Monday, 12 October 2009

A funny turn (well, quite a few actually) at the theatre

I was at The Palladium last night.  I've seen countless shows there over the last 30 years (current incumbent Sister Act is highly recommended), but a visit still invariably induces a frisson of excitement, thanks to Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

For baffled younger readers, I should explain that this was TV's biggest entertainment shows of the 60s.  Everyone from Judy Garland to The Rolling Stones topped the bill, and it launched the career of Bruce Forsyth (yes, kids, that's right, the old duffer on Strictly who thinks racist language is no big deal).  It was a "variety" show, a concept which might leave the under-25s further confused.  This means it featured professional entertainers, rather than hairdressers, school kids and odd-looking spinsters with learning difficulties desperate to change their lives.  These were people who had polished their craft over many years and so could already juggle, perform magic tricks, tell jokes, dance or sing (sometimes all of the above) to a high standard without the intervention of a Simon Cowell-esque Svengali.  Because they were so experienced, they didn't get nervous and sing sharp, nor were they critised by a panel of judges or voted off by the public.  (I know - how weird is that?!)

And this was in the days of two television channels.  Yes, honestly, kiddywinks, there were only two, and there was no box you could buy or service you could subscribe to to give you more.  Your choice was the po-faced, we-know-what's-good-for-you BBC or the tits-and-tinsel, let's-'ave-a-larf ITV.  Snobby families claimed they never watched ITV but its often far superior audience figures proved they were liars, guiltily enjoying Stars and Garters or Coronation Street with the curtains drawn.  A legacy of the two channel era is that, to this day, I sometimes catch myself wondering what's on the other side when I intend to flip through the countless channels at my disposal. 

This duopoly meant successful shows routinely attracted audiences of 20 million or more, and Sunday Night at the London Palladium was one such.  It predated colour TV, of course, so, each time I visit the Palladium, I'm not only chuffed to stand in the space I gawped at from our living room every week but am also mildly shocked to discover it's not in black and white. Rich red is, in fact, the interior's dominant colour, just as it should be in a proper, traditional theatre.

Last night, I was there for a tribute concert for the late Danny La Rue.  Again, bear with me, fellow oldies....  Danny la Rue was the first true cross-dressing superstar before Dame Edna was so much as a purple-coiffured twinkle in Barry Humphires' eye or Lily Savage had shoplifted her first bottle of peroxide.  He was a glamorous, glittering exaggeration of womankind and one of the biggest stars of the day.  (Mind you, we never quite 'got' him in our house: "What's so clever about that?  It's just a man in a frock.  When's Jimmy Tarbuck coming back on?  See what's on the other side, Mother.")

I went because good friends were on the bill.   Believe me, I didn't want to, even though the show was raising funds for The Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund which looks after superannuated performers, many of whom think they're still in summer season in Blackpool whereas they're actually sitting in a care home in Twickenham.

The trouble with tribute or charity shows is that they are buttock-clechingly embarrassingly under-rehearsed.  They're always held on a Sunday at a West End theatre in which another show has been playing Monday to Saturday.  That means there's only one day to sort everything out, a near impossibility with numerous turns wanting to run through their act, sound, lighting, a band and goodness knows what else to contend with.

The other problem is they are buttock-numbingly long.  Four hours-plus is not unusual.  This is because the entertainers agree to do eight minutes but, once the spotlight hits them and they hear laughter and applause, they just can't help themselves and do 17 minutes instead.

I'm delighted to say that last night, neither criticism applied.  Okay, the show did run three hours 35, but it was so entertaining, it seemed half that length.  And, miraculously, it was technically almost faultless, too.

Many of the acts had a delightfully retro feel - how often do jugglers, ukele players or Irish dancers get a slot on TV these days, more's the pity? - and star names included Ronnie Corbett, Barry Cryer, Anita Harris and Roy Hudd (I can't even get started on explaining that lot to younger readers).  More surprisingly, 70s prog rock god Rick Wakeman popped up, playing the piano beautifully and proving an effortlessly droll raconteur.

Special mentions (partly because they are my friends but mainly because they deserve it) go to Hilary O'Neil and Bobby Crush.  Hilary is a criminally under-known singer, dancer, comedienne and impressionist, and I have never seen her be less than brilliant in any of those departments.  Bobby, meanwhile, bills himself, with total justification, as Britain's Top Piano Entertainer.  He is about to star as Liberace, the world's top piano entertainer of all time, at The Leicester Square Theatre (more about that in a future blog, no doubt) and treated us to a preview, performing a Dusty Springfield medley in one of Liberace's trademark, OTT, spangly costumes complete with dazzling, fixed smile (so not camp at all, then).

I downed a few white wines at the after-show reception and mwah-mwah-ed the great and the good of showbusiness, all of whom were kind enough to pretend they knew who I was.  I was even kissed first by warm and wonderful King of the Jungle Christopher Biggins.

I've nibbled around the edges of showbusiness proper throughout my broadcasting career, and I love and admire its full-time practitioners; fearless, funny, feisty folk who suffer a thousand setbacks but never give up and always give 110%.  Contrary to public perception, their lives are more about grit and graft than glamour and gracious living.  If they had an ounce of sense, they'd jack it in and do something more steady and less demanding, like being an astronaut or running a small country. 

If you've ever left a theatre feeling better than when you went in, be thankful that, in their misguided madness, your laughter and applause outweighs the back street digs, the broken promises and being on first name terms with the clerk at the benefits office.

(picture courtesy of

No comments:

Post a Comment