“Hell’s Bells, Ann!”

The hapless Martin Bryce, played by wonderful Richard Briers (RIP), was often heard to frustratedly exclaim the above in one of my favourite sitcoms, Ever Decreasing Circles, during the 1980s.

I am delighted by the current reruns of this dreadfully underrated show on BBC4. I absolutely adored EDC as a kid, and it’s interesting to watch it as an adult; view it from a mature perspective.

When I was nine or ten, I would giggle at Howard and Hilda’s matching jumpers. Their twee, blissful marriage was my fairytale ideal; I dreamed of ultimately finding such a devoted a husband (incidentally, I’m happily married these days, but would have to say my hubby and I have yet to sport coordinated woollens).

With age, came an understanding of the deeper, darker themes of that programme; an appreciation of what lay beneath the more obvious humour.

Martin Bryce is a nightmare. OCD, overbearing, ‘sad,’ in the modern sense of the word; a big fanatical fish in a small pond (The Close). A complex character. If he was my neighbour, I’d pretend to be out if he rang the doorbell. Yet as portrayed by Richard Briers there was something very lovable and vulnerable about him. There is – and I hesitate to use this word as it always sounds pretentious – pathos in that performance. His childlike inferiority complex in the shadow of suave neighbour Paul (Peter Egan) is something I’m sure a lot of us can identify with.

His beautiful wife Ann (understatedly played by Penelope Wilton) enjoys an innocuous flirtation with Paul, of which Martin remains oblivious, and which never progresses due to both of their loyalty to Martin.

I like to get my teeth into poignant comedies like this that are rooted in reality. Dear John is another example.

I am a huge sitcom fan. My tastes in humour are quite diverse. I’d be hard pressed to name my all-time favourite sitcom; my top ten fluctuates. What I find funny can depend upon my mood. Fawlty Towers – as if you need reminding – is a classic, witty farce; Only Fools and Horses and Watching boast cracking dialogue and astute characterisation; Steptoe & Son is gleefully coarse; there’s Open All Hours which is as cosy as a cup of tea, and then I love Miranda or Hi-de-Hi for more escapist, silly fun.

I am also enjoying the new run of Birds of a Feather, another favourite, which follows EDC (Thursday is a good night on the telly at the moment).

Now where did I put that his ‘n’ hers knitwear catalogue…?

Chapter 7

7
It’s a Bostin’ Point

In our final year at BAPA, my classmates and I, as is customary for drama students, began circulating our portfolios to agents and casting directors. Such vital statistics as height, hair and eye colour, repertoire of accents, specialist skills, possession or otherwise of a clean driving licence, willingness to do nudity, etc, were distributed in the hope of catching the right person’s eye. These ‘right people’ would also be invited to our shows, at which we would project like mad in their direction.

Tim Bellows – infamously refused entry to Zena’s for having ‘all the fashion sense of a bucket of hot poo’ – became the first ‘star’ from our year. His landed the part of cheery, chubby, gormless Darren, who became an unlikely sex symbol in Part & Parcel, a new sitcom about postmen. Those bitchy door staff would probably have now fallen over themselves to welcome Tim, had he chosen to favour Zena’s with his presence again.

There was a minor hoo-ha about P&P at the time, as the veteran comic actor Harry Hooper had been, for reasons best known to himself, coaxed out of retirement to play the cantankerous boss Mr Foggin, who sported a Hitler moustache. Any resemblance to Blakey from On the Buses was, I had to assume, purely coincidental.

That show ran and ran – to the chagrin of the critics but relish of the public, who seemingly couldn’t get enough of jokes about large packages, small slots and negligee-wearing bored housewives – until Harry Hooper infamously died on set, clutching a digestive biscuit in his rheumatic claw. A true pro right to the last.

Incidentally, after a long absence from what the tabloids call ‘our screens,’ Tim Bellows recently popped up – no pun intended – in a late-night advert for an erectile dysfunction treatment. Eek! I hate to say it, but he hasn’t exactly aged delicately. It’s not far-fetched, dare I say, that Tim might have need for such a product. Such are the plum roles (there I go again) for actors our age.

******

As for my own big break, that was precipitated by our final college panto. Sean Spendlove, a director, watched me shriek and hoot my way through a performance as Robinson Crusoe’s girlfriend – a desert island resident who inexplicably hailed from Birmingham, and who for our purposes was named Balsall Heath Betty – and was unfathomably impressed.

Sean was seeking to rectify what he saw as the criminal underuse of the Midlands accent in television commercials, and thought I could be perfect for a new campaign to repackage Arrowsmith & Broom’s traditional Birmingham ales to the younger market.

He wrote me a letter (a letter! I told you things were primitive back then) inviting me to audition at the Final Cut Studios on the city centre canal bank. The name was a play on both the Brummie word for canal and the better-known use of ‘cut,’ in film industry terminology.

The morning of that audition is another I remember very well. It’s funny how many moments in our lives were played out at that breakfast table in the flat. To be precise, only Mel and I were physically at the table; Nelson, toned and fabulous, was watching pages from Ceefax, with one long leg up on the cupboard top that he was using as a makeshift barre; Linda drooped through, her baby blonde hair still in rollers, rubbing last night’s mascara round her eyes.

I ate my Sugar Puffs gingerly to avoid without splotting milk down my outfit, while simultaneously fending off Tesco who was poised to leap on me and swathe me in cat hairs.

‘Are you sure I’m OK in this, Mel?’

‘Very Maggie.’

The reference to our controversial Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, drew a dark scowl from Linda.

‘Well she is a stylish chick, whatever your political bent,’ Mel protested. He was the least political person I ever met.  For Mel it would have been all about the fashion. ‘Hey, Nelse, put Roland Rat on for us would you, love.’

Without breaking his balletic posture, Nelson – rather than use his left hand, which was closer to the tiny TV – stretched his right arm over his head to change channels.

‘Show-off!’

‘It’s why you love me, Melly.’ Nelson blew him a kiss. This was par for the course between these two. Surprisingly they were never lovers, but enjoyed a flirty, bantering friendship.

‘Seriously, though, I’m not going for “very Maggie.” I’m supposed to be “girlfriend in pub.” You sure I don’t look too much of a formal Norma?’

I’d changed out of my original apparel, leggings and a baggy grey sweater with a wide neck hole, which Mel said was ‘too Flashdance,’ into a short charcoal dress with matching suit jacket. I’d added colour in the form of a long necklace comprising a chain of multicoloured, Olympic-style loops, with matching earrings. My hair was tweaked into a smooth side ponytail.

‘You never audition in character,’ Mel advised. ‘Mark of an amateur. Treat it as you would any other job interview.’

‘So you’d go to an audition dressed as Ronald Reagan then, I suppose, Heidi Sausage!’

‘I’m different.’

‘We all know that, duck,’ Linda chimed in, feeding Tesco a glob of mushed-up Weetabix.

‘I am the character. I am Heidi’s very breath and spirit. Now I’ll drop you off in Broad Street.’ Mel was still working at Lee Longlands, close to the audition studio. ‘You sure you don’t want me to walk down the towpath with you? It’s a bit rough round there.’

This was long before Birmingham city centre’s enormous makeover, which saw the canalside revamped beyond recognition into a buzzy hub of culture and business. Back then it still possessed the kind of Victorian murk in which you could imagine Fagin had recruits posted under every bridge, poised to rob and possibly drown you.

Nonetheless, a more unlikely knight in shining armour than Melvyn Corns was hard to imagine.

‘I’ll be safe, mate.’

******

‘Knock ’em dead, kid!’

I blew Mel a kiss as I alighted from the Cortina in Broad Street. I tottered down the ramp to the dingy towpath beneath the road, swallowing my misgivings about not taking up Mel’s sweet offer of a chaperone.

The Final Cut’s presence was announced via a mouldy wooden sign shaped like a clapperboard, above a tall, narrow door, like a secret entrance, in a converted warehouse. The door was deceptively heavy, and creaked like a horror movie sound-effect cliché. The noise might well have been dubbed on, to create ambience.

The receptionist sported an 80s uniform of a day-glo power suit, huge Su Pollard glasses with yellow rims, and an Alice band restraining her frizzed blonde mop. I gave her my details and took my seat in the vast foyer, along with five other girls.

Nobody spoke. We acknowledged each another’s presence with appraising nods. The only sound in that echoey reception was the pages of The Stage being ostentatiously flipped through. Each of my rival auditionees had a copy of the theatrical newspaper fanned across their knees. They resembled a parody of clone businessmen reading the Financial Times in synchronisation on the train. I whipped a Woman’s Own (one of Mel’s) out of my handbag. Hey, I didn’t care!

A door opened, and a girl in a microscopic blue skirt emerged, giggling with a man who sported an Oompa-Loompa tan, blond highlights and a turquoise shirt with numerous buttons undone.

‘Thank you, Stephanie,’ he said, winking at her, ‘we’ll be in touch.’ He added something else, in a muted voice, and Stephanie giggled again, revealing large shining teeth against her jam-red lips.

I recognised her then as Stephanie Southwick, the lecturer’s pet, of public information film fame. I’d never actually met her before. Even her hair looked smug, if such a thing were possible. She had this huge perm, all glossy and buoyant.

That’s it then, I thought. The rest of our screen tests are a mere formality. Six heads whipped towards Stephanie, and we all glared in unison, momentarily united in our hatred of this girl as she strutted away, dark curls bouncing down her back, seemingly so positive she’d landed the part.

Girl after girl was called in, until it was my go. Turquoise Shirt ushered me through; he didn’t whisper and make me giggle, though stood a tad too close when he held the door for me to pass. I swear he’d undone even more buttons. Close to, I could see he was older then first glance had suggested; his crow’s feet were going for a walk across his creosote face. He wore a gold cross stud in his left ear, and his aftershave carried eye-watering overtones of coconut and cloves.

‘I’m Bruce,’ he announced, ‘though not Forsyth.’ He launched into a an obviously oft-performed, dithering impersonation of the TV veteran, at which I laughed dutifully loudly.

I never discovered Bruce’s function, and he never told me, but presumably he was employed as a runner or gofer. I was bizarrely calm as he opened the studio door and launched me into the cavernous dimness beyond – probably due to my assumption that Stephanie had the part in the bag.

‘Balsall Heath Betty!’ I heard the cordial Brummie tones before I saw him. ‘Sean Spendlove.’ He shook my hand energetically. A rangy young man with a toothbrush haircut and a luminous smile. I warmed to him instantly.  ‘Delighted to meet you. I thought the panto was terrific, by the way.’

‘Wow, thank you!’

‘This is Des Clifton, our casting director. And Jonathan Broom. His great-grandfather founded the brewery.’ Sean’s colleagues were respectively a plump man with cherubic curls and a younger one, dark-haired, with a surprisingly stern expression (I’d absurdly imagined all brewery owners were jolly and ruddy). ‘And Keith, who you’ll be auditioning with today.’

Keith, of the prominent Adam’s apple and the – eek! – prominent breath, was seated at a small table, drumming spur-like nails on the surface. I have always hated long nails on men.

Keith, it transpired, had already been cast, as we ladies each auditioned with him. I’m painting an unflattering picture of the lad, but in fact he possessed the perfect kind of goggly ordinariness for the advert; he was a naturalistic foil for my character.

Sean didn’t hang about. ‘Now you’re down the pub with your fella, Majella.’ He laughed self-deprecatingly at his inadvertent poetry. ‘Saturday night, he’s bought himself a pint of lovely mellow Arrowsmith & Broom ale. Thank you, Bruce.’ Bruce had deposited a large glass of water, the ale substitute, on the table. ‘And for you, he’s come back from the bar with some indistinct “girlie” drink in a silly glass – I’m thinking Babycham or snowball, but you can use your own idea – at which you turn up your nose in disgust because you’re eyeing his pint. Here’s your script, Majella. Now you’re extolling the “Brummieness” of this product, so I want you give it your best Balsall Heath Betty.’

That’s what he asked for, so that’s what he got. It was my portrayal of Robinson Crusoe’s shrill girlfriend that earned me this audition in the first place, so I projected an equally extrovert persona now.

The script called for me to take a curious sup of Keith’s pint and go into cackling raptures. Not that I would admit such a thing to Mr Broom, but I subconsciously took my inspiration from the Heineken ads which were popular at the time. That particular lager was said to ‘refresh the parts other beers cannot reach,’ and its numerous commercials showed miracles or humorous transformations occurring to someone who drank it. I suppose what you could say about this was that after one taste I turned Brummie.

‘Brewed in Brum,’ I squawked. I threw Keith’s pint down my throat (not easy that first time, with a script in my other hand which I tried to read through the cloudy glass), while he goggled on. ‘Ooh, that’s mellow and malty!’ Mellow and malty! These scriptwriters were robbed of a BAFTA, I tell you. Robbed! I dragged the back of my hand across my mouth like a navvy. ‘Ah, it’s a bostin’ pint!’ Bostin’ is a Brummie/Black Country word meaning great or terrific, and ‘pint’ on this occasion was pronounced ‘point.’ I briefly contemplated embellishing my performance with a belch, but thought better of it.

When I caught Sean grinning widely (he possessed a very attractive smile, I couldn’t help noticing), my confidence magically soared like a firework. In that moment came a realisation that perhaps Stephanie Big Hair was not a dead cert for this role after all.

So I really went for it in the payoff. Keith had to pick up his glass and stare incredulously into the bubbly dregs, leading me to elbow him and illogically holler, ‘Oi, get yer own!’ Poor Keith nearly toppled off his chair.

I’m sure I’m not exactly selling this product to you now with my depiction, but back then brash was in, greed was good, and ads were like this.

Sean actually applauded. He was so candid and unpretentious, unlike many in that industry. He told me much later, when I had the part, that I was ‘different, refreshing, unlike those other clones out there. Brucie told me you had your Woman’s Own out, while those other girls were pretending to be engrossed in The Stage – yawn, yawn.’

I was incredulously grateful to orange Bruce then. That taught me a lesson: never underestimate the gofer, even when his gaze appears never to be torn out of Stephanie Southwick’s cleavage.

******

This was not my first television role – that had been as a rape victim in a Crimewatch reconstruction (I screamed with convincing terror, apparently) – but the first to have any impact. And what an impact!

Impressionists parodied me – almost invariably male impressionists, their exaggerated make-up accentuating better cheekbones than I could ever hope to possess, false boobs jutting through the high-necked cream jumper. Seeing a drag representation of myself was surreal, to say the least. In fact my dear friend Mel was the first to ‘do’ me, on stage at Larry’s the night the ad first aired, but he wasn’t famous yet.

My catchphrase was repeated by people who had never heard the word bostin’ before. Sales of that beer inexplicably soared. We were even nominated for a couple of awards, but lost out to that bloody Oxo family.

Viewers began to recognise me in the street. Teenagers would entreat me to ‘say it, go on.’ I cordially obliged, until the novelty wore thin, and then I took to donning sunglasses to avoid identification. Such a luvvie! I thought I’d made it.

There were critics too, of course; vitriolic critics. My ‘uncouth’ demeanour affronted Mary Whitehouse and the ‘Disgusted of Solihull’ types who took the trouble to rattle off letters to newspapers and the Radio Times. I was inciting a revolution, if they were to be believed. I was said to be goading hitherto demure young ladies to rise up, cast off their stays and neck their boyfriends’ ale.

You might say I was the first ladette.

I regret to say I have no idea what became of Keith. I haven’t encountered him since, not even in an erectile dysfunction ad (that’s perhaps a surprise considering I ‘emasculated’ him with my appalling, beer-pilfering ways). We were never exactly close. I’m sure he disliked me actually. He always appeared intimidated, as though he confused me with the character. He had after all felt the full thrust of my elbow at the audition.

Thirty years on, that unnamed loud girl with the side ponytail lives on through the medium of nostalgic video-sharing websites. And I watch, as though through a telescope, marvelling at the chutzpah I possessed, back when I didn’t care; when I grasped life by the throat and balls simultaneously. I’m alternately joyous, sad, mortified and grateful that that clip exists forevermore in the media archives. She was me, I was that girl, and that commercial transformed my life in more ways than even fame and parody could have boded.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot!

Today’s First World rant: why don’t people use the phonetic alphabet anymore? (And, incidentally, typing that just made me wonder why phonetic is not spelt “fenetically.” There’s an irony in that somewhere – along the same lines as “dyslexia” being a tricky word to spell, or “monosyllabic” consisting of five syllables!)

Anyway, I thought the whole idea of assigning to each letter a word with a distinct pronunciation was to avoid confusion between similar letter sounds and make spelling unambiguous. I thought Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc, was common knowledge.

It would appear not.

All too frequently, I will give out a postcode over the phone, for example “4 Sierra Tango” (that’s not part of my real postcode, so do not attempt to stalk me), only to be met with a perplexed “Sierra Tango – what d’ya mean? That a place, loike?”

So I give up trying to be clever and say “4ST.”

“4FD?” comes the inevitable bemused reply, thus ironically demonstrating the need for the phonetic alphabet in the first place! Grrr!!

The title of this post, incidentally, is one of my favourite expletive substitutes. I have frequent cause to use it in this crackpot world we live in. Now at last I get a justifiable reason to use it in a blog!

Yes, I am getting more ranty in my old age. I made a New Year Resolution to write more, which includes writing more blogs. Whenever a rant such as this pops into my head, I intend to share it with you. Sort of Blog Tourette’s.