Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
- Sleuth – St Martin’s Theatre, London, September 1972.
An immensely entertaining and successful thriller, where nothing is as it seems, and even the programme lies to you. Mum took me to see this on the last day of the school summer holidays. It ran for about five years, with many changes of cast. To a 12-year-old, this was quite a scary play! Our cast had Marius Goring, best known as TV’s The Expert, and Anthony Valentine, who would become most famous for playing Raffles on TV. I think the only lesson as such that I learned from this show was not to use the programme as a coaster – there’s a tea/coffee ring stain on the cover that irks me to this day!
I didn’t get any autographs; not sure why. But obviously, that broke a chain, as I didn’t get any more autographs at stage doors until 1976.
- Lloyd George Knew My Father – Savoy Theatre, London, October 1972.
I’m pretty sure we went to see this during half-term. Mother was very keen on seeing it – I had no particular expectations apart from the fact that I knew Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson were big names and that it was written by William Douglas Home, who also had a great reputation. I found this play quite boring. It was moving – at times – but I still found comedy involving death in rather poor taste (as my Dad had died at the beginning of the year). In particular, I remember not enjoying the lead character choosing the shade of wood for his own coffin. Slow, morbid, and drab. Somehow it had a quite a nifty run, which went beyond my understanding at the time.
Other notable cast members included James Grout, who would most famously become Inspector Morse’s boss Superintendent Strange, and Simon Cadell, who went on to lead the cast of Hi De Hi.
- No Sex Please, We’re British – Strand Theatre (now the Novello), London, February 1973.
One thing that you can’t fault Anthony Marriott and Alistair Foot for – they knew how to construct a great title! This play had opened in 1971 and ran for sixteen years, becoming the longest running comedy in the English Language – in fact, if you look at the list of most successful UK Theatre productions, as far as longevity is concerned, it’s the only comedy play in the Top Twenty.
I remember it as being absolutely hilarious – a classic sex comedy based on misunderstandings and bungling – and it was the first time I saw David Jason, who completely took control of the play and would have deserved every comedy acting award under the sun for this performance. The cast also included the rather grand Evelyn Laye, plus TV favourite Simon Williams and the voice of Captain Povey from The Navy Lark, Richard Caldicot. Sadly Alistair Foot died during rehearsals for No Sex Please at the age of 40 and never knew its success.
And the lesson learned from this production? Don’t leave the programme on the living room floor for the dog to chew. Hence the rather grotty corners in the photograph!
- The Tommy Steele Show – London Palladium, April 1973.
My mother was a massive Tommy Steele fan and she was determined to take me to see this show as an Easter holidays treat. I’m not sure that a 13-year-old boy was his target audience; I quite enjoyed it, but didn’t go over the top about it in the way she did. The show was structured so that various support acts were on first, and then an interval followed by an hour of Mr Steele doing his thing. June Bronhill, the coloratura soprano, was the big support act; thinking back I expect I was bored rigid.
- Carry on London – Victoria Palace, London, December 1973.
Clearly, I hadn’t learned my lesson from seeing The Comedians at the Palladium the previous year – in that what’s successful in one format doesn’t necessarily translate that well to another. Carry On London was a revue starring six of the Carry On team from the famous films – Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter Butterworth and Jack Douglas. (Jack Douglas in Carry On films? Apparently.) I do recollect that Barbara Windsor didn’t appear and we had her understudy, whose name I’m afraid I cannot recall.
It was very lame, very crude, and very lazy. Sid James just phoned it in. Peter Butterworth played a character in Cleopatra’s boudoir named Grabatiti – I think that says it all. Also in the cast was Trudi van Doorn, a bright and sparkling stage presence who later changed her name to Geraldine Gardner, and became the toast of A Chorus Line as a brilliant Sheila, and also Dick Whittington in Peter Nichols’ Poppy. But this show was a big disappointment.
- Birds of Paradise – Garrick Theatre, London, September 1974.
Some time elapsed before my next theatre trip – but it was well worth the wait. Mother booked it because she really liked Moira Lister, who headed the cast – she always saw herself (rightly or wrongly) as The Very Merry Widow, which was Ms Lister’s successful TV show. When we collected our tickets at the box office, a sign read “not suitable for Under 16s”. I was 14. Mother said it was up to her what was suitable for me and we were going to see it. So if I take any lesson from this show, it’s that any age restrictions in the theatre are merely serving suggestions.
Birds of Paradise was written by French actress Gaby Bruyère, under the title La Maison de Zaza, and adapted into English by Michael Pertwee. Another of these sex comedies based on misunderstandings and misadventure, a posh household and a brothel get mixed up, and the main thrust (if I may be so bold) of the play was trying to keep the brothel girls away from the posh visitors. I primarily remember this play because the five young actresses playing the brothel girls all got their tops off during the course of the show. But it was, as Kenny Everett might have said, all done in the best possible taste. There was one scene where a retired colonel sat down on a chaise longue on castors, and as his seat moved away from him, because of weight on said castors, a topless young lady who had been hiding underneath was revealed, face up, before his (and my) goggling eyes. At precisely the same time, his posh wife was looking out of the window at the trees in the garden and excitedly cries out, “oh look! Tits!” On the page it looks hackneyed, but the split-second comic timing and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole thing was a complete delight.
An interesting side note; it had a totally unnecessary pianist to play the show in and to entertain during the interval; the redoubtable Hero de Rance, born 1900, died 1999, composer, entertainer, and TV announcer. I remember her smiling at me whilst she played (we had front row seats) – she probably thought I was enjoying the eyefuls on stage more than her playing. And she’d be right.
As well as Moira Lister, it starred Geoffrey Lumsden, Graham Armitage, Sam Kelly and Elspeth March. Terrifically funny!
- Grayson’s Scandals – London Palladium, November 1974.
One subject on which I was kind of out of kilter with almost all my schoolfriends – I used to find Larry Grayson absolutely, and unfashionably, hilarious. If you remember, he used weave a magical mesh of made up stories with his pretend characters Slack Alice and Apricot Lil, Postman Pop-it-in Pete and of course Everard. At the age of 14, I don’t think I really understood the gay sub-culture at the heart of what he was talking about – to me, he was just a funny, quirky, chatty, weird kind of guy. Grayson’s Scandals was a typical Palladium revue of its day, with supporting guests, including his friend Noele Gordon (of Crossroads – she was a great singer, I remember her performing “The Hostess with the Mostest” in this show) – and mime/clown artiste George Carl from the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris.
A lot of fun – although I have a note that suggested there were many microphone issues. Not the first time that’s happened at the Palladium – Cinderella back in 1972 was also blighted with those technical problems.
- La Bohème – English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 4th November 1975.
My first ever opera; I’d been keen to see an opera for a few years as we had some great opera records at home, and it piqued my interest. Mother was very happy to see this with me as she thought it would be “mentally, morally and artistically improving” for me! I can’t remember much about it, apart from the fact that I found the sets particularly stunning. Mother was very annoyed at the people sat next to her because they complained at how pathetic the story line was. “You don’t go to the opera for the story!” she affirmed loudly to me, so that they could hear her. I still haven’t been to many operas over the years, but when I do, I tend to enjoy it. This was on a school night. I think I ended up a great sleepy-head the next day in school – but I did feel very sophisticated.
- Absent Friends – Garrick Theatre, London, 5th January 1976.
So this is where it really all took off. After some not insubstantial negotiation with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, she agreed that I could go into London by myself, at the age of 15, from where we lived in Wendover, Bucks, to see a matinee, provided I was home by the 7 o’clock train. Agreed! And this was my first foray into what I considered to be “grown up” theatregoing by myself. I chose Absent Friends because I knew that Alan Ayckbourn was a great comic writer, even though I hadn’t seen any of his work, and also I knew the Garrick, having been there a couple of times already, so it felt especially safe.
To be honest, I wasn’t overstruck with the play. It’s about a man whose wife/girl friend (can’t remember which) suddenly dies, and his friends all gather round to cheer him up. But when they meet him, rather than the despondent character they expect him to be, he’s actually bright and cheerful because he had been in love with this wonderful woman and no one could take that away from him – and it exposes the friends’ insecurities much more than his. Today, I realise that it’s a very clever construct, but then it struck me as just a little dull. A great cast starred Richard Briers, Peter Bowles, Cheryl Kennedy and Ray Brooks.
Although I didn’t rate the play much, I rated the experience of going to the West End theatre by myself at the age of 15 at about 100 out of 10.
- Otherwise Engaged – Queen’s Theatre (now the Sondheim, how I hate theatres being renamed!), 8th January 1976.
The glory of midweek matinees. Having seen Absent Friends on the Wednesday matinee, I was back in the West End the next day to see Otherwise Engaged on the Thursday matinee. I enjoyed this play much more, as it felt more intelligent, more erudite (and presumably more attractive to a pompous little kid). Actually, it’s quite an unpleasant play, revolving around a selfish central character who just wants to lose himself listening to the new recording of Parsifal that he’s just bought, but the outside world keeps on coming in to upset and irritate him. As a result, he does cruel and irreperable damage to the friends and family (and others) who drift into his orbit.
It starred Alan Bates, who I knew was a great name, and I have to say it was a fantastic performance. Also in the cast were Nigel Hawthorne, who would go on to have amazing success as Yes Prime Minister’s Sir Humphrey, Julian Glover, who is still going strong as a much respected actor, and the hugely talented Ian Charleson, in what was I think his West End debut (apart from his Young Vic School training) and whom we lost far too young.
I had a great time seeing these two plays back to back, and, to be honest, life was never going to be the same….
Thanks for sticking with me on this retrospective! Back tomorrow with some more holiday pics. B is for… Bolivia!