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And then there was the ’80s, luvvie…

Here, then, is my contribution to the My First Post Revisited feature, as nominated by Luccia Gray from Rereading Jane Eyre.
It was in fact my fourth ever post and documents the first leg of a youthful theatrical group’s trip to the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival.

Down the time tunnel we go…

Diary of an Internet Nobody.

Back when the 21st century was still just a suffix in the title of Sci-fi novels and documentaries about robots doing the hoovering for you, an intrepid band of teenage drama nerds embarked on a mission to self-finance a trip to the world famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

This is their story.

At the start of the decade that sartorial taste forgot, I was at a comprehensive school in Sussex studying (ha!) for exams.
Most of the few high points of my school days revolved around various theatrical activities, both in and out of school. Half a dozen friends in the year above me – studying drama properly for O’ level – had formed a comic mime group. This is the style of mime that allows props, sound effects and basic narration, still preformed on a blank set in whiteface makeup.

image Strike A Pose

I had managed to blag myself a…

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Spamble on…

It won’t be long now before the festive-TV-special season is upon us. 
We’ve already had our appetites whetted by the 50th anniversary Dr Who film, Matt Smith’s penultimate outing as everyone’s favourite, increasingly quirky, timey-wimey alien cosmic wanderer, before the role is taken over in the traditional Christmas one-off episode by the brilliant Peter Capaldi, best known for his incandescently vitriolic turn as the monstrous Malcolm Tucker in Armando Iannucci’s scathing political satire, The Thick Of It.

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Peter Capaldi -“F**k the Daleks, F**k the Cybermen and F**kity Bollocks to the Ood”

But that’s not the only classic series due to grace our screens once more over the Christmas holidays.
One of the original founders of the new wave of British alternative comedy in the ’70s and ’80s, Rowan Atkinson, has revealed that he will revive what is arguably his greatest role, the various incarnations of Edmund Blackadder in a one-off special which will include the first in-depth interview with Atkinson about his years playing the devious scoundrel through history.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Godfathers of surreal British humour, the surviving members of the Monty Python team, have announced (at a press conference in the theatre currently showing Python-inspired musical, Spamalot) that they are writing a new live show for next year at London’s O2 arena.

Eager though I am to see new material from these giants of comedy, (I feel confident that there will be a DVD tie-in) I doubt they will manage anything as memorable as this national treasure of a sketch, still as unfathomably hilarious now as it was when I first remember seeing it as a kid.

And while we’re on the subject, something else which seems to have become more prevalent the nearer we get to the holidays is the other, less welcome sort of spam.
I am of course talking about the electronic variety, as opposed to the type celebrated at the almost certainly bonkers Spam Museum in America.

I have a filter that is supposed to deal with the badly translated, incomprehensible robot-generated comments that are so obviously trying to entice me into checking out a “very big fun website”, buying one of the “ultra discrete male enhancement devices” from an extensive online catalogue, or investing my money in get-rich-quick opportunities involving everything from timeshare apartments in Bulgaria and Nigerian lottery scams, to distinctly sinister pyramid selling schemes that appear to originate in Thailand.
But my spambot seems to have become rather lenient of late and more gibberish is slipping through the Net.

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Even as I write this post, another poorly worded pseudo-compliment arrived through the ether;
“It’s going to be ending of mine day, but before finish I am reading this great article to increase my know-how”

Now, given that said article is a story about youthful alcohol and weed-fuelled parties, resulting in Zippy falling over a wall and breaking his arm, I can only assume that my latest spammer wants to increase their knowledge of how to become a drunken idiot and get tips on creative ways of injuring themselves.

I fail to see how any of these virtual mailshots of mangled grammar could possibly persuade anyone that they were written by people who could read English written by someone who had read the article human beings, let alone convince them to part with hard earned cash.

Does anyone fall for this nonsense?
Well I pride myself on not getting conned by these Internet Shysters, but as I recently discovered, even that has a downside.

I received a comment on a post a few days ago from someone purporting to be a “new blogger” who had yet to post anything and who wanted me to contact her via Skype.
This unusual request, coupled with her (I thought) suspiciously over-French name, Monique Le Roux, which reminded me of something from ‘Allo ‘Allo, along with the absence of any evidence of a blog, convinced me I was being spammed.
So I was very cagey about doing anything except suggesting she get in touch via Facebook or joining BlogCatalog.com,

It wasn’t until the next day when I got an email from Miss Le Roux, proudly containing a link to her lovely new blog, that I realised what a fool I’d been.
So Monique, if you’re reading this, please accept my apology for mistaking you for a stereotypical comedy French maid intent on selling me something and allow me to welcome you to the blogosphere.

Spam’s off.

(“Internet Spam” cartoon by Ho)

 

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Theatre review. “99% Proof”…

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Let me start by saying that I’m not claiming to be a theatre critic or an expert in all things thespian.
Which I know isn’t a very promising start to a theatre review but I don’t often get the chance to meet the writer/director of a play at a party prior to seeing the show, so obviously I wanted to go and support her theatrical debut at the local college’s performing arts centre last night.

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99% Proof is a brand new contemporary musical set in a London of austerity and privation, unemployment and despair, and focuses on the plight of Judin Job, (played with a passionate melancholy by Alex Rushton) a young Jewish man with no family, few friends and no prospects.

Act one deals with his encounters with various Orwellian government agencies, benefit officers from Hell, and rampant bureaucracy, and features the impressively resonant tones of Jack Ince as Guard and a great performance by Elizabeth Daleigh Hayton as the mildly teutonic, barely-repressed benefits office vamp, Go Bells.
As we see Judin being deprived of his basic rights, pushed from pillar to post by an uncaring system and humiliated by being made to wear a yellow star of David, symbol of Nazi-persecuted Jews in the second world war; “the only star you’ll ever win is stuck to your chest with a jagged pin”

Some complex themes are explored here, including institutionalised bigotry, the thoughtlessness of major corporations and the lack of care for those most vulnerable in our society, symbolised by the character of shell-shocked and traumatised returning soldier, Capability Brown, whose appeals to the medical authorities fall on deaf ears. Capability is played by Zack Hazell and his high, clear voice made a perfect counterpoint to the deeper tones of Guard and Judin during the many ensemble numbers.

There are lighter moments though, most memorably in the form of the 999 song, performed with considerable comic élan by Alex Martin as Ms Wackovski, the Tourette’s suffering, eastern European work experience trainee in the Job Centre, and the drunken hen night weaving back and forth across the stage.

All the scenes are played out on an almost blank stage, the different locations being cleverly represented by bespoke projected backdrops created by Royston Harwood, along with minimal props and furniture.

(Having myself been involved in theatrical shows called “Images on a Blank Stage” and “The Very Nearly One Man Mime Show”, I know how difficult it can be to create recognisable scenes with little or no scenery, so it’s a testament to the skill of everyone involved that, looking back on last night’s performance, I can clearly picture Judin’s scuzzy bedsit, the cold impersonal benefits office, and the supermarket in which Judin’s love interest, Astro Turf works as a hugely overqualified shelf stacker.)

Angela Elswood plays Astro, a gutsy character with a powerful voice and positive attitude, who tries to pull Judin out of his self-destructive spiral of misery, aided by CJ, (an upbeat but cynical Nathan Maynard) his roommate whose job mopping floors fails to inspire Judin to get up and get a job himself.

Meanwhile, the CEO of a multinational corporation (Jack Ince, in a dual role) gets into a bar room brawl and accidentally kills a man, having previously been the one to tell Judin that his “only prospects are Murder”.

And in a final double-ironic twist, it’s Judin – now resurrected from his pit of despair by the love of Astro and his love of music – who shows compassion to his one time tormentor, rescuing him in turn from his own demons.

The main characters were very nicely supported by a cast and chorus that gave the show a lively, kinetic energy that belied the small stage, including some nifty moves from the Breakin’ Beats Street Dance crew.

The whole cast and crew should be congratulated on a really well thought out, slickly executed piece of contemporary theatre, and the one who dreamed it all up, writer and director Jennifer Wilkin Shaw should be extremely proud of their performance.

{We were requested not to record the performance, so I didn’t take many photos, but I thought they would forgive this fuzzy curtain-call shot, if only to give you some idea of the room.}

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“Author! Author! – Jennifer, centre, meets her audience.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on September 15, 2013 in Arts, Personal anecdote, Theatre

 

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Pub pool arty party people…

I love meeting people, whether in real life, online, or even one because of the other, and this week has been full of such fortuitous encounters.

Earlier in the week Lanthie over at Life Cherries introduced me to Matt Harvath from Ramblings of a Semi-Mad Man, and within the space of a few hours he’d invited me to contribute a post to his blog.
Well obviously I was very flattered to be asked, and my efforts to live up to whatever reputation got me the invite in the first place will appear on his blog and my new page, The guest list… soon.

Then on Thursday I spotted a photo of a familiar local beach scene on my Facebook newsfeed, tagged by the brother of an old work mate of mine who I’d “met” on Fb last year and then met up with for real sometime later.
He was in Devon visiting family and did I fancy a few drinks to accompany a thrashing at pool?
Well I couldn’t really turn that down so on Friday I spent an all-too-rare night out at my friendly local. And as it turned out, after only three or four fairly evenly matched games, we teamed up to get thrashed a few times (mainly my fault, I admit) at doubles by a couple of local pool sharks.
All of which was very enjoyable, and also gave me the opportunity to wear my custom made Diary of an Internet Nobody t-shirt, any enquires about which I was of course only too happy to answer, at great length (accompanied by the handing out of purpose made labels, printed with the blog details, that I just happened to have in my pocket) because you can never have enough publicity.

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That t-shirt in full.

And if that wasn’t enough, I got another chance to shamelessly promote myself today when Elaine and I went to a very civilised party to celebrate (it turned out) the birthday of our hostess, the talented artist and jewellery maker, Moyra, who was happy to accept the attendance of we, the party goers as gifts in and of ourselves and had therfore neglected to inform us of the occasion we were celebrating.

The food, Spanish themed and delicious, had me wandering back and forth for several helpings (ostensibly perusing the paintings, photographs and other eclectic pieces of art on almost every available surface, I’d cruise past the tomato bread and scoop up a healthy dollop of chilli and garlic enfused olive oil as I went)

The talk ranged from a discussion with a well-travelled language professor on the relative merits of a bilingual upbringing, to a recent television dramatisation of the lives of pre-rapheelite painters and whether or not they were fairly portrayed, to a brand new musical, being staged for the first time in Barnstaple this September.
Oh, and I might have mentioned the blog a couple of times, you know, just throwaway comments.

And of course, being an arty sort of party, Jenny, creator of the contemporary musical, 99% Proof, was there to tell us all about it and it sounds like an intriguing project which I shall certainly go and see with Elaine, and I will report back in due course.
I may even have secured some behind the scenes access too, so watch this space.

All in all a rather pleasant weekend so far.
Now if only I could think of a way of getting out of that gardening she wants me to do tomorrow…

 
6 Comments

Posted by on August 4, 2013 in Blogging, Personal anecdote, Theatre

 

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The (very nearly last) show. Curtain call…

Ah, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd…

As April 14th 1983 approached, Ho and I began rehearsals on what would become The Very Nearly One Man Mime Show, in the place that it was to be performed, Beacon School drama studio.

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A completely empty, 80 x 30ft space, black all over, apart from the nasty brown nylon carpet tiles, fitted with 13 amp wall sockets and a rudimentary lighting rig which was controlled from a cupboard with no view of the “stage” area.

Hardly ideal.

The blankness of the place wasn’t an issue, indeed, our previous show had been called Images on a Blank Stage, it was more the technical logistics that were a problem.

The lights that were in situ – a few profile spots and a  selection of  fresnels (box shaped spotlights that could be focused via a slide-mounted lens) –  were probably cast-offs from the larger rig in the main hall and were all well and good, but it was impossible to see the stage while controlling them.
And the controls were outdated even back then. A huge grey steel panel with a bank of about a dozen noisy, sliding rheostatic faders, which you could hear being operated in the next room with the doors shut, let alone ten feet away in the audience.

We needed cutting edge technology, so we went and hired – and I’m quoting from the receipt I’ve just found – “1 twenty four channel, Rock and Roll effects desk, leads and powerpack” all for the princely sum of £15.87 inc VAT, for ten days hire.
Bargain!

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Since we weren’t constrained by the strict rules of traditional mime, we could use sound effects and complex lighting plots to give character to the set, without the need to make expensive, time consuming scenery.

The only scenery we used were a couple of “flats” (large boards, held up by props and cement blocks) for the stage wings, and a table, chair, and telephone, for use in the shorter Nightmares section of the show in part two.

            The Show.

We sold, I think, about 100 tickets for the first night’s performance,  filing the hard brown plastic chairs that appeared to populate every school in the country in the ’80s to capacity.
One long side of the studio was set up as the stage, with just a table, chair, and litter bin, the flats angled inwards to screen off the wings, with the other half filled with seating, all on one level.
And that was it. A blank canvas.

Part one – Daydreams.
Ho enters from stage right, dressed all in black, wearing the “Cleaner” mask, carrying his lunchbox and transistor radio which he places on the table, and begins working;

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Now, Ho and I have been over this on the phone, and neither of us can remember the exact order of events, other than that the cleaner starts daydreaming, illustrated by him appearing in a sequence of sketches without the mask, but they certainly included the following;

The Duel – Ho plays both combatants in an old fashioned pistol duel, shown in the slo-mo gunfight style later popularised by Simon Pegg in Spaced

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…the punchline being that the bullets, their paths also traced by the frenetic Ho, meet in the middle and fall harmlessly to the floor.

The Arcade – In which our versatile star plays the oily stallholder, tempting customers into his amusement hall…

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…he plays the punters, trying their luck at the various arcade games, and the machines themselves, miming the spinning reels and dials, both pulling the levers of, and being pulled as the levers of, one armed bandits, and providing the sounds of the cash payouts…

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               Try your luck sir?

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                   JACKPOT!

…and playing the driving game which began with Ho climbing into a car simulator which greeted him with the words “Let’s put the pedal to the metal, heel to the steel, burn rubber, and graze bums on the tarmac!” which, at the time, I distinctly recall finding deeply hilarious…

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“Quiet, I’m concentrating on my driving”

…after which, things went badly wrong with the game, ending with punctures and wheels coming off, and having to apologise to the smarmy owner.

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…and, closing part one, my personal favourite sketch;

Fade to Grey – Ho’s cleaner dreams of being a pop star, playing the keyboard maestro and his instruments – the spinning reel-to-reels, the waveforms of the oscilloscopes, and the pulsing of equalisers.
And all the while, miming all the keyboard parts to that ’80s classic, and an old favourite of us both, Visage’s breakthrough hit Fade to Grey.

My job during all this was primarily audio visual.
The sketch started with the cleaner listening to the radio during his teabreak…

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…he switches the radio on  – the music is very tinny, with the bass turned right down and treble right up on the studio PA – until he slips into the daydream – when the music kicks in at full power – and our super lighting desk came into it’s own.
I used the programmable sequencer to imitate a rock gig, pulsing lights in time to the music.

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Only one of the two photos taken of me were flattering. This isn’t it.

Unprofessionally, I was so into the scene, that when the time came for the cleaner to come out of his dream and switch off the radio, I completely missed my cue.
Fortunately for me, Ho, the consummate actor, gamely mimed fiddling with the seemingly malfunctioning radio, until I got the message and hit all the right knobs.
The audience never knew the difference, and they absolutely loved every minute.

10 minute interval.

Part two – Nightmares.
This section was a single, shorter piece concerning old age and loneliness,..

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The old man relives old nightmares of being in the war…

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…and yet there are moments of comedy, as his journey to the toilet is continually thwarted by a ringing telephone…

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…at which he always arrives too late, culminating in the out-of-toilet-roll punchline.

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With the show going so smoothly (bar a daydreaming producer) we should have known something would go wrong, and it very nearly did.
During the scene when Ho is rushing for the phone, at the end of part two, one of the flats collapsed, almost coming down on the front row of the audience. 

As luck would have it, Nick, one of the former members of Dramatiks, was in the front row, and therefore had a vested interest in catching it and holding it in place for the remaining few minutes of the performance.

The whole show brought the house down – almost literally – and on the second night a large group from the local RNID home for the deaf turned up, and they loved it, apart from the Fade to Grey sketch which seemed to puzzle them somewhat.

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              Ho takes a bow.

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After the show – with fan and ex-Dramatiks member, “Willie”.

After that it was nearly time to close the show for good.
Except for a special performance for local amateur dramatic society, The Rotherfield Players, for which we had to carry all the gear for the show four miles on foot, in baking heat, uphill, immediately before the performance.

And people say us theatrical types don’t suffer for our art.

Well luvvie, honestly…!

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2013 in Personal anecdote, Photography, Theatre

 

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The (very nearly last) show must go on…

Everyone seems to be having anniversary celebrations these days.
Obviously the Queen did a fair bit of celebrating last year, but so many cultural icons appear to be able to make a pretty good living trading on the fact that they’re still alive and in the same job, or have gone back to an old job that they did 30 years ago.
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Typing “anniversary tour” into Google gives results for Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, Reef, The Hollies, and Eric Clapton, all on page one.
And that’s without mentioning all the bands cashing in on the fad for the “Insert name of classic album here Tour”, whereby a band – probably from the ’80s – play a residency at a venue and perform one album from their back catalogue each night, like pioneering, continuously re-staffed, new material-shy, cycling obsessed German techno boffins Kraftwerk did at the Tate Modern last month…

***Tenuous link coming up***

…and I’ve just been informed by my oldest friend, Ho, (talented artist, and designer of Startrek hike team t-shirts) that we also have a 30th anniversary coming up in just a few weeks time.

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Any of you who have been following for a while, or who have trawled through my older posts,  will know that back in my late teens I was interested in theatre, and that I, along with Ho and four other friends from school, wrote, produced, financed, and performed a comic mime show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

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Poster and tickets for Edinburgh show.

Well, soon after our triumphant return to Sussex in the summer of ’82, Dramatiks Mime Workshop disbanded, as various members were in the middle of studying “proper” plays by Chekhov and the like for A’ levels, before going off to university or drama school.
But, having failed to secure a council grant for the place I’d successfully gained at Guildford to study stage management, I’d had to get a job in Crowborough, and Ho wasn’t going off to pursue his theatrical career at Cardiff drama school until the autumn of ’83.

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Some early examples of Ho’s artwork.

Between us, we’d done quite a lot of amateur theatre work, both on and backstage, in fact Ho had already won the best actor award at the East Sussex Drama Festival in 1981 for his performance of Samuel Beckett’s one man play,  Krapp’s Last Tape.

So it was natural that we would continue to work on other projects, both individually and together, especially as we had many of the school’s facilities at our disposal (a result of our continuing status as locally famous theatrical types) and it wasn’t long before Ho came up with the idea of putting on a one man comic mime show.

Featuring Ho directing himself in all the onstage roles, and with me taking on production, lighting, sound, and stage management, The Very Nearly One Man Mime Show was born.

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The show was split into two sections. Part one, Daydreams, was a series of comic sketches, whereas part two, Nightmares, was a darker, more poignant piece.
Both parts required masks to be made for the two main characters, something we had plenty of experience of, as the Edinburgh show used a number of them.

The masks were made by taking a mould of Ho’s face, using plaster of Paris and bandages, applied to his face – greased first to prevent sticking – and with cotton wool covering his eyes.
When the plaster has dried, the mould is carefully removed and filled with clay. After peeling the plaster off, a perfect clay replica of Ho’s head can be used as a template for modelling papier-maché facial features which can then be painted.

These were the two masks used in the show;

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In Daydreams – (predating Bart Simpson) “The Cleaner”.

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In Nightmares -“The Old Man”.

The beauty of mime, especially as far as cost is concerned, is the lack of equipment needed to put on a show. At least that’s the case with traditional mimes like Marcel Marceau.

Comic mime is not quite the same.
Rules are broken left, right, and centre.
Props are allowed.
Lighting and sound effects are allowed.
Vocal effects, and even speaking are tolerated in small doses, in the interests of comedy.

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And we were going to use as many added extras as we could lay our hands on, to make what would be our swansong as a theatre group our most ambitious show yet…

Coming up – The performance, near disaster, triumph, and a long walk…

Come and see the show!

 
3 Comments

Posted by on March 24, 2013 in Personal anecdote, Theatre

 

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“This business we call Show…”

I’m sure there are a lot of men of a certain age who remember a children’s TV presenter / folk singer called Toni Arthur, well her son went to our school.
When she heard about our exploits in Dramatiks Mime Workshop, she got in touch and asked if there was anything she could do to help our campaign to play a two week show in a theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Well, we could hardly turn down an offer like that, and from a bona fide celebrity into the bargain.

The next thing we knew, we were on our way to the dizzy heights of Sensational BBC Radio One to be interviewed by none other than Tony Blackburn.

We had to stand around in the control room of the studio for a while, waiting for the great man to arrive, and when he did it was a bit of an anticlimax.
He grunted hello and disappeared into the studio proper – the interview was to be conducted around the legendary Round Table, where the week’s singles releases were picked apart by guest celebrities every Friday – and we trouped in after him.

Once seated around the hallowed furniture, a hush descended, and Tony went into his warm up – head bowed, eyes closed, both hands, forefingers extended, making circular “winding up” motions an inch or two from his temples.
After a few seconds, his eyes popped open, his head snapped up, and that Sensational voice appeared, along with that huge, sparkly-eyed grin.

We were in the studio for about 4 minutes.

I don’t remember much of the interview itself, but I do remember dining out on it at school for a good while afterwards.

So, forward to August 1982, and we’ve been in Edinburgh, soaking up the thespian atmosphere, preparing the show, and exploring other acts that we were competing with in our theatre for a couple of days.

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The show, IMAGES ON A BLANK STAGE began on the Monday, with an audience, if memory serves, of six.
It went well, and we mangaged to evade the mob at the stage door (that may be mis-remembered) and go about our business relatively unimpeded by hoards of adoring fans.

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Images on a Blank Stage, rehearsals, 1982.
(yours truly in background, no make-up)

A busy week of putting on the show, going out leafleting, watching a show – Pookiesnackenburger anyone? – doing street theatre, and generally revelling in being this far from home, living the innocent life of festival novices.
That weekend we were invited – chosen from all the fringe acts, along with a select few others – to take part in the Festival Cavalcade, a daytime carnival along Prince’s Street, which along with much needed publicity, got us on the front page of the Scotsman newspaper!

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That Cavalcade Line-up in Full

We also performed in the Old Town on Festival Sunday, on a makeshift stage on the back of a lorry. This bagged us a brief background appearance on Newsnight. We were on a roll.

The following week went even better, pulling in up to double figures in audience numbers, including the correspondent from the Times Higher Educational supplement, who, much to our  delight gave us what we considered to be a rave review.
(I believe they described sketches in the show in the glowing terms, “comic, inventive, and  short”)

     On the Scottish border

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Some of these people are now allowed out on their own.

By the end of our fortnight at the cutting edge of modern comic theatre, we were creatively exhausted, skint, and looking forward to a triumphant, ticker-tape strewn parade on our return to Sussex.
The reality was slightly more, well, real, and life returned pretty much to normal. But we did get our parade, sort of. We were invited to join the Crowborough Carnival procession, which we did with great gusto, dancing madly, in whiteface masks, along the whole route, behind the New Orleans jazz band that had played every year for as far back as I remember.

Some of the group went off to drama school – I got a place doing stage-management at Guilford, but was refused a grant, something that rankles even now – and one member and I put on three performances of the very well received VERY NEARLY ONE MAN MIME SHOW , but that was the end of my theatrical career, although some of the others went on to produce and perform shows of their own.

I still look back on it as one of the best times in my life – my dip, however brief, into the world that gave us so many of the actors and comedians who entertain us today.

Long may the Fringe continue.

Many thanks to Ho for providing believed-lost photos

 
10 Comments

Posted by on June 24, 2012 in Personal anecdote, Theatre, Travel

 

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