Saturday, 15 December 2007

Panto of Mine..................................

I am not a fan of Stephen Fry, the only writer I know who can make an advertisement for tea sexually ambiguous; and I find his novels unimpressive. He is ubiquitous, I know, an hygienic Geldorf with attitude, who appears in many roles but always acts himself and generously shares his wide knowledge of almost everything, whether we want it or not. So I was not surprised to read in the Radio Times that when he wrote a pantomime this year he had to rewrite it because it was too raunchy.
I have a special love of pantomime, perhaps because of its long and distinguished history. The great names in pantomime include John Rich, David Garrick, Joe Grimaldi, Dan Leno, William Beverley, E.L. Blanchard, Herbert Campbell, Nat Jackley, Florrie Ford, Dorothy Ward, Pat Kirkwood, Wyn Calvin, King Charles II, the Emperor Augustus and my mum.
Every year Augustus gave the Roman Empire the elbow so that he could be a pantomime - the word is Greek for dumb show performer - in the mimes to music with which his court entertained itself when it was not throwing Christians to the lions. The Christians got their own back when they came to power by banning those first pantomimes. An act of cultural savagery that was only paralleled by the Puritans, who banned Christmas, and New Labour which made T Bone steaks illegal and tried to do the same with turkey.
Happily, pantomime, the most magical theatrical event, survived down the centuries with groups of players putting on “Commedia dell’ Arte”. They toured Italy acting simple stories about an old man Pantaloon who tries to guard his pretty daughter Columbine from the dashing Harlequin. Harlequin bribes Pantaloon’s servant Polcinella to perform teases and tricks to prevent his master catching the lovers.
Charles II brought “Commedia” to London where it split into separate theatrical traditions; Polcinella fathered Punch and Judy, and Harlequin pantomime. The first musical play was put on by John Weaver, a Shrewsbury dancing master, at Drury Lane in 1702. It was his boss, an actor called John Rich, who first used the word pantomime and introduced the magical tricks which are at the heart of it. The truth is that he had to invent a new entertainment because, though he was a brilliant mime, he could not speak properly and his company were such lousy actors.
Rich invented Harlequin’s costume of many colours for a very good practical reason. Each colour, the audience were told, represented an emotion: yellow for jealousy, blue for truth, scarlet for love. When Harlequin wanted to express an emotion he would strike an attitude and point to a colour. He could even make himself invisible by pointing at black. Even his scenes were inventive. He represented rough seas by getting small boys to jump up and down under a canvas sheet.
Rich also invented many of the pantomime traditions, beautiful scenery and mechanical monsters among them. When, by 1789, people tired of the Harlequin tales, he adapted Robinson Crusoe, the first of the traditional pantomimes. But when a critic suggested it might be a good idea to adapt Cinderella, Babes in the Wood and Puss in Boots as pantomime, everyone thought he was crazy.
Pantomimes were such a success under Rich at his theatre, Covent Garden, that his rival, the great tragedian David Garrick, was forced against his will to put one on at Drury Lane. For the first time his Harlequin had a speaking role because, although he had a wonderful voice, Garrick was a lousy mime.
William Beverley invented the transformation scene when he and E.T. Smith, the lessee of Drury Lane, watched a leg of mutton roasting on a spit.
“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a stage that revolved like that mutton,” said Smith, “changing colour as it is doing under the flame?”
“I will paint you one,” said Beverley, and in 1859 a wondering audience gasped at its first transformation scene.
Clowns are always called Joey in tribute to Joe Grimaldi who began life as a ballet dancer but soon became the greatest clown of any age. His father, an Italian actor, thrashed him incessantly. When he was two, he was on stage dressed as a monkey. Attached to a chain, he was whirled round his father’s head. One night the chain broke and he was hurled into the pit. When he was four, he fell through a trap door forty feet down to the cellar below.
His first experience as an actor came when his father shammed death to find out what his children thought of him. Joey, suspecting a trick, cried loudly but his brother danced with joy. It was the brother who got the beating. Sickness and sadness forced him off the stage before he was fifty. He went to a doctor for a cure of his depression. The doctor advised him to go to the theatre and see Grimaldi, who could cheer anyone up.
“But doctor,” he said, “I am Grimaldi.”
I think that is one of the saddest stories I know.
Charles Dickens was in the audience when Grimaldi had to be carried on stage in an armchair, from which he gave his last Clown performance on 27 June 1828. Dickens, incidentally, as a struggling young author had ghosted Grimaldi’s biography. Later when he was famous he did his best to suppress it and it does not appear in any of his collected works.
I am delighted it was a brilliant newspaperman E.L. Blanchard who invented the modern panto and brought in the first man to play dame. She was called Widow Twankey after the china tea Twankay which was popular at the time. It was Blanchard who decided the Principal Boy should be a girl. The first, a Miss Ellington, appeared in his first pantomime in 1852. He wrote every Drury Lane pantomime and many more from then until 1888.
My mum? She was Dandini, Second Boy in Cinderella, at the Theatre Royal, Salford, in 1917. The breathtakingly beautiful Pat Kirkwood, one of the most sophisticated West End leading ladies, was the most glamorous of Principal Boys. We were both born on the same Manchester council estate.
Could be Stephen Fry talking………………………………………..

* * * *

It would take more than one life to get as wizened as Curly Beard so he must have been reincarnated.
He was born in a slum in Derby but went on to be one of Britain’s finest show jumpers, establishing a world record for the height he jumped a horse.
He even survived being employed by Dorothy Paget, an eccentric whose horses were not allowed to leave a showground in the evening until Miss Paget had given the order. It was not uncommon for all the horses to be unloaded again in the near dark so that the great lady could spend a penny in the privacy of the horsebox before they were reloaded and sent on their way.
She slept all day and, like Ludwig of Bavaria, came to life at dusk.
I can never set a foot on the calendula escalator that leads to
Christmas without remembering Curly and the free Christmas tree.

I used to ride work for him in the days when I could be carried by a single horse. He spent much of his time in the Sportsman, up on the Welsh border at Tattenhall. I was in the bar there one day with Curly and my old man when I said, "I will have to go after this. Going to buy a Christmas tree from the Clocaenog forest."

Curly said, "You don't have to buy one. I'll get you one free. But we will have to wait until dark."

So I said, "What will you have while we are waiting?"

Curly said he would have a large gin and my old man said, while I was ordering, would I call him up a large scotch? By the time I had added mine, my free Christmas tree had cost me £6 (it was a long time ago). By the time it was dark it had cost me another ten quid and we were in no state to go digging up Christmas trees.

We arranged to meet at opening time the next day. We were just going to have one and then collect a free tree from a friend of Curly's. We would have done, too, if the Wynnstay Hounds hadn't been meeting at the Cock at Barton.

In those days hunt followers of standing - or in our case barely standing - shared the stirrup cup, a potent mixture of port and brandy which reconciled people to falling off horses. It tasted so good we stayed on after the hounds had moved off. Let's be honest, we were still on it, at my considerable expense, when the huntsman blew kennels somewhere over by Overton.

We kept meeting like that for about a week and I had lost count of how much the free tree had cost me in drinks. But it was well over fifty quid, 70s prices.

To be fair, though, the next night we borrowed the landlord's spade and went off to dig up the tree. I do not know how we managed to break the spade, which I later replaced at the cost of £11.50.

I know how I broke the tree. I remember falling on it. And even if I hadn't remembered, my wife of the time kept reminding me of it for years.



Shelley was so full of life I am surprised her body contained the mechanism for dying. She had the looks and air of a Grand Duchess, clothed in the shimmering silk of merriment. She was, endearingly, a dedicated luncher, though she drank little.

The last time she came to us for lunch (from Yorkshire!) she was full of her new project, typically innovative, a series of illustrated biographies of artists. It followed the success of her first book, a best selling biography of the Salford artist L S Lowry, which was turned into a ballet.
Her most recent “The A to Z on Rembrandt” was published last week.

We near as dammit shared a birthday. One time she took me and her other kids to the theatre to see the ballet “Copelia”. We had just lunched, and in those days the last course for my lunch was always oblivion. I fell asleep during the overture, and, awaking to see a bunch of mechanical dolls dancing before my eyes, was convinced it was DTs, let out a scream of horror, leapt up and charged out of the theatre, to the delight of her tribe.

She was a terrific reporter, for whom every story was the reason Caxton invented printing. Her pal Liz Smith recalls a typical night in 1977:
“We were waiting outside the Daily Mirror, Manchester, for the first edition. She wanted to see if she’d got the splash with her article on the effects of parental drinking on children. Not only did she get a full page splash but pages 2 and 3 as well. The only place to celebrate at that time of night/morning was the Press Club. She managed to get quite high on glasses of water!”

She also recalled the sad time: “Three weeks ago I lunched with her and Wendy and Mike Cuerden. She could hardly get down the stairs when we arrived to collect her but was determined to go for the meal at her favourite local restaurant, and what a lovely time we had sharing memories and stories. I saw her again two weeks ago in hospital; she was on oxygen and pumped full of steroids but looking so good that I thought she might, as she was planning, return home to finish the job she was doing for the Lowry exhibition.“
She probably had a pen and notebook in her hand when she was born. Certainly she was in no doubt where the future lay.
Mike Cuerden writes:
“Shelley, an authority on L S Lowry, had battled with cancer for ten years. Typically, she told no-one when it was first diagnosed.

“Born in London, she grew up in Nottinghamshire, leaving school at 16 with few qualifications but an insatiable curiosity. She began working on the weekly Notts Free Press in Sutton in Ashfield. From there she moved to The Star in London, before it merged with the Evening News. Soon she joined the Daily Express, then the headiest place to work in Fleet Street…

“She was the first girl staffer in Moscow at the age of 21. Slim, chic, and young, she was noticed by the then Russian premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev. When they visited Britain in the late 1950s Shelley acted as unofficial interpreter for the press pack.

“While covering the Hungarian revolution she and other reporters were waiting at a bridge to interview refugees fleeing to Austria. They heard a baby cry and Shelley, risking being shot by Russian guards in watchtowers, crossed the bridge and brought the baby and her family to safety.”

Shelley, though virtually teetotal, was a legendary party giver, Queen of Fleet Street. A foe to be feared on jobs in the North, she even invented and marketed a card game. She helped organise the Lowry exhibition in the Lowry Gallery at Salford, her first project as a curator. It opened the day after she died.

She was a splendid TV chat show host and the most generous part of a double act in the history of that medium. I was looking at a series we did for Granada in which she made me look witty and all wise. She was a heaven sent audience. A rare gift in people of talent.

But above all she was a good and true friend and a terrific loving mother to Michele, Christian, Gavin and Daniel. Her marriage to TV presenter John Weaver ended in divorce.

She had only one flaw. She preferred some bloody Irishman to me.

Stanley Blenkinsop who knew her for fifty years remembers:

After she left the DE I was going through the small ads in the MEN when I saw an advert for a nanny needed who "must be a Man City fan"

I rang up the number - only to find the mother was Shelley! She said the qualification was vital because her kids were City supporters and (quite rightly in my opinion) hated United.

She was tireless in her efforts on behalf of her friends. When my first book was published she brought a crew from Granada TV to Anglesey to interview me and publicise the book.

In those days every member of a TV crew had a “shadow”. They would only work eight hours at a stretch and they required a two hour lunch break with meals of four courses of which three had to be hot.
Since it took two hours to get from Manchester and would take another two hours to get back, the crew insisted on lunch when they arrived and half way through the filming decided it was time to go back. I would have contemplated mass murder: Shelley remained imperturbable and determined that my book should get an airing. She arranged for Jim Parry, a freelance, to make the film on a hand held camera.

At sad times like these I get a great deal of comfort from a poem I found in Nicholas Evans’ book, “The Smoke Jumper”:
Each giving and each taking,
These are not flowers that fade,
Nor trees that fall and crumble,
Nor are they stone.
For even stone cannot the wind and rain withstand
And mighty mountain peaks in time reduce to sand.
What we were, we are.
What we had, we have.
A conjoined past imperishably present.
So when you walk the woods where once we walked together
And scan in vain the dappled bank beside you for my shadow,
Or pause where we always did upon the hill to gaze across the land,
And spotting something, reach by habit for my hand,
And finding none, feel sorrow start to steal upon you,
Be still.
Close your eyes.
Listen for my footfall in your heart.
I am not gone but merely walk within you.

My wife, Celia Lucas, who worked with her on the Daily Mail, says it is OK to say I loved her, because she did too.

Celia writes;

I met Shelley in 1968 when I joined the Daily Mail in Manchester. She came into the office with Mish, then about two or three years old, and typed out a story while Mish played happily on the floor at her feet. The nanny must have been off sick and I was amazed how anyone could concentrate in such circumstances.

I needn’t have been. As I came to learn, Shelley was equal to anything. She was so good – and so thoroughly nice with it – that no one could even be jealous of her, quite an achievement in such a competitive world.

Her parties were amazing. It was when preparing for one of these (I’d got there early, supposedly to help) that I saw, for the first and only time in a domestic setting, a potato peeling machine. Like its owner, it did its job quietly and efficiently with no fuss, and it never broke down.

There were three female reporters in the office (the fourth didn’t stay long and left to get married) and Shelley helped us all with advice and sympathy, both professional and personal. When I met Ian she was an enthusiastic supporter of the romance! Later on, when my children’s books came out, she backed them with articles and a TV slot. She was a true friend and I will miss her.

The funeral will take place on Tuesday 18 December at 1.00 pm at St Philip with St Stephen Church, St Philips Place, (off Chapel Street), Salford, M3 6FJ, followed by a private committal.

A reception will be held at Studio 1, The Lowry, Salford Quays, M50 3AZ (see ) from 3.00pm. (Friends and colleagues may like to visit the new exhibition at The Lowry,"Exploding Paintings", which Shelley curated with others shortly before she died.)


Welsh Graffiti;
“The views expressed on this wall are not necessarily those held by Aberystwyth Urban District Council.”

“Self igniting cottages. Come home to a real fire - buy a cottage in Wales!”

“English capitalists out… Wales has been sold ( subject to contract)”

Sunday, 9 December 2007


Christmas, the ultimate spinning time, approaches. It is time to remind ourselves that in the early days of the Church the nativity was not celebrated. For the very good reason that the date of Christ’s birth is unknown.
St Clement of Alexandria claimed the Egyptians of his time celebrated the Lord's birth on 20 May; at the end of the 3rd century, the Western Churches celebrated it in the winter; churches all over the world united in the 4th century to celebrate the nativity on 25 December. Like other Christian festivals, it was grafted onto a pagan feast, this one celebrating the god Mithras.
People say Christmas is not what it was; that nowadays it is just an excuse for gluttony and drunkenness. Traditionally that is exactly what it was. Only then it was called Saturnalia.
Pope Gregory XIII muddied the waters in A.D. 1582 when he messed about with the calendar. If there had been no realignment, Christmas would not only be coming, it would have been coming twice that year.
My own view is that it was a tremendous error to spin and pin Christian festivals on the old Pagan holy days. When you look at an aerial photograph of a field, the Neolithic ring houses show through the grass. More and more, the old Saturnalia, the binge drinkers’ annual outing on which Christmas was draped like a crepe paper garland, shows through.

Frankly, it has become a celebration for the under tens who still live in that happy world where Father Christmas rules, there are angels round their beds and we celebrate the unlikeliest paternity suit in history.
Benjamin Franklin said it for me when he prophesied a time would come when the Immaculate Conception would have as few believers as the older story of Minerva being born from the head of Jupiter. The Romans believed, you will recall, that Jupiter had a horrible headache and out of his scalp came Minerva, fully grown and dressed in armour, a long trailing robe, a helmet, a shield and a spear.

Bet his missus Juno gave him some old fashioned looks when he tried that one on her.

I have far too much respect for God to believe he does conjuring tricks.
Besides, wherever you look, the wicked eye of Pan is peeping at you through the Festive greenery.

Any day now a giant Christmas tree will be erected in Ely Cathedral and our local church will be thronged. Not for the services but for the admittedly magical Christmas tree festival. Ignoring the awkward truth that the Christmas tree is a very powerful pagan survival, like the effigies of the Green man and the fecund woman carved into stone gargoyles on churches. That old pagan W. C. Fields read the bible avidly as he lay dying. His friends said it was hypocritical. “Not so”, he told them, “I am looking for loopholes.” So, I believe, were those medieval stone carvers. They placed an each way stone betting slip on the drain spouts of their churches. Just in case.

Look in the journals of the distant past. Even Parson Woodruffe, whose diaries read like a menu, didn’t make a great deal of what was then a holy day. Nor Kilvert either. I seem to remember Pepys made much of the feast, but that was in Restoration England which was the mirror of today in all its noisy vulgarity.

Dickens brought the new all purpose Christmas to Britain, a sales gimmick he eagerly took up as a story telling device during his visits to America.
Do not misunderstand me, there is a benevolent Spirit of Christmas which brings gifts to children and is something much more mysterious and lovely than that vulgar old man in the colours of Coca Cola who was invented in America in the 1930s as a sales gimmick for that alarming drink.

I do not understand this new Father Christmas tradition. 364 days of the year you warn your children not to accept gifts from strangers, then on the 365th day you persuade them that it is a good thing that an old man they have never met is going to creep into their bedrooms and load them down with costly gifts. A DRUNKEN old man, I remind you.

You leave him beakers of sherry, pints of beer, bumpers of port. Are you mad? He is not only driving; he is driving six reindeer. In a sky overpopulated with satellites and, according to Norse myth, a wild horde of ravening beasts harnessed by Odin, who is not famous for sobriety.
I wouldn’t travel by air on Christmas Eve, not if Hell had me.

And what about Christmas cards? How many forests do you reckon we will lose supplying wood pulp for the millions of Christmas cards that give postmen yuletide hernias?

From Skidmore Prava we are sending our cards by email, glowing with self righteousness, however mean our friends think we are.

* * * * * *
Freddy Brabin was a wealthy chemist with a shop on a prime site at The Cross in Chester. It was his misfortune to look like Freddy Frinton, the comedian who pretended to be a drunk. Freddy wasn’t pretending. When it came to being a drunk, Freddy was very serious indeed.

He was tiny but drove an enormous Cadillac. When it ran out of petrol he left it where it was and went home by taxi. But not always. Once he was so far gone in the little club we used that I had to drive him home, where he plied me with so much drink he had to get out his Cadillac and drive me back to Chester. But for timely intervention by a third party we might still have been going to and fro.

He was a kindly man. He told me one day how worried he was about the starving children in Africa. He said he had been reading about something called War on Want where people gave public dinners and wondered if I could fill him in with the specifics.

I explained you invited all your friends to dinner, gave them dry bread and water and sent the money a good dinner would have cost to the starving children.

He said, “You must have got it wrong.” He said he wouldn’t dream of asking his friends, or for that matter any enemies he might have, to drink water when it was his round. “Besides,” he said, “I thought I would have it at the Country Club and I have never seen bread and water on the menu there.”

So I suggested a compromise. “Give them a decent meal,” I said, “and, whatever it costs, give the equivalent to War on Want.”

Accordingly, about 40 of us sat down to a four course dinner, which followed a champagne reception and ended with vintage port. After the meal, Freddie spent a few hours and about a thousand quid downstairs in the Casino.

He didn’t fancy driving home, because he kept falling over, so he stayed the night.

The next morning he woke up around six a.m. with a mouth like the floor of a budgie’s cage. In his nightshirt, he wandered down to the kitchens where the early morning chef was still scratching himself and said, “Make us a cup o tea.”

The chef said he didn’t start work, not till seven, so Freddy could …… off.
At seven o’clock Dennis Ewan, the manager, came in and the chef complained to him about drunken guests invading his kitchen. “Just a minute,” said Dennis, “can you smell burning?”

They rushed to the dining room where they saw a crescent made of blazing dining chairs. In the centre stood Freddy, haloed in flames. “Now will you make us a bloody cup of tea?“ he said.

He was quite proud of the fact that he was the only member barred from the Chester Country Club the night after he had spent around two grand there. But, good as gold, he sent the starving kids a cheque for the same amount.


From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “In 1867 Rossetti decided to put Swinburne (the shy flagellating poet) in the hands of “some sensible young woman who would make a man of him”. He solicited the aid of Adah Isaacs Menken, a stage performer, to seduce him. Needless to say, the attempt failed, and Miss Menken returned the £10 fee to Rossetti as unearned. “I can’t make him understand,” she explained, “that biting’s no use!”


On May 25 1975 the Irish Press reported that a Mr Brian Dicer, a member of the Welsh International Football team, had been arrested and charged with indecent exposure in the middle of Lenin Square in Kiev.
In his defence, Mr Dicer said: ”Walking round the square was a real eye opener. People rushed up and offered to buy things I was wearing for fantastic sums. My tie went for a fiver, I got £45 for my jacket and £30 for my trousers. Before I knew where I was I was down to my pants and socks.”

Mr Dicer told the police that the man to whom he sold his trousers assured him that he could buy another pair round the corner for a quarter of the price. “But when I got there the shop was closed,” he said.