It was January 1984 and I was thirty one. I bolted upstairs that first
day to the familiar strains of my own music and slipped through the door,
puffing slightly from my two at a time ascent of the stairs. Nobody knew
me from Adam. The room was abloom with vocal pirouettes. Ankles were at
full stretch, plonked upon cold radiators, at right angles to sinewy Lycra
legs. The less athletic were clustered around Martin Elmer Cotton’s
He was a Musical Director in possession of a fine old fashioned cricketer’s
beard. As he patiently taught the cast their vocal parts, he was wondering
how the hell he could get away from here and catch up with his department
at the BBC, where he was Head of the Sound Library. It was a position
of some responsibility. And it paid.
Robert, when I found him, was upstairs directing operations.
“Look,” he said, instead of hello, “we’ve got
an office.” It was true. There was a typewriter or two and a phone
- someone yelling into it impressively - fresh paint, fresh people and
best of all a photocopier.
“This is home now” he declared, following my gaze, “our
I wanted to believe but I knew this churning Robertian epicentre was fatally
flawed. No one in the room was receiving any money. Nor would they. As
usual, Robert had assembled a dedicated team on a flirt and a promise;
money next week, success around the corner. Everyone believed him, but
there was no money. It was only Robert trying to blast his way to success
and take us all with him. It was penniless fringe dressed up as head office.
A well-wisher donated a backcloth, a wonderfully painted cityscape of
Venice. Whether it was relevant or not was irrelevant. It was free! It
was A Set! The show would simply have to accommodate and adapt. With an
instant leap of Robert’s imagination, the plot changed direction
like a goldfish. From on high the word was passed downstairs for all actors
to mystifyingly adopt Scottish accents. The costume department (a grumbling
girl ironing inside a cupboard) was on red alert: - all boy costumes were
to be creatively adapted into girl. The lost property department at the
local girl’s school was mysteriously relieved of every badge, garter,
hockey stick, tie and beret. I, meanwhile, was programmed to produce a
School Hymn to replace the disastrous Quaker dirge I had come up with
on our previous outing. I worked on it through the evenings in the recently
deserted rehearsal room, redolent with the day’s sweat and endeavour,
as the clamour of the company bonding in the bar rose up through the floorboards.
My fingers groped their way across the black and white teeth, like those
of someone new to Braille. I was orienteering in a dark forest. My compass
was Robert’s few words:
“Think Jean Brodie. The girls are the crème de la crème,
old heads on young shoulders, happy, singing the school hymn as the train
pulls into their destination.”
“An Arts Festival in the Piazza St. Marco, Venezia!”
“Where they are presenting..?”
“MOBY DICK IN VENICE!”
It was a bloody good show though! The fierce-belching, spittoon-rattling
seadogs of America’s greatest book, portrayed by a pack of straining
luvvies with highly dubious Edinburgh accents and half of them in drag.
What more do you want for your three quid?
Our next version of the show was staged on ‘The Old Profanity’,
a converted Swedish grain carrier permanently moored in Bristol Harbour.
This time I was the Musical Director. Pat was appalled when I told her
what I was doing and how long for.
“Moby Dick? Again? You’ve just done Moby Dick and you didn’t
get a pissing penny!”
“True, but this time it's going to really develop, doing it on a
“It's meant to be about a boat not on one.” Pat seethed. “Anyway,
I thought you were just the guy who wrote the music.”
“And some of the lyrics!”
“Okay, but do you have to be there?”
“Because I'm playing the piano.”
“Piano? Can't they get someone else to play the piano?”
"No! They fucking can't!"
"Because there's no fucking money for anyone else!"
I sloped off to Bristol.
The Venetian backdrop wouldn't fit onto The Old Profanity Showboat, so
Venice had to go. Venice, Schmenice. It was too late, however, to jettison
the girl’s boarding school setting. Stockings and wigs, lacrosse
and hockey sticks spilled from trunks and littered the deck. These costumes
and props were undeniable. In the absence of money, they were all we had,
so school was in. But while we were throwing things overboard….
after you Miss Brodie! She was too mannered, soft and earnest for our
needs. The little gels followed her over the side like lemmings, and their
irritating accents drowned with them. Sixty dernier stockings morphed
into fishnets and grew suspenders - even mine, behind the piano! The creme
de la creme turned from needlepoint to hooch and hornification. The gentle
school hymn became a battle cry as we rang out the old heads on young
shoulders and rang in the Belles of St. Trinians. Most alarming of all
- but with a horrible rightness all the same - Robert inherited the mortarboard;
he was playing the Headmistress playing Ahab (in a frock, with a cricket
pad for a wooden leg). Within Ahab's twisted soul there now lurked a smirking
Alistair Sim. I have to admit, I thought we were on to something.
Sing it Freddie!
The Show Must Go On! The Show Must Go O-o-on!