Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. Or Are They?

When Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be was resurrected for a brief run at The Union Theatre in Southwark last year, both critics and actors got not a little excited.  Lionel Bart’s 1959 musical ran for 18 months in the West End following its original production and then endured the fate of many splendid musicals; it won an Evening Standard Best Musical Award in 1960 and never played much again.  Anywhere.  For Bart, Oliver! eclipsed the rest of his compositions, but essentially Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be is an loud, obstreperous series of scenes that don’t altogether make a full, satisfying whole, yet its depiction of the world of 1950s brasses, criminals, gamblers and bent coppers is like no other musical I’ve ever seen, certainly not an English one. 

It was originally a play by Frank Norman, who had written his prison memoirs “Bang to Rights” in 1958.  Therefore, when Joan Littlewood’s theatre company picked up the play in 1959 it was already touched with the vicarious shiver of real crime, with a dash of notoreity.  Littlewood asked Bart to write the music and lyrics.  Lionel Bart then revealed himself as the uncrowned King of composing the English whore’s lament.   Give him a walker, a prostitute, or in his words, a brass, and he’ll expose the pain and doubt and fear and love in her.  In the small, scraping, pushing, underworld that Fings inhabits, amongst the knife fights (his taste for writing shows with exclamation marks in the title rears up with the strange song “Carve Up!” about a man who has to have 27 stitches), bookies, cut throat street law, the change in Soho underworld at the tail end of the 50s and the pimps, there are two of the best songs written for women in post-war English musical theatre. What Bart really exposes isn’t the working life of the streetwalker but rather the quiet thoughts that happen behind the scenes, when the knickers get pulled back up.  The song “The Ceiling’s Comin’ Dahn” is a heart-breaking ballad sung by a woman, now a retired prostitute, who realises that finally, her place and role in the world is over.  She remains, in a loveless relationship in a decidedly unlovely flat.  Who ever truly considers what happens to whores when they stop whoring?  Her dreams are more tragic for their ordinariness “To think I could have been a housewife, in a bungalow / No stairs…”  but it’s painfully too late : “The ceiling’s coming dahn…and we never even knew / We’ve been too busy doing / What we thought we ought to do….”.  The second, and better known, of these bittersweet ballads is “Where Do Little Birds Go“, which Bart gave to Barbara Windsor to sing in the original production and which Windsor credits with changing her career.

Where Do Little Birds Go” follows a similar idea as “The Ceiling’s Comin’ Dahn” in that in hypothetically asking where little birds go in the winter, our whore is, of course, asking what happens when the gaily working good time girl wakes up to discover that the worms have been caught by all the other early birds and there is absolutely nowhere else for this late bird to nest.  These are the moments these tenacious London prostitutes only allow in private,where the plaintive questions of life can be asked.  The world they inhabit will not comfort or keep them.   It is not a coincidence that when Oliver! appeared in 1960 it is Nancy’s song, her whore’s lament of “As Long As He Needs Me” that has them weeping in the aisles and momentarily forgetting the pesky orphan who should be the focus for their sentiments.   Bart recognises her type as soon as he sees her, realising Bill Sykes is just another ponce to Nancy’s brass.

The title song of Fings shows the timeless, exhausted, rolling eye with which native EastEnders gaze on the hapless, educated beatniks who have begun to encroach on their manor in the late 1950s.  “Toffs with toffee noses / And poofs in coffee houses....” etc, not to mention the university chaps and debs slipping in for vicarious thrills from the East End sidelines.  Meanwhile, the near, strident colours of the 1960s are approaching and there is a riot of interior design in the song “Contempery“, in which people try out rubber plants and cactuses in their houses and chuck out their chintz.  This rampant desire for domestic fashion sits awkwardly in the schpeilers (gambling dens) of the male protagonist, Fred Cochran, who wonders whether anyone’s going to bring him a cup of tea and doesn’t understand why he has to have art prints on the wall.    The Lord Chamberlain’s office, spitting blood and prudery at the repeated “piss off”s, “sod off”s and “bugger off”s, frustratingly found their censor system couldn’t work if the play was improvised nightly (which it was).  In his review for the Daily Express, Bernard Levin called Fings “A play of brilliant, bawdy irreverence”.   It shouts and struts and blasphemes.  Aspects of London underground life are successfully celebrated, but not idealised.

Unfortunately, in “Joan Littlewood’s Theatre” by Nadine Holdsworth, something appalling happens.  A load of academics get their hands on Bart and completely misread him.  Holdsworth woefully accuses the production of glamourising criminality. Then again, this is an academic book so only 12 people will read it but get this : “The problematic romanticising of criminality and aberrant behaviour associated with the powerful symbolic presence of The Krays arguably underpinned Littlewood’s production of Fings.  […] Littlewood resorted to representing an exoticised criminal underbelly rather than recognisable everyday domestic and working lives…From the late 1950s, Littlewood abandoned the discourse of the financially deprived but socially rich, proud and resilient Cockney figure embedded in their local geographical community to contribute to an alternative discourse of a criminal fraternity intent on self-advancement through dubious and often violent means.”

The Krays link is representative of the fact that Joan Littlewood held a post-opening night party at a club in The East End.  Would you Adam and Eve it, but it turned out to be ran by the Kray brothers, which is not surprising, because everything in the East End from home furnishing stores to creches seem to have been controlled by the Krays in the East End in 1960.  Her theatre was in Stratford.  If you live and work in a pickles barrel, eventually you’re going to have to come across some pickles. Either way, there is no exotic glamourising of criminality going on in Fings.  There is gleeful musing from some of the men in their peacocking strut of semi-criminal lives, but Holdsworth has made the mistake of confusing gallows humour and bawdiness with glamour, confusing celebration with triviality.  Also, neither Littlewood nor Bart are under any obligation to produce a particular kind of Cockney from “their local geographical community”.  If people are violent, it’s because people are violent.  Bart would just tell you he was displaying the world of his youth, which is his right. 

Her aversion to joviality knows no bounds: “…theatricality, in particular the use of songs, only served to heighten the sense that Littlewood had resorted to exploiting a very real social problem for its comedic potential and popular entertainment value.”

Grrr.  Here are two very real problems about the middle class view of working class theatre : First of all, Holdsworth sticks to a rather arbitrary and paint-by-numbers viewpoint often breezily batted about in discussions regarding theatre.  This view is that drama, good solid high quality theatre drama, is fine – you can say something serious in theatre.  People sound a bit posh in theatre.  There is a weight to the words.  But musicals are for the proles, musicals have dancing in them, are tainted by the unwholesome evolution they have travelled through via the mucky route from vaudeville.  Musicals cannot and will not, according to their nature, afford a seriousness.  I don’t know how people arrive at this point of view that music can only belittle and defile that drama which it comes into contact with.  Makes you wonder why Puccini and Verdi bothered really, doesn’t it?  How dare the working classes audaciously present their own London lives in song?  Prostitutes are not a suitable subject for comic songs, for GOD’S SAKE.  Are you MAD?  The other, second issue, is that middle class drama critics are only really happy and satisfied if they go to the theatre and see the working classes being bloody miserable.  They want to see political engagement and common whores railing against injustice and working class sacrifice outside the factory doors or banging away at kitchen sinks.  It suitably scratches the itches of societal conscience.  It placates their liberal, middle class guilt.  It makes them feel that a responsibility has been taken by the proletariat and that something is, conveniently and comfortingly, in hand, in the working class dialectic.  But show them working classes dancing, drinking, fighting and robustly shoving one in the eye for the landed classes and they shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.   The ribaldry inherent in larks, tenacity and that most important East End London characteristic that Bart understood – spirit – are incompatible with shoddy remnants of puritan progressivism.  In short, middle class academics and critics find it inappropriate if working class characters have their own character, rather than a tapestry pattern of social attributes.    Holdsworth writes above that Littlewood was “exploiting a very real social problem for its comedic potential“. Oh, shove it.  The Wolfenden Report in 1957 had already turned gay men and whores into problem statistics to be discussed by the political classes and, of course, rightly so. Its findings were extremely significant for the decriminalising of homosexual acts in Britain. But what does it feel like to actually be a “social problem”?  What does it feel like for other, moneyed, educated people to talk about you as if you’re just a whorish issue waiting to be cleared up?  How many working class people do you know sit around discussing themselves as “social problems”?   And, if you going to attack this show with claims of exploitation, then by definition all theatre that operates on a profit basis where people pay money to look at it is exploitation.  You could say the same about people going to watch Pygmalion and laughing about Eliza Doolittle’s oh-so-funny poor working class accent.    But that’s classic Shaw, so presumably it’s all right.

Yawn.  She goes on.  It’s the gaiety she can’t stand. It’s bad enough to have to look at the poor.  But now they’re out of the box, they’re jumping about like nutters and showing us their scars and their pants.  They’ve got knives in their hands and they’re failing to fulfil middle class fantasies:  “There are no reflective moments….”  and, apparently, it’s a “thinly-disguised freak show”.  But then she makes a point so stupid that I can’t believe an academic can make it.  It was so bovine I had to read it twice.  She writes : ” the infamous title song..laments the passing of a ‘golden age’ when ‘ponces killed a lazy whore’.”  The whole show, Bart’s whole alacrity and brilliance misses her completely.  It never once strikes the brain of Ms Holdsworth that Bart is, in his lyrical irony, revealing a truth.  The line she is writing of sits cosily in a verse that has the lines “Big hoods, now are little hoods / Gamblers now do Littlewoods / Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be/ Times were in days of golden yore / Ponces killed a lazy whore / Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be.”  To think that Bart would be as puerile as to use this as a lazy nostalgia is offensive.   It’s ironic, Ms Holdsworth.  Things were, reveals Bart, always as bad as they might have been in the past, never mind as good.  They are, quite simply, just like what they used to be, and that people will continue to make fools of themselves making out otherwise.  Brutality slips to be replaced by a different set of brutalities. Petty crime mutates into another kind of petty crime.   The wheel keeps on turning and the bent copper is, of course, destined to take over the betting shop. This is world these characters inhabit.  Holdsworth has chosen not to interrogate Bart’s lyrics, for reasons that are not clear.  On a different note, in his recent biography of Bart, David Stafford is right to point out that “In its time Fings, in its subject matter, its production style and in the relaxed ensemble of the actors, was nothing less than revolutionary.”

David and Caroline Stafford’s book on Bart is far more illuminating and deftly composed and well-written than any academic text.  It’s highly recommended for anyone who is interested in both theatrical culture of the 1950s and 1960s and also the early birth pains of British Pop.  It was Bart, after all, who discovered Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and convinced Reg Smith to change his name to the more popworthy Marty Wilde.  Why are academics not more willing to engage with the heart and humanity of certain kinds of theatrical figures?  If Lionel Bart hadn’t been, in his own words a working class “homosexual Jewish junkie Commie” with a penchant for vulgar humour, who remained totally musically illiterate, would his work have been received and judged in a different way?   Anyway there’s no need to shovel a load of shit in Bart’s face because life eventually did that for him anyway.  Eventually he was so broke that Cameron Mackintosh opted to give Bart a royalties percentage during the revival of Oliver! in the West End, despite Bart having sold all his rights when struggling for cash 20 years earlier. I’ve had to read a shedload of academic books about literature, and I think they’re wonderful, but as soon as I read any concerned with my former training, musical theatre, I start spitting.  So many glaring, wonderful points pass completely unnoticed.  Why do academics not quite get it?   Perhaps another question is, does anybody care?  But one thing’s clear – when it comes to good old-fashioned cultural snobbery, Fings Are Exactly What They Used T’Be. 

Don’t read Ms Holdsworth.  Read this – David & Caroline Stafford’s enjoyable biography on Lionel Bart – it’s much better!  On Kindle over at Amazon.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

The Modern Babylon : “The Strange Third Meaning”

Julien Temple’s extraordinary film, London : The Modern Babylon was broadcast last week .  It was glorious and irreverent, juxtaposing Edwardian footage with the Sex Pistols, keen to draw connecting lines between the large, multi-faith, multi-racial London of today with the London of a hundred years ago.  It was chaos, but it tasted of a distinctly familiar ordered chaos. The slums of the 1920s were depressingly sliced up with footage from present day sink estates, slum children with the same hungry eyes and sullen mouths echoing, unaltered throughout the long twentieth century.  It seemed also keen to present London as a riotous, constantly jumping, dancing, slapping, exotic whirlwind, pushing through and destroying any echo of the stiff upper lip or cold English placidity.  The title was a nod to the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, an exposing series of articles regarding London’s thriving child prostitution market which appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1885.  These articles were sensationalist, highly coloured by imagination and hardly faithful news reporting.  The magazine’s editor, W T Stead, was sent to prison for 3 months for his unlawful journalistic methods, thereby starting another rich tradition of the British tabloid journalist using underhand methods to exploit members of the public and then write a lot of made-up things in a newspaper.  But what the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” tale concerns itself with is the space between the image or the story, and the mode of reportage that it elicits.  Julien Temple’s film of London : The Modern Babylon  took this space and magnificently exploited it.  The London we know, the London we see every day on our way to work was hardly evident, instead we saw a magical – yet real – city,  a feverish – yet not joyous – flurry of fast-paced dancing, a plain – yet not defeated – man standing with his two children in a one room home, a homesick Jamaican being turned away – again – from a boarding house, as the landlord tells him he would simply love to let him in, but the other 14 English boarders would immediately leave. 

The press, for a change, seemed to be in agreement : Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “London is where the dense swirl of creativity, energy and violence is to be found. In comparison, the rest of the country is placid and dull”.  Bradshaw goes on, rightly, to point out the punk spirit of Temple’s film, describing what he felt was the vitally “pugnacious,  bloody-minded…” spirit of the city and those who inhabit it.  Over at The Independent, Jonathan Romney writes : “London has always been a vortex of changing social and racial identity – one of the liveliest (if not always the happiest) places on earth […] The result is a joyous, yet often also rueful, commemoration of one of the most multiple and uncontainable cities on earth.”  The Telegraph‘s Mike McCahill commented: “It’s a tale of two cities – where the best of times coexists with the worst – and the film-maker doesn’t so much mind the gap between them as plunge, frenziedly and triumphantly, into it.”  Over at the FT, Nigel Andrews was not at all charmed: “The film is as awesome as a Taj Mahal built of matchsticks, and some detractors might say as pointless. Documentarist Temple… has no evident viewpoint.”    What a cow, eh?

It is an extraordinary piece of film making.  What there is is movement, unceasing, fast-paced, jolting movement.  It was like a peculiar mode of jaunty time-travel.  Temple began with 6,000 hours of BFI archive material.  His favourite technique seems to be juxtaposing time zones: a slim woman in a cloche hat in 1923 turns to the camera with an alert, slightly startled expression and an image of a coffee-cup carrying woman from 2005 appears to be the object of her gaze.  Temple uses two images to create, in his own words, “a strange third meaning”.  His apparently empathetic slant on the London Mob has some critics puce with indignation, but these critics are wrong.  What Temple is pulling focus towrds is the visceral force of the London Mob, to recognise its effects and impact on the political temperature of whatever rows appear to be going on at any given time, and that the revolting aspects of the English become galvanized and distilled in a city that has lots and lots and lots of people in it.  The mob is an almost inevitable result of various socio-political influences mashing and merging upon one urban space.  It is not interesting to decide whether a documentary filmmaker is “for” or “against” the mob.  His work is to document, and one would hope we all have moved on from GCSE binary arguments about “good rioters” and “naughty rioters”.  Temple understands the spirit of London, and to leave out the mob would be as wrong as to leave out London pubs and horse-drawn omnibuses.

It is this “strange third meaning” of Temple’s that leaves us to a new view of our City.  Perhaps this is what Mike McCahill meant at The Telegraph quote above, when he wrote of the film maker plunging “frenziedly and triumphantly” into the gaps.  It is in the gaps where the mystery of London becomes realised.  Images are crushed and pushed against one another, challenging and changing each other.  The soundtrack was a meshed series of musical and vocal techniques, a varied voiceover of actor’s repeating poems and texts about London only when and if the voiceover was required.  Although, frankly, I could have done without T S Eliot.  But then I always can.  After watching this, there was a strange feeling of environmental abandonment.  What had I just seen?  Do I know this place?  What is this foreign, surreal, magnetic city?  It took a moment to come back down to earth.  London can be reborn, remade and reimagined at the touch of an editor’s hand.   A truly imaginative and engaging film, filled with the lifeblood, stories and sense of our city.  Whilst avoiding anything as wistful as nostalgia, it renews a sense of metropolitan enquiry, making the viewer want to explore more of its streets, its crooked turnings, its dark-bricked alleys, whilst you are followed by the sense that you could walk for a fifty years and never have a hope of fully knowing the true heart and tales of our city.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Witches, Ghosts, Whistling and Cats – A Guide to Theatrical Superstitions

Floating around the greasepaint and discarded clothes of West End dressing rooms, you’ll usually find the same four things scattered in front of actors’ mirrors : a packet of Twinings Lemon & Ginger Tea, a small can of Silvrikin hairspray, a throat sweet called Vocalzone and a superstitious outlook.  The superstitious outlook is a vital component of the theatrical character, a medieval hangover that is a remnant of the kind of logic that computed that if your saw four swallows flying southwest on a Monday it meant someone would give birth to a child with clubfoot on Tuesday.  If anyone showed the slightly OCD passion for superstition that actors show in any other work environment they would be laughed all the way to the water cooler.   There is a whole range of bad luck and good luck omens within theatres, dozy and incalculable and daft –  and no less enjoyable for their madness.

You cannot whistle anywhere in a theatre.  If you do, you have to go outside the room, turn around three times and ask permission to re-enter (John Barrowman particularly enjoys this).  The same goes for clapping backstage.  Both whistling and clapping used to be theatrical signals for large, heavy parts of the set to be lowered so a whistle or clap at the wrong time could result in an injury.  However, I think the profession has increased its population at such a rate that surely it is time to leave by the wayside those actors stupid enough to stand in the middle of the stage and invite 50 stone imitation cliff faces to squash them.  You must not, of course, any other circumstances, mention the word Macbeth.  If you have to talk about it you must refer to it as “The Scottish Play”.   i.e.  “I went to an audition for The Scottish Play and the Director felt me up and invited me to his Turkish holiday home.  Have I got the part?” or “He was performing in The Scottish Play on tour when his wife left him for that antique salesman in the Wirral.” etc etc.   The reasons are that the word Macbeth will summon burnings, imminent spirits and death by swordplay.  It doesn’t.  It summons difficult lines, being aware of shifting hordes of schoolchildren firing paper pellets at the actors whilst being forced to sit through the story of Scottish regal dynasty by their GCSE set text, lady actors dancing around cauldrons and itchy tights.

Wishing anyone “good luck” is extremely rude.  Don’t do it.  You’ll be forced to spend the next 18 months in solitary confinement with Elaine Paige, and no one on this earth wants to do that.  You have to say “break a leg” for some obscure, slightly pig-headed reason, unless you are in Portugal or Spain, in which case you must shout “Muita Merda!” – “A lot of crap!”  which is funny, because that’s probably what the critics will say too.  So perverse is the fear of magic / bad luck / terrible, awful things happening that actors will often wish each other “bad luck”, in order to stave off bad luck.  Of course, they mean the opposite when they say “bad luck” to their much-loved colleagues.  Don’t they?

One of the marvellous characteristics of working in the theatre is you get to absolve yourself of all personal responsibility by one act : by calling up the sprite-like presence of Thespis.  Should you miss your cue, turn up late for rehearsal, accidentally fuck the director’s wife or break a prop because you were playing football with it in the wings during the interval, you can blame it on Thespis.  If Thespis could only see what is being done in his name he would rouse himself up from a dry, Grecian grave and smack every actor on the head with a brick.  Oh hang on – he can’t because he never existed and is totally made up.  Exited on the wrong side of the stage?  Belched instead of sang?  Wired the costume of the person you are understudying with live electric volts so that you kill them in order to finally fill their dramatic shoes?  Blame the “accident” on Thespis, darling.  If not, you can always blame it on the Union, who are a bit like Thespis – a foreign entity, impossible to get on the phone, inept, incapable and almost certainly entirely made up.  Thespis will happily take your mistakes and sense of responsibility.  The Union, Equity, will take your money, would consider shooting you for a tenner, will not allow any mistakes and, when you are found in that regional production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with your head trapped in a revolving set and your brains are being squeezed out of the top of your skull onto the pre-war lino, and you’re calling for your lawyer in order to make your Will, leave you to die in a stagnant, fetid pool of your own blood, vomit and poo.

In the tradition of paradox that is the theatre, neither ghosts or black cats are an ominous sign.   A black cat is a convenient lucky charm, although sadly the theatre cat has been a victim of Health & Safety and there are less of them these days.  West End theatres are hundred year old hellholes of environmental madness, riddled with rats and mice, most of which are looking for an audition.  The cats would kill the mice, thereby ensuring they can’t get one.   The most distinguished of the West End Theatre cats was the much-loved Beerbohm at The Gielgud (when it used to be called The Globe).  He was from an ancient theatrical lineage, having been born in Her Majesty’s Theatre down the road and had the official title of  Principal Mouser.  I met him a couple of times in the costume room at the Gielgud when he was an old boy where he would find a particularly expensive piece of tailoring and sit and moult on it. 

“I’m too old for all this now, darling,” he said to me on that autumn afternoon in 1992.  “I mean, those bastard tap dancers took my worm pills – they must have thought they were something else, dear.  And now, I have Camden Council coming in to look at the mouse problem.  So vulgar.  I’ve got twice as many legs as any one of them, I can see in the dark, I’m highly intelligent and sinister all at the same time, I am felis catus, a natural hunter. I’ve been petted by Diana Rigg, for God’s sake. And they DARE to breathe a word about my mousing.  Peasants.  I remember what darling Sir John Gielgud-y used to say….”

Then he’d fart, roll over and dream of dead, gutted fish.  Beerbohm’s prayers were answered though.  A theatre carpenter offered him retirement out in Kent, where Beerbohm spent the remainder of his days pasting photographs of his favourite dead mice in his theatrical scrapbook.  Apparently his last word’s where “Felicity Kendal’s been at my KiteKat.”

A portrait of him still graces the foyer where he imperiously looks down his whiskers at tourists buying gin and tonics at the bar.  He is the only cat to have had his own obituary in The Stage.  The Noel Coward Theatre has two cats, none of which command themselves with Beerbohm’s nobility or suaveness.  One of them ate Princess Margaret’s bouquet during a gala performance, and both of them appeared impromptu on stage on a regular basis.   In the 1970s, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane had a much-loved cat called Ambrose, who’s frequent appearances on stage so angered Michael Crawford that he tried to ban him.  Apparently, the cat felt the same way about Crawford.  The cat won.

Beerbohm, The Globe Theatre’s  (Gielgud) Principal Mouser, late of this parish, working his diva look, bringing the theatre good luck and squashing someone’s edition of The Stage.

If the black cat’s presence isn’t enough to ensure your insecurities that the show will go without hitch, you can always refuse to rehearse the curtain call until the day on which you will actually be performing it.  It is considered bad luck to arrange the curtain call, which is astonishing.  Possibly the only part of the play where the director has to choreograph 14 narcissists simultaneously arriving on stage desperate to suck up applause and adoration, desperate to step on each other, ignore each other, fling arms around to blot the appearance of the others out, trip each other up and perform further blasphemous acts and no one considers it wise to rehearse it in good time. They would rather wait until 5pm on the night of the first preview, when the cast’s nerves are shot to ribbons, when they ignore the precedence of casting, put the cast’s actorly noses out of joint and make a right mess of it.  A further, more lunatic version of this is never to rehearse the last line of the play.  Ever.  A play cannot be finished until it’s rehearsal is finished.  The last line remains unspoken.  This means you can be doomed to spend three weeks in a draughty church hall listening to:

“And, so!  The murderer is———!”

Director, purple-faced, with a bit of diabetes, throws A4 notebook onto the floor and stands up. “No, Harold, darling.  Last line sweetie!  No. DON’T SAY IT.”

This can happen throughout the entire rehearsal process.  Most of the actors don’t know (or care) who the murderer was because they haven’t read all the play yet. 

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is Britain’s most haunted theatre.  In fact, a theatre is only a genuine theatre if it has a black cat in residence and a ghost.  Actors love to recount stories of that time they saw an uncanny visitor, pale, death white and hollow of face, although they often forget to add that it turned out to be their agent.  Actors love getting a sense of ghostly frisson by the idea that some old dear is hovering about the dress circle doing hauntings and suchlike things that dead people do.  The most famous of London’s theatre ghosts is the imaginatively titled “The Man in Grey”, at the Theatre Royal.  He appears only in the daytime and apparently is keen to watch rehearsals (he’s probably been waiting to hear the last line for the last 150 years to see how the damn thing ends).  As a thespian ghost, he’s relentlessly dull.  I mean, he just hasn’t put any thought into his performance or presence, duckie.  The appearance of him is a wonderful omen that the impending show is going to be a success.  He is dressed as an 18th century nobleman with a tri-cornered hat and a grey cape.  Oddly, he appeared during the rehearsals of “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific” and “The King and I” which suggests he is actually from the Oscar Hammerstein estate and has come to collect royalties.  As an 18th century nobleman, I imagine he’d find mid-20th century theatre a bit surprising.   Imagine his correspondence:

My dear—I alighted to my usual post in The Olde Theatyre at Drury Lane to find the place much altered.  Syphilis Sally, wont of height and wooden of leg, is no longer purveyor of fine oranges in the marketplyce.  In her post I found a rugged gentleman of native charm who was pinning paper notices on people’s carriages regarding parking facilyties.  In the theatre I was taken aback.  Gone are the Comedies about parrots and dear old Lady A and gone are the swills of beer and rakish gentlemen.  In their place I found a diverse piece of machinerie which was loathe to take my money and produce a Whole Nut for consumption.  Alas, dear lady, Twas a fool I was made, as I gave this diabolical machine my sovereign and I did not get a Nut.  It produced a strange rectangle coating in purple shiny paper and twas not a Whole Nut.  Or a Half Nut.  I took my usual seat in the theatre and I thought my eyes confounded me when I saw a dozen farmyard workers making a jolly song and dancing with metal taps on their feet, making a devils abomynation, singing about Oh What a Beautiful Morning.  Twas not a morning of beautee.  Twas horrid.  I shall forthwith locate the assistant stage manager and lodge my complaint and make mine sentiments known, I thought.  Alas, I found him in a small, sordid, black box at the rear of the auditorium, playing Bejewelled Blitz and unconcerned with my ague and temper…..

p.s. Have you heard whether they’re recasting Mamma Mia yet?”

Anyway, don’t be disappointed if you don’t see “The Man in Grey” in the evenings.  You can always listen to Dan Leno rehearsing his clog dancing routine in his dressing room, another one of The Theatre Royal’s hauntings.  Thankfully, dead theatre critics have yet to rise from their cantankerous graves and cause more misery than they did when they were alive.  

A whole range of further superstitions are rarely known these days.  You must never clear out your make up box.  If you do it might mean you’ll never work again.  You must step out of your dressing room onto your left foot.  If you find a thread you must tie it around your finger, if you wear blue on stage it is bad luck unless it is countered by something silver – it’s a whole host of craziness that actors give weight to, and sometimes prioritise over something like calling their agent.  Rather than theatres being traditionally spooky places were ghosts hang out, is not the rich superstition of ghosts, whistling, cats and claps the unifying religion that actors identify themselves with?  Is all this because actors are so terrified at jinxing any employment, so desperate to avoid the label “resting”, so enthrall to a profession where bad pay and maltreatment go so often hand-in-hand that they put importance on this balderdash as a kind of employment insurance?   The rituals, the cleansing, the homeopathy, the fault lines, the ley lines, the lines to learn, the break a leg cards – it seems the theatrical community – an irreligious, liberated community by nature  -self-imposed just another organised faith with its own orthodoxies, fears, limitations and outdated rules by which it is doomed to live by.  Somewhere in the back of the theatre, you can hear the cat laughing.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

Customer Service Pay Pal style

I have to post this.  This is my experience this morning, of dealing with PayPal’s idea of customer service, where I needed to change my account to my married name. “Louise” is their automated computer assistant.  

Louise  Hello, I’m Louise and I’m here to answer your questions about PayPal. Even though I’d like to be a real person, I’m not. I’m programmed to answer your questions. How can I help you?


You  change of name


Louise  You can change the name on your account only for typographical errors or a legal name change. For security reasons, you cannot change account ownership (you can’t change your name to another person’s name). To make a name change, please submit a request through our secure form

To complete your name change we may require that you fax or upload some current photo proof of your identity. Please note that it normally takes 3-5 business days to review your documents.


Was the information I gave you helpful?
– No


You  No.  I  haven’t used my PayPal account since before I got married. I need to amend it by the end of this month?


Louise  Can you give me some more information about your problem?


You I thought I just did

Louise I’m not sure I’ve understood. Could you please rephrase that?


YouI need to change my bank account name that takes automatic PayPal funds to my married name


LouiseYou can view, add, remove or select your primary bank account from your account Profile:

If there is an error in the bank account information you have added you must remove the bank account from your PayPal account and carefully re-add it with the correct information.

– Each bank account can only be added to PayPal three times
– You can add up to eight bank accounts to your PayPal account.
I’m right here if you have any other questions.


You What?!


Louise I’m not sure what you’re saying. Could you please rephrase that?


You Louise – I need to change my PayPal name to my married name.


Louise You can change the name on your account only for typographical errors or a legal name change. For security reasons, you cannot change account ownership (you can’t change your name to another person’s name). To make a name change, please submit a request through our secure form


To complete your name change we may require that you fax or upload some current photo proof of your identity. Please note that it normally takes 3-5 business days to review your documents. Let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.


You Louise – this is not at all helpful. You say the document can be scanned but you do not say where to?


Louise  Great! I’ll be here if you have any other questions.


You Yes, you are there. Very much so.  But you’re not at all helpful. You’re about as useful as a milk chocolate teapot.


Louise I’m sorry I haven’t been able to assist you.  I’m not sure I’ve understood.  Could you please rephrase that?


Then, these bastards give you an online CODE that is only valid for 60 minutes.  Once you ring the overpriced helpline you are put through to a woman who always sounds like Carrie Fisher before she gave up drinking.  Then, if you have had the cheek to get married they require FOUR types of proof for verification.  Why?  Do they think I am too ugly to have ensnared a husband?  Presumably they think I am pretending to have got married in order to enjoy the thrill of this disgusting, fucked up bureaucratic nightmare. I feel I have lost a skin or three this morning through these people and am now off to take up heavy drinking.

The Trip – Part Three

On Saturday morning, awakening to pulsing, dry heat, we decided to enlist the help of the Unintentionally Camp owner of the local trattoria. We needed to find a supermarket. The previous day we had followed the instructions of the wife of the Unintentionally Camp trattoria owner but had ended up driving three towns on from where we were supposed to go. The Unintentionally Camp trattoria owner was planning to set off from the village at 10am, so I had to learn “May we follow you in your car please” in Italian immediately after breakfast, which did not sit well with my indigestion.

The heat is so relentless that the only way to sleep is naked and splayed, like a starfish, or like one of those butterflies that are dead and sellotaped inside frames before being hung on walls. On Saturday morning I woke up gasping for air and hydration, having knocked back three glasses of the local Sangiovese the night before. We had in fact been having a superb dinner at the trattoria owned by Unintentionally Camp man, a truly splendid fare, marked only by Mother Bluebird’s intense belief that Unintentionally Camp man is, at heart, a brute.

“Oh, I wouldn’t like to see him angry,” she says. (Oh she would, she would.) “I bet he’s a bully I can see it in his eyes,” she says sotto voce, as the man in question gently lays a bowl of ragu in front of a small dog. This appears an unshakable conviction throughout the holiday. Unintentionally Camp man said he’d meet us at 10am in front of our complex. When he doesn’t appear, Mother Bluebird decides he’s “back in the kitchen giving her what for”. Although perhaps it’s just a case of laid-back Italian timekeeping. By the time he turns up, forty minutes late, we have both melted in our tiny Fiat in boisterous heat and I am so desperate for the loo I can barely move.

“So sorry!” he zooms up, resplendent in shades and bright yellow trousers.

Down the hill we go, desperately keeping up with Unintentionally Camp Man / a.k.a. The Secret Brute. “Wheeee!” I say as we go round a corner on our way down the mountainous road. “Weeeeeeeeeeee”. I get told off and asked to stop. At the bottom of the hill we turn right and potter along white dust roads of a small town built mainly in the early 1960s, turn right and suddenly there it is – the enormous building we failed to spot the previous day. The one with a supermarket sign at the top of it.

By now I have self-diagnosed either appendicitis or a kidney injury. But I have to get things that I like at the supermarket otherwise there’ll be nothing that I like back at il appartamento. Italian supermarkets contain a whole range of eclectic items : tomatoes, fishing rods, nappies, barbecues, apples, water, dresses, plastic hula hoops, biscuits and beach balls. All of this is crammed into an area a quarter of the size of your local Tesco. Despite their unsurpassed reputation worldwide for the quality of their local produce and the grandeur of their cooking abilities, there is a huge amount of junk food in Italian supermarkets. Much of it is the kind you would never see in the UK : squares of pink ham in tins filled with a plastic-based cheese sauce, boil in the bag rhubarb flavour compote, and miniature, plastic brown cups called EspressoShot! that are essentially cold chocolate mixed with cold coffee to swallow when you’re on the go.

Unintentionally Camp man is on the go. “I have to find some food for my son,” he announces, sunglasses on his head just above his brow, standing with his hands on his hips and the stark midday sun catching the yellow trousers. He disappears into the bowels of the store. We don’t see him for the remainder of the day.

I have to find a loo. Halfway through explaining to Mother Bluebird how to ask for lettuce in Italian, I leave and walk the third of a mile back to the town in search of a loo. There are three bars in the town. The first one, bright and air-conditionned has a loo, which is locked and I decide I cannot wait. I go to the second bar. The bar is closed. Cross-legged, toxic and wilting in the sun, I go to the third bar, a dark, gloomy brown affair in the middle of the town that looks like the home of a serial killer.

“Il bagno?” I ask. I wonder how long it takes to poison your kidneys slowly, from the inside out.

“Si. Si. A li.” “Li” is Italian for “there.” “Li” in my urine-soaked mind is therefore Italian for “LOO”.

“Accendere la luce a sinistra,” he says, pointing at a dark space behind the bar. This means “Turn the light on on your left”, but before I get a chance to do so I stumble and fall over a mop and bucket which has been left in the dark, and all six of the octogenarians currently enjoying a morning spritzer from Mr Serial Killer turn and stare at me. The bathroom is very small, so small that I can only hold my handbag if I put it on my shoulder first. There are three doors, the first into a utility area which smells strangely of cat, the second into a small wash basin area and then finally FINALLY! the third. THE TOILET.

There is no toilet. There is only a hole in the floor. I have to take off my trousers, socks and shoes in order to go to the loo. Already by hellish intuition, my bladder has determined how close it is to the source of release and appears to be making a break for the border. As a child I was always taught never to sit down on a public loo. Never, never, never. But the European innovation of the piss-hole-on-the-floor model has obliterated any temptation to sit down. There isn’t a seat, so instead, I hover, half slack-kneed, like a sumo wrestler.

By the time I walk back to the supermarket, avoiding treating on razor thin lizards that are scurrying through dry grass in the sun, Mother Bluebird has bought half of the town’s supermarket stock and is reversing the Fiat out of the car park. We return to the cafe with the locked toilet door, the one I had been unable to use. It is the cleanest and freshest in town and we had the most delicious espressos there, sitting in the grateful aircon and reading Italian coverage of the opening ceremony of London 2012. I catch the occasional word: “Londra e il Regno Unito hanno messo tutto quello che avevano : da Shakespeare a Mary Poppins, fino a Mr Bean.” (“London and the UK have put everything they had into this : Shakespeare, Mary Poppins and Mr Bean”.) Is this what we are to the rest of the world? A cruel collage of Mr Bean and a made up Edwardian nanny, with a little bit of Oh-there-goes-Queenie-flirting-with-Bond sifted on the top? Come to think of it, that’s not half bad! It could be worse. We could be French.

Exhausted and slightly frazzled we return to the boiling car and from there back to the apartment where we prepare for yet another fight with the Belgian lesbians over the 4 precious umbrellas around the pool.