Some years ago I found myself at one of the crossroads that life throws up and almost entirely by chance I chose the road signposted ‘Stand-up Comedy’. I was in Newcastle supervising the RSC’s annual season. The job wasn’t too demanding and I spent a fair amount of time in the Dog & Table Lamp just around the corner from the Theatre Royal. It was a quiet bar that discouraged the younger trade and one could sit at the bar and brood on life’s unfairness undisturbed. One night I found myself sitting next to a thickset elderly man with a trilby jammed on his head. As men in Newcastle do we started to talk about football and football and as time went on I noticed that he was getting more attention from the staff and the rest of the pub than normal. When he tottered off to the loo I asked the barmaid who he was.
“Ooh don’t you know! That’s Harry Ackroyd, the comic. ‘That’s my dog that is’.“
“What?” I said.
“That’s his catch-phrase silly”
As I found out later it had once been the best known catch-phrase north of the Trent. When he returned I explained that I too was in “Showbiz” albeit a very different branch and for the next few nights we met and despite the disparity in our ages, Harry was well into his sixties then, we got on famously swapping jokes and anecdotes until he had to return to his club and I to the Theatre Royal for curtain down. One night Harry said to me “Listen lad when you’ve finished with that Shakespeare lot tonight come down to the club. I’d like you to see it before you go”.
So after collecting a few ‘meaningful’ notes from the director of Titus Andronicus on curtain down at the Theatre Royal I slipped away and, following Harry’s directions, I headed down Grey St towards the Tyne. As instructed I turned left before the viaduct and there tucked away in a seedy cul-de-sac was “Harry’s Place”. The name was set out in red neon and below that was the image of a cheeky terrier peering up a pretty girl’s skirt, the terrier’s tail appearing to wag only intermittently as some of the neon circuits were not working. On the poster next to the entrance Harry himself was top of the bill, followed by Audrey Fairclough “Songstress of the North”, Eduardo & His Marimba Muchachos, and a ventriloquist called Alvin Toxteth, “The Little Chappie with the Little Chappie”. The tiny foyer appeared to be deserted until a head popped up from behind a counter and said “Can I take your hat sir?”
“Sorry I don’t have a hat” I replied.
“Oh I know. I know. Nobody wears hats these days. I don’t know why I come in at all”. This I learned later was Vivienne, the octogenarian hat-check girl, who Harry had stopped paying in 1965 but she came in every night to keep warm and get the occasional free port and brandy.
“You’ll be that London feller, Harry’s expecting you. He’s at the bar”, she continued, gesturing towards a pair of red and gold double doors.
I went into the club itself, it smelt the same as clubs the world over, from Macclesfield to Macau, stale beer, stale fags and stale hopes. There was a whiff of disinfectant and the Gents in the air and the carpet stuck to my shoes. I walked over to Harry who was deep in conversation at the bar with three heavies who looked like extras from ‘Get Carter’. He shooed them away as I approached and gestured to the barmaid, who was only a little younger than the hat-check girl, for two scotches.
“Glad you could come lad. I want you to watch the show and tell me what you think” he said briskly.
“Er OK Harry but…”
He had already gone backstage. I sat down at the nearest table and studied my fellow punters. There were barely 30 people in the room and most looked as if they had been there as long as the club’s staff. The band, which consisted of piano, guitar and drums, stumbled onto the stage and played a rousing version of Tijuana Taxi before Alvin Toxteth, the teenage ventriloquist, came on, his dummy a cheeky Geordie layabout, his material low grade smut. He was followed by the Marimba Muchachos, three skinny blokes, who, as the barmaid Hilda helpfully told me, all hailed from Gateshead and were remarkably untalented acrobats. At this point I started to look for the Fire Exit and a hasty escape before Harry returned but then something remarkable happened, Audrey Fairclough walked out onto the stage. In her mid thirties, with honey blonde hair, wearing a simple black dress, she stood quite still for a moment centre stage before nodding to the MD to start her first number. The room came to life, the band sat up straighter, the fossilised audience stirred, Hilda stopped washing glasses and I was aware that Audrey Fairclough had that something that makes people want to watch, even if she was only doing the ironing. She started with The Girl from Ipanema and followed on with a string of standards, Funny Valentine, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, the usual stuff, the sort of music that made the invention of Rock & Roll inevitable. At the end of her set she introduced Harry who bounced onto the stage and launched into a routine that I guessed had barely changed in 40 years. Sure there were topical gags (Thatcher had just been elected to her first term and Newcastle United were in the Second Division) but there was a period flavour to his act, a black and white quality of the sort that Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse have sent up mercilessly in recent years. However at the end the loyal fossils applauded gamely and Harry wound up the show by encouraging the audience to keep drinking at the bar. He then popped his head out of the pass door and beckoned me through.
“Look Harry I…”
“I know it’s crap lad, you don’t need to say anything. I asked you here tonight because together we can change it”.
“What do you mean?” Over his shoulder I could see a blonde figure in a black dress disappearing up the wing. Harry led me into his tiny office and there surrounded by photos of Harry shaking hands with Englebert Humperdinck, kissing Shirley Bassey and, curiously, playing golf with Alma Cogan, he explained his plan.
“The whole show is old hat. I know that. Audrey is special but those three poofs from Gateshead are useless and the vent is a smarmy little shit. What the show needs is energy to kick it off and that’s where you come in. You’re a lah-di-dah educated bloke from down south and the punters will hate you. We are going to trade on that. Together we are going to write a short routine that you are going to open the show with. I’ll bet you can be a patronising bastard if you try. We can really wind them up, they’ll love it. Brilliant eh!”
“No Harry. You’re crazy. You may be right about me being a patronising bastard but doing it professionally, that’s different”.
“No trust me lad we can do this. What else have you got on? Nothing! “
Unsurprisingly at this point I thought to myself “What the fuck am I doing here in this time warp of a nightclub listening to this insane scheme from a deranged alcoholic comic?” But then I had three further thoughts.
a) Harry was right, I had no other work lined up.
b) Why not? I was a bumptious young man and fancied a change and a challenge.
And most importantly
c) I could tread the same boards as Audrey Fairclough.
It’s also worth mentioning that I was drunk at the time. After a certain amount of persuasion I agreed to come back the following afternoon to start work writing the routine with Harry.
So for the remainder of my stint on the RSC season I led a double life, during the day Harry and I ground out a script designed to piss off anyone born north of Watford and by night I tended to Stratford’s finest.
After a few days Harry decided that our plan was sufficiently well advanced to be broached to his fellow performers and took me round backstage to meet everyone. First I was introduced to George who looked after everything technical backstage as well as Hilda’s empties. As my act was explained to him he looked from Harry to me as if he was in presence of two simpletons and then deciding that I must have been totally conned by Harry he patted me on the back and said kindly “You’ll be fine”. I had to agree with Harry’s opinion of the artists at the bottom of the bill, Alvin Toxteth was a smarmy little shit and the Muchachos were absolutely useless but then he took me to meet Audrey. She had the biggest dressing room which she shared with Pedro, her Schnauzer, (who George told me was named after a window cleaner that she had once taken a shine to), and as we entered she didn’t turn round but looked at me in her mirror.
“Harry tells me you’re here to give us all a kick up the arse” she said coolly.
“ No. No. Not at all. I’m only…”
“I’m looking forward to that” she continued. She was wearing a pink silk dressing gown and was showing one naked foot and one very elegant ankle. I felt what little confidence I had as a budding cabaret artist dribble out through the soles of my shoes and gazing at that ankle I idiotically said “Just think of me as a warm-up man” .
“I’ll certainly do that” she replied without a change of expression. At this point Harry decided that I had made a big enough tit of myself and pushed me out of the door.
“Don’t worry about Audrey, she’s takes a while to get to know folk” he said apologetically.
The RSC completed their season and moved on to the Barbican. I stayed behind to become “Ted Irwin – That Irritating Bastard from Down South”, that was how Harry had me subtly billed, as I discovered when I entered the club on the night of my stand-up debut. Harry and I had a last minute run-through, I got into my rented tux (we had thought about tweeds and a monocle at one point) and went off to the loo to throw up. When I came back to the stage Harry rushed up to me saying “You haven’t got an intro. You need an intro to get you on stage”.
“Oh great Harry! What do you suggest The Eton fucking Boating Song? “ I retorted.
“Brilliant lad!” He cried and scuttled off to tell the MD. As he left I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Audrey. “Good luck southern boy “she said and as she turned away she gave me the sauciest wink imaginable.
A few moments later Harry gave me a shove and I made my first entrance as a stand-up comedian to a chorus of the Eton Boating Song gleefully delivered in thick Geordie accents by the ramshackle house band.
To be continued