‘’I wouldn’t fancy going to a Chinese restaurant at the moment’ said my friend unthinkingly the other day. And then they realised it was a daft thing to say. Not wishing to be flippant about the Corona outbreak, but I’m with food critic Jay Rayner who has declared that we should show solidarity by supporting our local Chinese eateries.

It is disheartening the way borderline racism shows its head so easily in this country, with Chinatown reported to be deserted of an evening and children being told to avoid schoolmates of a certain ethnicity. What next we ask? A boycott of Worthing Amateur Operatic Society’s production of Turandot?

When the Natural Theatre Company, as a British Council flagship cultural export, was invited to China we were looking forward to some real Chinese food. Instead, it being British Week in that particular city, the manager of our five star hotel was determined to show off what the various restaurants in his establishment had on offer for the event. So every night we dined at his invitation on roast beef with all the trimmings, fish and chips or bangers and mash, followed by Eton mess or spotted Dick.

Not being ones to refuse a free nosh, we went along with it. But we longed to try the Peking ducks that hung drying in the sun from every balcony or the exotic vegetables on offer in the open markets. Big steaming vats of noodles could be seen being prepared in exotic looking establishments lurking in back streets while roadside stalls offered such delicacies as crispy fried grasshopper.

In the end we rebelled and escaped into town and had the most amazing meal which consisted of us pointing at anything and everything on the indecipherable menu until the revolving table ceased to revolve under the weight of our order. We didn’t realise that each item on the list was a complete meal rather than an individual portion! I’m not sure what the Chinese for greedy English pigs is, but I’m sure it was being employed by our fellow diners as they looked on in astonishment.

Even the hotel breakfast had a British theme. Presiding over the dining room was a large bust in the classical style carved out of butter. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. ’Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of course!’ came the reply. 

The morning buffet offered a choice of dim sum or full English. I chose a bit of both, and finding myself having to share a table with a rather smart Chinese business man, I wondered what the etiquette should be. Knife and fork or chopsticks? He had no such qualms. He’d gone for British. He hovered for a brief moment over his plate which contained two lightly fried eggs and a large dollop of tomato ketchup, and then bent over and simply sucked the lot up, hands free, in one go.

Ever since then I have adopted this technique with fried eggs. Try it. It’s very satisfying.

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Hot Hot Hot

Some people continually search for the hottest chilli or the most eye-watering pepper sauce. Mostly blokes, it’s a macho thing. When I visit the West Indies I always bring home a bottle or two of fiendish concoctions which I then try out on the real men in my local pub.

They remain implacable though a very faint glaze of sweat appears on their foreheads as they dip into my latest offerings.

Hmm, they say, not that hot. Five minutes later you notice them slipping into the gents to douse their burning lips with cold water.

Anyway, I think I have finally found the mother of all hot sauces which will test the credentials of any pepper popping masochist. I was in a market in Martinique a few weeks ago where a very jolly lady was selling little bottles of home-made spiced rum with names not suitable for publication in a family newspaper. She also displayed a selection of sauces branded as Hot! Hot! Hot! , Call de Fire Brigade and Auntie’s Devil’s Dipper.

Noting we were in a cruise liner port I suspected these would be pretty mild and aimed at our friends from across the pond. Have you got anything really hot I asked, trying to seem nonchalant? You want hot darlin’? I’ll give you hot came the reply and laughing uproariously she rummaged around under her stall, finally emerging with a small jar containing some innocent looking yellowish paste.

The label simply said pureed peppers. No health and safety warning. My suspicions should have been aroused when she sealed the jar with copious amounts of sticky tape and then wrapped it in no fewer than three polythene bags. I swear the other stallholders were smirking as I made my way back to our car.

Fast forward to my local. To put it in a nutshell, a guy who simply dipped his pinkie into the stuff swears that almost a week later he can still taste it on his hands. He reckons a teaspoon full could kill. Chemical warfare he called it!

I gave the little jar to a pal who is no stranger to hot sauces and he reckons it will last him at least a year. He swears that just the tines of a fork drawn through it and then swirled into a bowl of cream of tomato soup is transformative.

I kept back a wee bit of the paste and it’s lurking in my fridge. For just over a year I have mostly been living on a proprietary brand of weight loss ready meals. You add fresh vegetables or a wholemeal roll to make a filling but somewhat bland repast. I have lost a huge amount of weight but when I say ‘somewhat’ I’m being polite: they are boring beyond belief. The temptation to give up was almost irresistible.

But not anymore. The merest soupcon of my miracle ingredient turns the dullest dish into an exotic adventure. Dare me to add a smidge more? Call de fire brigade!

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Beige Age

People ask me how I fill my time now I’m retired. I usually answer that that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. But before they nod sagely at that cliché I add that the reason for that is half the day has gone before I get up. I love a nice lie-in, me.

I also do a great deal of Hoovering. My flat has never been cleaner. Also I stare out of the window a lot, a luxury I never had time for before I officially left the rat-race of world-wide theatre tours. And I do online surveys to earn vouchers.

Oh, said someone, commenting on the latter activity, that’s a sure sign of old age: sitting at your keyboard answering questions about shopping habits and NHS waiting times. But on the contrary, I find that nine times out of ten when I fill in my age a metaphorical klaxon sounds and the survey is terminated. They don’t want to know what a sixty eight year old retiree thinks about the latest i-phone or television on demand bundle.

It seems I’m officially old. This was underlined to me recently. An estate agent was showing some bright young couple around our up and coming neighbourhood and they were admiring my balcony with its trailing plants and smart wicker furniture. ‘Yes, an elderly gentleman lives there’ I heard him say, as I whizzed by on my sports bike, trendy Conran scarf streaming out behind me.

Elderly? Since when? Has he been eying my property, awaiting my imminent demise? Has he got some city slicker singleton lined up to move in as soon as I shuffle off this mortal coil? Okay, he may have spotted me pottering on said balcony, but I potter in fabulous Hawaiian shirts, inevitably clasping a glass of the finest Prosecco. And there’s nothing beige in my wardrobe.

On the other hand a young relative asked me the other day at what age did my hair go white? Until that moment I thought I had, at the very worst, a subtle coif of middle-aged grey. And looking round a possible venue for the up and coming Comedy Festival, of which I am an associate director, the manager, on seeing me smiling said to my colleague ‘Well, your dad seems to like it’.

Alright, I admit it. I do have a pair of trousers with an elasticated waistband. And last week I was about to go out to get in my taxi and I found I couldn’t get my mobile phone into my pocket.  It took me ages to work out I had put my trousers on back to front!

And yes, I do sometimes use a walking stick, but only when my replacement knee is playing up.

Whoops! Replacement knee?  That’s bit of a giveaway. Now where did I put those shoes with the Velcro fastenings?

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Magical Mystery Tour

Ever since The Beatles’ famous psychedelic outing I’ve been fascinated by magical mystery tours. Taking an audience on a journey with surprises around every corner is something I really enjoy organising, and believe me, I’ve helped organise a few in my time, from bonkers river adventures in Holland to spurious traffic-stopping historical walks in Royal Greenwich led by none other than Henry VIII himself (played by me, of course).

I say ‘traffic stopping’ because Good King Hal took his own portable zebra crossing with him, complete with a lollipop lady to help the participants negotiate those busy roads.

It’s great fun to dream up episodes appropriate to the location. This particular tour took in the site of a famous music hall. So naturally we had Max Miller, Cheeky Chappie of yore, emerging to sing one of his salacious songs. The audience was supplied with crates of rotten cabbage to throw at him.

What’s that to do with King Henry you ask? Well, you had to be there.

Many years ago Bath Arts Workshop and the Natural Theatre Company organised a mystery tour that stretched over a whole weekend.  Coaches took a wide selection of the community on a torturous journey around the lanes of North Devon and Somerset. Myriad infiltrations, performances and happenings took place en route including a mummer’s play, a multi-coloured food feast and even a raid by highwaymen on horseback.

At every stop we noticed an orange Volkswagen beetle, its occupant observing us closely and then driving away when approached. The conspiracy theorists amongst us, hippies all, decided it was the drug squad. Turned out it was the drama critic from Time Out magazine and we were voted ‘Best Alternative Theatre Event of the Year’.

The amount of preparation that goes into these things is amazing. The audience, sitting in their comfy coach or walking behind the guide see things happen seamlessly in all sorts of wild and wonderful places. But planning the route,  getting the actors and props there in time, hiding the support vehicles, sorting out permits, parking, safety issues and even researching toilet locations (someone always asks), let alone dreaming up the surprises takes a huge amount of time and imagination.

Bath Comedy Festival’s famous Wine Arts Trail, is a case in point. Participants, which this year will include a good proportion of unsuspecting tourists due to our new partnership with VisitBath, are transported around the secret corners of our city in a big red bus.  At each stop, as well as being presented with scenes of delightful hilarity, they partake of a glass of fine wine. So in addition to the aforementioned logistical complications, carried out by a twenty-strong back-up team, there’s the added nightmare of beverage management.

Is it possible keep 140 glasses of Alsace Gewurztraminer at the correct temperature in a field full of cows the middle of nowhere? Time to find out: tickets are now on sale!

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Funny Foreigners

Laughing at Johnny Foreigner has long been a staple of British humour.  In these days of political correctness and, hopefully, a more caring society, most comedians avoid the subject like the proverbial. Unless of course they are making fun of their own racial minority’s traits. Why, there’s nothing we love more than an Iranian taking the rise out of their grandparents’ struggle to come to terms with modern life or an Asian comic describing their aunties preparing for a family wedding, ‘funny’ accents and all.

Years ago when I was at college, one of our fellow students was from Athens. We took great pleasure out of ribbing her for the impossible number of rhyming syllables in her surname, while she found our pronunciation of such words as Basingstoke utterly risible. Nowadays we’d probably all be suspended for inappropriate language.

When I toured with the Natural Theatre Company performing our special brand of street theatre we found that Mr and Mrs Ordinary in practically every country in the world found the British very funny. Even in Pakistan where you’d think they’d suffered enough from centuries of arrogant colonialism, our posh lost tourists went down a hoot.  And in China, as we passed by sporting bowler hats, striped banker’s trousers and tightly rolled umbrellas, each of us with a little yapping dog in tow, a local resident leapt over a wall and exclaimed gleefully ‘Good morning, stereotypical gentlemen!’

Oddly, it seems one can make fun of certain nationalities and not others. Americans (‘Excuse me, sir, why did they build the castle so near the rail station?’) and French (cue berets and onions) are fair game but us prancing around in turbans wouldn’t be at all amusing. Though a friend was shocked to find that racist humour was alive and well at a certain end of the pier show in Norfolk. Audience reaction varied, with some expressing the view that stuff like that went out of fashion before they were even born and one woman saying it was the best comedy show she’d ever seen. But then, people from Norfolk are another minority one is allowed to mildly mock.

Are the Dutch funny? Well, soon we’ll find out as Bath Comedy Festival is planning to promote an evening of Amsterdam based comedians in April. They tried this one year with some comics from Eastern Europe who I believe struggled a bit.  But these Dutch guys regularly perform in English in their impressively multilingual home country. It’s all part of the Bath-Alkmaar twinning, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2017. The twinning was the result of Bath citizens raising huge sums of money to feed the starving kids in Alkmaar when the Germans withdrew at the end of WW2.

It’s an amazing and very moving story which will be celebrated with various cultural events and thanks to a brainwave from yours truly, Bath’s first ever cheese trail!

Watch this space!

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Did you read about that woman who’s made a fortune out of several volumes on how to declutter? You’ll find her works in the same bookshop section as those tomes extolling towel folding as a constructive and mindful pastime, when it’s simply being tidy.

Well, the first thing I’d throw out from my place would be her books. Since I downsized (both my home and myself actually) anything considered extraneous has gone straight to the car boot sale. Visitors have been caught peeping into my cupboards and gasping. Shirts colour coded, socks neatly rolled in pairs, just the right amount of crockery for dinner for four. Any holiday snaps that didn’t get into the ‘chosen few’ albums? Binned! Old ballpoint pens, keys to long gone locks, Christmas wrapping paper scraps, frayed pillow cases, out of date guide books, half-used tins of paint: off to the recycling depot with you! Cracked mugs, odd saucepan lids, tangled computer cables: chucked! Last year’s diaries, old tax returns, and that cycle helmet with the dodgy strap? Banished!

Yes, I pride myself on having zero tolerance where clutter and unused domestic items are concerned. At least, I did. Until I looked long and hard into my knicker drawer. How this particular area escaped my eagle eye I know not. But there they were: pants galore. Billowing pairs now too big for me since my diet, pants purchased in hope, that I will never actually get slim enough to fit, pants with withered elastic that head south when I’m running for my bus, Christmas pants (ugh…who gave me them?), Mickey Mouse pants (not even sure they are mine!), panic-buy pants wrongly chosen when faced with a baffling array of choices in the Men’s Department, pants metric mistaken for pants imperial. Pants, pants, pants.

And right at the back of the drawer, the dreaded boxer shorts of yore. Did I really wear such abominations? And how did they survive the move?

I strive for a smooth stress-free transition of a morning from prostrate in my pit to smartly turned-out upright, awake and out the door. I’ve even been known to put the toothpaste on my brush the night before if there’s a train to catch.

Fumbling through a drawer crammed with defunct trunks in the half-light was holding me up my dears. So, out damned pants. Twenty six (figures 26) pairs in all, into the rag bag and off to the depot. That’s enough for two football teams with a couple left over for the ref. Or spread out, an area half the size of Wales.

All now replaced by just six neatly folded identical gleaming (well, perhaps not gleaming) perfectly fitting pairs of undies purchased online with a single click. Now there’s something for my visitors to peep at and admire.

Not that I have many visitors. Well, they clutter the place up something awful, don’t they?

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Forum Frolics

With apologies to the well-known phrase, a funny thing is on the way to the Forum. The announcement that Paul Merton and his Impro Chums are appearing at Bath Comedy Festival’s opening night on April 1st, is great news. If you don’t know Bath Forum, it’s a fabulous art deco former cinema, hiding behind a rather humdrum classical façade. Inside, fantasy Roman gladiators prance around the glorious ceiling centrepiece while giant shields and spears decorate the side panels. It’s a tribute to the city’s ancient beginnings with its feet firmly planted in 1930’s modernism.

These days the Forum, having been a picture palace and a bingo hall, is enjoying its third incarnation as a church, so one has to show a certain sensitivity as to what one can stage there.  This is probably the first time this enormous venue has been used for pure comedy and having seen Paul’s show at Edinburgh Fringe playing to capacity audiences we know it will be a perfect fit. Totally improvised, squeaky clean and fantastic fun, you couldn’t wish for a better start to what is going to be the best and biggest BCF yet.

When the Forum hosted bingo, the owners were tremendously proud of their beautiful building. Unlike some of the bigger chains they didn’t rip the insides out. Yes there were Formica tables in the stalls and a rather naff tea bar, but on the whole the place survived intact. Similarly, the current occupants have carefully restored the interiors to their former glory.

Many years ago Natural Theatre presented their scurrilous rock and roll spoof The Rocky Ricketts Show in the Forum. There were some very naughty numbers and I’m sure the current occupants wouldn’t have let us through the door. Because it was bingo all day every day we had to extend the stage with scaffolding and planks very quietly while all around us in the semi-darkness it was eyes down for a full house. Not an easy task.

To fix up some lighting we had to go up into the roof space. This was terrifying as the huge streamlined suspended ceiling was exactly that: a thin layer of moulded plaster suspended on knotted ropes and wires from a steel frame. One slip would send you crashing through to land in a heap amongst the startled pensioners below.

Under a thick layer of dust I found an old peaked cap. Brushed up it revealed itself to be the original cinema commissionaire’s hat, in a classy shade of dark green with the word Forum embroidered in gold thread on the front: an artefact totally redolent of the building’s grand past.

They let me keep the hat but unfortunately at some point over the years it has disappeared from my wardrobe. Otherwise I would certainly be wearing it when I step onto the stage to introduce the show on April 1st.

See for Comedy Festival news at it comes in.

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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?

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People worry me. People who drop litter. People who don’t bother to vote. People crossing roads who stare at their mobile phones instead of at me when I am haring towards them on my bike. People who don’t have their money ready when getting on a bus when they’ve had at least ten minutes at the bus stop in which to fumble for their change. People who think train doors open automatically and just stand there. People who use outdoor voices in restaurants and invariably pick the table next to mine. People who pronounce nuclear nucular. People who say like all the time.

But the people who worry me most are those who appear on television quiz shows. Now I’m retired I get to watch a lot of daytime and early evening telly, and so I’m getting to be quite an expert on dim Britain. In fact, it could almost be my specialist subject on Mastermind.

It worries me that someone thinks that the answer to the question ‘Name a country ending in two consonants’ might be Paris. Or that that a fully grown adult thinks the American War of Independence took place in the fourteenth century. Or that someone believes that a monosyllabic word has three syllables or that Wuthering Heights was written by Jane Eyre. All of which I have cringingly witnessed from my sofa.

What really worried me was when a woman’s response to ‘Which biblical character was crucified on a hill called Calvary?’ was a fully confident ‘Ah, I know this one.  Joan of Arc!’ The questioner remained admirably implacable. What is even more worrying is that these people often turn out to be teachers. Goodness me, what knowledge are they imparting to our children? When the deputy head of a primary school admits that geography is not their best subject and then proves it by declaring that the only one of the Channel Islands that has a railway is the United Kingdom, to tell you the truth I feel mighty relieved that I don’t actually have any kids.

I daresay it’s partly rabbit in the headlights syndrome. Being in front of an audience in a television studio and having random questions fired at you is undoubtedly daunting. As an actor who was notorious for forgetting my lines, even when I had written the script myself, I would, like a recent contestant, probably be the first to answer that a romantic poet beginning with B was Benjamin Britten. I nearly found out once as I was shortlisted for Deal or No Deal. Mind you, that one is really a glorified raffle and a contestant’s a main skill would be keeping up the pretence that one has a game plan and that one found the presenter not at all annoying. And being an actor, I could have done that easy peasy and won a fortune.

But the phone call never came.

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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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