More Small Thoughts 1 / 2

WHAT is expected of a good professional actor? Probably the ability to convey conviction in any type of role, an unquestionable mastery of his lines and just enough radar to avoid bumping into the furniture.

For a good amateur actor, however, that's less than half the story. You won't find him giving us the Lear of a lifetime and then basking in the afterglow while sycophantic supporters insist on telling him that he is every bit as good as he thinks he is. Not if he really is a good amateur.

A good amateur actor is also a team player. He has to be. He's the one who will take his bow, then step out of the spotlight, remove the trappings of his success and set about clearing up the coffee cups and ice cream tubs and putting away the chairs that have been newly vacated by the village hall audience.

Amateur theatre is hard work. It involves far more than the stuff-strutting that is merely the tip of the iceberg. Day jobs have a tiresome tendency to eat into the time that could otherwise be devoted to learning and rehearsing – time that is generously at the disposal of the professional.


Moreover, a good amateur never forgets that the lesser mortals by whom he is surrounded have been working their socks off to provide a setting for his talents. Without them, his inestimable contribution would have been a waste of time. It's no good calling on winds to blow and crack their cheeks if there is nobody front-of-house to rip tickets and let in the patrons, or behind the scenes to wind up the tempest noise.

Professional theatre can afford the idiots who think, however mistakenly, that they are God's gift – the people so preoccupied with themselves that the perceived failings of their fellows make no difference. But amateur theatre, involving people who are united in their hobby, requires a team spirit that recognises that no role, on-stage or off-stage, is more important than any other.

Take away the tea lady and questions will be asked in the house.

It has, however, dawned on me belatedly that I have been going off the rails in stating my belief that a good amateur can be as successful as a professional in tackling anything except ballet. Having watched amateurs who have mastered unicycling, juggling and tightrope-walking for Barnum, I was pretty confident that the world of theatre was their oyster.

I was peeved on their behalf when the impresario behind The Witches of Eastwick insisted on giving the show a limited try-out with a dozen amateur companies to see what sort of a fist they made of it before releasing it to the ranks of the great unpaid. After all, its essential requirements are four strong central characters, three of whom have to be prepared to dangle on the end of a wire. Oh, yes, and they have to be able to sing as well – although this is habitually taken as read when any musical company is looking for principals.


Amateurs, by and large, are talented people, which is why it is about time that under-instructed outsiders who give the impression of having discovered an unpleasant smell under their nose if they are confronted with a conversation about amateur theatre should be laughed to scorn for their stupidity.

These are the ignoramuses who assume that if an actor were any good, he would have turned professional.  They cannot grasp the fact that whether he or she is marvellous or mediocre, the stage is a hobby – just an adjunct to a job that is probably nothing to do with theatre but which is nevertheless one that is enjoyed and fulfilling.

Even so, I now realise, it is time to modify my evangelism on behalf of amateurs. Enlightenment dawned when I was watching the Russian Ice Stars leaping and pirouetting in Peter Pan on Ice, (pictured right) producing high-speed spins that yielded heaven knows how many Russian revolutions to the square foot.

No amateur could have done this. Even if he had the skills, he would also need a convenient ice rink on which to hone them – not to mention the necessary bonus of belonging to a group that presented its shows in a theatre that could turn its stage into a temporary ice rink on cue.

For similar reasons, I now realise that I am unlikely ever to see an amateur performance of Starlight Express. I have seen amateur undertakings of all kinds that would have had no problem in gracing a professional stage, but roller-blading would be a challenge too far.

So in future, if anybody catches me saying that amateurs can do anything, it will be because I have forgotten to add two little words: Well, nearly.

John Slim

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The hidden dangers of telling it like it is

YOU never know what's going to happen in the interval. Sometimes, I hope that the interval will be an improvement on what has passed so far. Sometimes, people ask me if I am here to do a review – at which point, I reply, “But of course! I never go anywhere for pleasure.”

That's not true, but it can offer a small smile on an awful evening.

Being a professional theatre critic involves what is called on-the-job training. You teach yourself. I have never heard of a course in theatre criticism. That's why you start by wondering what to write, and this continues until the happy day when you wonder what to leave out – by which time, your years of unselective theatregoing have conditioned you, both to the awe-inspiring and the awful.

People envy you your free seat and possibly the clink of the coinage that usually goes with it. They may not think of the sometimes frightening responsibility that is also in attendance – and which was forcibly brought home to me after I had made a completely justified comment on an actor's failure with the accent he was trying to present.


It has been suggested that a critic ought to dwell upon excellences rather than imperfections – and  certainly, the result, I learned, of my not doing so was that the man concerned, while not exactly indicating that he proposed to try putting his head on a railway line, had been that he had talked of giving up his hobby altogether.

That was a shock. Criticism should always seek to be helpful, and in this case the inference was meant to be that he should in future avoid any role that required an accent. Unfortunately, it was not taken like that.  It was not seen to be helpful at all. It had been seen as presaging the end of one man's world.

On the other hand, his reaction clearly indicated to me that abandoning his thespian pursuits would perhaps after all be a sensible thing to do. Surely no actor, amateur or professional, can imagine himself so perfect as to be beyond the need of a little help? It's people like that for whom the researchers for The X-Factor scour the country to ensure that the rest of us get a laugh in the early rounds.

After all, as actor Michael Simkins has pointed out, criticism may hurt, but being ignored is the greatest insult.

Sadly, one dramatist found out all he needed to know about being ignored. The late James Agate, doyen among theatre critics, went to sleep during a performance. When the playwright sought his opinion of his play, he told him, “Young man, sleep is an opinion.”

But criticism is a theatrical hazard, not only for playwrights and actors – for critics, too. It was Peter Ustinov who pointed out that critics spend ages searching for the wrong word which, to give them their due, they usually find.


Years ago, I had the temerity to despair of the decibels coming from a band accompanying a show in Solihull, in the West Midlands. They were so loud that the three girls grouped round a microphone at the side of the stage in best backing-group fashion did not manage to get a single syllable past the orchestra pit.

And the response to my response? An anonymous letter saying that I was the only one in the audience who did not like the band.

Clearly, and before the writer knew about my still-to-be-penned remarks, he had fortuitously taken a straw poll as people were leaving. He was therefore able to assure me that the burghers of Solihull were looking forward to dancing on my grave. It was his way of paraphrasing Kenneth Tynan's bon mot, that a critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.

Alas, his coyness about his identity prevented me from writing back to him, but I did point out in a subsequent column that anyone who indulged in such an energetic terpsichorean gesture at my funeral would possibly have to retreat hot-foot, because I intended to be cremated.  

But to revert to this idea of dwelling upon excellence – or rather, as is all too often the case when the review comes from too close to home, of finding excellence where none exists in case somebody gets upset. I always wonder, when I read one of these kind-to-everybody reviews, what the effect is on anyone in the cast who actually deserves praise and sees it showered in equal measure upon those who clearly don't. The natural reaction ought to be, “Why do I bother?” That is the person who has every right to be upset. As Gilbert pointed out, if everyone is somebody, then no one's anybody.

There is also the little matter of being fair to people who may be considering spending their hard-earned cash on buying a seat for a future performance – not to mention the stupidity of doing a rose-tinted review that makes any reader who was in the same audience wonder whether you were the only one there who failed to spot the imperfections and therefore on what grounds you presume to offer a critique.

No critic should expect to please all the people all the time – still less, try to.

John Slim

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The Dudes who mix mirth and music

FORGIVE  me, please, while the Philistine within me comes to the fore. What I don't know about opera would fill both sides of an elephant, single-spaced in eight-point.

But if my senior daughter, who happens to be an accomplished amateur singer with a well-honed sense of the ridiculous, tells me that I have to go and enjoy The Opera Dudes because she and her husband have returned hotfoot from laughing until they cried while seeing them in their village hall in Hampshire, that is good enough for me. 

Both are tenors – “showmen who really know their stuff”, she assures me – and one is “a fantastic pianist.” They appear, moreover, to be showmen who will shortly be in the Midlands under assorted labels – Mission Improbable, Duplicate of Mission Improbable and Licensed to Trill or, pictured right, as Neopolitan Tenors with songs you can't refuse.

Tim Lole was a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral and an organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Neil Allen has become an international operatic tenor after starting life as a builder. They both decided that becoming one half of a singing comedy duo sounded to be a pretty good hobby. I found them on their Opera Dudes website, with a clip that demonstrated their voices rather than urging me into hysterics – but that is an aspect on which I am happy to take my daughter's guidance. 

The voices, in any case, can fend for themselves: Neil launched his professional career as a singer with the leading role in Cavalleria Rusticana and has since been in the spotlight with Carmen, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Die Fledermaus, Barber of Seville, Tosca and many other operas. He trained with Magdala, the community-based musical organisation in Nottingham where Tim became artist-in-residence in 2000.  

They came under the wing of Magdala's artistic director Michelle Wegwart, one of Britain's leading singing teachers. Tim has conducted most of the opera companies in the UK after an early career that included a stint with the City of Birmingham Touring Opera. He spent six years as staff conductor at Scottish Opera, during which time he won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. 

But now it's all this and comedy, too! I can't wait – especially if Elmbridge Village Hall, near Worcester (January 31), matches Hampshire's Soberton tickets at £7.50 each, which came under a scheme sponsored by Hampshire County Council to bring culture, however lightly administered, to the villages and included – back to my daughter – “a wonderful tea with sandwiches and home-made cakes.” 

There is something special about talented musicianship in comedy format. Think back to the tinkling pianos of Les Dawson and the inanely irresistible Victor Borg – and lie in wait for The Opera Dudes.

John Slim


Other venues that are on stand-by include the village or parish halls in Norton-juxta-Twycross, on the Warwickshire-Leicestershire border (January 29); The Shelsleys (March 13) and Hallow (March 14), all in Worcestershire; and Shipton, Much Wenlock (April 17), and the Talbot Theatre, Whitchurch Leisure Centre (April 16), both in Shropshire.

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OVER these many years, I have still failed to become sufficiently familiar with the seating arrangements in West Midlands theatres to be able to make my way towards my evening's placement with any degree of confidence.

I usually opt for a spot on the gangway end of a row, which undoubtedly assists my repeated voyages of discovery – but if it is an aisle with half the row on one side and the rest of it on the other, I am always handicapped by my uncertainty as to which way I should be looking when I am peering for seat numbers in the gloaming. 

Even after a quarter of a century of homing in on Hall Green Little Theatre, I still can't remember whether the low numbers are on my left or my right as I enter the auditorium and renew my acquaintance with the gilt cherubs that adorn its walls. (I am sure there must be a reason for these overweight infants, incidentally, but I don't know because I have never asked.  Asking is another thing I can't remember). In any case, the task of finding and reading Hall Green's tiny seat numbers in the half-light never promises a successful conclusion to my pilgrimage. 

Highbury Theatre Centre, in Sutton Coldfield, does not have a centre aisle – should that be a nave, Vicar? – but I know that if I turn right after leaving the foyer to climb the stairs at the back of the auditorium I will arrive at the top of the aisle that offers immediate access to H1, I1 or J1, so I don't have time to be confused. 

Just to digress: why do brides make such a big thing out of walking up the aisle? The central route to the altar is the nave. She who progresses by any other route is in grave danger of being mistaken as being a bit on the side. 

But, getting back to theatres, Birmingham's Crescent presents no problem because I am habitually ensconced in K27.  That's stage-right, at the end of the back row, nearest to Door 1 and the bar. Not that the bar played a part in my choosing it: it was just that, having climbed all those steps from the foyer, I could see little point in tackling all the others that would have to be involved in taking me downwards to any other seat. It sounded like a lot of unnecessary extra effort. 


There is nevertheless a drawback. The two entrances to the auditorium are clearly labelled 1 and 2, and every ticket is helpfully inscribed with the door number relevant to its seat. Unfortunately, the Great Theatregoing Public either cannot read or does not care. It enters in droves via Door 1 because Door 1 is the first thing it sees on reaching the top of the stairs from the foyer, and if it is seeking Row K then I am liable to have 26 of its representatives filing past me in a series of brief flirtations with my kneecaps, when half of them ought to have entered via Door 2 at the far end. 

A salute, therefore, to the Grange Players, of Walsall!  Their home, the cosily intimate Grange Playhouse, has only a central pathway – and again, I like a gangway seat. But even if I were destined to sit elsewhere, the Players would clearly be doing their best to ensure that I arrived safely. Every ticket carries precise instructions, clearly printed along its left-hand edge. 

In my case, for my most recent visit, it told me: “Row L, seat 9, right.” There was no need for me to look even briefly to my left. I was safely in the care of a know-it-all ticket – a sort of Playhouse sat.nav that surely deserves to be copied by theatres and theatre groups, amateur and professional, all over Britain. Think of all the debating in the aisles it could save, especially among latecomers who have missed the start and don't know whether they should shortly begin nudging kneecaps to their right or to their left. 

Give the Grange Players a medal!

John Slim

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IT is not to be confused with the Road to Rome or the Road to Damascus; not as romantic as the Road to Mandalay, and not nearly as well-known as the road from Aix to Ghent. Nevertheless, the Way to Walsall, or so I gathered as I prepared to embark on it for the first night of the Grange Players' splendid production of Bill MacIlwraith's The Anniversary, was all set to be in a class of its own as far as excitement was concerned.

It was going to be one of those icy wintry nights that had been following the sunshine of bright and clear days for quite some time. The Way to Walsall, I was assured at my launch-pad in deepest Bromsgrove, was likely to be Quite a Challenge. My son even went out of his way to telephone his disbelief at the prospect of my heroic pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, the Nearest and Dearest clustered round, insisting that I was going to be armed with a flask of coffee, a balaclava helmet, woollen gloves, a scarf and a box of cheese sandwiches, plus a shovel from the shed. I was also reminded not to overlook the car's mats and their anti-sliding properties when I was in the apparently inevitable ditch.


I confess that I did not appreciate that the role for which the sandwiches were being lined up was to stave off slow starvation on the M 5 – which is why, wondering uncertainly why I had been given them just before dinner, I sat down and ate the first one.

Consternation! I had ensured that I would now be going bravely into the unknown on depleted rations. Moreover, having donned my gardening shoes for my snowy pilgrimage to the garden shed in search of the spade, I was refused permission to substitute respectable footwear for my journey. Good heavens, who was going to study my feet, assuming I ever arrived? The N & D was positively scathing.

Her caring self came back into play, however, with her insistence that I had to take my mobile phone. This is a grossly underused instrument, largely because I feel I cannot trust a machine on which the red button means Go. It habitually lives on a bookcase shelf, undisturbed and unconsidered – which is why, when it is thrust into my consciousness every few months, it inevitably needs charging.


This time, having seen it added to the balaclava, the coffee, the sandwiches, the scarf, the gloves and the spade, I extricated it from my overcoat pocket on arrival in the Grange Playhouse's rough-hewn car park and temporarily overcame my prejudice against pressing red for Go. N & D had to be told that the expected thrills of theatregoing had somehow eluded me.

Unfortunately, the charging this time had clearly been inadequate. I made a call that lasted all of three seconds before cyberspace cut me off without my hearing any confirmation that I had been heard in Bromsgrove.

All told, the Way to Walsall, as I had suspected, was not nearly as enthralling as the preparations for it. Snow-free roads provided a totally painless, thrill-free journey. In fact the nearest I came to a tremor of excitement was on my way back home, when I miscounted the islands on Walsall's Broadway North. I overshot the turn towards Birmingham and the motorway by some considerable distance before realisation dawned and I was able to turn round and get back on track.

I can't help feeling that St Paul's Damascus distraction beats me all ends up.

John Slim

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The furtive world of hidden humour

IT had never occurred to me before, but there's a treatise waiting to be written – about hidden jokes.

I can't do it, because I am aware of only three – and I can claim credit for discovering only two of those. My granddaughter beat me all ends up in finding the other one. Having recently watched a video of Father Ted, she asked me a question that had simply never occurred to me: where's the church?

And it's a good question, undoubtedly. Father Ted and Father Dougal occupy a presbytery – that big, rambling white house dominating our view of Craggy Island at the opening of each episode of the bygone, much-lamented television series. Inside it, Father Jack roars for drink, Father Dougal is amiably unable to grasp any situation, and Father Ted is brimming with cunning plans – one of which, the Plot to Kick Bishop Brennan Up The Arse, is the subject of a complete episode.

Despite the distractions, the inglorious threesome are presumably priests with a mission to the souls in their care, and priests are usually able to walk more or less into their church as soon as they leave their presbytery. Not this heroic trio. As my granddaughter shrewdly observed, there isn't a church in sight. And that, I suspect, is writer Arthur Mathews's hidden joke. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that he decided that his three reprobates were going to be far too busy to be distracted by religious goings-on.


And what's the betting that his next thought was to wonder how long he could get away with it without anybody missing the church? The last of the three series of Father Ted was in 1998, and they came to an untimely end with the death of Dermot Morgan, who played the central role, from a heart attack at a party the night after filming finished.

Eleven years later, it had still not occurred to me that there wasn't a church in sight, and I had not heard anyone comment on its absence until my granddaughter, newly unleashed on the University of Birmingham, realised it was a little odd.

I'm sure it was not an accident. Think priests, think presbytery, think church: it has a built-in inevitability. Once you get to the presbytery, can the church be far behind? Well, yes, on Craggy Island it can.

In dispensing with the church, I am sure that Arthur Mathews knew precisely what he was doing and wondered how long he could get away with it. If 11 years is the answer, he has to be content in the knowledge that it was an excellent joke – but one that did not hide as long as Noel Coward's rather rude one.

This is a piece of Coward contrivance which, as far as I know, remained undiscovered from the London opening night of Blithe Spirit in 1941 until I stumbled on it early in 2009. Sixty-eight years is a long time for a joke to stay hidden, especially if it is a clever one.


I found it because I had been bugged for years by the remarkable surname that Coward had given to one of his central Blithe Spirit characters, Charles Condomine. This is a name I have never met anywhere else and I could not help thinking that it was unnecessarily unusual.

 From there, it was a small step to break it into its component parts. What I got was Condom in E.

E? Well, yes: Elvira – Condomine's first wife, the one who returns as a ghost to wreak havoc with his second marriage. I can imagine how pleased Coward was when he thought of it. I can see him leaning back in his armchair, legs crossed, silken dressing-gown a-swivel, inordinate cigarette-holder on duty in languid fingers, while he indulged in a pseudo-bored little bout of self-congratulation.

But in an era more morally inhibited than today, he must have chafed at the realisation that he had better not tell anybody. Good heavens, he couldn't start distracting people from the war! So he didn't. And he went on not distracting them until he died in 1973. Perhaps I should have kept his secret, but I think it was too good to keep.

The same applies to Kiss Me, Kate. Productions of the musical often make intermittent play of a drop curtain purporting to advertise The Taming of the Shrew, because KMK is about a company presenting this particular shot of Shakespeare.


So far, among the several productions that I have seen, there have been two which have displayed what is either a palpable uncertainty about Shakespeare's name or a determination to go ahead anyway and see whether anybody notices. One was presented by amateurs; the other was a West End production, on show for months.

Either way, the result was a joke, intentional or not – because the drop-curtain billboard credited the book of the show to W.M. Shakespeare.

Wm, with only one capital letter and no intervening full-stop, is short for William. W.M., with two full-stops in place, is short for, say, William Makepeace, as in W.M. Thackeray. Nothing to do with the Bard of Avon. Look out for it next time that Kiss Me, Kate comes your way.       

Anyway, as I was saying, if anybody feels like continuing to plough what I think is a fascinating furrow, Noel Coward, Arthur Mathews and the Kiss Me, Kate scenery designers may prompt him to go rejoicing further into the world of hidden humour. Who knows what may turn up?

John Slim

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Protect us, please – we're going to the theatre

THE discovery that some West End theatres were using bouncers to confront the drunks who have been increasingly making nuisances of themselves was another landmark in the story of the decline in good sense and good manners to which Britain has become accustomed in recent years.

I am not at all sure when the rot started: like any other theatregoer, I feel as if I have been suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous sweet-wrappers for far too long.  The same applies to the talkers – the under-instructed nuisances who are incapable of keeping their thoughts to themselves while the onstage action proceeds, and appear unaware that no one sitting within six seats in any direction is anxious to be privy to them.

But talking then moved on to shouting. Regular patrons discovered that the man accustomed to telling his television set exactly what he thinks of it in the privacy of his own home has no concept of keeping quiet in a darkened auditorium. He had to add his unenlightened contribution to the action.


He arrived at about the same time as the hysterical whistlers and shriekers – who do, however, often manage to shut up during musicals, other than at the end of every number and especially at the curtain call; and there are the weirdly inexplicable gigglers who appear to be moved to loud laughter at inappropriate moments in serious plays.

And now, the onslaught of the uncivilized has led some theatre managements to take drastic action against those whose like have capped their previous exploits by turning up drunk and proceeding to fight, fondle and urinate, all in the public view.

The auditorium for Dirty Dancing has been described as a bear pit. Josef Brown, playing the male lead and supposed to make his entrance via the auditorium, had to start taking the more conventional route, via the wings, to ensure his safety from the depredations of louts who inflict on everybody else their inability to handle their drink.


Even classic drama such as Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea has not escaped. Affronted audience members deployed the time-trusted Sssssh! when somebody called out during a particularly dramatic moment. All that happened was that the clown who had infuriated them responded, “Chill out, I'm only having a bit of fun.”       

Certainly, it was a surprise when burly, bald-headed characters in dark glasses became noticeable newcomers to the scene – but their presence was both understandable and welcome. After all, if a visit to the theatre is going to degenerate to the extent that we need bodyguards, who else is there to rely upon in our increasingly frequent hours of need?

John Slim

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Remembering the lines

IN the course of the average year, I probably spend far too much time sitting in a theatre's darkness, listening to what must be thousands of lines from about 130 scripts. The interesting thing is that I can remember virtually none of them.

This is no reflection on the quality of the writing, poor though this may sometimes be. It's more a reflection on me and my ever more discernible dive into dotage. Let's face it, I can't remember much of anything these days. Anything in the daily round that has the temerity to repeat itself is in with an excellent chance of coming as a total surprise. I haven't yet got to the stage of making new friends out of old friends on a daily basis, but I'm getting there.

Nevertheless, as far as an evening at the theatre is concerned, I can't help feeling that its ability to disappear beyond the grasp of my brain cell is not entirely down to me. I am sure that there really are not that many lines that actually stand on their hind legs and insist that they are worth remembering. So I must not chide myself too churlishly when I own up to being able to recall only three that I cherish.


There are nearly four, but the last line in Arsenic and Old Lace, another winner and I think only three words long, is eluding me. Not surprisingly, it's to do with elderberry wine. It's This is it or Here it is, but uncertainty reigns.

There is, however one line which I'm sure must be top of everybody's unforgettable list. It is A handbag! Never having seen the script, I don't know whether Oscar Wilde proffered it with an exclamation mark or a question mark. It doesn't matter, because this is the line that Dame Edith Evans delivered so decisively in a manner that indented for both adornments and went straight into the folklore of the stage.

It is the way she said it in The Importance of Being Earnest, rather than the line itself, that lingers in the memory – and inevitably, causes heart-searching among directors and actresses with every new production before the sensible ones realise that trying to say it differently just for the sake of doing so is a certain way of killing the humour.

So that's the first of my lines to treasure. The second relies on its words, rather than on the way they are spoken. Don't quibble, Sybil, in Noel Coward's Private Lives, is impossible to say, other than amusingly. Whoever delivers it, it has no option but to emerge virtually identically, with its humour ready-made to receive the delighted response from any audience.

On the other hand, Don't quibble, Gladys, which Terence Rattigan wrote in 1954, nearly a quarter of a century after the Coward version, does not have the same ring. In fact, it doesn't have a ring at all. This is presumably because Coward thought of the line and then named the character to fit it – or, having coincidentally chosen the name, was blessed with a blinding flash of inspiration when the moment came to write the line.


Rattigan, on the other hand, obviously knew of the Coward masterstroke and clearly could not create a Sybil for his cast list and for that line when he was writing Separate Tables. So he came up with Gladys, an extraordinarily ordinary name that yielded an extraordinarily ordinary result. He would have done better to do away with all thoughts of quibbling, rather than risk derisory comparison with the Master.

So I don't count Don't quibble, Gladys among my triumphant trio. It's a pallid, wasted moment, a distraction in an otherwise absorbing piece of theatre.

No, my third line to treasure is completely different and it is in a musical. Words, words, words! is spat out by Eliza Doolittle, the girl who is not a Cockney – but that's another story – in My  Fair Lady. As with Don't quibble, Gladys, it's awash with déjà vu – this time, because it took Lerner and Loewe until 1964 to hand it to Eliza, although Tartuffe, the much-translated play that Molière wrote in 1664, had been sporting the line, or presumably something like it, for precisely 300 years. I caught up with it in 2006, in Miles Malleson's translation.

I don't know when Malleson, who died in 1969, aged 80, wrote his version – but I was further  intrigued during the same production when Tartuffe regaled me with another of My Fair Lady's familiar lines, about the right and proper thing to do, which until then I knew only as part of Alfred P Doolittle's Little Bit of Luck number.

Clearly, one never knows what surprises a spot of theatrical archaeology may uncover. There's a book to be written somewhere, on the pleasures of plagiarism.

John Slim

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Why doesn't Nanny bar

 me from the theatre?

IT occurred to me without warning: why was I being allowed to sit among an excited bunch of massed mixed infants without Nanny Britain feeling my collar and looking unequivocally askance?

After all, this was a theatre – the Swan Theatre, Worcester, to be precise – and theatres have increasingly come to be recognised by our betters as places where people like me should not be allowed unless we are appropriately certificated. CRB-checked is the official term. At least, although I am at present still permitted to pass through the foyer, I am not allowed backstage if the younger generation is present in whatever quantity, even though backstage is normally adequately lit and Nanny could readily see what I was up to.   

Yet here I was, alone and unattended, intent on reviewing this year's pantomime and being allowed to do so without check or hindrance – in the dark, all by myself among several coachloads of school parties, with just the occasional teacher on the end of a row. 


Try as I may, I can't understand what prompted the sundry nonsenses accompanying the Children Act. I don't know how many of the guiding lights behind it can actually point to something rotten in the state of theatre that made them decide it now has to be obligatory for professional theatre companies and amateur groups alike to be strangled by red tape and make sure that Authority is informed of everything they are up to involving youngsters. In the case of youngsters in amateur theatre, they are probably in the village hall, among adults they have grown up with and friends with whom they went to school. 

Far be it from me to put even more nonsensical ideas into the head of Authority, but we are talking about brilliantly-lit stages and the hinterland that accompanies them, where it isn't exactly necessary to shine a torch. Why therefore has it not occurred to Authority to ask itself what I am up to, sitting in the stalls in stygian gloom with scores of children, no questions asked? Why was I not stopped at the door and invited to come up with credentials? Why did Nanny not station herself at the end of my row and frown forbiddingly? 

As far as I can see, courtesy of the gloom aforementioned, I am far better facilitated to be a menace to all concerned when I'm stationed in the darkened stalls than I would be if I lurked in the wings or at the door of a (suitably separated) backstage lavatory.


I shouldn't be saying this. After all the tentacles of too much intrusion need only the merest hint that they may be missing something. Out with the manacles! March me away! 

And these nights, the ranks of grassroots officialdom are certainly big enough to despatch me at the drop of a hat. 

And why just me? How long will it be before nobody who is not CRB-checked will even be allowed to watch a performance in which children are involved or which has children in the audience? And in that case, why stop at theatres? Cinemas are even darker and therefore more cosily co-operative than theatres. I'm sure the bureaucrats and the box-tickers, once started, will be able to arrange for every member of every audience to be frisked beforehand. After all, there are enough of them.  

At the Swan, for instance, listed euphemistically under Credits, were the names of the senior matron, the senior chaperone adviser, eight more matrons and eight more chaperones – a powerful platoon substantial enough to see me off the premises, no questions asked. 

I was interested to observe that one of the chaperones was called Lusted. That was something I didn't do all night. Honest, officer.

John Slim

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A moleskin marathon  

SOMEBODY, possibly me, reminds us from time to time that all the world's a stage. So bear with me while I tell you the story of its longest-running farce. It was revealed in the national press in 1997 and I have treasured it ever since. I hope it will give sustenance and encouragement to anyone now embarking on The Great Christmas Present Hunt.

It's the story of a Christmas present that was unwanted in 1965, and of the two American brothers-in-law who came to realise that it would solve their mutual annual gift-buying problem for ever – or at least, in alternate years.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it's the story of the moleskin trousers that Larry Kunkel's mother bought him when he was a student, in 1965. He was unimpressed, but he kept them, virtually unused, in his wardrobe for five years before deciding to send them to his brother-in-law Roy Colette, in Minnesota, for Christmas 1970.

Roy was not impressed either, and returned the trousers to Larry in Illinois the following year, complaining that they froze solid in cold weather – which was part of the reason Larry had given them to him in the first place.

In 1972, Larry sent them back again and the tradition became established – but because neither man wanted to have them returned they both became adept at making it as difficult as possible for the recipient actually to get at the trousers.

The first significant wrapping came when Roy returned them in a long tube. Larry sent them back 12 months later in an old insulated unit.


The following year, Roy despatched them in a 10-gallon bucket of concrete. The Heavy Packaging Era was born.

It took two years for Larry to extricate the trousers, to enable him to return them inside a specially constructed 240lb steel ashtray.

Roy used a 100-ton hydraulic press to release them before he returned them the following year in a 600lb bomb-proof safe. This was not only locked but also welded shut.

Twelve months later, Larry obtained an old AMC Gremlin car, put the trousers in the glove compartment and had the car crushed into a 3ft cube, round which he tied a red bow. The finishing touch was always important.

Undaunted, Roy returned them in a 6ft-high ‘indestructible' Goodyear tyre filled with concrete and weighing more than 3,000lb.

The following years saw the packaging take the form of various types of motor vehicle. One of them was a station wagon packed with numerous electric motors, only one of which contained the trousers.

There was the year when Larry encased the trousers in a concrete-filled, steel-coated rocket ship, 15ft high and weighing about 10,000lb, which was delivered to Roy's front yard – only to return in 4ft-square cube, made from special concrete used on airport runways.

After Roy had received a cement wagon painted like a space module and filled with 20,000lb of concrete, he decided on the ultimate return for Christmas 1991. It took the form of encasing the now badly-worn trousers in a 10,000lb glass iceberg.


Alas, they were burnt in the preparation, so all Larry received was the ashes. He treated them as they deserved and preserved them in a brass urn on his mantelpiece.

This was farce on an almost unimaginable scale – a slow, majestic process of infinite inevitability that rose far above the mere opening and shutting of doors and the dropping of non-moleskin trousers. It lasted from 1970 to 1991, when it officially came of age and had to be forcibly finished after plumbing the depths of superhuman determination.

Heaven knows where Roy and Larry are now and I would not dream of wishing them harm – but if they have both perchance risen to higher things in the last 18 years I hope that there are two tombstones somewhere, recording their contribution to the annals of glorious lunacy to which many aspire but which few attain – and never, surely, on a scale so implacably epic.

If either monument refers to an innovative evangelist of the hilariously surreal, I hope that a passing pilgrim tries to read it aloud. He might possibly corpse.

John Slim

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English as she is spoke

WATCHING a young group in a studio production, I was impressed to see the quality that shone out. As long as this kind of talent keeps emerging, amateur theatre will have nothing to worry about.

 But with the delight came the reservations – and I'm afraid they take me back to my long-held misgivings about what we're doing to this wonderful language of ours. Several times, it was impossible to avoid the realisation that these young people were falling into the same sorts of traps that ensnare actors of all ages, all over the country.

 So we heard mischievous spoken as if it rhymed with devious, and noblesse oblige had clearly been fitted with an unexpected final acute accent. Sedentary came up with the stress on its second syllable – as indeed did inventory, which actually has nothing whatever to do with invent. Communal constantly suffers the same misfortune. Its links are with common, not communion.

Meanwhile, our old friend drawing is almost inevitably provided with an R in its middle.

 This is but the tip of the iceberg of mispronunciation with which theatre, both amateur and professional, is bedevilled.

 Television is by no means immune. I am recovering from the dismay with which I greeted my discovery that, in defiance of what I was taught, proven no longer rhymes with woven except in Scotland. But no one has explained why it is inevitably favoured over proved, which means exactly what it says and saves a syllable into the bargain – and would therefore immeasurably reduce the carbon output that goes into making all those television commercial voice-overs extolling the virtues of the latest magical hair-wash or toothpaste.

 From time to time, we hear that restaurateur has been burdened with an N that turns its rat into a rant, which is what Gordon Ramsey, who is not entirely unknown for his rants, always does.

 Then there is controversy, in constant danger of being given an accentuated second syllable. And somebody, somewhere, ought to make it clear that says rhymes with Des and Les, not with days and lays.

 Less frequent, and therefore still more of a shock to the system when it jumps up and bites me, is redolent, when pronounced with stress on its middle syllable. It is presumably a word that has never come the way of the guilty party in real life, nor, indeed, of 90 per cent of the average audience – which is precisely why it merits some kind of pre-production enquiry into what it should sound like when it receives the rare chance of an airing.

An actor's responsibilities don't end with learning his lines. He must also learn to speak them.

John Slim

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AMONG the fairly common expressions that Americans can't say are got to and going to. And we British, being so assiduously accommodating in our relations with the US of A, even when it comes to using our own language, have adopted the transatlantic versions into our own everyday use. What a helpful lot we are!

Even our radio and television presenters, for whom words are their job, join almost every interviewee, of whatever status, in saying gotta and gonna. They clearly understand, speaking speechwise, that our status is Yankee poodle.

Whenever I have seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, with British theatre groups doing their best to be American while they sing We gotta make it through the winter, it is obvious that  they have no difficulty with gotta. By now, it comes naturally.

On the other hand, intriguingly, winter, particularly when sung, clearly tends to be too much for any hopes they may have of appearing to be a real live nephew of their pretend Uncle Sam.

They need to remember that no American has yet mastered the fairly straightforward pronunciation of the N-T sound. This is why his every winter is a winner.


Another aberration results in his government's readiness to use rocket-propelled missals, whether or not it is fighting a holy war, to be made apparent by its spokesmen – and the British on stage do try hard to remember to show themselves to be aware of these and other idiosyncrasies.

But not when they're singing. Let's get back to N-T.

I have seen wanted prove just as problematical as winter, once it is part of a libretto. In Copacabana, I saw the leading lady, along with the rest of the company, make a believable fist of the job of speaking American. But then she had to sing Man Wanted, with its title phrase recurring repeatedly – and she reverted immediately to being a charming English rose. There was not a hint of the mairn wannied that should have been as much a part of her alter ego as a bespoke bra.


I had been suspending my disbelief for the entire show, in order to view her as being roughly as American as apple pie and motherhood seem widely supposed to be – but suddenly she became incontrovertibly English and I had to suspend the suspension, especially as she was not offering an American version of man any more than she was of wanted..

A-N, like N-T, is a little two-letter pairing that utterly defeats the greatest nation on the planet. This is why, when the pairings combine, they could be lethal. The transatlantic cousins are no more reliable in saying can than man. They say cairn, meaning can, and cairn, meaning can't.

Fortunately, despite their self-imposed problems, Americans do seem to understand each other most of the time. I hope that this will be confirmed when we learn that their president – any president – with his finger hovering over the nuclear button, turns to his advisers and says, “Cairn I?” and his advisers say, “Mr Presiden', You cairn”

All the same, I shall feel safer if they stick to their rocket-propelled missals.

John Slim

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Are stage fatheads under threat?

IT had never occurred to me before, but suddenly I realise that it's pretty difficult to play a fatheaded Englishman and make him camp as well.

The revelation occurred when I was watching a production of Anything Goes, in which Sir Evelyn, the archetypal chinless wonder, was also presented as being what I understand is technically termed on the other bus. And the two characteristics just don't mix.

Stage fatheads are precious. They are the What-what-what burblers at whom the world cannot help laughing. They are put upon by stronger-minded citizens. In any crisis, they are the victims. They are hapless but eternally hopeful.

In contrast, a camp character can be portrayed as strong and decisive, though ‘different.' He can dominate a conversation and be – intentionally – very funny, where your latterday Bertie Wooster is amusing only in suffering the bludgeonings of fate and in his reaction to them.

If you're camp, it seems to me from what I've observed in real life, you're also in with as much of a chance as most people of being somewhat spiteful – but this is a trait that would sit uneasily on a prize fathead who habitually has not a naughty bone in his body.

I suppose that in saying the two cannot be combined I was perhaps basing my judgment on my single sighting of an attempt to make it happen. Perhaps, somehow, an unlikely merger could be achieved, but it would demand a sizeable suspension of disbelief on the part of an audience conditioned in daily life to expect to be confronted by the characteristics of only one or the other in any one person at any one time.

Were I ever bold enough to be directing a production involving a chump with a chin shortage, I would have to insist that he was played straight – even though I know I would be tempted by sheer curiosity to let him camp it up as well, just to see whether the hardly-credible can actually be achieved.

John Slim

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When a cow has wings to worry about

HOW do you help a cow to traverse a spiral staircase?

Answer: you don't – especially if it's for pantomime, with a cow consisting of two 14-year-olds, and even more especially if there's one of our latterday theatre chaperones on beady-eyed watch.

The problem facing members of BMOS Youtheatre in their production of Jack and the Beanstalk was that if you exit stage right at Birmingham's Old Rep it is necessary to go down about a dozen steps to take you either to the stage door or under the stage, where you walk the width of the stage until you reach the sharp and steep spiral staircase that takes you up into the wings, stage left – where there is not room to swing the proverbial cat, let alone manoeuvre a panto cow.

 It's not the easiest of places to practise pantomime herdsmanship – but the supervisor of Daisy the Cow would not let her be led off stage left because once they got there they could not turn round in readiness for her next entrance. This was why the wicked Fleshcreep, having got possession of Daisy and being required to get her offstage, had to defy the rules of pantomime which say that Evil must not cross the invisible line centre-stage which separates it from the domain of the Good Fairy, stage- right.


 In another scene, for the same reason involving a confrontation with the spiral staircase, he had to go stage-right again to lead Daisy back on. And there was no prospect of outwitting the chaperones: there was one on the stairs going down from the stage, another underneath the stage and one more on watch in each of the wings.

 Fortunately for BMOS Youtheatre, what director Alan Hackett says would have been “quite a mammoth job” of finding enough police-checked chaperones for the run of the production was eased because every member of the committee had been checked – but one had to be hired for the Friday and Saturday nights at a cost of £80.

And before the curtain rose on the first night, authorities in Birmingham, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire and Evesham had between them to grant licences to about 20 young performers who satisfied their varying requirements.

 It is to Youtheatre's credit that the audiences who cheered the youngsters on did not suspect half of the hurdles that had been placed in their way.

John Slim

Youngsters are the pawns in Nanny's nonsense game - Features

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Officer, my car's gone. Again

PARKING paranoia has been building within me for many years, but it has taken Birmingham's Old Rep to make me unwaveringly aware of the fact.

This history-filled theatre in Station Street was at one time constantly on my radar, but then the many amateur groups using it were largely eased out to make way for the return of professional productions. Though a few have hung determinedly on, my visits have become increasingly rare – so it was with something akin to consternation that I realised that a hopeful pilgrimage, which for 25 years had led to my turning right from Hill Street, had this time confronted me with a Road Closed notice at the foot of the ramp leading to the lower of the two car parks above New Street Station.

I was barred from my longstanding parking haven. Inflicting only minor distress on traffic in Hill Street, I contrived to reverse onto the road and do a blushful loop onto the adjoining ramp that leads to the upper level. Then, silly me, I went in search of a lift to take me down to Station Street. I soon decided that there isn't one. In no time at all, I was being swept along by the milling crowds as I passed scores of closed shop frontages in search of an exit sign. An exit to anywhere: by this time, I didn't care, just as long as it put me within striking distance of the Old Rep. Time was moving on and I was unhappy. And what were hundreds of high-speed pedestrians doing there at this time of night, anyway? 

A kindly citizen eventually sorted me out and I crossed the theatre threshold barely in time for kick-off but nevertheless in plenty of time to be separated from £2 for raffle tickets in the foyer.


My next and most recent visit was easier because I knew I must not be lured by the lower-level ramp – still closed, quite possibly for ever, as far as I can see, because of New Street Station's ongoing earthworks. There was a queue of six cars at the top of the upper-level ramp. The helpful woman driver at its head revealed that the ticket machine had run out of tickets but somebody was trying to find some. Fifteen minutes later, I was in part consoled because the very first parking spot beyond the barrier was available, which meant that the only fly now in the ointment was the need to walk back down the ramp and round its blind bend in the presence of two-way traffic.

 But the Old Rep was not going to let me off that easily. I saw the show and the curtain fell. It was time to trudge back up the ramp and round the blind bend, to find my car and present my parking ticket at the exit machine. Exit machine refused to recognise ticket, twice. So did its fellow exit machine. While motorists behind me observed with interest, I managed to back and fill before driving to an internal payment machine and giving it £5.50.

Again, I drove to the exit machine, tried the ticket again, failed again, and then pressed the SOS button and confessed all to the unseen voice that was coming to my rescue. Two minutes later, as if by magic, the barrier lifted.

These two visits to the Old Rep were the crowning in uncertain glory of my relationship with car parks and car parking, which started about 20 years ago when my wife and I were visiting a daughter who lived in an area of London where the streets were laid out in a grid system and nose-to-tail parking was the order of the day. Having left my car, of necessity, a long way from where she lived, I returned the next morning and it was not there.

Well, it was – but I was looking for it two streets too soon, as the local police station rang to tell me some time after I had reported it missing. The constabulary also kindly advised me to move it as soon as possible, without saying why. When I got back to the car, it was the only one in the street, which now had hundreds of yards of traffic cones on both sides. A tennis tournament was due at Queen's Club.

Then there was the time I parked in the multi-storey at Redditch, went about my business, then realised that my car was missing. Naturally, I felt that the police should be informed. Customer Services at Marks & Spencer kindly availed me of its telephone to alert the Law and ask my wife to come and collect me in her own car. She duly arrived and told me she had driven past my car on the way up.

At Solihull, there was once a vast car park on the area now occupied by Touchwood. I parked there for a production at the Library Theatre. When I returned, my car had gone. I told my troubles at the police station just round the corner. Police station kindly rang a taxi to take me home down the M42. Naturally, I told my troubles to the taxi driver. That will be £30, please, Sir.

I then reported my misfortune to the company responsible for my car's tracking device. Don't worry, Sir: it will turn up.


I didn't have time to worry. Solihull police telephoned to report that my kindly taxi driver, touched by my troubled tale, had visited the car park on his return to base – and found that my car was now the only vehicle in a vast area of emptiness. And yes, he would happily return to my car-free drive to transport me back and reunite me with it. That will be another £30, please, Sir.

I also involved British Rail's police in a car park crisis, this time at Birmingham International. Because of my undistinguished record in these matters, I had made a point, before catching a morning train to London, of noting that my car was in the long centre row, by the third lamp standard from the end. I returned that night. No car.

Well, yes, it was there after all – but it was alongside the third lamp standard from the other end.

I do not have a good record as a putative parker. I really did not need the Old Rep to confirm this for me. I can only hope that New Street Station is returned as rapidly as possible to the sort of parking procedures that even I can cope with.

John Slim

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A trick of the light

 I SOMETIMES think that stage directors are not aware of the box of tricks they are opening when they begin playing with the lighting.

Light is not an affable, easy-going element that is happy to be underestimated, let alone ignored altogether. When it's on your side, it can be a magical thing, beguiling the senses and firing the imagination. I shall never forget a superb amateur production of Dr Faustus at Birmingham's Crescent Theatre, in which the unfortunate doctor's assignation with the Devil was accompanied by red lighting that dressed the stage in a sheet of flame.

But lighting has to be controlled. Take your eye off it, let it off the leash without due consideration, and the results can be amusing, surprising or just plain uncomfortable. I have seen a couple of productions in which the lighting plot came into this last category. One was Grease, in which, for reasons unknown, the car's headlamps were allowed to blaze unwaveringly into the audience. It was not pleasant.


Far too often, I have sat in on musicals where there has been careless lighting in the wings, allowing the shadows of waiting cast members to give us a four-minute warning of their impending arrival – even if the players had not already shown themselves by standing far too close to the action before their turn had come.

I remember one show that had a centrally-placed glass door upstage. Nobody ever actually used the door, but there was an unaccountable light behind it that enabled everyone to see the pedestrian traffic as it went by behind it.

Infra-red – or is it ultra-violet? – lighting is a law unto itself. One production had a line-up of three angelic young ladies dressed head-to-toe in white. On the night I was there, the lights came on and they were suddenly parading in their underpinnings.

I am never comfortable when I am required to believe that a scene is being played in total darkness when everything is as plain as a pikestaff in the token gloaming. This sort of scene can usually be relied upon to involve a surprise assault or a gunshot, and it's hard to accept that the victim is the only person in the theatre who can't see what's coming to him.

Having said that, I have noted one or two occasions recently when darkness has really been dark – so perhaps we are beginning to nibble into what is a pretty stupid convention. All right, I can imagine that Health and Safety will not rest easy in its bed at the thought that thespians everywhere have been exposing themselves to the unimaginable dangers of being onstage in the dark – but it surely cannot be all that difficult for a director to drill into the troops an awareness of where the furniture is.

Anyway, I'm living in hope of a few more touches of realism.

Talking of darkness, and admittedly it wasn't completely dark although it was a near-miss, I have never forgotten an Arsenic and Old Lace that I saw more than half a century ago. Nothing was happening at all. Nobody was there.  There wasn't a sound. Then suddenly, stage left, a sashcord window was lifted open with a resounding thump.


On reflection, it should have roused the household, but I didn't think of that at the time. Nor, I am sure, did anybody else. What it did do was make the audience give a concerted gasp, then settle back in one of those wonderful, pleasurable, spine-tingling panics while a couple of intruders climbed through the window, accompanied by an exaggerated leavening of nervous laughter.

This was a moment when light was harnessed and disciplined and put to work for the general enjoyment. It was excellent and I'm sure I was not the only audience member who went home and boasted that he didn't have a heart attack.

Light does have to be brought to heel. It's not going to do what you want it to do without practice and prompting. And it's no good assuming that because it's always behaved itself for you it can be trusted to go on doing so.

For instance, I finally caught up with The Mousetrap when it had been running for half a century. And what do I remember most about it? It was the moment when the butler – it must have been the butler, surely – went to the light switch. I can't remember now whether it was to turn the light on or off – but what I do remember was that the light declined to respond to his practised touch. And this, after 50 years. 

Good lord, I thought, there's hope for amateurs everywhere.

John Slim

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Theatre Visit

How many times does man repeat

An awesome process, filled with doubt,

When aiming for his theatre seat,

To enjoy an evening out?


Can the social whirl produce

Refined revulsion, quite exquisite,

To match the civilized abuse

Contained in any theatre visit?


No helpful course provides instruction

That guides a fellow when he sees,

Without a formal introduction,

That he must climb a row of knees.


Edging sideways while repeating

Apologies with dazzled eyes,

Past pre-ordained dress-circle seating,

Paved with mini-skirted thighs.


Should their owners choose to stand,

He cannot fail to be impressed,

In the Wolverhampton Grand,

Tête à tête with vest-top chest.


Sometimes knees are too arthritic,

Locked and painful, cannot move.

Let me past, 'cos I'm the critic,

With prejudice I need to prove.

Can the problem be much worse,

If I have a gangway seat?

Certainly, it's in reverse,

With me the yo-yo on my feet.


Indeed, a gangway seat is worse,

If this is what harsh Fate decrees.

Cough conceals the muffled curse,

Swapping bumps with unknown knees.


Greet the next one, smile disarming,

Sotto voce swear less sweet.

She's leaning forward, most alarming.

Face-to-bust, I overheat.


And still they come, the trampling tribe.

Some say Thanks and some say Sorry.

Some adopt an ill-judged jibe –

Hunters all who've caught their quarry.


But now at last a hush descends,

Expectant for the main attraction.

With luck, the knee-knock nuisance ends;

Yields to less absorbing action.


I'm bruised in body, mind and soul.

Emotions jarred, I claim my seat.

I've elbowed to my cushioned goal,

Refusing to accept defeat.


Mankind can never hope to know

Why theatres think they need a show.


John Slim

Some really special cell padding


THOSE bright eyes at Highbury Theatre Centre, Sutton Coldfield, don't miss much. Mind you, they would have been hard-pressed to miss the newsletter that has emerged from the National Operatic & Dramatic Association (NODA). It's the longest email I have ever seen. There are yards of it.

 And it's largely gobbledegook.  This is obviously not the fault of the people from whom it appears to have emanated, variously referred to among the digitally dispiriting nonsense as

ributuion%20to%20newsletter> and

No simple human brain could have made this up. I am sure that when it left them it was a helpful note that consisted merely of the gems of information that are now buried in the cyberspatial equivalent of a rubbish dump – and it may indeed have tied itself in knots only while seeking to leave Highbury and bring me bemusement on a scale I have rarely encountered.

I realise that every now and then computers feel compelled to remind us that they are firmly in charge – but some computers clearly don't know when to stop.

This particular one started by saying FLAVOROO-NONE-0000-0000-000000000000 before vouchsafing: “Received from [](helo=anti-virus01-10) by withsmtp (Exim 4.52) id 1Mw 1Wc-0006v4-ST.”

If that couldn't whet your appetite, what will?

But then you may begin to suspect that you are on the trail of something useful. Or will you?

“The Youth Academy will run between 6 =E2=80=93 9th April 2010. . .”

A little later, we find something called 3DINCRFEDIMAINTABLE, which leads us gently to CELLPADDING=3D2 and so on to 3D PADDING-BOTTOM, PADDING-LEFT and PADDING-RIGHT.

If we persevere, we discover that NODA is trying to tell us something about its new regional magazines, working with children in theatre, the Really Useful Group celebrating its 40th anniversary by releasing Jesus Christ Superstar for amateurs – and a free subscription to the NODA newsletter. Now there's an offer you can't refuse. . .

On the other hand: “If you do not wish to receive this email in the future please click  <http=://>”

Johngood will remain unmailed. I wouldn't miss it for the world. It's incrfedimaintable. Meanwhile, I'll indent for some more cell padding.

John Slim 

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Sounds unlikely

FOR me, the Geordie accent is the most difficult in Britain. Not that I'm any good at accents anyway, but while I can sort of go nasal enough for 15 seconds of far-from-passable Scouse, the sing-song tones that bestride the Tyne leave me totally unable to make or achieve a good impression.

So I have every sympathy, in a sense, for theatre people, amateur and professional, who are called upon to evoke the sounds of my native Birmingham and who almost invariably make an utter hash of it. Where I do not sympathise is when their often excruciating failure is part of yet another of those habitual efforts to mock the Birmingham accent.

All right, I'm biased, but nobody chooses either his birthplace or the speech patterns it gives him, and the Birmingham accent tends to be the nation's whipping-boy. It's odd that seemingly everyone thinks it's a doddle to deride but then falls down abysmally in actually seeking to pile on the laughter.


The fact is that you don't find a genuine-sounding Brummy accent other than from genuine Brummy natives, such as Jasper Carrott and Julie Walters and the anonymous thousands who teem in Birmingham's Bull Ring.

Come-lately nonsense, by the way, has decreed that the Bull Ring, a marketplace that has been at the heart of the city's life for centuries, is now officially Bullring. No The, no space between the two words, no sense of history and no intelligence, just a quick hurray for the City Fathers. But I digress.

I'm glad that Brumspeak is not a frequently-favoured vehicle among playwrights, because it's virtually inevitable that it emerges as a caricature. Lots of whine – too much – and loads of untamed vowels are a cringe-making embarrassment for anyone whose daily round is full of the genuine article.

I learned from my local television news one night that we were drawing towards the close of National Brumspeak Day, when everybody was supposed to have become a pretend Brummie. I was glad that it had not impinged on my awareness. It's bad enough to have to sit in a comfortable theatre seat and put up with desperately-flailing professionals making a mess of the accent: heaven forbid that I should be assailed in the street on all sides by jolly amateurs.

There are certain basic rules to Brumspeak, particularly with the vowels. Its E, for example, emerges as what can best be described as the French oeil, as in throeil coins in the fountain.

A Brummie doesn't say I, except when he means A; and when he means I, he says Oi. The result is sentences like, Oi'll wite at the soid gite.

If you hear a Brummie say, Oi, it is important to understand that he is not trying rather rudely to attract your attention, he is referring to himself. I am Oi and you are yow. This is because his O is pronounced Ow, except in go, which is goo.


At this point, the plot thickens – because although he says goo (because he can't say go), he can't say you, which is either yo or yow. This might appear to be pushing logical lapses to the point of perversity – but he is not being perverse. Unless it is for the purpose of pseudo-studious witterings like these, he does not give a thought to how he speaks, any more than do the Cornishman, the Yorkshireman, the Scots and the Irish who leave Professor Higgins close to sneers with every performance of My Fair Lady.

But the Brummie's pronunciation is merely the iceberg-tip of his own special language. His past tense of know is knowd, pronounced to rhyme with cowed. If your God-fearing Brummie says, Oi sin, he is not embarking upon a public confession, just pointing out that he saw something.

And he lives in the present. When he says, Oi cum home, he is not referring to a daily habit but to his recent return to the bosom of his family.

Sadly, Brumspeak is not addressed in drama schools. It's a big gap in theatre studies and it means that the attuned ear is always going to suffer when plays or musicals purport to present a son or daughter of Birmingham. Yes, it's sad, but it's understandable, because the opportunities for using it on stage are minimal and because people capable of teaching it are pretty thin on the ground.

Until Birmingham's playwrights start flooding the market with home-based material, it is unlikely that the situation will ever change. Meanwhile, in Brum, you'll find it talked but not taught. Everywhere else, it's mocked and mangled – but it's we genuine articles who are laughing.

When we're not cringing, of course.

John Slim 

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Witter isn't twitter


ODD, isn't it? After more than half a century scribbling my witterings for the printed newspaper page, I am suddenly embarking on this increasingly popular business of scribbling for cyberspace. Press a button, and they're gone. Now you see them, now you don't.

Even more unlikely, it's a change I chose for myself – but only, I add in self-defence, because the current upheaval at the Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail means that there is no longer any room for unpredictable newsprint prose on the state of amateur theatre, which is a world I have been exploring for a quarter of a century, entirely by accident and without having given a thought to the subject for more than 50 years beforehand. 

It was in 1984 that the man whom the Post and Mail had taken on to cover the amateur stage decided to leave. That was when an anxious features editor with a space to fill asked me if I would mind looking after it this week. This week became 25 years. I hit retirement and then some, but went on wittering – and suddenly the Post and Mail can't take it any more, which is entirely understandable.

Suddenly, therefore, it's me for the ether. Keyboards a-swivel!

I ought to make it clear right away that although I witter, I do not twitter. I have not managed to get my brain cell round the idea that the world might like to know that I am twittering with one hand while eating an apple that I am holding in the other.


I am fairly convinced that only I am interested in the fact that I like to put two empty milk bottles in a bowl of water, watch them gradually fill up, and see which one sinks first.; or, for that matter, turn both taps on full until the bowl overflows, then switch them off and watch the water continue spilling out – while I wonder where it's been all this time: it can't have been in the bowl, because there's no room for it.

Like my speculations on the size of a greenfly's kidneys, these are considerations of quite remarkable inconsequence. They are the sort of things that keep my brain cell super-active and they are probably important enough for twitter, but a fellow should be allowed his sense of shame, so I'm not saying a word. Please ignore these last three paragraphs.

So cyberspace and I are unlikely bedfellows. I'm the one who responds to the sounds of a newspaper being read – the homely, comforting, crinkling noise that shares an armchair and does not require me to perch in front of an implacable screen.

Nevertheless, in a matter of weeks, cyberspace has claimed me twice – for and for the national magazine of the National Operatic & Dramatic Association (NODA), which I have been editing since 1997. Suddenly, NODA is appalled at the cost of publishing its assorted outpourings, which include nearly a dozen regional magazines as well as the national one – so NODA, too, is launching me into the world of getitonline in time for Christmas.

If I meet myself out there, I shall hardly know what to say.

John Slim 
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