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THE ROUND THE HORNE YEARS(2004/2005/2009)

PART 1 

2003 was a very busy year in one way or another. A slow start with a few cabaret nights-but then a brief tour of "Ladies Night"(cut short by bad booking) -three plays in rep when an elderly actor broke his arm or leg(can't remember which) and then "The Rocky Horror Show" at Chelmsford rep dovetailing into panto at Chesham for the last time as a producing theatre.

 

So-it was with mixed feelings when in the September I received a phone call from my then agent-Trends-saying there was a job with my name on it -"Round the Horne"!!

-I'd loved this classic radio and it's myriad of characters for many years-and indeed the two camp persona of Julian and Sandy became avid listening in our flat when I was at drama school. And now-someone had got the idea of putting it onstage !

 I was in the gym when I got the call-and I immediately called out -"Kenneth Williams" !! Linda at Trends said she would fix up an audition for what was at this stage just a fringe production in London. But-as soon as I put the phone down I realised I couldn't make the dates in October/November because of my prior contract with Newpalm and subsequently Chesham Elgiva theatre.(I'd heard stories of Newpalm holding people to ransom over their contracts -even when the West End beckoned!) There was basically no way out of it ! But(and not for the first-or last time )-I went to the audition.

Some may say this was a foolish thing to do as it can seriously piss producers off  when an artist is subsequently unavailable-but this was a risk worth taking.

-That is probably why I was rather laid back at the audition-I didn't dress in a manner befitting the roles I was auditioning for (not like me at all)-in fact ,being late Summer,I wore shorts.(This might have gone in my favour-as it got me noticed by the writer, Brian's wife !)

I auditioned in front of Brian Cooke(the last surviving writer),his wife (deeply enamoured of my legs apparently !) and a director -who I subsequently learnt at the time was a gentleman called Ash. I read the scripts for Julian and Sandy and Rambling Sid Rumpo-and a few other bits and pieces from this classic radio show.(I think Charles and Fiona were part of the process as well) They seemed satisfied-but deep down I knew that I couldn't get out of the previous contracts-and it would have been very fool-hardy to try.

I discussed this with Trends-and whether or not I was ever asked for a recall-I will never know-but I just had to put the  whole thing behind me and fulfil my commitments as "The Narrator" and "Dame Dolly Trot" until the early part of 2004.

 

-During the early part of 2004-I was working with the corporate murder mystery company-(who'd kept the wolf from the door for many a year)-when David- one of the company said that "Round the Horne" had transferred to the West End-to rave reviews and his friend Robin was doing well as Kenneth Williams. I couldn't help feeling regret that I'd been unable to make myself at least available.

But then-fate took one of it's very kind turns; I saw that the production required a male understudy and someone to play the onstage sound effects man. I applied via the channels I had at my disposal and asked my agents- Trends to push it as well.

Sure enough-within a couple of weeks-I was summoned to the Venue theatre, just of Leicester Square (and now called the Leicester square theatre) for an audition. I'd been there once before for another audition, whilst the musical "Taboo" was in situ- and realised it was one of those auditorium that could be altered for any show.

I once again met Brian Cooke-and a new director-Michael Kingsbury. This time I was to read for all the characters-but mainly those played originally by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. Of course-I had my sights set on the Kenneth Williams role(and why not !)

Brian Cooke was very impressed and asked if I could come and see the show over the next few days. He gave me two comps there  and then !

(As a parting comment-Brian's wife reminded me of the last time I'd auditioned for them-and how she'd noticed my legs !)

 

Michael and I saw the show the following Friday night-and enjoyed it immensely. I of course kept an eye on the onstage sound effects man-knowing that this was the role that was primarily at stake-and concluded- "yes-I could cope with that role-and make it work for me"!

(I'd wisely taken the precaution of making yet another-"private handbag recording ",that night-just in case!!)

I saw Brian afterwards and without being over enthusiastic or "desperate"-said I'd be very interested in playing the role and covering the four male principals.

When I got home I asked my agent to contact the company and express our interest-and that was all we could do at this stage.

And then-the weeks ticked by.

After a couple of weeks I concluded that I hadn't been successful-and gave up on the whole project.

 

I'd been cohearsed into playing the demon king in a local "adult" pantomime. I won't waste too much time talking about this debacle of a show that claimed to be a pantomime(adult or otherwise)-other than to say that it was a vehicle for local drag acts, produced(I use the word loosely) by a local taxi driver and written and directed (I hardly like to use those verbs) by another drag act who also played Dame (I use that term even more loosely) Everything I have ever held dear about pantomime was not in evidence in this truly dreadful production- appalling script, bad timing and adult content that was not remotely clever or amusing ! However-as is so often the case-my "motivation" was a pay cheque-and I did in fact stomach these dreadful shows for four years in total-for no other reason but the money!!

As Villain-I was in some way able to keep myself to myself-and as the lines were in rhyming couplet ,I was justified in altering the lines so they A. Scanned and B. Rhymed ! I'd also found a cracking song-given to me by the wonderful Richard Kates-who was our Frank N Furter in "Rocky Horror"-so at least for myself I'd made a silk purse out of a sow's ear-and I had after all started my career playing Villain in panto.  

 

I'd only been rehearsing this macabre spectacle for one day-when I switched my phone back on after rehearsals to hear a message from Trends. The "Round the Horne " producers had been in touch and said there'd been a huge debate about who they wanted to be the understudy/sound man-hence the delay-but now they wanted me to take over within two weeks !

There was absolutely no way I was going to let this golden opportunity of making a west End debut slip through my fingers-but neither did I want to let anyone down and leave the pantomime-even though it was a pretty appalling show.(It's saving graces were the legendary Phil Starr-to my mind-the best stand up drag performer I have ever seen and David Raven, aka Maisie Trolette-who had always been so supportive of my work and is the last of the pioneer cabaret artists on the Brighton scene.)

I rang our stage manager-Tony Smart and explained my dilemma; The producers wanted me to take over within two weeks-which meant watching the show as many times as I could-and rehearsing the role of the sound man  and as many of the four roles as I could.

Tony was brilliant-and said he would clear it that I should be released from the panto rehearsals in order to get up to London to watch "Round the Horne" in the evening, whilst rehearsing the panto during the day.

Then-once we'd opened with the panto-I would rehearse until lunchtime at the Venue-and get the train back to Brighton-in time for a five PM and eight PM show. All in all a pretty exhausting schedule-but all possible-and no -one was let down.

When the taxi driver/producer was told of our plans-the words-"congratulations" /"well done" etc never passed his lips-all he was concerned about was his own sad little show. (Reminding me of the maxim-"never mix garden with the Co-op Hall"!!) But-at least I retained my integrity and to this day have never let anyone down.

 

I went down to see the show again on the Tuesday night-and met Simon the company manager-who introduced me to the rest of the cast. It seemed that since the show had opened in the West end there had been no understudy for any of the cast. This was extraordinary as a show that relied on a cast doing weird and wonderful things with their voices was bound to cause some sort of vocal strain at some stage. Not surprisingly-Robin, who was playing Kenneth Williams-had suffered vocal strain due to the range of characters he was playing-particularly Dr Chou en Ginsberg-the high pitched Chinese spy. He'd managed to carry on with the show-but it alerted the producers to the risk the cast were under. Hence-the need for an understudy-Me!

At this stage-the onstage sound effects man was played by Tim-who was also able to play the guitar for the Rambling Sid Rumpo songs-but he would be leaving the show, once I was ready to take over covering the four male roles.

 

Simon introduced me to the company and showed me backstage.

The venue was a strange theatre-and in fact was built in the basement of the French church above it. It had been created as a private enterprise by a gentleman called Parry. This had the disadvantage that the theatre wasn't registered as an official West End theatre-and thus -"Round the Horne" could not be nominated for any awards-a great shame as it ran for well over a year and would certainly have given other West End shows a run for their money.

 

After watching the show four times(and listening to the recording on the train twice a day) I was getting a good grasp of the script. I'd also asked for four separate scripts in order to mark up the four roles I'd be covering.

It sort of took the pressure of  as well-due to the fact that the cast carried the scripts-as if it was a radio broadcast. But-this actually lulled me into a false sense of security. It was difficult to know if you actually knew the script, when it was there in front of you-and because the cast had to turn the pages at the same time to be convincing.

 

My first impressions of the cast were by and large good-but it was understandable that they were somewhat suspicious of a new-comer -having opened the show at the White Bear in Kennington the previous year-and being a very close knit team. So-it wasn't an immediate welcoming into the bosom of the company !

Simon also confided in me that part of the reason I'd been selected was that the management thought I'd fit in with an already established team-without causing too much disruption.

 

So-I continued to rehearse the panto during the day until four pm and then took the train to London, watching the show every night for the next four days. I then had to go into production the following week with the adult pantomime, until it opened on the Tuesday. Then it was the reverse -travelling down to London every morning to rehearse in the bar of the venue theatre.

Simon the company manager talked me through the sound operation. What I'm sure most of the audience was blissfully unaware of was that as the onstage sound effects man-we literally controlled every sound effect. With the aid of instant play sound  boxes-every effect was played at the touch of  numbered button-and god help us if we hit the wrong one ! In many cases-thee sound effect ended a sketch-or in fact got the laugh or provided the tag line-so it was a very responsible job.

There were also visual sound effects-like opening and closing doors, with shop bells, phone ringing , phone answering and receivers being replaced -all done with typical BBC precision-so it wasn't quite the "doddle" that a lot people assumed when I first told them what it all involved.

Added to this-I very quickly had to find my way around four characters to understudy.

Looking back at the whole experience-we were very understaffed ! With myself covering four roles-heaven knows what would have happened if more than one male member of the cast was ill ! The stage manager operated the lighting desk-and I operated all the sound effects from onstage! For a west end show-it was certainly cutting corners. No wonder-the owner of the venue was reluctant to have the theatre affiliated to the other West end theatres!

But-I quickly got to grips with the sound operation-and began practicing the voices in earnest. Of course-my heart was set on the role of Kenneth Williams-because I knew the basics of the Williams characters from being an avid fan of "Round the Horne" for years. I was perhaps less familiar with the Hugh Paddick voices-because his "characters" were so many and so varied. I agreed whole-heartedly with Brian Cooke when he said that Paddick was the un-sung hero of the piece and was actually more versatile in his voices than Williams. But-I never realised that-until I studied Paddick in depth-and subsequently went on to play him.

But-back to rehearsals- the director Michael Kingsbury spent a couple of hours with me going over the main voices for each of the four and guiding me through the staging of the show. But-our main aim was to get me ready for opening the following Monday.

At this early stage-it was still in the balance -if I was going to be playing the guitar onstage-as Tim had - for the Rambling Sid Rumpo songs.

Tim gave me basic guitar lessons-and I was quite prepared to try and learn the basic chords-which I admit would have looked good.

But-it was clear I wasn't going to be ready for the opening night-so as a stop-gap the accompaniment was recorded and added to the sound effects-and button operated along with all the other effects.

As it turned out-this was to be the format for the rest of the run and the subsequent second version and three tours.-much easier really !

 

I rehearsed  for three mornings ,before getting a lunchtime train back to Brighton to get back for two  performances(at 5PM & 8PM) of the dreadful adult pantomime-which was excruciatingly bad-to say the least.

Yes-it was pretty tiring-but I was determined not to let myself be below standard for the following Monday.

The pantomime finished on the Sunday night and the following day-still with the odd trace of my red demon king make up behind my ears-I got down to London for lunchtime -in order to have my one and only run through with the cast.

 

As the show was set in a radio studio-it was preceded by a fifteen minute setting up of the studio-with testing the sound effects like the phone and the door in full view of the audience-as well as setting the correct heights for the microphones and polishing them-all sorts of business to create an "atmosphere". (Later in the run however-we were pulled up by an ex BBC studio worker-who clearly stated that Brown coats were never worn at the BBC !(As in the photo above !)-ahh well- I'm sure there were a few more anachronisms we'd missed along the way. )

 

The run with the cast was fairly straightforward-apart from a few notes on timing-which was understandable-as so many of the laughs came from the effects. There was one particular  one in the second act-that was a bus bell-on which the whole tag of the Charles and Fiona sketch hinged. If I'd got that wrong-there would have been hell to pay-so I used to double check the correct button for the effect every single night.(To this day I still know it was button fifteen !)

And so onto opening night-and indeed my West End debut......