has been around since the early days of silent films, but it might be worth sparing a thought for young male actors targeted by gay producers. It happened, or almost did, to Malcolm. He was quite open about relating the incident, so I know he wouldn’t have minded my talking about it on this blog were he still with us.
It happened like this. About a year before we began working together in the school sitcom, Malcolm played one of the Smiths in Richard Attenborough's film of Oh What a Lovely War. He wanted to follow this up with a part in Virgin Soldiers which was to be filmed in Malaya by the renowned theatre director John Dexter, who was one of the most successful theatre directors and became an Associate Director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre and also at the National Theatre. Malcolm’s agent arranged for him to meet the director who took him to dinner at the Ivy. Following dinner, Dexter took Malcolm back to his flat for a nightcap, where he suggested they go to bed together. Malcolm, still thinking he could handle the situation, and wondering if he might still be in with a chance for a part in this major film, gently pointed out that he liked John Dexter but that he wasn’t himself gay. ‘That’s all right,’ the director said. ‘We’ll just wank.’ Which was when Malcolm made an excuse and left. The next day Malcolm got a call from his agent who told him that John Dexter had telephoned in a rage, saying, ‘Who the fuck does Malcolm McFee think he is? If he thinks there’s a part for him in Virgin Soldiers he can go and fuck himself.’
Malcolm, when he told us this story, did admit that perhaps he had been naïve. But he was only eighteen-years-old when it happened, so his naivety is perfectly understandable. The blame lies with all the Weinstein-like shits who use and abuse their power for sex. Now, had John Dexter not held a grudge because of Malcolm’s rejection of his advances, and still cast him in his film, he might have been less despicable.
The Power of the Priests
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.
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.
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.
Film and the Focus Pull
Apart from great scripts, excellent acting, and good direction, one of the stand-out qualities about Shetland is the cinematography. I can’t recall being irritated by the over use of the Focus Pull.
If you are not technically minded, let me explain about what has become a cinematographic cliché. 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.
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, especially in 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.
Which is why I take my hat off to the directors of Shetland. Their budgets are probably nowhere near as large as the major American series, but they manage to shoot it with a high degree of skill, and the Focus Pull is rarely used, and I find Douglas Henshall’s excellent performance as Jimmy Perez in Shetland more involving than many other British crime series.
On a lighter 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 performs his part in the film entirely out of focus.