Peter Steward's Web Site
So ended a rather serious period in my life. Newspapers have a habit of having a relatively quick turnover of staff. They absorb this and continue a s usual without any great change in the style of the content as this is governed from the top. But with each change in personnel the dynamics of the office shift a small bit. Every human being has his or her own characteristics and each are missed when they leave for very different reasons. A zany light hearted prankster can have as great an effect on an office as a hard hearted tough guy.
So the seasons change and with them the moods. A town that is desolate in winter becomes alive in summer with the holiday trade. A small population is swollen like a pregnant woman ready to give birth. The cafe awnings come out, the candifloss stalls open for business and everyone gets into the swing of summer before winter returnes.
In winter our town is lifeless, almost going through the motions, not quite at one with itself. In the summer it becomes, for a few weeks, youthful and vibrant. One of the great contributors to this was the annual summer variety show.
Many years before the time of which I write, the show had been a disaster. Put on by a local self-styled impressario it had gone from bad to worse and turned into a local music hall with virtually the same cast every year. In other words it had become tired and irrelevant. The organiser argued that the individual artists weren't important - the overall show was: "They come and go darling, but the show always goes on, the show must always go on," he was heard to say to numerous people on numerous occasions.
As a result during one summer season the theatre was scarcely one-quarter full and that was at the height of the season in August. The impressario (let's call him Old Darling) set out to find out why people were staying away. He found out that the British holidaymaker is a creature of habit. The same people were returning to the town year after year after year and they were bored by seeing the same people and the fact that artists didn't seem to "come and go darling." They seemed to stay!
So eventually the local council stepped in and took over the running of the show and over the years it gradually became one of the highlights of the season. Old Darling disappeared to wherever Old Darlings disappear to and the show became the highlight of many people's holiday in our town. It was a colourful show and attracted some fringe top stars - people whose hay day may have been over but whose name was still known. Some were on their way up and some were on their way down but the show built up a reputation for providing excellent British seaside entertainment and for at least 75% of the peak weeks the cast played to packed audiences - and noisy packed audiences at that, people determined to have a good time.
Each year a member of the reporting staff was given the job of writing a critique of the show and week by week featuring a member of the cast in a full length interview and feature. Our newspaper circulation naturally went up in the summer months as holidaymakers bought it to find out what was happening in the area. It was important therefore to write for them as much as writing for the local people.
"In a weekly paper, all life should be represented. The locals want to read about council stories that will affect them, but the holidaymakers want to be entertained and it is our job to do both," Birkett said.
In the particular year about which I write, I was chosen. My appointment probably owed much to the fact that the day Greene asked Birkett who was going to cover the show that summer, I was the only other person in the office.
"Here's a nice job for you to do son. I want you to cover this year's show. Write something nice about it and then ring the local amenities chap Brian and arrange to meet the artists week by week and we can build up a nice file of features on them. Give you some good feature cuttings to keep for your portfolio as well," he said.
I was more than happy to oblige.
Although Birkett had emphasised the "write something good about it" when referring to the show, I was determined to write the truth. If the show was bad the readers deserved to be made aware of this fact. Nobody was going to tell me how to do my work even if it was a way of staying on good terms with the council.
Birkett saw the whole thing more as an exercise in diplomacy rather than a serious artistic article "keep em happy lad on something as small as this and they'll be helpful to you when we need to delve into something. Upset them and they will just dig in and be awkward when we need to find something out."
As it happened I didn't have to worry because the show was extremely enjoyable and at the end of the first performance I was invited back stage. I had a drink with the cast and a good laugh and went home feeling very happy. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the next day I dutifully typed out my review and put it in the out basket where all copy ended up before going to the type-setters. Later Shad Greene popped in to see me.
"Good report lad. That's exactly what I wanted.. excellent job.!
I was far from flushed with pride. I knew I had received Greene's accolade purely beacuse I had written exactly what he had wanted to see. It was the following week that we learned about a rival show springing up under the direction of a magician by the name of Gerard Smithson. He was getting together "the best of local talent" as he put it to give an alternative show and prove that anything the professionals could do, the locals could do as well if not better.
"We're not trying to fight the establishment show. We are just giving people a choice and of course most people are here for the week. That gives them the chance to catch both shows. That still leaves them five other nights to do other things," Smithson told me on the telephone.
I promised him that as the "newly appointed arts reporter" I would give his show a look the following week.
I was met at the door of the theatre, which was up until recently a local cinema, by the man behind the show. Gerard Smithson was a short squat man with an offputting smile and squinty eyes that rather suggested he needed glasses but also suggested that he was too proud to do so. The squint gave him a Japanese appearance. His hair, or what little of it remained, was plastered back with grease with a parting in the middle. He wore a very poorly fitting dinner suit.
"Are Mr _____ I presume. Hello I'm Smithson. You'll have to excuse the funereal dress but the show starts in 15 minutes and I'm on at the end."
I took this to mean that he would be on stage at the end to take a bow with the rest of the cast. Little did I know that I was addressing the Amazing Gerardo - the self renowned magician and self appointed star of the show!
"Come up to the bar and I'll tell you a little bit about the show."
He led me onto a slightly raised area at the side of the auditorium. The stage was to the left and the floor was set out with tables and chairs in a cafe style to give the whole place a music hall atmosphere.
"Informality is the key to our little show. I think you will appreciate that when we get started. I've put you on a table at the front so you can see everything clearly. We want to have as much contact with the audience, not like that other show where you sit rigid in your seats. Here you can enjoy a drink while you enjoy the show." He had emphasised the words "that other" in order to point out the level of contempt he held the professional show in.
"Anyway if you'll excuse me, I must see that the cast are ready to go now, so if you will excuse me. Your seat's at the front on the left. Anything you want to drink, just order from the waitress and I will settle up afterwards. I have told them you will be here. Remember all the wonderful talent you are going to see tonight is home grown. Enjoy."
Well Smithson was certainly doing his best to make me feel comfortable and indeed my table was right at the front.
The show started with the almost expected fanfare and from that point deteriorated alarmingly. In fact not to put too fine a point on it, it was absolutely appalling.
It opened with Genial Geoff "your host for the evening". Genial Geoff was so drunk he would have had trouble seeing an audience from three yards. His job was to act as chairman. He stumbled, stuttered and kept flinging a silk handkerchief around as if he was possessed. I imagine somebody had told him this was the thing to do.
Second on was John Delage - billed as a local heartthrob. poor old John was well past his sell-by date. He was introduced as a tenor but seemed to alternate between tenor, bass and a kind of screeching upper range noise that was even more out of tune than the rest of the show. His selection from The Desert Song had to be seen to be believed. Without props, we were asked to imagine that dear old John was in the desert which was a little difficult to do as very green plants had already been put in place for the following act. The high spot of John's act was when he took his bow and his toupee fell off into the front row of the audience.
What followed could only be described as a disaster. Your Favourite Songbird (Genial Geoff's words and not mine) Silicia turned out to be a 71-year-old pensioner who screamed and shouted her way through a variety of songs ranging from "I Love Paris" to "My Old Man" - Marie Lloyd she wasn't. All her songs were equally embarrassing. The strange thing was the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was so bad it was funny. I even wondered if Smithson hadn't planted them to give me the impression that it really was a good show. I would like to have seen his bar bill at the end of the evening to see if this thought was true.
After a short break we had Luigi the world renowned accordionist who turned out to be a dustman from Halesworth. Then there was a 75-year-old comic whose only claim to fame was once treading the boards of the London Palladium. It turned out he had been a scene shifter at the theatre many years previously.
Finally Genial Geoff, who was by this time having difficulty standing up and whose Genial side seemed to be becoming less apparent, told us the highlight of the evening was about be upon us.
"Direeect from ze inner magic ceercle is the Amazing Gerardo and I can truly premise you that this man is.... is... is well is just amazin."
Smithson stepped out as the lights went down and then up again and the fanfare that had started the show was replayed. I wondered which member of the cast was standing backstage playing it.
The Amazing Gerardo's act seemed to mainly consist of making a rather moth eaten poodle disappear and re-appear with almost monotonous regularity. At least he couldn't have been hiding it up his sleeve - the thing was far too big. He then spent a good 10 minutes making balls do the same thing - disappear that is. Just as people were beginning to look at their watches to see if there was time to get a swift half in at some pub away from the theatre, the Amazing Gerardo who was becoming less and less amazing by the minute, announced his piece de resistance - yes he was going to saw a lady in half.
Even back in the early 1970s this was pretty much old hat.
"I'm now going to prove that you really can get two for the price of one. I would like to ask for a volunteer from the audience," he said staring out through his small squinty eyes.
Nobody seemed interested in volunteering. Perhaps it was the squeal made by the poodle on the fourth occasion it disappeared or perhaps it was the fact that one of the Amazing Gerardo's balls had dropped out of a trouser leg and onto the floor and been kicked into the orchestra pit almost in anger that put people off. Let me say at this point that there wasn't actually an orchestra - more of a trio of keyboard, drum and guitar.
I suppose that people were concerned about being cut in half because they didn't want to be half the person they once were!
Eventually he managed to cajole a middle aged woman on stage after offering her a stiff drink at the end of it: "When I've finished madam it could be a case of one for you and one for your friend or should we say your other half."
The woman viewed the apparatus with complete indifference as if she had seen it all before. Indeed I should imagine virtually everyone in the audience had seen this trick before.
She didn't even blink as he passed the blade through the contraption and split the carrot laying underneath her. For her it was probably just an ordinary occurrence. She had probably laid in an instrument of torture on top of a carrot many times before!
It was only at the end when she got up and faced Smithson (sorry the Amazing Gerardo) that the real entertainment of the evening began.
"Here I know you," she said forgetting to check whether her body was still in one piece as Gerardo had asked her to do.
"You're that slimeball that tried to run off with my best mate's daughter at Margate last year."
"Madam this is a family show," the Amazing Gerardo was trying to laugh the suggestion off.
"I don't care, you middle aged lothario. Look at what a bloody mess you are. You should be ashamed at your age, you you you fake casanova." The woman was seeming to find it difficult to think up words to fittingly describe Smithson.
"Madam please take your seat."
"The only place I'll take my seat is over your fat, bald head. I'll have the police on yer... you..you layabout. As for your show I've seen more talent from my daughter's six year old friends.
Those were the women's last words as a rather beefy bouncer marched in to eject her from the stage and the theatre. We knew he was a bouncer because he wore a black jacket with the word "security" on the back. He managed to frog march the woman out without too much fuss. I should imagine by this time the "volunteer" had seen and heard enough and probably wanted to contact her friend to tell her what had happened.
The show came to a very quick close at the end and I was personally led to the bar where the Amazing Gerardo who was now the quite ordinary Gerard Smithson insisted on plying me with so many drinks that quite quickly I was finding it difficult to see straight.
"I hope you won't let that unfortunate incident at the end cloud your judgement of an excellent show. Didn't you think it was excellent? I'm not sure whether he was fishing for compliments or re-assurance.
"Well actually I ...."
"Here have another drink. It will make you see things more clearly. Give you the words to describe the show. I always like the sound of the phrase "a breath of fresh air in a stale world of entertainment." He had obviously been rehearsing that one earlier.
Another whisky arrived in my hands - not sure by what means.
"Come and meet the cast backstage."
The remainder of the evening was pretty m,uch a blur. I remember the moth eaten poodle belonged to Your Favourite Songbird and the balls were Smithson's private property - I remember making a remark about this, well you've heard of seaside humour. The accordionist's phoney Italian accent turned into a Suffolk one and several members of the cast were arguing about who should take second billing to Gerardo on some new posters being put together.
I think I ended by promising to return on another night to set up a few interviews although God alone knows what I was going to ask these people.
The next day not surprisingly I woke up with a splitting headache and felt sick and so I wasn't at my best when I turned into work.
"You look rough," said Robin, stating the obvious at breakfast.
"You look rough dear," said Violet as I went out the door.
"You look rough," said Louis at the office.
And quite honestly I felt rough.
It was around 11 a.m before I plucked up the courage and enthusiasm to write about the show. I had to weigh up whether I was going to allow myself to be bribed. Deep down Gerard Smithson must have known it was a lousy show otherwise he wouldn't have deliberately got me drunk or spent so much time telling me just how good it really was. No I would give it a fair report and write honestly about what I thought. It turned out to be a bit of a hatchet job because I couldn't think of many nice things to say about the show.
Once I had completed my piece stating that although entertaining there were serious lapses of ability and serious concerns about the pedigrees of the stars (and particularly of the poodle) I dropped the copy into the basket and left to get some lunch. It hadn't been a greatly productive morning.
When I returned after lunch Shad Greene beckoned me into his office.
"You know son I thought you were beginning to learn sense. I thought you were coming round to our way of thinking. But this ...." he stabbed my story with his pen "Well this puts you right back where you started."
I didn't quite know what to say. It seemed that whether I did right or wrong was entirely a matter of what Shad Greene thought and what kind of mood he was in on the day in question.
"Of course you know what's wrong with it. The remarks Mr Birkett made about the other show also apply to this one. If we use this in the paper it will look as if we are biased and that is something that mustn't happen. I've changed it to save you having to re-write it. Now go and make me a cup of tea."
There was nothing to say after that but to wait for that week's edition of the paper to see how my story had been cut.
Cut really wasn't the word. It had been devastated. From about 15 paragraphs it had been cut to four. All the bad things I had written, all the truth about the tenor's toupee falling off and the confrontation between Gerardo and the woman had all been cut out and phrases such as 'he exhibited charm but his voice was sadly lacking" were cut to just "he exuded charm" which completely changed the meaning of the piece.
I was angry, but Robin was more philosophical about it.
"You've heard about press censorship. Now you've seen it at work."
And of course this time, unlike when Willson had snatched all my glory, my byline appeared with the story.
Shortly after the paper reached the streets, Gerard Smithson phoned up.
"We didn't get much of a write up Eric."
"Yeah I'm sorry about that but you know how it is. I wrote about five times that amount but it was cut." At least I was telling the truth (well kind of),
"Never mind what you did say was very good and I know how tight space in the paper is. How about coming down tonight for another drink?"
At first I declined and made some lame excuse about being otherwise engaged. I just couldn't stand the sight of that bloody poodle again. But later in the day Greene told me he would like another "colour piece" on the show and so I was forced to return for another does of entertainment Suffolk style.
I returned well before the start of the show. I was loathe to sit through the whole sorry mess again. This time I ran straight into the middle of a quarrel.
The ancient comedian and the old woman singer both took me aside separately to tell me they were being "under billed."
"Everyone knows how hard I work and how well known I have been in these parts over the years," said the woman.
"Everyone knows how my art is important to people. I used to be quite famous you know," said the man
The argument all hinged around the fact that the woman's name was in slightly larger letters than his but was in red rather than black. It was an intricate and difficult to understand argument between two pompous people and I tried desperately not to get involved. The more I heard of this the more I realised how futile trying to do newspaper features on these people would be. They were all well over the hill anyway.
It was at that point in my thought process that the tenor approached me.
"You're from the local paper aren't you?"
"Yes That's right."
"Well I hope you're going to stick around tonight because I can tell you I've had it up to here," he pointed to the top of his head in a very theatrical manner.
"Yeah stick around lad and you might see something of interest at the end of the show."
"What do you mean," I inquired.
"Sorry can't say anything more. That would spoil it."
So, not wanting to miss anything, I again watched the show but this time from the bar and this time on orange juice. It was, if possible, worse than the night before. The acts were just as bad but if possible they seemed to have lost any enthusiasm that they previously had. It was a dull, pathetic and limp affair and the final curtain came as a blessed relief. Perhaps it was just that I had now seen the show twice and once was more than enough.
The curtain came down and the sound of shuffling came from behind as the cast prepared to take its final bow to what was a half full theatre - or maybe it was just half empty.
Suddenly there was a scuffling sound and a muffled voice came from behind the curtain.
"You lay a hand on me and I'll have the law on you." It was Smithson's voice.
"I'm not gonna lay a hand on you mate - I'm gonna lay two." that was the tenor.
Slowly the curtains opened and all present could see the Amazing Gerardo gripped by the collar as the tenor pulled him forward towards the edge of the stage. A few people in the audience laughed, others began to leave assuming this was another poor comedy sketch. They should have realised it was a real fight because such a company would never attempt an encore.
"You know what I'm going to do to you mate in front of all these nice people. I'm gonna chuck you in the orchestra pit," said the tenor with all pretensions of an Italian accent now well and truly gone.
So saying the tenor took a couple of steps forward, summoned up all his strength and with a tremendous effort threw the struggling Gerardo off stage.
There was a crashing of drums and cymbals and The Amazing Gerardo landed on the floor screaming more in anger than pain. In fact a few moments later he was able to dust himself off, examine his bruised and hurt pride and limp around to the front of the pit and through a door marked "staff only".
People who had stopped to watch now began to file out of the theatre. I had a decision to make. Was it worth folowing up this obvious story or should I just not bother as Shad Greene was unlikely to use it. Nevertheless I decided that it was better to ve safe than sorry and decided to get the facts in my notebook in case Greene suffered a sudden change in policy.
I decided to finish my drink, however, before seeking out Smithson and the tenor. They might not feel like talking just yet. I was rather surprised, therefore when a bald headed tenor came out of the staff only door and sat down beside me.
"There told you it would be worth waiting for didn't I," he said.
"Why did you throw him off the stage like that." It seemed an obvious question but I had to ask it.
"How would you have liked me to throw him off then," he queried.
It took me a split second to realise this was an attempt at humour that seemed rather out of place.
"Okay I'll tell you. It's because the man's an absolute bastard. Okay get your notebook ready because I'm going to give you an exclusive now. You remember that woman who volunteered to be sawn in half at last night's show?"
"Well that was my wife and it wasn't a coincidence that she was there or that she was sitting in the front or that she volunteered to go up on stage. You see what she said about Smithson carrying on with her friend's daughter wasn't quite true. It was our daughter. I set my wife up to humiliate the Amazing Gerardo but it didn't seem to work. So tonight I decided to do something about it. Last season I was at Margate in the main summer show there. Once again Smithson opened up a rival show. He has a habit of doing this at resorts around the country. One night he met my 15-year-old daughter after the show. She was young and naive and allowed herself to be talked into going to his flat. I needn't tell you any more except to say she had an abortion three weeks ago. So I suppose I just wanted to get even with him."
"Why didn't you call in the police. She was effectively raped?"
"We didn't want any scandal. You see years ago I was something of a big name in summer shows. Those were the days when I really could sing before I had a throat operation which ruined my voice. I know I'm no good now and that's what made me do this tonight. I decided to contact Smithson during the winter on the pretext of joining his show and this has been the result. Of course he'll try to make it impossible for me to ever work in the theatre again, but I'm over the hill just like the rest of them. The only difference is I know that. They all seem to be clinging to the absurd idea that one day they will be stars again. So you see Smithson certainly won't make trouble for me as he knows exactly what I can do to him and his so called career.
"I've got a steady job lined up in Bournemouth with the council - ironically looking after their summer show and bookings. I am going to ask a favour of you now. I know I've got no right to ask but I wonder if you'd consider keeping quiet about this whole thing."
"Why did you ask me to stay to the end if you knew I was a reporter," I asked.
"Oh that's easy. I took a liking to you yesterday when we met. You looked and sounded like a sensible bloke and somebody I could talk to and explain what has been going on. Anyway I'm an old friend of Shad Greene's and I know he wouldn't touch a story like this. Wouldn't want to rock the entertainment boat so to speak," he grinned.
Suddenly I had taken a liking to this chap and so readily agreed under the circumstances to save myself the time and effort and I never did bother to speak to Smithson to get his side of what was a very seedy story
I did receive a phone call the following day from Smithson and I did one final story as he announced that the show was closing down. He gave financial problems as the reason and that's how I reported it. Greene had to print this story as it was our way of telling holidaymakers that the show was no more. As far as I know the Amazing Gerardo became the relatively insignificant Gerard Smithson who left the world of entertainment. Unless of course anybody reading this knows differently!