Theatre Memories – What I Learned from my First Ten Shows – 1967 to 1971

Greetings gentle reader, and welcome to what could be an enormously entertaining retro odyssey of all the shows I’ve seen over the years, or it could turn out to be some self-indulgent nonsense to pass the lockdown months – only time will tell. So here’s a reminiscence of the first ten professional shows that I’ve seen.

  1. Showtime – Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth, June 1967.

imageimage(2)Whilst on our annual family week-long summer holiday, which in 1967 was in Bournemouth, my parents took me to see Showtime which starred Des O’Connor and Kenneth McKellar. As a 7-year-old, I have very few memories of the show, but I do remember a sequence where Des O’Connor asked us all if anyone from the audience wanted to join him on stage – there was a brief silence and I remember him saying “come on, speak to Desmond” and just as I was wondering whether I could pluck up the courage to stand up, Jack Douglas emerged from the audience in his character as Alf Ippitittimus (how do you spell that? Two Ips, a Pippi and a Tittimus, which isn’t actually correct but was his catchphrase) and I realised that it was a set-up. That was my first lesson of theatre – things are not always as they seem. It took until One Man Two Guvnors for that art to be perfected!

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I also learned that sitting at the back of a theatre isn’t as much fun as sitting at the front. We sat at the back because my dad wanted to keep drinking pints through the show, much to my mother’s fury. If you drank, you had to sit at the back. If you were pure in mind and spirit, you could sit at the front. Funny old rules.

Some great other shows on that summer in Bournemouth by the way, according to the adverts in the programme.

  1. Jack and The Beanstalk – London Palladium, January 1 1969

image(6)Not 100% certain of the date but it’s near enough. My first London show, my first pantomime, and my first real sense of the excitement and buzz that theatre can offer – that’s what I learned from this show. I went with my mother because, as I was to discover over the coming decades, the London Palladium was probably her favourite place on Earth and she wanted me to start at the top! Jimmy Tarbuck as Jack, Arthur Askey as the Dame (mother couldn’t stand him), and also the brilliant Charlie Cairoli as the leader of the Strolling Clowns.

My main memory of this show is actually standing outside the Palladium amongst the throngs of excited people who knew they were in for a treat – or had just experienced a treat, because I can’t remember if it was before or after the show. I was only 8, after all. But I also remember Jimmy Tarbuck’s first entrance on stage, halfway through the boys and girls of the Pamela Devis Dancers doing the opening number, which was their version of Manfred Mann’s My Name is Jack – pantos always have played with the pop songs of the day. I think I was just tingling with excitement.

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  1. Oh! Clarence! – Lyric Theatre, London, January 8 1969.

image(39)A week after Jack and the Beanstalk, Mum took me back into London to see a matinee of Oh! Clarence!, a comedy by John Chapman based on Blandings Castle and other Lord Emsworth stories by P G Wodehouse. What I learned from this production is Look After Your Programme. I left it on the train coming home and was UTTERLY FURIOUS WITH MYSELF for doing so. And in fact, I STILL AM! Fortunately I tracked down a copy of the text which had the full cast details and even a couple of photos, so all is not lost.

image(40)This had, for 1969, a stunning cast. Jon Pertwee, Peggy Mount, Ealing comedy hero Naunton Wayne and stage farceur par excellence, Robertson Hare, plus some great supporting names. My only vague memories of the play are that Jon Pertwee spent the whole time in great pain (acting, obviously) and that Peggy Mount played her usual “dragon” character. I made a note at the time that there was a hilarious bedroom scene, although I’m sure the 8-year-old me didn’t understand all the jokes.

image(41)The other major significance this production has for me was that it was the first time that I took my autograph book to the stage door after the show came down. With the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to watch out for me, I got the autographs of Jon Pertwee (who spent the whole time when he was writing in my book talking to someone else); Austin Trevor – the first actor to play Hercule Poirot on film in the 1930s – who was a very kindly and courteous gentleman to us both; and Harry Roy, the famous bandleader, because, for some strange reason, this production had a totally unnecessary band in the orchestra pit. Just because they could, I guess. It was so exciting meeting these famous people that I became fairly hooked on autograph collecting, as you’ll see over the next few blog posts!

  1. Charlie Girl – Adelphi Theatre, London, August 1969.

My first musical, this production taught me four things. 1) with clever scenery, you can make it look as though the theatre has been built in order to accommodate the production – as I did, until my mother put me right. More importantly, 2) I learned how going to the theatre can be a social experience, as there were five of us at this performance: me, my parents, and my Nan and Grandad. I have vague recollections of a meal before the show, maybe coffee afterwards (no drinks, as kids were not allowed in pubs in 1969!)

Thirdly, that there is such a thing as the London Cast Album. We didn’t buy it, but we did buy a 45 rpm single (remember them?) with two of the main songs – Liverpool, and the title track Charlie Girl. So you could have a memory of the music at home after the show. What a discovery! And finally, that there was also an entity called the Souvenir Brochure that you could buy in addition to the programme. Looking back on it now, the Charlie Girl Picture Book is very amateurishly presented and photographed – but it offers some unique pictorial memories of the show. I even got a badge, so they were pretty well mastering the art of merchandise!

Another stunningly good cast: Dame Anna Neagle, Gerry Marsden, Derek Nimmo, plus some brilliant supporting cast. The story wasn’t up to much – would Charlie marry Joe or Jack? That’s about it. The only moment of dialogue I remember clearly was when Derek Nimmo, as the Man from the Football Pools, came to tell Gerry Marsden as Joe that he’d won a fortune. He came on stage with a fistful of celebratory balloons. Gerry Marsden loudly deflated them, to which Derek Nimmo, in that uniquely posh hurt accent of his, moaned You’ve Burst My Balloons! Funny what you remember. It was a great show.

Autograph collecting was fun. We waited ages for Derek Nimmo to come out, and eventually the stage door keeper had to ring down to ask him to come up. He was dressed in Dressing Gown and Wellington Boots, apologising that he was rehearsing a scene from Oh Brother, his TV show of the time. Anna Neagle came out looking very glamorous, and was met in a taxi by her husband, the film producer Herbert Wilcox. Mum told me to get his autograph too because he was equally famous, but being a purist, and as he wasn’t in the show, I didn’t.

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  1. There’s A Girl in my Soup – Comedy Theatre, London, December 1969.

image(52)This long-running comedy was my next show – it was already in its fourth year and had a great reputation – it became London’s longest running comedy until its run was surpassed by No Sex Please We’re British. Basically, a TV chef fancies himself as a lady-killer (this was the Swinging Sixties after all) but he meets his match in the character of Marion and they both tame each other down. I didn’t see a panto this Christmas season, but I think this was meant to replace it. Again, I went with Mum, Dad, Nan and Grandad.

image(53)What this production taught me was something that’s only recently started to become untrue, but for many years was undeniable. I remember a moment when I laughed a lot at a very funny scene, and I glanced at my watch – and it said 10.15pm. And I remember thinking that every day (apart from Sundays), at 10.15pm, other audiences would be enjoying that very same hilarious moment. It was like a realisation that I would have something in common with future audiences. Furthermore, it led to a sadder thought; which was that when the show finally closed, as it inevitably would, no one would ever share that funny moment at 10.15 ever again. Unlike a film, once a show closes, it closes – and you can never get it back again. Not quite the same today with the filmed versions of NT and RSC shows appearing regularly at your local cinema. But at the time, that sadness that you can’t recapture a live performance really rather upset me! Sensitive little child!

The cast was headed by Peter Byrne, famous at the time for his work on Dixon of Dock Green, and Australian actress Karen Kessey, who was lovely at the Stage Door. Also in the cast was Janet Hargreaves, who would later go on to infamous success as Rosemary Hunter in Crossroads, and that amazing TV blooper where she tries to shoot her husband but the gun clicks off too early. I enjoyed the show a lot; so much so that when a revival came around in 1996 I insisted that we went to see it – and it had dated so badly that it was excruciating.

  1. She’s Done it Again – Garrick Theatre, London, January 14 1970

image(62)Bookending the other end of school Christmas holidays, I went with Mum to see this Brian Rix farce set in a hotel overrun with babies. An excellent cast, that also starred Leo Franklyn, Robert Dorning, Derek Royle and Michael Kilgarriff. It was a classic Rix affair, with a couple of getting caught with his trousers down moments; you can see a wonderful scene below where the Bishop of Upton (a very unhappy looking Anthony Sharp) discovered the Revd Hubert (Mr Rix) in such an embarrassing position with Sylvia, played by the beautiful Margaret Nolan.

image(56)I learned two things from this production. One was that a play can be part of a long tradition of similar productions, as the Souvenir Brochure for his play showed photos and details of all the Brian Rix farces going right back to Reluctant Heroes in 1950. It made me really want to see all the earlier productions, which, of course, was impossible – although I do think there was a TV production of Let Sleeping Wives Lie, which would be enormous fun to track down.

The other thing I learned was how lucky I was. We saw a matinee (I was 9 by this stage) and I think the next day was the first day of the new term, so I couldn’t be late to bed. After the show we went to the Stage Door to get autographs – in those days you could walk all the way down the alleyway to the side of the Garrick to get to the Stage Door; today it’s boarded off at street level. We met a lot of the cast coming out of the theatre – Margaret Nolan was particularly kind and lovely to me. But where was Mr Rix? The Stage Door Keeper rang down for us. Mr Rix had a bit of a sore throat and was saving his voice for the evening performance, but he came upstairs in his dressing gown all the same. And then, at the crucial moment, my pen ran out of ink! So Mr Rix very kindly invited me down to his dressing room, to use a pen down there! I felt that was such a privilege. I was really surprised to discover that such a star actually shared a dressing room – with Anthony Sharp, as it happens. He was incredibly kind and friendly and it really made my day.

  1. The Show Inn – Pier Theatre, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, July 1970.

image(63)For our summer holiday in 1970, the family went to Shanklin, Isle of Wight, for a week, and whilst there we saw a typical end-of-the-pier show, The Show Inn. I remember very little of this at all, but I see that my programme has the autographs of three of the performers – Bernie Landy, Melody Scott, and Jason Darnel, who, at the age of 84 still maintains a website with reminiscences of all the shows he appeared in. But that’s about all I remember of this show. I’m sure I enjoyed it.

  1. Blithe Spirit – Globe Theatre, London, November 1970.

image(67)I remember really looking forward to seeing this show, not only because it had such a great cast, but also because I was fascinated by its name. Charles Condomine was played by Patrick Cargill – whom I knew from TV’s Father Dear Father, Ruth was Ursula Howells, Elvira was Amanda Reiss, and Madame Arcati was Beryl Reid. I absolutely loved it; it’s still one of my favourite plays, and I missed out seeing this year’s production with Jennifer Saunders as Madame A because of the dreaded Covid 19. I made at the time though, that it was a rotten audience who didn’t seem to enjoy the show.

Fascinating how trendy it was to be photographed smoking in those days!

Everyone was pleasant and kind at the Stage Door, but I have two particular memories of that experience; when I got Beryl Reid’s autograph, there was another lady wanting to meet her, and it turned out she was someone who went to school with Ms Reid and they hadn’t met since they left school – and it was a joyful reunion for the pair of them. The other thing I remember was that after we’d met Amanda Reiss, she left the theatre and headed straight for the local butchers. So what I learned from that production was that Stars Have To Go Food Shopping Too.

 

  1. Aladdin – London Palladium, February 1971.

image(72)My second ever panto, and my second visit to the Palladium. A lavish and hilarious production with yet another superb cast – Cilla Black, Leslie Crowther, Alfred Marks, Terry Scott, Sheila Burnette and Basil Brush. A particularly brilliant scene featured Terry Scott, who played Widow Twankey, being caught on the Magic Carpet as it (apparently) soared over cities and landscapes, looping the loop and doing all sorts of perilous pranks – the comic timing, combined with the special effects, made it something I remember to this day.

image(73)What I learned from this experience is if you don’t ask you don’t get. My mother had written to the Palladium weeks before we went, asking if it would be possible to meet Basil Brush before the show – he was always a favourite of mine, and in fact my parents loved him too. To our surprise he wrote back, and invited us to call round at the Stage Door before the show. So we did. And we met Mr Ivor, who was the Original Voice of Basil, who took us into his dressing room, showed me how the puppet worked (Ooops – spoiler! Sorry) and we had a lovely chat. Would you like to go on the Palladium stage? he asked us. image(74)Mother was even more keen than I was. So he took us through corridors on to the stage, showed us how the famous revolving mechanism worked, and we had an absolutely brilliant chat. Whilst we were backstage I also bumped into Leslie Crowther, who signed my autograph book and was absolutely charming and friendly – see you on stage, were his parting words. By this stage I thought that everything about the theatre is magic. But that’s self-evident, no?

  1. The Mousetrap – Ambassadors Theatre, London, 13th April 1971.

image(79)image(80)Now in its 19th Year, proclaims the programme – and at the time of Lockdown, it’s in its 68th year! So it’s fair to say it’s been a reasonably successful production. A hokey old thriller, but, if you’re a theatre buff, it’s compulsory viewing. I enjoyed this so much, being a Christie fan even in those youthful days. I thought the murderer was Mr Paravicini, Mum thought it was Mollie Ralston. I’m not going to tell you if either of us was right! I do remember quite a few thrills and chills from the production, which, you have to accept, is a classic.

The Mousetrap has always regularly changed cast, and our cast had Carol Marsh as Mollie – she of the landmark TV play Cathy Come Home – who was incredibly friendly and chatty with us – Bee Duffell as Mrs Boyle, Steve Plytas (Fawlty Towers’ irascible and lovelorn chef, Kurt) as Paravicini, and Kevan Sheehan as Sgt Trotter, who had sung on the Music for Pleasure album of Doctor Dolittle which I played a lot at the time.

See you tomorrow for another bunch of holiday snaps – Australia in 1985!

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, 4th January 2014

Jack and the BeanstalkAnother of our now regular yuletide practices is to pay a visit to Sheffield on the first Saturday of January to see the Lyceum panto at the matinee, and whatever spectacular is on at the Crucible in the evening; and each year it continues to pay dividends. I have a very soft spot for Jack and the Beanstalk as it was the first pantomime I ever saw; January 1st 1969 at the London Palladium, aged 8. I’d seen a few amateur plays at the local memorial hall but this was not only my first panto but also my first visit to a London theatre. Since then, I think it’s safe to say, I haven’t looked back. Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castJack was Jimmy Tarbuck; the Dame was Arthur Askey; and like all those late 60s/early 70s Palladium pantos there were Charlie Cairoli and Company (who I loved), Ivor Emmanuel, and host of other variety acts interspersed. I remember very clearly that the opening song was the villagers singing Manfred Mann’s “My Name is Jack”, which introduced Jimmy Tarbuck as being the chief of the wayward boys and girls who lived in the Greta Garbo home – Google the lyrics if that doesn’t make any sense to you. I think I was so ecstatic at being there that the memory is imprinted on my brain. Funny how something simple like that can stay with you for a lifetime.

Damian WilliamsThe Palladium panto was always a stylish, flashy, music- and dancing-packed affair, with the latest in technological elements (such as they were then). The recently finished Derngate panto, Sleeping Beauty, was very much in that vein. Then there is another kind of panto, where 3D effects and big star names take a back seat, and the show relies more on traditional routines, and a funny script, and the annual Sheffield panto is a perfect example. For Jack in the Beanstalk, Sheffield’s favourite Damian Williams returned for his sixth consecutive panto season, and he’s already signed up for Dick Whittington this December. Why break a winning run? You’ve never seen an audience so happy to welcome back an old favourite, and Mr Williams absolutely knows how to keep the crowd in a constant state of laughter. He’s also really gifted at appealing to the adults too, with a quick witted turn of phrase that might occasionally befuddle the kids but will have all the grown-ups guffawing. And he knows that sacrificing one’s personal dignity is all part of the game – for which much thanks, if only for his phenomenal appearance as Miley Cyrus with her wrecking ball. Just brilliant! As long as Mr Williams keeps coming back to Sheffield, so will we.

H from StepsJack was played by Ian H Watkins, or H from Steps as he’s better known; cue lots of gags about how brilliant S Club 7 were. Messrs Watkins and Williams had a good double act going, where both would readily step out of character and be themselves defending their careers. They used the pop music theme for the annual patter gag scene – this year it was the names of groups and singers all strung together to make a story, and very clever and funny it was too. Sarah Earnshaw was the Vegetable Fairy, who spoke in rhyming couplets that were actually witty, had some good comic accents and I for one was very happy to give her a big cheer every time she appeared. Andrew Fettes was the Giant’s villainous sidekick Hefferflumphenstein, whose running gag about how his name should be pronounced was used perhaps a couple of times too many; but he was suitably wicked and it was very kind of him to allow us to call him Shorty.

Madeleine LeslayMadeleine Leslay was a very pure and pretty Princess Tamara; cue for a sequence of puns with “tomorrow” that we were encouraged to count out as the show progressed. I bumped into her (literally) in the Crucible Corner bar later that evening and just managed to stop myself from saying, “sorry Princess”; which would have been quite embarrassing. There was a nice twist that whenever anyone talked about infiltrating the Giant’s lair at the top of the Beanstalk, it was to save Molly the Cow and the Lyceum bench (more of which shortly) rather than the Princess, whom they kept on forgetting. Pete Dunwell was a larger than life King Eric, a buffoon who assists the Dame in mixing the ingredients to make ice-cream and literally uses his head, as the Dame suggested. Cue for a tarpaulin on the stage to catch all the slimy goo so we can quickly move on to the next scene. The talented ensemble of six singing and dancing adult boys and girls gave great support and added a little eye-candy to the proceedings together with some good hearted fun. And we all went crazy with the peas; soft green balls that we all had to throw at the stage when the Fairy said we could to help beat the Giant.Sarah Earnshaw I managed to get hold of one chucking pea, but the little lad next to me didn’t get one, so I selflessly let him have my pea. He was thrilled; but he was useless at throwing it. Never mind, we still defeated the Giant. The band were great as usual, under the direction of Andy Booth, and the junior ensemble were very well schooled and fun to watch.

A couple of years ago, it seemed like every panto we saw was blighted by that wretched dog Churchill going “oh yes” or “oh no”, presumably as a sop to the insurance company that was sponsoring the show. This year at Sheffield we had Molly the Cow. Now, of course, the cow is an intrinsic part of the show. Jack thinks he’s getting a big bag of gold in return for her but he is duped by the wicked Hefferflumphenstein and only gets a handful of beans; and of course the pantomime cow is sister to the pantomime horse (so to speak),Andrew Fettes and so definitely has her place in the show. But I did think they overplayed the association of Molly the Cow with Sheffield Theatres’ interval ice-cream of choice, Our Cow Molly. Having said that, I loved Mr Williams saying that if your parents don’t buy you an ice-cream in the interval, that is a proven fact that they don’t love you. I hope no one took it seriously! Similarly, the constant references to the Lyceum Theatre bench, which is also captured by the Giant, actually meant that when the bench scene finally takes place (“it’s behind you”) I thought it slightly lost its usual impact. I think it’s funnier with ghosties than with zombies. Nevertheless, that bench had better still be there next year!

Those are very minor quibbles by the way. It’s an extremely fun, fast-paced and entertaining panto, and we’ll definitely be back for Dick Whittington!

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December

Jack and the BeanstalkThis is a toughie. I can’t decide whether to tell you all the bad things about it and then praise it, like Craig Revel Horwood on a happy day; or tell you all the good things about it and then move into grumpy mode later.

Hilary O'Neil It’s going to be the latter. Mainly because I look back at last night’s panto with affection. Firstly, there are some excellently dynamic and active performances. Hilary O’Neil as Fairy Cobblers is the spark that illuminates the entire show. Every time she appears with a wave of her wand she does a different impersonation, and they’re really really good, and really really funny. Cheryl Cole, Catherine Tate characters, Jungle celebrities, unnervingly accurate. She worked hard all night and it was appreciated; and she clearly changed her script a bit and made Gavin Woods (as Fleshcreep) corpse, which was delightful.

Adam Stafford Also marvellous was Adam Stafford as Dame Trot. A perfect panto dame, OTT costumes, lightly lewd conversation, super facial expressions, kept it moving fast, ridiculous but endearing.

Nick Weir I’d also give a big HIYA SIMON (as I’m now a member of Simon’s gang) to Nick Weir as Simple Simon Trot, who delivered his role with bags of energy, and really came into his own at the end with the traditional scene of getting four kids up on stage to play musical instruments – the kids were terrific and his interaction with them funny and inventive.

In fact, that’s the key word – energy. Bags of it from those performers, also the singers and dancers, and from the orchestra…but sadly, I have to say, I didn’t see much in the way of energy from Ray Quinn as Jack. He’s clearly a likeable guy, and is amusingly diminutive as the brave lad going to fight the giant; and the opening conversation of him doing the “alright, calm down” Scouse routine was nicely done – and I liked very much “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of a Liverpudlian” which I hadn’t heard before… Ray Quinn We know he’s a good dancer from his Dancing on Ice days, and he’s played the lead role in Grease, so he ought to be pretty dynamic on the stage, but to me he was just static. There’s an early song-and-dance number (Ain’t that a Kick in the Head) in the show when he is coming to terms with his newly found love for Princess Apricot Crumble (nice) with the backing dancers all smartly decked up and it should be Vegas-y or Rat-Packy with Ray in the centre of the chorus line all doing the high kicks – but his just weren’t high. They were limp, like he was delicately playing football with a three-year-old. Maybe he wasn’t well. Maybe he couldn’t be arsed. But it looked wrong. The marriage of Jack and the Princess was the centrepiece of the curtain call but it almost made the applause stop. Was that because of the lack of energy? I don’t know. But I felt rather embarrassed by that.

Other things that didn’t work – a brief “Oh no it isn’t” conversation between the Dame and Fleshcreep was no more than a private interchange that didn’t involve the audience, so it had finished before it had begun; that bloody Churchill dog that gets into every pantomime now should be shot; the underused and therefore pointless appearance of Moosterious (if you live outside Northampton this will mean nothing to you); Jack’s “fight” against the giant was the lamest thing I’ve seen on a stage since… well since Ripley and Ricky went out to sea.

I wouldn’t want to put you off going. It’s a good panto. I enjoyed it. I’ve reflected on it and smiled a lot. And it was very funny when the Pantomime Cow dropped her payslip – no idea if that was deliberate or not but it worked! There were lots of good lines, nice song-and-dancing, endearing characters, cute kids, terrific impersonations, but for me the overwhelming feeling at the end was of being rather underwhelmed. A bit like a whirlpool – really busy and lively at the outer edges but its centre is somewhere you’d really rather not be.