Eric the Goldfish

In the deeds of my apartment block there is a strictly no pets clause.  Although I was secretly pleased to find myself moving into a dog-free environment, it did rather scupper my fantasy of sitting on my riverside balcony teaching a brightly coloured macaw to hurl abuse at passing boats.

Two years later and loneliness has finally got the better of me and I’ve smuggled in a goldfish. He’s called Eric Gill and is quite a character. He seemed completely unfazed by his journey from the aquatic centre, dangling from the handlebars of my bike in his plastic bag. In fact, I think he enjoyed it, especially the detour I took around the Royal Crescent on the way. Well, I wanted him to know that he would be living in a nice World Heritage neighbourhood.

The last goldfish I had was when I was ten and it was the classic case of winning one at the fair and sticking it in a round bowl and cleaning it out in the kitchen sink once in a blue moon when one’s mum pointed out the green slime and zero visibility. And of course, after a couple of months there was the inevitable ceremonial burial in a distant corner of the garden.

These days there’s much more to it.  First of all there’s all the gear one has to buy, like filters, charcoal granules, sterilised grit and water test strips. This is before one can even think about adding an underwater castle ruin or a miniature sunken pirate ship.

As for plain old tap water, that’s an anathema. It’s a right palaver getting the temperature right (no cold shocks for Eric) and precisely measuring out the anti-ammonia drops and the nitrogen eradicator. As for feeding, the modern obsession with consumer choice has even reached the fishy world. There are fish flakes (cannibalism, surely), vitamin enriched pellets, pond sticks, floating treats and sinking snacks for bottom feeders. I suspect there are gluten free and vegan versions, and I even saw an aquatic laxative advertised, in case Eric starts gets bloated!

How much and how often to feed another minefield. Rule of thumb seems to be no more that your fish can eat in five minutes. I reckon greedy Eric could devour a whole month’s supply of Fishy Delights in that time. They say fish have no memory, but Eric goes bonkers every time I walk in the room. He certainly remembers where his dinner comes from.

There are other worries. Immobile lurking behind the plastic foliage is apparently a bad sign, as is manic zigzagging. As I write this, Eric is slowly circling his watery home…backwards. Is something up?

Owning fish is meant to be relaxing. Little did I realise the responsibility and stress involved. And on top of that there’s the constant fear that the property management anti-pet police could come knocking.

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Christmas Music

One of the best things about New Year is at last we have some respite from ghastly Christmas music. At least, until next October when it all starts again!

Now, I’m not religious, but neither am I a humbugging Scrooge and I can appreciate a decent carol. Straightforward songs with catchy tunes we can all join in with.  Take Good King Wenceslas: it’s not exactly biblical, but it encapsulates the spirit of goodwill to all and conjures up the seasonal snowy landscape we all love. But Jingle Bells sung with grossly over-emphasised bravura by a famous opera singer backed by lushly orchestrated strings? No thanks. As for White Christmas, that’s been brutally murdered by enough has-been crooners and X-factor runners-up to set poor old Bing spinning in his grave.

And when will the people who make television adverts realise that yet another funny version of The Twelve Days is actually not funny but tedious and unoriginal? You can just imagine the mid-August brainstorming session that came up with that.

At Christmas every store in town seems to have this stuff blasting out. I don’t know how the staff stick it. Maybe it goes in one ear beneath their compulsory reindeer horn deely-boppers and out the other. Or maybe, god forbid, they actually like it. I suspect the former as one November I was performing in a show with Natural Theatre Company in a small town in Germany. In the supermarket seasonal musak was playing, but it kept skipping horribly when it came to Little Donkey, producing noises not dissimilar to severe digestive problems. Six weeks later we were back by popular demand and the flatulent donkey was still at it, with the smiling shop assistants still gloriously oblivious.

I’m not sure if this kind of music repeated ad nauseam actually boosts sales. This past Christmas I witnessed a family furiously arguing over which artificial tree they should purchase. Everyone was putting in their two pennyworth and things were getting quite nasty. Finally, the father threw his chosen tree across the store and stormed out of the shop amidst a torrent of words beginning with ‘f’, none of which were fir tree. In the background I could just catch the honeyed tones of Michael Buble warbling ‘It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas’. Indeed it was.

While doing my big Christmas shop in a well-known store one evening I had to repeatedly endure one of the worst offenders, namely a would be Whitney (or possibly the great lady herself, who was not exactly immune from unnecessary baroque embroidery of a simple tune) giving us a ridiculously attenuated and oh so deeply felt rendition of Silent Night. As my Australian friend used to say, a vibrato a dog could jump through. And just how many syllables can you get into the word night?

Silent night? If only.

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New Year Low Jinks

I look forward to the new year, but I’m not a fan of New Year, if you get my gist. I knew a bloke who used to say ‘I hate New Year’s Eve, you always have to kiss some talcum powdery person you don’t know’. And sure enough, on the one occasion I was persuaded to spend the season away with his family in some dreary hotel in the middle of nowhere, after a lukewarm supper of last week’s turkey in a swirly carpeted lounge resplendent with last year’s paper chains, the chimes rang out and there was no sign of my mate. And I was being attacked from all sides by other people’s puckered-up grans.

For me, New Year’s Eve is always a bit of an anti-climax. Even New Year 2000 was a bit of a let-down. The Natural Theatre Company was booked for 364 days at the Dome. But the organisers couldn’t afford the astronomical fee we quoted for Millennium Night. So we ended up welcoming the new century in Hamelin of all places. Yes, Pied Piper Central!

True, we were paid well, but boy, did they make us work hard. First off, an early evening performance of our classical music spoof Scarlatti’s Revenge, which appropriately was all about the Dome, a subject of mockery even in the far reaches of Lower Saxony. The audience consisted mainly of people too dull to stay up until midnight so it was a bit of an effort when it came to the participation bits.

This was followed by the biggest buffet in Christendom, to which we were invited but didn’t dare indulge in as we had to deliver a second performance timed to end at exactly midnight. The folks were a bit livelier for this show, but to our surprise when we leapt off the stage on cue, they didn’t exactly go bonkers. More like a polite shaking of hands all round and then off to demolish the remains of the buffet. But at least no powdery kissing.

And then, bizarrely, I was required to change into my Lady Margaret character and deliver a recital of topical (for UK audiences) songs gleaned from my BBC Radio 4 series to a crowd of somnolent citizens of Saxony so full of bratwurst and smoked salmon that only a blast of  Black Sabbath could have gleaned any reaction.

Finally, we retired to my hotel room, where we sipped tooth mugs of warm bubbly liberated from the buffet by a fellow performer’s mum who had, perhaps ill-advisedly, flown over for the show.

See what I mean about anti-climax? Happy New Year everyone!

For news on Bath Comedy Festival visit the web site at www.bathcomedy.com

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Pantos Past

I have a chum who has loathed Christmas pantomimes ever since childhood. Me? I quite enjoy a good one, and as long as all the traditional elements are there: cross-dressing, slapstick, slightly dated pop songs and a generous splash of political incorrectness, I’m prepared to stick it out.

The Bath Theatre Royal pantos of yore under the direction of famous owner manager Frank Maddox were nothing if not traditional, right down to the national anthem at the end. Woe betides anyone in the front row who didn’t immediately stand to attention. Cue withering look from aged principle boy.

In those days the balcony seats were wooden benches, accessed through a side door. Security was somewhat lacking and at most matinees just after curtain up the kids from the Kingsmead flats would sneak in. The girls would stand on the benches mimicking the dance routines that they’d learned by heart and the boys would shout out punchlines seconds before the furious comedian on stage delivered them.

In over forty five years of being a comedy performer I’ve only been in one panto. This took place at the long-gone Metro Theatre which is now Malloy’s Irish bar. I was the dame (naturally), but unusually I was an American tourist dame. Probably the first and last time this character has been portrayed thus!

Appearing in two shows a day for weeks on end would drive me nuts. I’m actually happier working behind the scenes in preparation for the run. I used to design the costumes and sets for the award-winning pantos at London’s Greenwich Theatre and I adored scouring the fabulous fabric shops in Soho. Whereas the designers for the big West End theatres would be buying up huge swathes of glittering sequined silks, I’d be rummaging for off-cuts in the remnant boxes, clasping my dog-eared folder of drawings.

A couple of quid would get you enough crushed velvet for at least one leg of King Cole’s walk down outfit for the finale or a scrap of sparkly black leatherette for the baddy’s cloak. Bought off the roll some of these amazing fabrics could set you back several hundred pounds per metre!

Rehearsals were really crammed in and there never seemed time for proper fittings, and at the dress rehearsals the wardrobe mistress and I would find ourselves frantically dashing around in the dark clutching needle and thread and a large tube of Uhu, accompanied by the sounds of ripping gussets as the dancers performed cartwheels and splits that the choreographer had somehow forgotten to tell us about.

Never has the phrase ‘Behind you!’ taken on such urgency!

For news on Bath Comedy Festival visit the web site at www.bathcomedy.com

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Fancy Shirts

Openings, closings, launches: I’ll go to anything where there’s a chance of a few free canapes. And hopefully a glass of bubbly. Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt have often spotted me adorning the society pages of this journal, invariably sporting one of my trade-mark Caribbean shirts.

I get the shirts mail order from Florida, where American sizes fit my copious form. On my trips to the Caribbean the market traders have usually been beaten when faced with my rotundity. ‘My, my, that’s a Jordan belly’ commented one stout stallholder, shaking her head. ‘What did she mean?’ I enquired of another nearby shirt merchant. ‘Well’ he said, looking thoughtful, ‘the river Jordan is indeed very wide!’ A blatant case of the kettle calling the pot black in my opinion.

Many of the events I go to have a dress code. ‘Lounge suit or uniform’ said one invitation to a civic reception at the Pump Room. I have neither, so on with the palms and pineapples shirt. ‘Why, I thought I’d be only person in fancy dress’ joked one gold-braided medal bedecked fellow. ‘That’s Ralph’s uniform’ said the mayor, putting me at my ease.

Mind, I’m always very careful that my socks match my shirt. I’m not that casual! Especially when riding a bike when one is obliged to tuck one’s trouser leg into one’s sock. I got a wolf whistle while pedalling along Pulteney Street the other day with some particularly bright pink hose on display.

And an old chap in a wheelchair told me that my shirts always cheer people up in Morrison’s cafeteria of a dull Friday lunchtime. (And so now I have to make sure I don’t wear the same one two weeks running. Ah, the stress of being a fashion icon.)

Actually, people complain these days if I do turn up dressed ‘normally’ by which I mean plain white shirt, jacket and tie. Even at my brother’s funeral I was told I should have worn the one with parrots all over it rather than the more tasteful brown palm fronds on a black background that I had chosen out of filial respect.

So it was with some surprise at a recent networking event, where indeed dark blue bankers’ suits were definitely de rigueur, that I was greeted by a fellow guest with ‘Sir, may I congratulate you on having the most ghastly shirt in the room?’ To which he added ‘I’ve only ever seen one more ghastly, and that was given to me. When I went to wear it, I found my wife had thrown it away!’ Thanks mate.

Bet it’s my picture in the society pages though, not his.

For news on Bath Comedy Festival visit the web site at www.bathcomedy.com

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Christmas in Paradise

I once spent Christmas in the Bahamas, on an island called Eleuthera. Eleuthera is over a hundred miles long but never more than a mile or so wide. Its one main road runs along its entire length and at one point the island gets so narrow that beneath a vertiginous bridge, waves from the deep indigo Atlantic slosh over into the turquoise Caribbean, or vice-versa depending on the state of the tides.

There’s nothing much on Eleuthera save a proliferation of pink sand beaches, a long-closed  Club Med and one, yes one, set of traffic lights.  These lights are quite an attraction, bobbing on wires above the island’s single crossroads.  They even feature on their own postcard. They were out of order at the time, but with no discernible traffic chaos as a result.

In December Eleuthera is very hot indeed, its scrubby vegetation offering little shade from the blazing sun. Even so, a snow-trimmed Santa could be seen waving from the mini-mart window.

We were joined on our holiday by a friend who lives in Brooklyn and on Christmas Day we actually found a small Italian hotel that was offering the full traditional works. Thus we sat next to said pink sand in blazing sunshine and dined on turkey with all the trimmings: parsnips, roast potatoes, sprouts and all, while watching a school of dolphins passing backwards and forwards across the bay.

Our friend from the States had been to visit her family in Yorkshire and as a surprise she had totally illegally transported a large top of the range Christmas pudding from a well-known British store all the way to the Bahamas via Heathrow, New York and Nassau. Replete with turkey, back at the house we just couldn’t face the pudding.  We were stuffed and an afternoon in hammocks beckoned.  If a full Christmas dinner was a bit much in that heat, the heavy, fruit-filled, sherry drenched dessert was completely out of the question.

It was a bit like my first visit to the Caribbean. I took a Bounty bar with me so I could reproduce that famous television advertisement. As soon as I had checked in to my hotel, I headed down to the beach, confectionary in hand. Sitting on the obligatory horizontal palm tree, toes in the surf, I took a bite. Taste of paradise? It was sticky and vile and totally inappropriate!

Back in baking hot Eleuthera, we didn’t want to upset our friend after all her trouble. She’d risked the wrath of customs officers in three countries to bring us our seasonal treat. So in the cover of darkness I sidled to the end of our little jetty and lobbed the pudding into the sea. She’ll never know, I thought.

Next morning I went out onto the pier, and to my horror there in the gin-clear water, nestled on the blushing sand amongst the brightly coloured coral for all to see, was the pudding.  Even the fishes couldn’t face plum duff in that climate!

For news on Bath Comedy Festival visit the web site at www.bathcomedy.com

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Ralph’s weekly column returns to Bath Chronicle

I’m back, folks, and to quote Cassandra when his famous Daily Mail column was resumed after the war: ‘As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted…’

A lot of water has passed under Pulteney Bridge since last I graced these pages. For a start, I’ve retired from Natural Theatre Company. Nearly forty five years of dressing up and pretending to be someone else all round the world seemed quite enough, thank you.

And when I say all round the world I mean it. The Naturals took me to fifty seven different countries if you count Guernsey as a country. That includes seven trips to Japan, four to Australia, most of South America and a one night stand in the Virgin Islands.

I’ve got at least one funny story from each country except Luxemburg. There’s nothing funny about Luxemburg, which is funny in itself really.

I do still dress up very occasionally, if offered a large enough fee. Yes, my cultured alter-ego Lady Margaret is still available for openings and closings, though as both Her Ladyship and I have recently lost three stone, the frocks might be a bit baggy. Lady M will be treading the boards at Christmas and New Year, overseeing the bonkers bingo nights at Bath’s quirky Igloo venue. They’ve billed it as ‘drag queen bingo’, though Margaret is hardly a drag queen. She’ll have to order her ancient butler to don a feather boa and fishnets, methinks. Hmm, perhaps not the fishnets.

Her Ladyship once attended a Bath Chronicle business breakfast. They introduced her as a character from Natural Theatre Company, at which point Don Foster MP leapt to his feet and cried ‘I object most strongly. Lady Margaret is not a character, she is a real live person!’  Possibly one of the best reviews I’ve had for a performance.

No, these days I’m mostly occupied with dreaming up stunts for the annual Bath Comedy Festival, of which I am Associate Director Special Events no less. As you may have heard, I successfully applied to Arts Council England on the festival’s behalf, raising £15,000 for marketing and audience development.

I found their new online application portal terribly difficult to use. It kept timing me out. I called the Arts Council customer services department and asked (almost in tears) to be unblocked for the umpteenth time.  Is it because I’m a doddery silver surfer I enquired, my voice quavering? No they said, lots of people are struggling with it. They’re used to the old system. What, I said, that old system when we used to just phone you, ask for the money and you gave it to us? Those were the days. I seem to remember some years ago the Naturals were given two brand new Iveco crew buses, and they’d only asked for one. We parked the second one out the front and used it as the world’s most expensive shed.

I might be slightly exaggerating there. But only slightly.

For news on Bath Comedy Festival visit the web site at www.bathcomedy.com

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