Monthly Archives: April 2014

Brick Lane- Outreach

 

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Brian Walker & Michael Topping

Brick Lane Outreach- The value of Laughter and Song

 An outing to Mile End!

 Having worked at Brick Lane in the recent pantomime there, I was always curious about the talk of their “Outreach” programme.

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While I was there giving my Betty The Cook a few times we were told that a customer had made a donation to subsidise a visit to a local care home, or to a hospice in the area, and I would bump into Brian Walker or Joni Talks from time to time en route to a Brick Lane visit.

It was a great joy to be invited along last week to one such “Outreach” show in Mile End, and to see for myself what goes on at these shows. What a great afternoon it was, and I’m so pleased I’ve witnessed for myself what Vincent, Zara and Joanne have described to me as “Reminiscence Music Hall!”

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Today’s show was led as always by Brian Walker and Michael Topping. Hackney born Brian has been involved in Music Hall since way back when, and has been involved with Brick Lane through its journey from Brick Lane, to Curtain Row and now to Silvertown in the East End. Michael Topping I have had the pleasure of working with many times in tours of “Pinocchio” and “Hansel & Gretel” and variety shows around the country. Michael has the most infectious laugh you could ever hope to hear, and it used to ring out from the orchestra pit on many happy occasions!

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When I arrived at Coopers Court in Mile End the residents were already assembling in the main room. Chairs had been set up by the staff and the first impression I got on walking in was that this was a jolly atmosphere. The staff and residents were looking forward to the show, and tea and cakes were the order of the day!

Michael was setting up his keyboard, and assisted by Brian they got the microphones and amp set up in a matter of minutes.

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About thirty five to forty residents and guests (some had been joined by their family I noticed) and about eight members of staff and carers were attending. Michael struck up “There’s No Business like Show Business!” as an overture, and the show began.

Recently I took my touring Pantomime Roadshow to a couple of Care Homes in the Midlands. Although intended for children we adapted the show, but I felt there was a vital element missing from our version- Music. Music it seems can unlock the memory. Vincent tells his Brick Lane audiences about this, and each interval I’ve heard him describe the effect of songs on those who suffer from memory loss, often as a result of long term illness. I had heard him describe it, and now I was witness to it.

Brian very skilfully has put together a programme of songs and jokes that does just this. As the show progressed I could see for myself how that formula was working.To begin with a few of the residents tentatively joined in with some of the “standards” of Music Hall- some of course might have been a bit shy to begin with, but it seemed to me that, as the hour and a half passed, more and more were joining in singing along and interacting with Michael and Brian.

I was fascinated to watch one lady who had barely looked up for the first five minutes of the show. Her lips moved from time to time. A group at the back were joining in at odd times, but mostly they were keeping time, tapping their feet.

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Brian’s Opening number set the whole thing into motion. He opened with “I Wanna Say Hello, I wanna See you Smile”- which (and I admit I am a hopeless nostalgic and geek when it comes to all things 40’s) I recognised as Betty Driver’s hit number from the post war years! Yes- Betty from Corrie- her of Hotpot fame- She became a huge recording and variety star thanks to Gracie Fields and her producer husband, and this was one of her big hits!

A few joined in the odd word or too- prompted by Brian: “Do you remember it? Yes? Well why aren’t you singing it then! All together now…..”

His warm up dated back to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald- singing “When I’m calling You-ohh-e-ohhh-ohhh-ohh-ohh!” and a fair number of voices sang back the reply from “Rosemarie”.

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By now the room was turning into a party. A few more staff joined and a few more residents arrived and were settle in.  Brian moved onto the songs from Music Hall that no-one in the room could have recalled from their heyday.

I remember when I started doing what we called “Old Time” Music Hall shows in the late 1970’s I did a reminiscence spot with the audiences. We’d recall catchphrases and talk about local cinemas no longer in existence. On pensioner matinees now and then someone would tell me how they’d been taken to see Marie Lloyd as a child, or had been to see G.H.Elliott in Pantomime. Not today. Those Music Hall days are too far away to be recalled now, but some of the “standards” or “Anthems” still live on. “She was a Sweet Little Dickie Bird.. Tweet Tweet Tweet….” Sang Brian. A Dozen or so residents chirped back “I was one of the worms!”.

The lady in the centre who had moved her lips a few times earlier now started to mouth “Hello! Hello! Who’s your lady friend” quite clearly, and almost everyone in the room was singing or at least mouthing the words of “Daisy, Daisy”.

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Brian’s patter turned to reminiscence. “Do you remember….?” And the faces lit up. He took them on a journey back to when the Coronation was on the 10” TV sets (along with a risqué gag about The Duke Of Edinburgh which went down a storm!) and led them on to recalling the jingles to commercials. “Murray mints!” one lady yelled out to the great delight of the staff- she’d trodden all over Brian’s punch line, and he was delighted! The party was now in full swing!

I believe the oldest resident here today was approaching ninety, and a good number of the audience were in their seventies and early eighties. Their music Hall isn’t Marie Lloyd, and it isn’t George Robey. Their memories are from the ‘Fifties. Brian said to me at the end of the show that Their Music Hall is now Elvis Presley. The Fifties is that nostalgia, and the songs from the late 1940’s through to the Beatles are the ones that they can, if prompted, recall.

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For residents with illnesses like Alzheimer’s and memory loss, to have the powerful prompt of music help unlock those memories, even for a short while, it is great medicine.  Today’s audience started tentatively, but soon got into the swing of things. “You’re Nobody, ‘Till somebody Loves You” was one song I noticed had the right effect. Those ladies at the back were singing EVERY word,. Most of the lyric of “I know that someday”, a big Connie Francis hit was being recalled as was “Embraceable You”, sung by Michael.

Michael also gave the residents an up to date version of the old Clinton Ford song “The Old Bazaar In Cairo”- a bit naughty, but very nice!

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More and more the residents were getting involved. Now it was the turn of the staff. Showing off his very dapper red suede shoes, Brian coaxed two lady staff members up to join him in the new dance sensation “Ballin’ The Jack”- this proved to be hugely popular and got its own encore before they returned to their seats!

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Song after song followed- “Down at The Old Bull and Bush”, “Heart of My Heart” – that got a big response in the sing-a-long stakes, and “Underneath the Arches”. Brian asked if anyone had taken part in National Service.One or two residents had, and he recalled his own service in China and the Far East before getting everyone joining in “She wears Red Feathers and a Hooley Hooley Skirt”- With actions!

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“Pistol Packing Momma”, “You Are My Sunshine” and Hackney born Anthony Newley’s “Why- Because I( Love You” were followed by what I think was the unqualified success of the day- the biggest response, the most complete recall of lyrics was “Irene, Goodnight”, first heard in 1934 but hugely popular in the 1950’s and once again  last year from Eric Clapton. The lady in the middle sang every single word, and the same with “Your Cheating Heart”. It was quite something to watch, and a joy to behold.

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One thing I especially noted was the reaction of the staff and carers here. It was obvious from the moment I arrived that this was a “happy” home- it was a place where residents were accompanied out to the local shop, or I’m sure the odd visit to the bookies- the hustle and bustle of the Mile End Road is just thirty yards away- and the atmosphere was jolly. This show was a fun event for the staff as well. For an hour and a half they get to relax, join in and be entertained themselves for a change, and get the added kick of watching their residents having a really good time.

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Anyone can pick up the phone, or send an email to Brick Lane Music Hall to request a visit, so long as it is within the area of London and the South East. There are over thirty of these shows a year. Sometimes Brian and Michael are joined by Joni Talks, and the fun of Brick Lane can be experienced by those who are unable to travel to the theatre.

Vincent Hayes started this charity when his first Music Hall building opened to help with community projects and schemes. He was honoured with an MBE for his work last year.

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The Music Hall is involved with local schools as well, and works alongside teachers to help the children put on their own performances at the end of a few weeks of working together with professionals. There are many care homes and day centres and hospices that would enjoy a visit from Brick Lane-with donations coming in, the aim of this charity is to visit as many homes and hospices as possible during a year. This means those unable to visit Brick Lane can be offered the show at a subsidised rate.

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A fleeting lyric from fifty years ago can bring all the memories flooding back- not just of that song, but of “the way we were” when that song was first heard. These memories are priceless, and judging by my visit today to Coopers Court, you cannot put a price on that. Huge thanks to all concerned for my visit, and to Brian Walker and Michael Topping for a lovely afternoon in the East End!

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Peter Robbins- a Sisters Scrapbook

March 15th 2014

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Today Its-behind-you remembers my stage partner and “Sister” for nearly thirty years- Peter Robbins.

It is five years ago to the day that Peter passed away, but judging by the amazing response to a few photographs on facebook, it is obvious that he has left a legacy of laughter and joy behind him. So many people left kind thoughts and memories.It was a wonderful partnership.

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So- in no especial order, I’ve taken a couple of dozen photographs over those twenty-eight years of working for Paul Elliott’s E&B Productions and Qdos Entertainment throughout the years. This year will be my thirty-fourth pantomime for Qdos- these snapshots look back at just a few featuring Peter. Enjoy!

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I have a filing cabinet and a portfolio with all the handbills and posters stored away, from the first pantomime we teamed up to do- The Kenneth More Theatre Ilford in the early 1980’s through to our last at Nottingham Theatre Royal- our second panto there. Our first E&B panto was at The Gordon Craig Stevenage, starring Peter Byrne, who directed- Lynda Hayden, Kathryn Apanowicz and Spencer K Gibbins. We followed this with The Beck Theatre in Hayes with Dennis Waterman and Rula Lenska. I still have the Gerald Scarfe cartoon of the slipper fitting scene on my wall!

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There is a whole section here on IBY that lists all the pantomimes Peter and I did, with posters, as well as a very moving tribute page to Peter. “Sisters Scrapbook” here lists all the wonderful panto folk we worked with in the many “Cinderellas”.

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Above is one of a number of shots used when we fronted the Royal Mail campaign one Christmas. It was spooky to see our life sized cut outs and posters all over the country in every Post Office. we did the photo shoot at RADA during a very hot summer. It was unnerving after Christmas to pass a post office and see our feet sticking out from the odd skip or dustbin! I saved several, and they are tucked away behind a run of filing cabinets! Here are a few more:

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Press calls were often the source of a few good photos, often done in June or July with artificial snow and Christmas Trees outside the theatre. Sometimes we did a “spot”, often with Brian Conley at Press launches, sometimes a chat with the party bookers and press. We were taken around cities in carriages (a memorable one with Peter Tod on board for the Birmingham Hippodrome), on lorries- in Hull I recall, and pedalled in full frock through Manchester in rickshaws!Each year we did “Arts Fest” for the Hippodrome, accompanied by Ian Sandy-  We did events for Lever Brothers and Faberge, for magazines and a few fun events for charity at Brick Lane Music Hall. Once every so often there would be a staged panto launch- like the one at London’s Victoria Palace, or glamorous ones at The Theatre Museum, Covent Garden light switching ons, oh- and the Ivy!

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we even had a fabulous portrait painted by Judy Graham, and to Peter’s great joy it was hung at the V&A Theatre Museum in an exhibition. Many a risqué joke about how well it was affixed!

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With thanks to Judy Graham for use of this image.

So many memories- here are a few more- Manchester Opera House & Plymouth Theatre Royal mostly I think:

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Happy Times and many friends made. Peter- Thanks for these memories!

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The Collins Variety Agency Website

We’ve recently been sent a link to a new website which is a fascinating history of the men who shaped the history of Scottish Variety and Pantomime for the first half of the 20th Century.

Fred Collins, via painting and boxing, finally became Scotland’s first theatrical entrepreneur. From writing songs for the stars he then performed them as a comedian. He produced shows, leasing, buying and building venues. He founded Scotland’s first Variety Agency and then the Musical Artists Benevolent Association so becoming benefactor to the entire profession.

On his father’s death, Horace Collins established his ‘Five Theatre Seasonal Circuit’ creating a successful environment to nurture and employ Scottish star talent throughout the 1930′s and 40′s. On Horace’s death in 1947 his wife Josee took the reins until their son Randle was old enough to guide the Agency for its final decade in the declining years of Scottish variety.

The website tells their story and the story of the Golden Age of Scottish Variety, and has a wonderful Film and Scenery Gallery which will keep you occupied for hours! http://collinsvariety.co.uk/gallery/

The site can be found at http://collinsvariety.co.uk

Ken Gibson

Ken Gibson passed away at Brindsworth House, the performers retirement home on 25th February 2014.

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Ken was a popular comic actor and Pantomime Dame.

Last year a short film was commissioned- Variety of Memories was a 30-minute documentary presented by Roy Hudd that was given access to retired entertainers’ home Brinsworth House in Twickenham and included interviews with residents including Kenny Gibson, and Teddy Johnson and his wife, Pearl Carr.

Daniel Hutchings directed the documentary, which was screened on September 18 at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, and later at Wilton’s Music Hall. It was shown there as part of the 50th anniversary of the British Music Hall Society, which took place on September 20 to 22..

Ken Gibson began his love affair with theatre as a “Lime Boy” at the Ritz Theatre, Irvine in Ayeshire in his native Scotland. The term may now be forgotten, but to be “In the limelight” is still used, and Ken was the lad who handled the lime that was used in place of today’s “Follow Spot”.

Later he moved on to appearing in sketches at the Ritz, supporting visiting Scots comics like George Mack, Billy Rusk, Dennison & Niblock and Johnny Victory.

He was on the bill with “The Four Ramblers”, one of the members being Val Doonican.

Kenny came from a theatrical family. His Mother worked with Wilson, Kepple & Betty, and they moved to London. He claimed his Dame character owed a lot to his Mother.

Talking to a newspaper in 1996 he said: “My Mum was a larger- than-life character – so am I once I’m in costume. “I have been playing dames for 22 years, but my act is constantly changing. “I get ideas for mannerisms by watching women talk on buses and in shops.”

In his native Scotland he worked the last of the “Music Halls” and Variety houses that remained, including the Gaiety Leith, The Palladium in Edinburgh, the Palace Dundee and the Tivoli in Aberdeen.

He found work as a comic actor in the South and joined a very successful Summer Season in 1968. He appeared on Bournemouth Pier in “My Favourite Family” as Archie with Richard Hearne (“Mr Pastry” starring) and Barry Howard.

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Freddie Frinton was the original lead, but suffered a heart attack early on and was replaced by Richard Hearne. Ken Platt later took over the role.

In 1969 Bernard Delfont toured this comedy with Sid James taking the lead on tour. Ken remained with the show. Barry Howard left and John Inman joined the cast. The following year in 1970 the same cast appeared at Great Yarmouth “Windmill”, the show was now called “Wedding Fever”.

From the time he worked in London and the South Ken appeared regularly in cabaret and as a comedy female Impersonator in clubs and theatres around the UK. Every week his call sheet had him in Nottingham, or Glasgow or Southampton appearing in pubs, clubs and on the popular “Drag” circuit of the 1970’s.

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He often worked with Billy Wells, Tommy Osbourne, Phil Starr and Nicky Young in the club circuit.

Ken appeared in pantomimes often in the late 1960’s and played his first Dame around 1974. He played Dame with Roy Castle in Blackpool, with Johnny Hackett at Stockton-On-Tees, and several other Dame roles.

In 1976 he played Horsham in Cinderella as Ugly Sister with Michael Mills for Albermarle’s Basil Critchley, And the same panto at Southborough Victoria Halls the following year.(1977)

In 1978 Ken rejoined “Cinderella” for Albermarle as Ugly Sister with Nicky Douglas for Basil Critchley at Maidstone – its first professional pantomime . The manager of the theatre was John Spillers.

He Played Widow Twankey there in “Aladdin” afterwards.and in 1982 played Mother Goose at the Hazlitt Theatre Maidstone This was to be the first of many pantomime appearances at this venue.

In 1989 Ken appeared at Liverpool for Albermarle’s “Snow White” with Dana. Ken played Dame Doughnut. The Panto transferred the following year to the Theatre Royal Nottingham, with Dana, Bobby Bennett and Su Douglas as The Wicked Queen.

Ken continued to play cabaret and pantomime. In 1992 he was in Snow White at The Palace Manchester with Dana and Jimmy Cricket., and in 1993 Snow White with Dana & Andrew O’Connor at The Bristol Hippodrome.

In 1993 Ken made an appearance at the original Brick Lane Music Hall. Vincent Hayes recalls that the show was called “We’re No Ladies”, and featured Ken, Phil Starr, Tommy Osbourne, Dockyard Doris and Nicky Young. A show guaranteed to bring the house down!

The Stage Newspaper reported this Homage to ENSA: It seemed to capture the atmosphere of a 1940’s Camp Entertainment to a “T”!

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In 1994 Ken Gibson appeared at Swindon in Dick Whittington with Jimmy Cricket, Gordon & Bunny Jay, Damian Williams, as King Rat. Ken played the cook, Bertha Bagwash!

At the Derngate, Northampton in 2001 Ken once again appeared in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The “Stage” newspaper reported:

Last year’s box office record could well be smashed again with this latest professional panto from Jim Davidson’s production stable. Another classy show is promised with a cast headed by former EastEnders star Anita Dobson as the Wicked Queen. The title role is played by Danielle Nicholls, the popular children’s ITV children’s presenter and co-host of Channel Five’s Night Fever.

The team of seven real dwarfs is led by Kenny Baker, star of such films as Amadeus, The Elephant Man, Time Bandits and Mona Lisa but best known as the robot R2D2 in the cult Star Wars film series.

Dame Donut is played by panto veteran Kenny Gibson, whose TV credits include EastEnders, The Bill, Casualty and Poirot. Wise-cracking comic Barnaby plays Muddles, with West End and film star Tim Churchill as Prince Danilo and David Redgrave as Jason.

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He was a much loved performer and Pantomime Dame.