I’d been outside murdering a chicken called Gregory Peck, when
Robert rang. I had to wipe the blood and sweat from my palms to avoid
dropping the receiver. He said Eric Reynolds – director of Camden
Lock – had commissioned us to do ‘something watery’
as part of the Capital Jazz Festival. I was absolutely desperate to get
my life back and would have jumped at the chance of anything.
“I thought we might do Moby Dick.” Robert said, on the other
end of the line.
“We’ll do it on the Lock, shall we? Might as well.”
“Have they got a Lock in Camden Lock?”
“Well. You know as you go through the archway? Into the cobbled
bit? There’s an oblong of water. We’ll do it on there.”
“I thought we might find a boat. Tow it in. Paint ‘Pequod’
on the side. Don’t worry about that, I’ll sort all that out.”
“Nothing. About a hundred pounds.”
“I’ll do it. When?”
“Three nights in June, around midsummer night’s eve. They
want an hour, eleven till midnight. I’ll need half a dozen songs.
Think nautical, but with a rock edge. Think ‘ye’ instead of
‘you’; quohogs, clams, grog, Quakers, Heathens…you know
what to do.”
“Yeah. Read Moby Dick.”
“No need for that, I’ll send you a copy of the film. Have
you seen it? Gregory Peck?.”
“It’s funny you should say that…”
After three years exile in the wilds of Lincolnshire I was overjoyed to
be going back to London and utterly determined to rebuild my career brick
by brick. This Pageant at Camden Lock would be my foundation stone.
We were rehearsing in Dingwalls. Wannabe performers kept
on arriving, show-offs, stage struck sweethearts and friends of friends.
We didn’t seem to turn any of them away. By the time I sat down
to play there were forty of them around the piano; a strutting menagerie
of peacock performers awaiting my new compositions.
There were the two punk-pretty Eurasian boys, who simply despised all
twelve musical notes of the octave, whatever order they were in. They
fawned around Dave Stewart, a laconic onlooker, recently famous with The
Eurythmics. It was okay. They didn’t have to do anything more than
be there, with their multicoloured cockscombs, dressing the ship in contemporary
colours. Robert and I left them to play and got on with it.
Or rather, Robert got on with it. Referring at all times to his drawings
of the major moments, he staged his set pieces frame by frame, like a
movie director. Watching him, I saw no doubt in his mind that we were
the new kids on the block, bound for glory.
He chalked out the boundaries on the floor himself and bestrode them like
a colossus, berating and cajoling, flirting and freaking, teasing out
and tensing up. He inspired through love and uncertainty, and could have
slept with any number of them. In fact, I’m certain that he did.
Robert didn’t cast anyone he didn’t fancy, for the very sound
reason that the audience ought to fancy them too, and as a result he desired
He was directing the company through its combined G spot. I watched it
happen, over the top of my upright, and we may not be talking just piano
here, for these were exciting times!
Robert had found a boat, just as he’d said he would.
A couple of his friends were slung from the side, now, in the sunshine,
painting on the name:
We moved outside, to rehearse on deck. Robert and I stayed on shore with
our choreographer Linda Dobell – Miss purple and black - as our
company wobbled from shore to ship as if they were starring in ‘Carry
On Up The Gangplank’.
Linda was queen of the put down, and she delighted in belittling Saul,
our Captain Ahab, for some reason.
“Saul darling, do try and do better, there’s a love. You’re
standing on people’s feet, people with a left foot and a right foot.
You wouldn’t know about right feet would you darling? Let’s
go again from the beginning.”
Groans on board. The company tottered down the gangplank darting paranoid
glances at the murky deep in such a manner that I had to conclude almost
all of them were gay. Back on dry land they crossed the cobbles underneath
the arch and took up their starting positions behind the wall to much
giggling and farting.
‘Quiet behind there!” snapped Robert, the Cecil B. de Mille
of fringe theatre. His voice pinged off the walls. Onlookers sniggered.
“Try and imagine the music, ladies and gentlemen,” he prompted,
as if the ‘ladies and gentleman’ would even begin to soothe
away the indignity of being shouted at, when they were doing this crap
“Sing properly!” he added, for my benefit.
“And Go!” screamed Linda.
I didn’t know anything about musicals in those days, and I’d
opened our show with the most miserable sodding dirge known to man. Robert
had simply asked me to write something for Quakers boarding a boat. He
didn’t tell me it actually came first. Now here they emerged from
under the archway, a Mogadon, motley crew, shuffling two by two towards
‘Punish us Oh God, we are so weak’ they droned.
‘Shipwrecked are our souls until you speak’.
Onlookers stifling laughter suddenly noticed the cartons of Marlboro protruding
from the yellow duty free bags Robert had given every Quaker, to try and
lighten the awful effect of my song. Stifled laughter turned into sobbing
yelps. I felt we were on to something.
“No, No, No!” cried Linda, clapping her hands in the air with
each scornful repetition. “Per-lease! You’re meant to be half
way up the gangplank by now.”
Robert was boggle eyed by now behind his glasses, giggling, bright red
in the sun.
“You’ll have to get there quicker” he managed.
“Can we take the tempo up a bit?” asked Linda, touching my
arm, locking on, seeing my eyeballs dither. “No? That’s okay.”
She touched my arm again, and raised her voice. “You’ll have
to take bigger steps. Try and look brave going up the gangplank. Saul.
How are we managing in the rigging?”
“Fine,” came a weak voice.
“Jolly good. Don’t fall in darling.” To me: “Yet.”
Robert cleared his throat.
“Positions please, ladies and gentlemen.”
And off we went again.
The actors adjusted to their unusual ‘space’. I gradually
adjusted to being part of the management. Forty singers lustily laying
into my songs proved a shiversome squeeze of such surprising intensity
I had never felt the like of it before, except, perhaps, for that time
when Miss Sweden put her hand up my kaftan.
Before long, that company could have been up and down that gangplank on
skateboards, asleep and in the nude. Knowing Robert, I’m surprised
Further tricky set pieces were negotiated. Robert found another boat to
double as ‘The Rachel’, a small one, and we trained up our
Captain Gardiner to heave to at the same time as appealing to Ahab to
help search for his missing son. With some apprehension we watched our
beloved entertainer round the corner for the first time. It’s not
easy standing up in a wobbly rowing boat and throwing your arms out in
supplication. Suddenly, Linda had her first Man Overboard. Not that she
cared. Luckily, the Royal Free had just opened over the road and they
were able to stitch him up, as if he wasn’t stitched up already….
The band arrived for the final two days and set up on the poop deck. Then
Robert discovered one of the cast was a member of the London Eagles American
Football team, so he had to get them in, didn’t he. By now the ship
was groaning with humanity and worryingly low in the water – now
they had to walk up the gangplank! It was too late for changes. The day
had arrived. It was better to get on with it, while we were still afloat.
Eleven p.m. and the festival was in full swing. A large crowd were gathered,
all clutching drinks. They were loquacious and happy. They weren’t
there to see us exactly, they were just there. They’d cruised the
side shows, trawled the stalls, pub-crawled and Dingwalled. It was a hot
night. The bars were jammed, severely overloaded. Hundreds had spilled
out on to the cobblestones where they continued to hold court over flat
lagers, as pot men ducked and dived for plastic glasses, to alleviate
the crisis at the bar. They were so pissed, they hardly noticed the procession
of Quakers nudging a path through their midst. When they were on the gangplank
I think somebody noticed the duty free bags and it caught on a bit. There
were a few laughs as the conversation dipped then picked up again. The
singing was inaudible. Once the actors were safely on board, they had
to bellow their lines across the water at a seething mass caught in the
dilemma of last orders. A patched up Captain Gardiner steered The Rachel
into view, but went more or less unnoticed. A couple of people thought
it was perhaps an off-course craft, or number seven coming in late. Unable
to watch any longer, I hid in the crowd and lit a ciggie to calm my nervous
tic. It was going terribly. We were doomed, doomed!
Then everyone around me stopped talking and started pointing…and
laughing…and applauding. I stood up, to check they were facing the
The London Eagles, I’d forgotten all about them! Awesome in their
helmets and padding, these…these….Gods! – had rushed
the gangplank and now they were forming up on the deck, squatting and
roaring at the sky. It went down a fucking storm. To quote Tony Hancock:
‘Sid, the Germans just put down their guns and applauded.’
From four nil down with four minutes to go, suddenly, it was all square.
Then the Eagles joined forces with the forty strong cast of punkish singers
and out of work actors, swaying and singing along to ‘Save The Whale’.
I was a weeping wreck – Robert had finally found my G spot, with
a road drill.
The fireworks got the winner in extra time.