Once Upon A Life

While I was at Glasgow University in the 1980s, I took part in a few student drama productions. Alas, I was never a particularly gifted performer and suffered from sphincter-clenching stage fright, but – ever-optimistic – these factors didn’t deter me from going on to drama college, in London, following graduation.

I chose a method-acting school, which turned out to have as many quirks and outlandish practices as one might expect. In midwinter, as preparation for “The Scottish Play”, we endured a week-long improvisation in a dank and spooky Cornish farmhouse. My boyfriend was cast as Macbeth and I was his Lady, but after six days of foraged food and candlelight, our reign ended abruptly when “rebel spies” (our fellow students: half-starved, partially insane and armed with real crossbows) seized power. One wild-eyed virago held a knife to my throat and might have used it had our director not tossed aside his liquorice Rizlas to intervene, with world-weary, honeyed tones: “And there, let’s bring it to a close.” 

At the end of the course I re-entered the real world, vaguely traumatised but possessing one invaluable piece of acting wisdom: to work, one needed membership of the actor’s union in the form of an Equity card. A catch-22 was involved: to get a card, you needed to be in work, but to be in work you required a card. Luckily there was one proven route. If you could style yourself as a performer on the nascent alternative-comedy circuit and accumulate a few dozen contracts, then the holy grail of Equity would be within your grasp.

Two drama-school friends and I hastily formed a female trio, the Gumdrops. We planned to storm the comedy circuit with our witty monologues and devastating a cappella skills (although I did strum the guitar, ineptly, on a few numbers). I was chief songwriter, and my lyrics were meant to be humorous, with a vaguely feminist theme. One was about sex: “Now here’s the tragic story/of a girl like you and me/Oh how she longed for the glory/of orgasms multipl-ey.” In another, “Superwoman”, the first verse went something like this (what can I say? it was 1985):

She wears Conran clothes and Shilling hats
And she was one of the first with tickets to Cats
Her best friend’s bisexual, her hair by Sassoon
And she goes to the Dordogne for a week in June
She is Superwoman (doo doo)
Superwoman (doodle-de-doo)
Superwoman (doo doo)
She’s some bird, she’s not plain
She’s Superwoman and she drives me insane.

MY FRIENDS AND I spent a month writing and rehearsing material, and then launched ourselves into stand-up comedy with an open-mike spot in Crouch End. Those King’s Head punters might have been the nicest crowd for whom we ever performed. They clapped and cheered; some of them even hugged us, and I seem to remember that we were given roses. We left on a high, and with the misapprehension that this was how life on the circuit would play out: being showered with adoration and flowers.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Many of our contemporaries are now household names: Jeremy Hardy, Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Jenny Eclair, Mullarkey and Myers, and Julian Clary (when he still performed with Fanny the Wonderdog). By and large we shared the bill with comedians who were vastly more talented and funny than we were, and our lack of experience soon began to show. Some of our solo spots went down better than others, but we hadn’t the sense to cut or rewrite anything, with the result that each gig was more harrowing than the last as, increasingly, we lost faith in our material.

Over a period of six months, any confidence that we’d possessed seeped out of us. Towards the end, we were pushing each other on stage, dreading the moment when we’d have to do our individual spiels, trying to force the others to perform more of theirs (“Do your bit!” “No, you do yours!”). At tiny venues where it was impossible to sidle offstage between our awkward monologues, the two who were not performing would sit to one side, heads bowed, staring at the floor, awaiting the next cue. I can count those minutes as among the most desolate of my life.

Our worst gig was our last. It was at Greenwich, in the fondly remembered Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club, a place notorious for difficult audiences and where, from the moment we walked on stage, hecklers started shouting: “Get your tits out!” At the end of the evening, feeling sorry for us, Malcolm handed over two contracts instead of one, which allowed us to reach our Equity quota. He was encouraging, but that night was the last straw: the Gumdrops were too squashed to continue.

Thereafter, backed by talent spotters who had contacted me after one of our gigs, I tried my hand at jazz singing. I was teamed up with a pianist and the plan was for us to gain experience by playing pubs and clubs, and then perhaps a cruise ship, before moving on to recording contracts and world domination in 5/4 time.

However, pub singing was just as gruelling as the comedy circuit. Aside from my startling lack of charisma as a chanteuse, the venues we played were mostly in London’s East End, and when it came to requests I had a language barrier: having grown up in Glasgow, I often couldn’t understand what audience members were asking me to sing. At one gig, a plea for “Blue Burial” had me stumped until hours later, when it finally clicked that the punter had been demanding “Blueberry Hill”. Along with my accompanist – a very refined chap – I soon grew weary of late nights, bad pay and inattentive audiences.

One evening, during a typically high-class gig at the Royal Duke in Shadwell, a drunken spectator ate my poor pianist’s straw fedora, a hat of which he’d been most fond. Somehow, for me, this ridiculous event symbolised The End. I realised that I didn’t relish performing enough to put in the hard grind required to succeed in showbiz. There and then I decided to give up attempting to be an actor, a singer, a comedian, any kind of performer. I was done with it. That’s all, folks! I was going to get myself a real job.

And that’s how I ended up working in Barking, in a disused goods yard, as a training officer on the Tory government’s community programme scheme – so, not a real job after all. But that’s another story.