Monday, 24 November 2014

Bitten by the acting bug

For as long as I can remember, I've lived in my head.  There's no 90th minute winner, Ashes securing wicket, knockout punch I haven't effected.  I'm still prone to do it nowadays as I career toward my 40th birthday.  In some alternative universe, I am a polymath, effortlessly straddling the worlds of culture and sport.  The only Ipswich Town player to simultaneously play Test Match cricket for England while managing to host an eclectic music show on the radio and a widely read writer of film criticism.  I suppose as a fantasy life goes, it's less harmful than it could be, no matter how many my times my fiancée catches me in the act of pulling off a diving penalty save in the kitchen when I should be doing the washing up.

As a child, I watched television and read comics voraciously.  I soaked up so many influences, from Doctor Who to Terrahawks; Sorry to Only Fools and Horses; I was Superman, Spider-Man especially when that shitty live action version was doing the rounds on ITV in the early 80s, the Hulk, Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Indiana Jones, Egon Spengler (yes, I know), Manimal, Dempsey and Makepeace - I was all of them (well I wasn't Makepeace obviously).
I didn't  own a video till I was 12 years old and once I did, I recorded and re-watched stuff endlessly, committing it to memory and reliving it in my head and in my bedroom.  Don't get the wrong impression about my childhood, I had plenty of friends and was raised in a loving household by the best parents anyone could ever ask for.  I wasn't lonely and I wasn't escaping from anything beyond the mundanity and trivial annoyances that afflict the fortunate ones who don't have to contend with divorce, abuse or serious illness in their childhood.  I just retained all this make believe stuff in my head, together with other stuff that was real but which I had no control over - such as sport.

Opportunities to do any proper acting in my childhood were fairly scarce.  I did all the usual rites of passage - nativity plays in which parts were given out on a seemingly arbitrary basis by teachers to the children who were most self confident, which invariably meant I was relegated to singing the third verse of Away in a Manger or playing one of half a dozen Frosty the Snowmen.  My big break came when I played second rat in a summer term production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin the year I left primary school, 1987.  I had the most lines out of the rats and had to handle a prop, an impressive fake piece of cheese.

But in the main, drama was just an occasional treat in English lessons and this continued into secondary school.  The exception was towards the end of the first two years in which the forms would have to participate in a drama showcase.  In the first year, as it was still called in 1988, this took the form of playlets that we had devised around the theme of school issues.  I was in one around the theme of honesty, which was a break from all the anti-bullying ones.  A year later, my form's contribution to this festival of culture was a presentation  of the sketch we had performed for the living history day at Pendennis Castle. This was a dramatisation of the battle between St.George and the Turkish Knight.  A curious choice given that the Queen at our living history day was based on Elizabeth I and while I failed GCSE History, the Turks were not seen as a valid threat in the 16th Century. Any historians who chance upon this blog, are welcome to comment below.  At the castle, the performance brought the house down, especially the unscripted bit in the sword fight when Norman Selwood as the Turkish Knight swung his sword and sheared the blade of St.George's sword clean off its hilt.  The roar of laughter from the assembled crowd still reverberates around my memory to this day.  Unsurprising really given that I was the poor sod stood there looking at the empty space where my wooden sword blade had been.  Fortunately, I'd seen an Errol Flynn film a few weeks previously in which the same thing had happened to him and he had continued to fight on with just the blade.  I took up mine and praying that the blade wouldn't get any shorter or I would have to win the fight by punching the Turkish Knight out, plunged back into the fight and duly won.  At the showcase, a fortnight later, my sword had not been repaired so I went into battle wearing a
tabard made by the Textiles department and one of my bedroom curtains acting as a cloak, wielding a thin leafless branch I had found in the grounds of the school.  I feared that history would repeat itself and it did, but this time it was Norman's sword which broke.

Norman was a member of the only available outlet for acting that I was aware of outside of school.  The Young Generation (YG) was a youth offshoot of the Falmouth Operatic and Dramatic Society which staged a musical once, occasionally twice a year.  Before Christmas 1988, a group of us had gone from school to see him in their production of Scrooge - the Musical.  I was interested in getting involved with them, but lost my nerve when Norman told me that new members had to audition to show that they could sing.  My confidence in my singing voice had taken a knock since I was refused a place in the primary school choir because the teacher who ran it thought I had a flat singing voice.  This stung me to tears given that 3/4 of the class were accepted into it.  Norman made the YG audition sound a terrifying ordeal, like trying to get into the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Someone subsequently told me that if you could halfway carry the tune to Happy Birthday, you would be accepted into YG.  I tactfully withdrew and became entrenched in my position when my dad told me he had met a member of the YG committee down the pub who could ensure that I'd get in without the audition.  I was horrified by this.  "If I want to join I'll do it on my own merits, not because someone else got me in" I told him.  My dad chastised me for my ingratitude and I remained on my high horse for another 4 years where the YG was concerned.  More on them later....

I didn't think I would ever do drama until a shake-up in the curriculum going into the 1989-90 academic year saw Falmouth Community School as it was renamed get its first specialist drama teacher.  Her name was Jane Stevenson and she taught my class drama last lesson on Mondays.  Taught is a bit of an exaggeration.  She would get us to split into groups, then we would be given a scenario and have to devise a sketch around it.  These could be anything from realistic situations to completely fantastical ones.  Me and my friends would often go for the comedy option with most of our sketches and if I could have spent every Monday afternoon doing this, I would have.

But at the end of that year, we were told that some of the subjects we had taken in the first three years were now going to be optional subjects.  We could choose two of them to supplement the compulsory ones over the next two years.  Most of the optional subjects were from arts and crafts including Drama.  As I had a flair for languages one of my options was already covered in that I was doing Latin, which was seen as quite prestigious and had been invitation only based on skill in French.  Drama was tempting, but I chose instead to do a piece of useless shit called Pre-Vocational Studies, a City and Guilds course which I have never subsequently cited on any CV or job application because it turned out to be so useless.  The only reason I did it was because of a module dedicated to work experience which I thought might be useful but which I subsequently botched, failing to get a placement sorted and instead acting as an assistant to the teacher who ran the module, accompanying him on site visits, doing filing etc.

The school also replaced the old drama showcases with a proper school production.  In 1990, this was Julian Slade's musical, Salad Days, which I was to learn years later, inspired Cameron Mackintosh to want to go into theatre when he was a child.  I had no involvement in Salad Days or the following year's production of Grease.  In my fourth year, which by now was being called Year 10, I did a term of drama as part of a Thursday afternoon lesson which saw us alternate between Drama, Music and Textiles through the terms of that academic year.  I still enjoyed it hugely and it may have been
during these lessons that I made vague allusions towards auditioning for the next show, but probably had no intention of doing so.

1991-92 was to be my GCSE year. I still remember sitting down in my first mock exam that autumn and thinking, "Wow!  So this is what it's all been for."  That constant battle to keep your head above water amid your tiny peers. To be interested in stuff you will never go back to.  Whole weeks of learning and not learning.  Passing some hours agreeably and enjoyably, passing others wishing that you could be cleaning the toilet with a toothbrush rather than listening to this boring drivel.
I clearly spent too much time philosophising because my mocks were a disaster.  An across the board failure, which left me wondering, particularly after a dressing down from my parents, how I would claw back the deficit...

Around this time, Jane stopped me near the drama studio in the school grounds and told me about the auditions for that year's main production, Oliver.  Was I going to audition?  I told her probably, but didn't actually follow through on this.  A few weeks later, she collared me again and told me that the final set of auditions were coming up.  If I wanted to be involved, this was my last chance.  I decided to do it, mainly because an acquaintance of mine, Martin Veale, who would go on to become a close friend off the back of the show, was going to be in it.  There were a few other people whose company I enjoyed doing it too, so I figured, what the hell.  There were only 2 main roles left for auditioning when I went: the thuggish Bill Sikes and Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker who takes Oliver into his employ when Mr. Bumble  (played by Norman), sells him from the workhouse.  I sang the songs for both of them and the "flat voice" held up OK.  I would have preferred to play Bill Sikes.  I was not a hard man at school, quite the contrary unfortunately, but the thought of being one onstage was quite appealing.  In the event, I got the role of Sowerberry as well as various chorus roles including the Knife Grinder in the song, Who Will Buy.  Martin got the role of Bill Sikes and I was pleased for him.  Sowerberry was on in the first half only and had a song called That's Your Funeral.  I had plenty of chorus work in the second half to keep me interested and so it was in November 1991 that rehearsals for Oliver got under way.

I had started to develop an interest in 60s music in the preceding years and the BBC's Sounds of the Sixties radio and TV show piqued that interest further.  John Peel was off my radar, a half remembered face from episodes of Top of the Pops and Noel Edmonds's Late, Late Breakfast Show.  It's a wonderful retrospective pleasure to go back and find what he was playing while I was taking my first tentative steps into acting.
We're ready to let the music play....

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