In the good old days of the BBC Light Programme there was a series called Have a Go in which Wilfred Pickles and his wife Mabel would visit a different village hall each week and get old age pensioners to recount their most embarrassing moments in order to win a table full of local produce donated by said pensioners. ‘What’s on the table, Mable?’ Wilfred would cry. ‘Well Wilfred’ came the reply, ‘there’s a jar of marrow chutney, a pokerwork Radio Times cover, a Victoria sponge, a crocheted tea cosy and five pounds.’ ‘Oooh!’ gasped the thrilled audience. Who Dares Wins it was not!
At that age everything about life was an embarrassment to me. I was so shy I couldn’t ask for my fare on the bus without rehearsing it over and over in my head, let alone step onto a stage and address an audience.
How things have changed over the years. ‘A monumental stage presence’ thundered the Financial Times about one of my performances. ‘No one is safe from his razor-sharp wit’ declared the Hamburger Zeitung. Yes, what with the Natural Theatre’s penchant for audience participation, it was my turn to be handing out the embarrassment, especially for those unfortunates who had chosen front row seats.
But that doesn’t mean my adult life has been free of those cringing moments that would have set Wilfred chuckling.
Like the time my trousers fell down around my ankles when leaning forward to speak to the passport control officer on my first solo trio abroad.
Or when, having missed the announcements, I caused a flight to Australia to be delayed and suffered the ignominy of the walk of shame down the aisle. Somewhere over Central Europe I decided it was safe to visit the little boys’ room without being glared at. I stood up directly under a passing tray of drinks and soaked everyone within ten feet. We all remained somewhat sticky until change of planes at Abu Dhabi afforded us proper washroom facilities.
When playing Henry VIII in a musical to a packed house I was supposed to bring the interval curtain down by expressing in true Brian Blessed style my anger and disappointment at being presented with yet another female heir. The entire royal household assembled, singing their hearts out. As the music rose to a crescendo the royal nanny presented the baby, in the form of a realistic doll, for my inspection. I turned to the audience and roared ‘But it’s a boy!’ The cast went silent. The whole of British history was pinned to this moment, so with great presence of mind the nursemaid pulled down the nappy and said ‘I think you’d better have another look, sire.’
I looked. ‘But it’s a girl!’ I thundered and the curtain fell rapidly and his majesty went off stage to receive a verbal beheading from his fellow Tudors.
Do I win the chutney, Wilfred?