The Adventures of an Australian in London: A double life in music (Part 2)

Written by Tony Locantro

Tony Locantro 

 

In his second article TONY LOCANTRO recounts further highlights from his career in music, spending evenings playing piano for various Music Hall and Variety shows in and around London and recalling the various performers whom he accompanied down through the years (while continuing to work for EMI by day).

 By 1973, Philip Hedley was working as assistant to Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, and in March 1973 I was accompanying the Hiss and Boo company in a music hall show booked in as a package to the Theatre Royal. When Philip saw the show, he decided it was silly to pay an outside company to put on something that the theatre could easily do itself, so he cancelled the Hiss and Boo return booking in April and instead engaged me to play for a music hall show that he himself directed, harking back to 1959 when we had both been in the first production of Victoriana in Sydney, originally staged by Pamela Trethowan, and still being revived at Sydney University to this day.

Not long after that, Philip phoned me to say that Joan Littlewood was putting on a series of revues to be called NUTS and would I like to be involved. I duly arrived at the theatre to find total chaos, confusion and even pandemonium. Joan’s idea was to stage a show using people from the local community like journalists, politicians and social workers, mixed in with her Theatre Workshop actors and any other professional performers mad enough to join in. The show was done on the main stage in the theatre, but she also had a small company performing in the bar based around me as the pianist and entertainers like Gaye Brown, Sandy Caron (Alma Cogan’s sister) and Kent Baker. It was our job to perform music hall and variety numbers as well as lead sing-alongs, but we were also supposed to compete with the main show and try to hold the audience in the bar even when the main show was running. This of course proved futile and as soon as the bell rang, all our bar audience went into the auditorium and didn’t emerge until the interval, when we started up our own bar show again, and we also continued in the bar after the main show had ended.

Long John Baldry was in the main show and the pianist was a man called Ian Armit (who was one of Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men). Ian was very talented at his own kind of jazz and barrel-house music but no good at accompanying point numbers, mainly because he tended to lean back from the keyboard and close his eyes when he was playing! So it wasn’t long before I got roped in to play for some of the people in the main show like the cockney actress Rita Webb, the newsreader Gordon Honeycomb and a very polished drag act called Rogers and Starr, while Ian continued to play for Diane Langton, Elaine Paige, Long John Baldry and some of the other acts. And, typical of Joan, some nights I would arrive at the theatre to find a notice on the stage saying ‘Barflies on stage tonight. Company in the bar.’ Of course this was meant to keep the members of the stage company on their toes — I remember the actor and songwriter Mike Pratt was one of them — and they found it difficult to do the kind of free-wheeling entertainment that the regular barflies were good at, and I recall Joan commenting one night that the stage company was no good in the bar: ‘too many calcified egos’ she said! One of the acts that Joan liked to use was Rex Jameson, whose Mrs Shufflewick was one of the all-time great comic creations. Unfortunately, Shuff was rather addicted to the booze and could not always be relied upon to get through his spot, so Joan would put him on as the last act before the interval. He would perch on his barstool as always and if he was sober, or relatively so, he would finish his act to tumultuous applause and somebody would then announce the interval. If however his words were slurred and he started to slide off the stool then the interval would be announced immediately and the stage manager would come on and unceremoniously cart Shuff offstage. The next day he would be full of remorse and promise Joan it would never happen again, but Shuff was Shuff and a few days later it would happen all over again.

It was during this time that Lionel Bart started to appear around the theatre. He had invested a lot of his personal money in Twang!! and effectively lost the lot after the show failed so dismally. He was even reduced to selling his copyright in Oliver!. While the first series of NUTS was running he used to come and sit in the bar getting smashed on Ouzo, and Joan did her best to try to get him back on track by encouraging him to write some new music. She even suggested that he came and sang some of his old songs in the show, but alas Lionel was no performer. I did my best to support him musically, but after a few attempts he gave up and went back to drinking Ouzo in the bar.

The last time I saw Lionel Bart was at an afternoon-tea ‘tribute’ in 1990 at the Theatre Royal that Philip Hedley organized in memory of the Theatre Workshop actress Avis Bunnage. Lionel was sitting near the piano and in the run up to the beginning of the very informal cabaret I was playing some background music and as Lionel was there I included some of his songs and he seemed genuinely pleased and surprised that I should have done that. Then later, as part of the cabaret itself, Miriam Karlin, standing in the crook of the baby grand piano, sang the title song ‘Fing’s Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be’ and Lionel prompted her with some of the words. For me it was an iconic moment and took me back some 30 years to being so impressed by the show when I first arrived in London.

NUTS ran for about a month and then later in the year Joan directed her last play, So You Want to be in Pictures by Peter Rankin, and I found myself continuing to play in the bar before the show, during the interval and after the show. This pattern continued throughout 1974 and into 1975 with productions of adventure plays like Land of the Dinosaurs, Dracula and The Count of Monte Christo all written and directed by Ken Hill, interspersed with runs of cabarets which Joan sometimes directed (Mrs Shufflewick’s Nights under the Stars was one such interestingly named show) and I was expected to play for the whole of the show on stage as well as do the three sessions in the bar! Toni Palmer, who had been so good in Fings, took up with Ken Hill and used to come and lead the sing-alongs in the bar to great effect, so this bar entertainment became a feature of the theatre during that time. Alas, tragedy struck in April 1975 when Joan Littlewood’s partner and business manager Gerry Raffles died unexpectedly, and Joan was so devastated that she walked out of the theatre that had been her life with Gerry and never returned again. Things carried on for the next year or so under Ken Hill and Caroline Eaves, but by the beginning of 1976 the cabarets ended and I stopped playing in the bar.

Memories of Hinge and Bracket

At this point I will digress to write about one of the acts that performed at Stratford East in NUTS, Joan Littlewood’s first series of revues, which was the brilliant drag act, Hinge and Bracket. When Patrick Fyffe and George Logan first started doing Hinge and Bracket, one of the places they sometimes performed was the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in the variety shows that I was playing for, and they caused a sensation. In those days Patrick always dressed as a woman off-stage as well as on, although George sometimes wore male attire, and the first time I saw Patrick dressed as a man I didn’t recognise him! The music in their act at that time was entirely Gilbert & Sullivan and it was wonderful, especially Patrick’s hilarious troubles with a broken fan in ‘Three Little Maids from School’. My day job in those days continued with EMI and I desperately tried to persuade the company to record the duo, but my pleadings fell on deaf ears, and it was ironic that when they later became famous on TV, EMI had to pay to license in their recordings from a third party, even though they were made in EMI’s own Abbey Road Studios. By the way, when I asked them their real names to pass on to EMI, Patrick told me with a straight face that he was called Perri St Claire; I didn’t find out until some time later that he was really Patrick Fyffe.

One vivid memory I have of Hinge and Bracket at Stratford concerns a particular night during the run of NUTS in June and July 1973. The posters were changed every week and showed the principal performers booked for those dates in the style of a boxing poster, e.g. June 20: ‘Long John Baldry v. Rita Webb’. The glamour drag act Rogers and Starr were regulars on the bill, but only sometimes did they get listed as a main act on the posters. On a night when they did have star billing, Hinge and Bracket, who only appeared occasionally, asked Joan if they could also perform that night because they wanted some agent to see their act. Rogers and Starr rather resented another drag act being on the same bill with them anyway, especially one that went down as well as Hinge and Bracket did, so on this particular night they took umbrage when they heard that Joan had agreed to Hinge and Bracket joining the show and they swept out of the theatre in high dudgeon, trailing wigs and feathers and spangly dresses behind them. One of the other performers (Toni Palmer) hurried after them and managed to catch them in the car park as they were piling all the gear into their car. She pleaded with them to come back, which they eventually did, and then she came around to the rest of the artists and exhorted us all not to say a word to Rogers and Starr about what had happened in case they decided to walk out again. So the show went on, with both acts doing their utmost to prove to the audience that each was the best. In fact, the audience loved them both and cheered them to the rafters, so all ended well despite the frosty atmosphere backstage.

I also went to a pub in Vauxhall to see Patrick and George do a glamour drag act, although by then the characters of Hinge and Bracket kept breaking in, especially Patrick’s Dame Hilda laugh. And I remember on one occasion at Stratford East that George agreed to help a talentless group of Canadian acting students who were trying to do a kind of rock ‘n’ roll number. They were hopeless, but George patiently rehearsed with them and tried to knock them into shape. He then turned up for the show that night wearing a glamorous 1950s dress and played piano in such an authentic rock ‘n’ roll style that the group actually sounded good! After George and Patrick parted company I had the pleasure of playing for Patrick in a music hall show for Ian Liston’s Hiss and Boo company at the Lyric Hammersmith for two weeks in January 1991. The piano was down on the floor at the front of the Stalls and Patrick always addressed me from the stage as Monsieur Le Cointreau. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t play for Dame Hilda nearly as well as Evadne used to. I was OK in ‘Moonstruck’ and other similar numbers, but I couldn’t quite get the style right for the romantic Ivor Novello songs and I had cause to admire George’s great talent at the keyboard even more than I had done at Stratford East. I was very glad when Patrick and George decided to get back together again because the interaction between them as Hinge and Bracket was unique.

Coming back to 1976, it was around this time that I got back into playing for old time music hall and for several years I was effectively doing it full time, as well as holding down my day-job at EMI. Sometimes I would take a few days holiday to do little tours with Hiss and Boo playing in proper theatres around the country, and the stars of these shows were outstanding people like Barbara Windsor, Leslie Crowther, Ruth Madoc, Dame Hilda Bracket (as described above after she split from Dr Evadne Hinge), Rosemary Ashe and Roy Hudd.

Sunday Night Variety Shows at Stratford East

In 1981, I got another call from the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, to come and do some Sunday Night Variety shows, to be held once a month throughout most of the year. They were directed by Philip Hedley, at that time running the Theatre Royal, and hosted by Kate Williams (who had been in the successful TV comedy series Love Thy Neighbour), and I was the regular stage pianist. I also did the bar work as well, although later I roped in Colin Sell (the pianist on the BBC comedy radio programme I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue) to share some of the load. These shows were intended to be informal occasions when actors and performers could come and try out material away from the gaze of West End critics, in the setting of a local East End theatre with a very friendly audience. It actually worked well and some of the people who went on to become successful stand-up comics tried out their acts at Stratford East in those days.

There were a number of performers who were in most shows, often as part of the core company who did the opening and closing sequences, the sketches and some songs. These included the actresses Ruth Sheen and Yvonne d’Alpra who were both seen frequently in TV drama series and in films; the comedienne Christine Pilgrim; Sam Kelly, an extremely versatile actor who is best remembered for his comic roles in ‘Allo ‘Allo and Porridge; with Sam Kelly we sometimes had three other singing actors: Brian Protheroe, Martin Duncan and Keith Mansell as a Barbershop Quartet called The Gay Blades; an actor called Jim Dunk who appeared in a number of TV drama series; Anna Karen who played the hapless Olive in On the Buses and her husband Terry Duggan, who was Nobby in On the Buses. The actress Imelda Staunton appeared frequently as the vocalist in a folk group called Morris Minor and the Austin Seven that was led by the set designer William Dudley. Imelda has had a dazzling career on stage and film in a wide range of demanding roles including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, The Corn is Green and Entertaining Mr Sloane on stage, two Harry Potter movies plus Shakespeare in Love and Vera Drake on film, and award-winning performances in many West End musicals including Guys and Dolls, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and Follies. Imelda’s husband Jim Carter sometimes did a cod magic act where everything went wrong. Jim achieved great success playing the butler Mr Carson in the TV series Downton Abbey. Also in that same folk group was the TV and film actor Jack Chissick.

Another of our regulars was the amazing Marcel Steiner who ran The Smallest Theatre in the World, which accommodated an audience of one in the sidecar of a motorbike. Marcel did a number of different speciality acts, one of which was firing a man out of a cannon.  Marcel’s assistant was Sylvester McCoy, later to play Dr Who on TV, who would climb into the cannon before a cloth was draped over the front, but when Marcel fired the cannon, all that flew out of the barrel was a pair of rather large hob-nail boots that would be caught in a net stretched across the back of the stalls causing much laughter from the audience. For another act, usually performed near the start of the show, Marcel would dress in doublet and hose and, after announcing: ‘I feel one of my better deaths coming on’, he would lean up against the proscenium arch and, with appropriate theatrical gestures and groans, mime an exaggerated death scene worthy of an Elizabethan drama while I improvised sorrowful death scene music on the piano. I don’t know what the audience made of this but I always enjoyed it.

There was another speciality act, the multi-instrumentalist comic Tommy Shand, who came on the show occasionally, and we also had a large-scale magic act called the Zodiac Brothers, although the two young men were not related. They used elaborate stage devices for their illusions which were quite spectacular. One of the ‘brothers’ was the award-winning Paul Kieve who went on to contribute some amazing illusions to West End and Broadway stage shows like Ghost, Matilda, Scrooge and The Invisible Man and he worked on (and appeared in) the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There was also a pair of Irish actors, Pat Abernethy and Dave Marsden, who called themselves ‘Isosceles’. Dave was a skilled pianist and they had several different comedy acts, but the one that always went down best was their two Belfast ladies. With simple clothes and very little make up they became two hilarious Irish housewives who were totally real characters talking about their lives.  Isosceles later hosted the Sunday Night Variety shows after Kate Williams gave up doing it. A popular actor who occasionally appeared in the shows was Steve Nallon who provided the voice of Margaret Thatcher for the hard-hitting satirical TV show Spitting Image.  For Stratford East, Steve would don the full Margaret Thatcher outfit, complete with trademark handbag, and bring the Iron Lady to life on our stage with hilarious results. Another of the young comedy actors who appeared in the Sunday Night shows at the very start of his career was Nigel Planer, who later performed frequently on TV especially as the hippy Neil in The Young Ones, and in musical theatre in the West End including the original casts of Evita, Wicked and Chicago. As well as young comics, we were also lucky to have one of the older great comedy writers of our day, Barry Cryer, who would do a ‘top of the bill’ spot in which he would improvise a funny narrative based on whatever he had seen in the earlier part of the show. Barry has written material for just about every famous comedian of his time including George Burns, Tommy Cooper, Bob Hope, Morecombe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Frankie Howerd, Bruce Forsyth and many others. And at one stage we had almost all the actors from the very first TV series of The Bill performing regularly at our Sunday night shows.

This went on for a rather long time until I got too old for it so I retired, but variety shows still continue at the Theatre Royal in one form or another to this day as a showcase for emerging musical and comedy talent in the East End.

Here I will stop and write about three very special artists who featured as bill toppers in some of the Sunday Night shows at Stratford East: Will Gaines, Adelaide Hall and Maxine Daniels.

Will Gaines was an American entertainer who had performed at the famous Cotton Club in New York and although I would describe him as a tap dancer, he hated to be labelled as such. But that’s what he did — he tap danced!  Will’s act had no real structure and he just wanted to dance impromptu to whatever music he was provided with. He appeared a number of times on the Sunday Night Variety shows as top of the bill and the audiences loved him…but I didn’t! He never brought any music for me to play and would always say: ‘Just play anything you like and I will dance to it.’ But my skill was as an accompanist, not a jazz pianist. Will was even unable to suggest any songs that I might play. I presume he never really even knew half the time what his pianists were playing and they might well have been playing their own compositions. The best he could come up with was ‘Summertime’ from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, but I could not manage to play a jazz version of ‘Summertime’ for twenty minutes to fill Will’s act and I really could never think of what else to play. Long John Baldry’s pianist Ian Armit would have been perfect but, alas, it was Tony Locantro who had to play for Mr. Gaines! Somehow we would get to the end of the time and Will was always received with rapturous applause, but my heart sank whenever I was told that Will Gaines was booked for the next show.

Adelaide Hall was possibly the most illustrious star I ever accompanied. Born in 1901 (probably) in Brooklyn, she had had a spectacular career in America on Broadway in the early black revues like Shuffle Along in 1921 and Blackbirds of 1928. She had performed with legendary artists like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Art Tatum, as well as Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club in New York and had run her own nightclub in Paris in the 1930s. After the war she had appeared in London in a number of West End musicals including Kiss Me, Kate and Love from Judy and continued to perform in both New York and London right up till her death in 1993. I played for her a number of times in various venues and she never failed to impress her audiences. She had great personal charisma and even in her late 80s was still able to sing her old songs like ‘Creole Love Call’ and ‘I can’t give you anything but love’ with warmth and charm, that is when she could remember the words. And sometimes her memory was even worse than that. On one occasion we had rehearsed ‘Accentuate the Positive’ but when in the performance I played the introduction, she launched into ‘I can’t give you anything but love’. Being used to following erratic performers in old time music hall I just went along as if that is what was intended and nobody was any the wiser.

Maxine Daniels was a very stylish jazz singer who never achieved the fame she deserved. She was the sister of the entertainer Kenny Lynch and was born in Stepney in the East End of London in 1930. In her teens she won several talent quests and embarked on a life singing in jazz clubs and touring variety shows with people like Humphrey Lyttelton, Terry Lightfoot and George Chisholm. She sang regularly on Radio Luxembourg and made a number of recordings for Oriole but never became particularly well known. She was a very simple and shy person and, despite singing in a jazz idiom, she chose songs that were straightforward and would have an immediate appeal to the listener, such as ‘Springtime in the Rockies’, ‘A Broken Doll’, ‘Somebody else is taking my place’, ‘Almost like being in love’ and ‘For all we know’. My first experience of playing for her was rather strange. In my time accompanying music hall singers, especially in comedy songs, I was used to sticking close to the performer who might change the tempo or the emphasis on the words for comic effect. When I played for Maxine the first time I hadn’t appreciated that as a jazz singer, she would take liberties with the tempo and the melody and sing off the beat from time to time. Foolishly, I stuck with her like glue and accompanied her exactly in what she was singing, which of course was totally wrong. She must have thought I was a very odd pianist but she was too polite to say anything and fortunately I quickly realised that with a jazz singer like Maxine my job was to play the song straight and she would embroider it with her own improvisations. I later played for her many times and it was always a great pleasure, although in deciding on her ‘set’ she would sing the minimum number of songs and do the minimum number of repeated choruses because she maintained that people would get bored if she went on too long, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Her reticence meant that she avoided appearing in clothes that could be considered ‘glamorous’ and as she usually wore floor-length evening dresses on stage, the audience could not see that she was often wearing slippers on her feet for comfort! Of all the singers I ever played for, I would rate Maxine as the very best for her musical taste, wonderful voice and superlative style.

The Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park and Other Regular Venues

Another of my regular gigs was playing for the annual fund-raising gala of the New Shakespeare Company at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, usually organised by the actor Ian Talbot. I did this for seven wonderful years, but during David Conville’s last year as director of the company, they actually made a profit so there was no need for a fund-raising gala and they held instead a grand tribute to David in which I was not involved and that was the end for me in the Park. I played for some great people, including Wayne Sleep, who was just breaking away from his role as a serious dancer with the Royal Ballet and he did an outstanding performance singing and dancing to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ that was so well received that we had to encore the whole thing! Another favourite was the actor Deryck Guyler, who happened to play the spoons and the washboard, which always brought the house down when we performed ‘Bye Bye Blues’ or ‘The Sheik of Araby’. We would also have famous classical actors and actresses like Derek Jacobi, Rula Lenska, Bernard Bresslaw, Peggy Mount and others. Sometimes they would just sell programmes or draw the raffle, but we would sometimes gather six of them to do the old ‘Fol De Rol Dol’ routine, where they would recite very rude limericks with a straight face, framed with little musical sections to which they would dance a very stately gavotte. The story of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, is told by David Conville in his book The Park which recalls the many productions and performers that have graced this wonderful 1,200-seat venue.

The Pindar of Wakefield was a pub in Grays Inn Road at King’s Cross. In 1969 the Aba Daba Music Hall Company had been started by Aline Waites and others at the Mother Redcap pub in Camden Town and a year or so later it moved to the Pindar of Wakefield where it flourished for a number of years. It was billed as ‘Old Time Music Hall’ but although the shows were presented in the format of music hall, it was much more radical than that. The songs ranged very widely and included anything and everything from ‘Father, Dear Father, Come Home’ through Gilbert and Sullivan, Franz Lehár, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and Noël Coward to Stephen Sondheim. I particularly enjoyed accompanying Elaine Holland in ‘Broadway Baby’ and Davilia David in ‘I’m Still Here’, two Sondheim numbers that required more pianistic skill than most of the other songs.

Each show ran for two weeks on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and we rehearsed from 6 pm to 8 pm on the Monday and Tuesday before each change of show. The normal shows included five performers, a chairman at one side of the small stage and a pianist at the other. The shows were done in three acts and the third act finished with a ‘scena’, a medley of songs on a particular theme such as farmyard songs or train songs and Aline was particularly skilled at creating something more meaningful in these scenas than just a collection of songs.

At the back of the pub was the theatre room, which had been purpose built for the company. It held exactly 100 people, seated around small tables where they could order drinks from the bar and eat fish and chips and chicken in a basket from the pub’s kitchen.

I joined a regular roster of pianists including David Wykes, Peter Pontzen and Barry Booth and appeared there for several years. Among the regular performers were Annabelle Lee, Peter John, Kent Baker, Davilia David, Bea Aston, Christine Pilgrim, Elaine Holland, Geoffrey Robinson, Peter Spraggon, Jim McManus, Bob Hornery, Terry Bayler, Robert Lister, Bronwyn Williams, Maggie Beckitt, John Larsen, Violetta, Pauline Menear, Harry Dickman, Martin Wimbush, Tim Myers, Michael Sadler, David Ryder Futcher, Roy Kean, Michael Kirk, Helen Watson, Collette Kelly, Ruth Madoc, Deirdre Dee, Lucille Gaye, Marcia Warren, Peter Bob Scott, Christine Edmunds, Jeanette Ranger, Christopher Lillicrap and others, some of whom I talk more about in Part 3.

I particularly enjoyed playing for the adult pantomime (originally written by Peter John) every Christmas, and one year I borrowed a drum and a gong from the traps cupboard at the Abbey Road Studios and set them up close to the piano so that I could add extra musical effects to Aladdin. The drum was especially effective to accompany the bumps and grinds of Kent Baker playing Widow Twanky when he sang: ‘They’re gonna stand outside in line to get to see … (boom, boom) … Twanky!’

Aba Daba was not the only company to perform regularly at the Pindar of Wakefield and early in the week there would be poetry readings as well as a night of ragtime music featuring the pianist and multi-instrumentalist Keith Nichols.

In 1985 the Pindar was sold to the Water Rats who renamed the venue after themselves and modernised the theatre room, which still continues as a performing venue for pop acts to this day. Aba Daba left the Water Rats in 1988 and moved to a new location called ‘Underneath the Arches’ in Southwark but I never worked with the company again after my stint at the Pindar, which I look back on with much happiness.

The Hackney Empire

Although I played at the Hackney Empire only a few times in the period soon after it was given up by the Mecca Bingo company in 1984 and returned to theatrical use a few years later, I am still very proud to have performed in that legendary theatre where the likes of Marie Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and W.C. Fields all appeared when it was first built as a music hall in 1901. Under the management of Claire and Roland Muldoon, the theatre was looking for a permanent future and they put on experimental shows with the new generation of alternative comedy acts such as Ben Elton, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, but other uses were also tried. For example, the Hackney Council hired it to put on a free matinee of music hall for the local pensioners and they asked Brian Walker to organise it. I remember that we had Maxine Daniels on the bill and that brilliant group of crazy musicians called Nuts and Bolts. Just before the show started, the leader of the group approached me with the music for the act in a ring-binder and asked me if I would accompany them because their pianist had not turned up. I had never seen them before nor they me but needs must and I said I would do my best without any rehearsal and just the most cursory glance through the music. Anyway, it was all a great success. Their act was hilariously funny, full of musical mayhem and madness and in the orchestra pit I managed to keep up with what they were doing on stage. They had already rehearsed my drummer, and the other two members of my band also joined in as appropriate, so it all worked superbly.

Our little company led by Brian Walker did a few more shows in that hallowed theatre and the atmosphere in that beautiful auditorium, designed by the famous Frank Matcham, was warm and friendly with a wonderful rapport between the performers on stage and the audience. The theatre has now established itself as a successful operation which puts on what I think is generally London’s best pantomime every year and it also hosts visiting opera and ballet companies as well as many other shows.

Other places where I performed included the Lord Hood and the Sebright Arms, both pubs at Bethnal Green, the Brick Lane Music Hall when it first opened in the old Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, Rugantino’s Restaurant in Fleet Street, Crispin’s Restaurant in Vauxhall, and the Naticia, a ‘showboat’ that sailed up and down the Thames on which the Song and Supper company performed three nights a week during the warm weather for a number of years. The customers were served a meal while a narrator described the sights along the banks of the Thames that the ship was passing. It then moored near the Tower of London while the artists performed a music hall show of about two hours. Then the drummer and I played for a short spell of dancing while the ship returned to Westminster Pier where the audience disembarked. The season began at Easter and one year the bookings were so heavy that it carried on right up until Christmas although by then it was quite chilly on the river!

Song and Supper also performed regularly in the Empire Rooms, a large basement space in Tottenham Court Road that had been a famous ballroom and was now available for hire on an ad hoc basis. The premises were later taken over by London Entertains and became a home for a very successful operation called ‘The Cockney’ that had been housed in Lower Charing Cross Road. Huge numbers of punters, mainly from Scandinavia and the Midlands were ferried there by coach for a meal and a ‘cockney’ show and I was employed for a while playing sing-along music for the reception part of the evening. It is now the Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing club but alas they have never asked me to play there!

Mrs Geraldo

I should talk here about an interlude I had for several months as a restaurant pianist in the late 1980s while I was still at EMI. During the hey-day of my piano-playing career, I was pretty much working every night, and although I was sometimes nervous of taking on some of the jobs, I always managed to do what was required of me, whether it was playing for music hall, variety or occasionally something completely different.

The oddest time was when I was on the books of Mrs Geraldo, the widow of the famous bandleader, who ran an agency for musicians, originally started by her husband. This only came about because one of my EMI colleagues knew Mrs Geraldo's assistant, who understood that because of my daytime EMI job, I wanted only part-time work, essentially filling in for permanent pianists while they took some holiday. The work was in quite high-class restaurants around the West End and when I arrived at a new venue and asked the restaurant manager what he would like me to play, the answer was always the same: “Quietly!” The venues varied enormously from formal, rather grand establishments to more lively café type places, including one rather exotic venue in Charlotte Street where my piano was perched high up on a platform over the main entrance. I needed a ladder to get up to it and I had to get the attention of one of the waiters to bring me the ladder when I wanted to descend!

When I was at floor level in the main part of the establishment, customers occasionally asked for requests, which was almost always ‘As Time Goes By’, and that would usually earn me a tip of £1 placed on the top of the piano.

This part of my career came to an end when my usual employer at the Geraldo agency was on holiday and Mrs Geraldo rang me with the good news that she had found me a full-time job playing in a hotel somewhere miles away from London. She got very cross when I turned it down and explained that I was only available for casual part-time gigs in London and she dropped me from her books! I wasn't all that concerned except that the money was good for such undemanding work and I enjoyed going around the West End restaurants.

The End of Music Hall and Variety and Back to Theatregoing

All this stopped around 1991, when I retired from my full-time job at EMI. I expected to be free to do a lot more work in music hall and variety, especially out of London, but to my surprise the whole scene inexplicably dried up and instead I found myself working full-time as a free-lance compilation producer for EMI Classics. In fact, one of the last gigs I did was to play at Joan Littlewood’s wake at the Old Hampstead Town Hall in 2002. Naturally we had a sing-song and Joan’s old actors joined in songs from Fings, Oh What a Lovely War and The Hostage among other things—I think Joan would have approved!

In more recent times, when nobody wanted me to play music hall or sing-alongs, I again took up regular theatre-going and, as well as the West End, I went frequently to the two first-class suburban theatres at Wimbledon and Richmond as well as making occasional visits to other suburban venues at Watford, Bromley and Hayes.

These were usually receiving houses for national tours of musicals and plays but occasionally they mounted new productions of their own. And each summer I visited the Chichester Festival Theatre for their productions of musicals, which were usually very good. But it was the West End that I attended most and I took up a new hobby of going back frequently to see the musicals that I particularly liked.

This started when I discovered that one of my regular music hall performers, Graham Hoadly, was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Palladium playing several minor roles and covering a couple of the older principals. I started to go as and when Graham told me he would be on in one of the main roles and I then kept going back as other cast changes took place. One of the most interesting was when the Australian actor Jason Donovan took over as Caractacus Potts. Graham was full of praise for his acting but I was a little disappointed as I found his performance a bit small-scale for the huge auditorium of the Palladium, one of London’s largest theatres. And I put this down to his being used to acting in a more intimate manner for the TV camera. But I had no such complaint when I saw him in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the smaller Palace Theatre where he was excellent. But it wasn’t just cast changes that happened to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There were frequent changes in the dialogue of the two comic characters, which I suspect was the actors free-wheeling and then being brought back to the script by the writer, Jeremy Sams. And other things changed too. There was a clever scene involving one of the dogs that sat still, unperturbed while somebody fired some loud rifle shots and then became frightened by a very minor noise and ran off the stage. This scene mysteriously vanished and never reappeared, and eventually there was the complete loss of the entire Prologue when the show was being prepared to open on Broadway because apparently the creatives thought the Prologue would confuse the Broadway audience. They might as well not have bothered as the show ran for only 285 performances in New York before closing.

Other shows that I took to seeing frequently included Spamalot, Chicago and Jerry Springer: The Opera, all of which continued to give me great pleasure every time I saw them. Chicago in particular I followed around three theatres, on smaller and smaller stages and numerous cast changes. I always felt the production, starting with Ute Lemper and Ruthie Henshall in 1997, was over-choreographed by Ann Reinking, but I got used to its excesses and kept going back. One amazing night was a charity fund-raising gala where the seats in the Stalls and Dress Circle were very expensive, but the Upper Circle was just normal price. The current regular cast played the ensemble numbers and linking sections but the principals were joined by a load of additional performers who had previously been in the show and all the main numbers were then done as duets or trios or whatever. Sometimes different singers took separate verses individually or several singers stayed on for the whole number and sang it together. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but it worked amazingly well and was quite memorable. And then, most recently, 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a glorious feast of singing and dancing with wonderful songs that I had known and loved for my entire life and brought back happy memories of my mother and grandfather. I had seen two previous productions of this show at Chichester and Wimbledon but it was this particular version that really appealed. I achieved twelve visits to 42nd Street, generally sitting in the front row of the Stalls, and I continue to enjoy the original cast album as well as some clips on YouTube.

After 42nd Street I have effectively given up theatre-going as my hearing and eye-sight, as well as my mobility, continue to deteriorate as I now go through my early eighties. So it is just my memories for me from now on.

 

To be concluded with part three.

 

Picture credits:

Chiefly from the author’s collection with the exception of:

Lionel Bart portrait, Hinge and Bracket and Sylvester McCoy photos – BBC Archive

Barry Cryer and Will Gaines (video stills) – Network Distributing Co.

Hinge and Bracket Lp album cover and Nigel Planer photo – Private collections

Read 241 times Last modified on Friday, 11 September 2020 07:39