Ready to go on

Friday, 1 April 2011


Woke in a tizz this morning to check that my alarm was working as our stage manager, Jules, was picking me up in her car to drive off for a day out at Alton Towers. I haven't been there for over twenty years and, despite my cold, well, man-flu, I couldn't resist a day of fun, could I?

I found myself standing on the doorstep of my digs waiting for them to turn up like an expectant schoolboy. My landlady said I reminded her of her son waiting for the postman on his birthday. The weather wasn't what had been promised by the BBC weather forecasters but it wasn't raining and, as Alton Towers only opened, after its winter break, last weekend, I was anticipating a day of rides with no queues, the only thing that detracts from those sort of places.

There were five of us in the car; myself, Jules, Mikey (our sound man and Jules' boyfriend), Rachel the costume person, and Sarah, who is understudying the part of Claire. We were going to meet up with Michael, another understudy, at the M1. It didn't take us long to get there and, as we hit the motorway, Jules put her foot down. Not a lot happened - apart from great billows of white smoke that came pouring out of the back of the car. We pulled off the road in to the service station and Mikey and Michael checked the engine. I am pretty useless when it comes to engines so I stood back. Yet, even with my lack of mechanical knowledge, I was able to  agree that the oil shouldn't look like chocolate milk. "Probably the head gasket?", said Michael. "Probably." I concurred. What is a head gasket, I wonder?

Two hours later the RAC man turned up to confirm our analysis and he towed the car to Leicester with Jules and Mikey. The rest of us clambered in to Michael's van/car and came back to town.

So, that was my trip to Alton Towers. The most exciting ride was going up the escalator in the services to the loo.

Never mind. I enjoyed the company and spent a fun hour reminiscing with Mikey about my time in Australia. He wasn't there, in fact I doubt he was even born at the time, but he is Australian and we were able to talk about good old Down Under as if I were almost a native.

I spent virtually a year of my life in Oz in the first part of the 1980's, spread over three separate trips. The first time was as the Oxford Revue and I was only six months out of university. We went back the following year and played larger theatres. We released the HeeBeeGeeBees there as a record. The Heebs was a parody that we did of the BeeGees; a song called Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices which did really well, so we were invited back to perform just the parody songs. By this time we had released two albums of parodies covering most of the stars of that era, The Police, The Jackson, Men at Work, Queen, Paul McCartney and Wings and loads more, so we were able to put together a full hour and half of material and make it almost entirely music. This did require some extraordinarily fast changes between numbers for the three of us (Philip Pope, Angus Deayton and me).

Because of our hard to explain popularity, we played some really massive venues. This was before comedy became the new rock and roll, remember? Comedy acts didn't play large venues but we were playing music gigs. We outsold Men At Work who did the same tour as us but just a few days ahead. Thousands of people at a time, crammed in to a standing area surrounded by a huge bar. Everyone well pissed up and very rowdy as they would be if, say, INXS were about to come on. These were the sort of venues that bands like that were playing at the time. Instead they got three English blokes with a few instruments, backing tracks played in off tape, a variety of rather tatty costumes, (certainly by the end of the run,) and a bunch of wigs that could have done with a good comb.

Our opening night was in Sydney. We had done a warm up tour of colleges in England to try out the show but this was another league. In fact, The Retired Serviceman's League; massive gambling palaces built as social clubs for ex-servicemen. They had started in a small way after WWII but as they had the rights to gambling, they grew very quickly. Most of them had a large venue for the likes of the Four Tops and Ronnie Corbett to play somewhere in the building. Now it was our turn.

To get from the dressing room to the stage for our opening gig you had to cross a metal walkway that passed above the heads of the crowd and then down a spiral staircase which brought you to the back of the stage. At 10.00pm we were announced and, with our Bee Gees scarves and tight gold jeans on, we slowly crossed the platform, grinning inanely and waving to the crowd as if we actually were international super stars, not just a bunch of twats, which is what we felt like. Below us were three and a half thousand, drunken Australians. They may have been cheering? They sounded like they were baying for our blood. We walked down the spiral staircase, on to the stage and up to the three mics at the front of it. This was the signal for the music to start.

It didn't.

the speakers. The crowd had found it funny to begin with, but now they were growing restless. Luckily our mics were working so we gave them, "Good evening, Sydney!", which bought us a few more seconds. Clearly though this was not enough. The crowd looked as if they might turn on us and the only way out of there was back up the spiral staircase and across the metal gangway above their heads. Every one of them was clutching a tinnie of beer. It would have been suicide.

To my co-performers' horror I started to ad-lib. They knew that this was a very dangerous thing for me to do and that I was likely to say something that would get us barred from the country. I'm not good at thinking before I speak. I decided to introduce the members of the band. Of course we didn't have a band. So I told the audience that we had flown to Australia, but had almost not got there. Our last gig was in Tibet, I said, and on our way across the Himalayas our plane had crashed. We thought we were goners. There was nothing to eat. "That's why we have no band members with us tonight, ladies and gentlemen," I said, "because, unfortunately, we had to eat them!".

Angus and Phil stared at me as if I had gone mad. However, it seems that Australians have the same bizarre humour as me, at least some of them do and I got a laugh and ironic cheer. As it faded the music burst in to life and we began to sing.

I think that is the most frightened I've ever been on stage.

On this tour, whilst standing backstage waiting for my entrance to play to an audience of 800 middle class English people, I've been asked by other cast members if I feel nervous. Now you know why I'm able to honestly answer, no.

1 comment:

  1. Legendary stuff Mike....wish I were able to attend even one of those (in)famous Oz gigs ("Boring Songs" is one of my personal HBGB favs)......keen to hear some more anecdotal madness & hear about your veggie patch when we catch up soon (under 9 weeks til we assault/insult your fair shores)...Hastings has turned on a Mayoral reception for our tiny club, our hosts at Crowhurst are celebrating 175 years (almost as old as our bloody island nation), Duke of Norfolk's XI misguidedly think they have a chance of whipping us, and we even have in our possession a written acknowledgement that we actually exist, from the secretary of the MCC!! (albeit politely declining our request to play at the hallowed Nursery Ground)
    Best wishes for remainder of your tour...talk soon mate