Chapter 2

2
The Genesis of Melba Most

‘See him,’ my neighbour at the bar nudged me the second the interval began, and gestured towards the stage with his cigarette (you could smoke in clubs back then), ‘on the keyboards?’

I looked around, and then up, due to the stranger’s height. A six-foot wisp, with cobalt blue eyes and a flop of blond hair like David Bowie in the Ashes to Ashes video, he wore a billowy yellow silk shirt, tight black trousers fastened with elaborate, corset-style lacing, and the obligatory eyeliner.

As it happened, I had hitherto not noticed this striking creature, having had eyes all evening only for the stage and its occupants, Birmingham’s hottest New Romantic band.

‘Trevor,’ I replied to him.

‘Closet,’ he half mimed, half yelled over the racket, pouting and winking like Les Dawson in a Cissie and Ada routine. He briefly reminded me of someone, other than Les Dawson, but the recollection faded in an instant. ‘Big fan of Judy Garland, if you catch my drift.’

I didn’t. At least not immediately. I was still quite unworldly, more so than you might expect for a drama student, though I summoned up my thesp skills and nodded convincingly sagely.

I was warming to my new companion. While it was more the norm here at Zena’s to project an intimidating pose, there was something cosy and gossipy about him, with his Black Country accent and comically expressive features. He bizarrely – or on second thoughts not so – reminded me of my mother.

‘Takes one to know one, as they say. I’ve seen him in Larry’s, ingeniously disguised in dark glasses and a hat. Très inconspicuous!’ His every sentence ended on an upward inflection, making it sound like a question.

Larry’s, named after Larry Grayson of Generation Game fame, was a gay club in Hurst Street. I’d been there once myself, to see a hilarious drag queen. I just wasn’t au fait with some of the vernacular. Finally the penny dropped with a clank. ‘That’s not true about Trev,’ I protested. He’s got a girlfriend.’

‘Oscar Wilde had a wife.’

‘I’m just glad you didn’t say the same thing about the singer.’

‘Ooh! Boyfriend?’

‘I’ve been seeing him for a few months,’ I responded nonchalantly, quashing the image of the wedding dress I’d furtively doodled in my journal during a lecture on Harold Pinter only yesterday. I was actually flattered this chap had made the assumption I was the girlfriend of Gareth Rushcliff as opposed to a crazed groupie.

‘Lucky lady! Look, can I get you a drink, bab?’

I smiled at the Black Country term of endearment, so much more down to earth than the ‘darling’ generally favoured by theatrical types. ‘Cinzano, please.’

‘Two Cinanzos, please Jermaine.’ He did a little wave at the gaunt barman. Jermaine was all puckered lips and sparrow eyes; the latter of wihch scoured me up and down, while the former conveyed evident distaste. Even the staff subjected you to the once-over you at Zena’s.

I returned Jermaine’s haughty stare, entertaining a fantasy that I would one day be a star and he would crow obsequiously to the press about how many drinks he used to serve me, claiming his pathetic fifteen minutes of fame by association.

In that spring of 1981, this was the place to be in Birmingham. To be thus scrutinised was almost an honour; it meant you had been granted entry in the first place. Anyone not deemed adequately glamorous was famously denied admission by the ruthless door staff. Many a spurned clubber could be seen drooping back down Broad Street of a night.

However, to be disdained by said door staff was conversely viewed as a badge of honour by some. There was a bet under way in my year on who could earn the most creative insult. This term Tim Bellows was winning thus far, having been snubbed for possessing ‘all the fashion sense of a bucket of hot poo.’

Inside was a sea of tartan, frills, quiffs and smoke. It was a veritable hat party, with pirate tricorns, cloches and Pierrot hats adorning numerous beautiful heads. Jermaine sported preposterously long earrings and a glittery black shirt with a ruff.

Zena herself was overseeing proceedings from a royal box type area, her customary diamante cigarette holder wedged in her scarlet mouth. Tonight she was garbed in a 1920s style turban and a silvery space suit that predated Lady Gaga’s fashion sense by a good thirty years.

She was reportedly a duke’s daughter – although I had heard alternative rumours that she was a Russian prostitute disowned by her wealthy family who were descended from the last Tsar, or that she was in fact from Dudley and had circulated the two more outlandish stories herself to create mystique.

She had started her club the previous year, as Birmingham’s answer to the legendary Blitz in London.

‘Thanks, Jermaine. Get that down your Gregory, chick.’ My friend did a little mock stumble as though about to spill the Cinzano on me, in parody of the famous commercial starring Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter. ‘That’s my mom’s favourite advert, that is. That and the Andrex puppy. What’s your name, by the way?’

‘Majella Bracebridge.’ It was the first time I had divulged my future stage name to anyone but Gareth. I always felt like Majella at this club. The place was like a film set anyway; an underworld of fantasy and facade.

‘How glorious! You should go on the stage with a handle like that.’

‘I intend to. I’m in my first year at BAPA.’ I was presumptuous enough back then not to clarify that the acronym stood for Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts. It appeared I didn’t need to in this case, though.

‘So we’re both performers. I’m Melvyn Corns,’ he grimaced, proffering a hand to shake, ‘but don’t hold that against me. It’s Mel to you. Melvyn’s my Sunday name. You may already be familiar with my Tuesday night name.’ He flicked his eyebrows up and down archly.

I racked my brains for haunts in which I had spent recent Tuesday nights. It wasn’t easy to narrow down. In fact it wasn’t easy to distinguish Tuesday from any other night. I was rarely in. There was nothing like being a clichéd socialite student.

In answer to my no doubt mystified expression, Mel wagged his cigarette about like a baton, pouted and raised his voice to a shrewish cackle. ‘I’ve seen yow round the back of Rackhams with more than just your label hanging out!’

‘Heidi Sausage!’ Heidi Sausage was the resident drag queen at Larry’s. Now I knew why he’d been fleetingly familiar when he distorted his pretty face into that of a Black Country crone.

He nodded, grinning. ‘Except when I perform at my mom’s British Legion club in Dudley. Then I’m Poppy A. Peel. The old boys love a bit of drag actually. I think it takes them back to their ENSA days. The act needs more work, though, I admit.’

‘Oh, I think you’re a hoot.’

‘Shucks!’ Mel pretended to cry, with theatrical gratitude. ‘I spotted you in the audience actually.’

‘Yeah, I went with my friend Nelson. He’s just got a job there himself actually.’

‘The black dancer.’

‘You know him?’

‘Beautiful boy.’ Mel’s blue eyes went all misty and wistful.

‘Great character. You know, at his audition he spun a sob story about how he hitchhiked all the way from Antigua with only his teddy bear and ballet shoes in his rucksack. Just showed what an awesome actor he is – he actually comes from Wolverhampton.’

Mel guffawed. ‘Super stuff.’

‘He’s working tonight. I’m surprised you’re not over there. He’s been rehearsing all week. Blasting out the halls of residence with nonstop ABBA and Eartha Kitt.’

‘Heaven! Well tonight I’m on a works outing, believe it or not. The day job, that is. The gang from Lee Longlands wanted to experience Brum’s underground scene.’ He laid ironic emphasis on the word ‘underground’ by flexing his fingers into quotation marks and rolling his eyes. I had wondered why someone so vivacious appeared to be out alone. ‘They’re over by that wall. I prefer a better vantage point to watch the bands.’

He waved at a huddle of suitably terrified-looking men in suits, who returned his wave without much enthusiasm. Mel’s workmates occupied a table, and in a place like this their conservative attire made them appear outlandish.

‘How did they get in? Because they’re with you, I suppose,’ I answered my own question as Mel smiled modestly. ‘I must admit I can’t quite picture you selling sofas, though.’ Lee Longlands was a long-established furniture shop in Broad Street.

‘Have you considered a leather loveseat, Moddom?’ He immediately assumed a more demure persona that was a million miles away from bawdy Heidi, while still retaining a twinkle, and I could see what a good actor and born salesman he in fact was.

‘You never thought of going to drama school?’

‘Couldn’t afford it. Hence I flog dining tables and pouffes – no sniggering, please – to the good people of this city and send money home to Mom in Dudley while hawking my arse around the clubs in frocks of a night. It pays the rent. Leave it to Lee, leave it to Lee,’ he chanted the store’s catchy advertising jingle.

‘Where do you get your frocks from?’

‘My mom mostly. Miss Brierley Hill 1954. Anyway, I’ve rabbited on about me long enough. Tell me about you, Majella Bracebridge.’

‘When I was little I used to make my poor family wait for me to burst forth from behind the living room curtains and perform shows for them every  Christmas.  My parents sent me to acting classes of a Saturday morning, run by this wizened old dear above the VG Store.  I think the idea was that I would get it out of my system, but it had the opposite effect.  I adored it.  Then later on, I won my school talent competition with an impression of Lena Zavaroni.  I idolised her.  Still do.  I won a record token for that effort.  I would get such a buzz just from being backstage – or, as it was known during the day, the art room.  I didn’t love school, but loved that room when it was transformed into the “backstage” area for Bugsy Malone or Oliver.  Leotards and sequins all over the desks; waiting for your cue to go out in front of that curtain.’

‘I was the same.’

‘Don’t say they let you do Heidi or Poppy at school!’

‘That wouldn’t have gone down too well at Dudley Boys Grammar. No, but when we did Shakespeare I was always first on with the tights. Anyway, I think you should go for a part in Crossroads. I adore Noele Gordon. So drama school then – is it really like that film, Fame? You all leap on the desks and burst into dance routines?’

‘Sometimes! Until I get my big break, I need a bit of pocket money to keep myself in rice and booze. So I’ve got a job interview next week – at Rackhams, would you believe.’

Rackhams was a vast department store in the city centre. The patch at the back of it, as maligned by Mel in his Heidi Sausage guise, was an alleged red-light district.

‘You going to be one of those painted dames on the perfume counter, who squirt every passing shopper?’ He sounded as enchanted about my prospective Saturday job as about my acting ambitions. ‘I love watching them. Research for the act.  The way they spade their make-up on fascinates me.’

‘No, the post I’m going for is in the toy section.’

‘I used to love that too. My mom used to take me to the grotto every Christmas. Magic, it was. I still get a thrill when I walk through the doors. Most folks get their thrills behind the store these days. So are these lot – what’s it they’re called, Glinda Spitfire – gonna be the next big thing?’

‘They’re hoping so. Got a record deal. First single out in a couple of weeks.’

‘Super stuff. That Romy’s a dirty cow, though. There’s nothing she won’t do for a tin of beans, from what I’ve heard. Even tried it on with me once – that’s how indiscriminate she is. Said she could “turn” me. Made me feel positively queasy.’

My stomach plummeted. Romy Rotunda (I had no idea of her real name – pseudonyms were becoming a bit of a theme here) was a five-foot-nothing, sixteen-stone ‘performance artiste.’ Her stage name was derived from the iconic cylindrical tower block in the centre of Birmingham. A picture of her superimposed on to a shot of the Rotunda, appearing to give it a blow job, hung on the wall in this club.

Her act, such as it was, essentially consisted of hurling herself on stage, her blubber bulging out of a tiny costume, whirling her knee-length hair around. The hair appeared to assume a life of its own. It was like a creature, freaky and furry, which I half expected to leap off Romy’s head and scurry across the room to an unseen burrow.

She was a friend of Zena’s, hence was given free rein whenever there was a band on. Due to Glinda Spitfire being the house band here, she generally hurled herself at them. There was currently a debate afoot on whether Romy ought to become a permanent member of the band. It had reached stalemate, with Joe the drummer and Mike the guitarist in favour (for obvious reasons – both were rumoured to have ‘had’ her); Trevor (for what would appear now to be even more obvious reasons) and Gareth (to my relief) against.

It all made the title of their impending debut album, Business with Pleasure, seem disconcertingly apt.

As if sensitive to my unease, Mel nudged me, changing the subject. ‘Anyway, have you ever met this so-called girlfriend of Trousers Down Trev then?’

‘Well no,’ I admitted.

Just then, a pudgy man in a rumpled suit lurched over and plonked his arm around Mel’s shoulders, breathing beer gusts.

‘We’re moving on. You joining us, son? It’s like a bloody fancy dress party in here.’

‘No thanks, Doug. The band are about to come back on. See you at work Monday.’

Doug rolled his eyes and lurched off with the rest of Mel’s colleagues, who burbled similar farewells.

‘Go with them, if you like,’ I urged, not wanting him to be excluded from the party. ‘Please don’t stay on my account.’

‘You mean you’re not loving my company?’ He feigned a weep again. ‘No, they’re decent enough chaps, but we’ve got different interests, as you might have gathered. They’ve obviously seen all they want to see of what they call the underground scene, and I don’t exactly fit in at the sort of hostelries they favour. Eh up, it’s time for action again.’

There was a roar as the lights dimmed, and Joe Lucas, short, stocky and cocky, beer in hand, plopped himself down behind the vast drum kit.

Trevor Lilley, ‘the enigmatic one,’ in his black army great coat, assumed his spot behind the keyboards and acknowledged the audience with a shy nod.

Mike Ramshaw was the pretty boy of the group, though it was not about him that rumours circulated, for he was a known ladies’ man. The band hadn’t even been on Top of the Pops yet, and girls had already been known to faint at the sight of Mike’s floaty hair and pouty mouth. He swaggered on stage, blowing a kiss in proud acknowledgement of the female screams and whistles, his guitar swinging around his lean body like a sword.

Finally came Gareth Rushcliff, the sable-haired, self-assured frontman, in leather trousers and the military jacket of some indeterminate army. My callow heart still did aerobics at the sight of him.

He swiped the microphone off its stand and bowed flamboyantly, then for the first time that evening looked in my direction and grinned.

He saluted – keeping the military theme – and declared, over the intro to Rainbow Eyes, the new song that would become their first monster hit, ‘This one’s for Majella!’

******

It was not until we were in our thirties, over a late-night gossip-and-vodka session, that Mel and I reminisced over that night and, covering my face with my hands, I tipsily cringed, ‘I can’t believe I made you wait with me an hour and a half by that stage door. It was bloody freezing.’

‘It was a bit raw for April, I must admit, but you hardly made me. I was enjoying the company. It was me who felt awful for you, for what happened afterwards.’

After that Glinda Spitfire show, Mel had declared he was ‘starved’ and suggested we procure ourselves an extremely early breakfast from Bert’s Burgers, the legendary van pitched just down the road from Zena’s.

‘Salmonella on a bap?’ I grimaced, even though I knew my willpower would be no match for those oily, oniony aromas. It was practically the law: after a night on the booze, you would stave off the two o’clock munchies by willingly spending money on a trashy snack containing dubious meat and too much mayonnaise. Bert’s (unofficial slogan: ‘A bit of dirt woe hurt ya!’) always drew infinite queues of revellers with the same idea.

‘I’d like to go and wait for Gaz first, though, by the stage door.’ I was giddily eager to see him. Stuff Romy bloody Rotunda – Gareth had publically dedicated a song to me! That had to mean true love.

Mel helped me into my coat (the perfect gentleman – he’d have been the perfect boyfriend were it not for the obvious impediments) as we emerged into the bracing Birmingham air.

‘Don’t you have a backstage pass?’

‘No,’ I admitted, buckling up my coat and shivering as I adjusted to the temperature.

If Mel was sceptical about that, he didn’t show it.

As I said, we were an hour and a half stomping from foot to foot outside that stage door. There was a sizeable cluster of fans out there, though nothing like the mobs Glinda Spitfire would be attracting within the next few months.

Mel uncomplainingly stayed with me, hands wedged into deep pockets, except when he lit a periodic cigarette. We chatted so easily, like school friends who didn’t want to end their playground conversation and return to lessons, I forgot I’d only met him that night. We darted from subject to subject, as we had done all evening.

Before Gareth surfaced, I’d learned that Melvyn Corns was aged twenty, an only child, who originated from the Kates Hill area of Dudley but had been lodging in digs in Edgbaston for just over a year, and was currently taking driving lessons. His dad passed away when he was nine. He’d mentioned his mother several times that night, and described himself as ‘the daughter she never had.’

We passed the time so affably, I almost forgot our reason for standing in that chilly car park like participants in a fire drill – untiln the stage door burst open.

‘Gareth!’ I lurched towards him. He was alone initially, although Trevor briefly dipped his head outside but then just as quickly retreated, possibly on spotting Mel.

My boyfriend waved in acknowledgement of me, but scribbled a few autographs for the patient crowd before coming over and dropping a kiss on to my forehead.

‘Thank you for serenading me in there.’ I roped my arms around his waist, utterly blissful at the feel of his strong body; the scent of him. I snuggled my face into his chest. I must admit I was enjoying the knowledge that there would be jealous girls in this crowd realising I was the aforementioned ‘Majella,’ not just another fan but Gareth’s girlfriend. Now I know I must have resembled a submissive puppy, all scrunched into him like that.

‘Yeah, yeah. Look, babe, I gotta get back in there. Paul’s called a meeting.’ Paul was the band’s manager.

‘At this hour?’ I pouted.

‘The hour doesn’t matter, babe. We’ve got important business to attend to. Things are hotting up for us and there’s a lot to discuss. Nothing you’d be interested in.’

‘This is Mel, by the way,’ I gestured desperately.

‘All right, Mel.’ Gareth tossed a glance towards my new friend. ‘Look, I’ll call you, OK.’ He clasped my face between his hands and slapped another kiss on my head, as if with the vigour of it he would shut me up and fulfil us both for a few hours.

‘OK. Love…’

My ‘…you’ was drowned out. Gareth dived for the door, just as Joe edged it open. ‘Yow coming, geezer?’ The drummer didn’t come fully out, but from the little I saw of him he had a fag in his mouth and his other arm was lolled around Romy Rotunda’s plump shoulders.

‘Yeah, yeah, mate,’ Gareth replied as he disappeared back inside without a backward glance.

I stood there piteously for a second, his kiss still drying on my forehead, before Mel put a surprisingly strong arm around my shoulders and declared, ‘I don’t know about you, chick, but I’m dying for that burger.’

******

While the ‘Gareth’ situation may have lacked promise, the night marked the commencement of a beautiful friendship at least.

Mel and I would go shopping together at weekends at the Bull Ring in Birmingham, and on a bizarrely regular basis would troop giggling into Woolworths and strike silly poses in the photo booth.

What was that all about?  The ‘sticking your tongue out at a coin-operated camera’ ritual was one of the ways in which friends bonded in the 1980s.

The idea that only a thin curtain divided us from the serious shoppers queuing up with their back-to-school set squares and pick ’n‘ mix would set me off on an irrepressible bout of giggles.  A flash more intense than the glare of the sun would pop off, which always made you look ghastly against the orange curtain backdrop, and then you’d wait five minutes for the four glistening pictures to whirr through the machine and land in the slot.

I still have these strips of mini photo stories, of Mel and me, wan-faced with our large earrings and rigidly hairsprayed hair.  They never fail to make me smile, speaking as they do of a more carefree age when we had money to waste on such frivolity.

Photo booths are far too expensive these days, and sombre too; you can’t even smile in your passport shot.  It’s all the rage to hire the old-school booths out for parties and weddings, though.

Anyway, within a few weeks, Mel had taken me home to Dudley to meet his beloved mother, Gloria. She was a tiny, warm lady, and the best cook in the entire world. The uses she didn’t have for black pudding were not worth knowing about.

I still recall the divine smell that greeted us the first time Mel let us into the small terrace. Gloria was all rosy, in her apron, pulling a tray of scones out of the oven – a classic mother hen.

‘He gets his height from his dad,’ she crooned in her Black Country tones, looking up at Mel as he cuddled her. Their relationship was really more like that between a mother and daughter than mother and son.

Gloria was enlightened and shrewd too. She put me in Mel’s room for the night (to be fair, the house only had two bedrooms), under no delusions that her son was, or would ever likely be, ‘bringing a girl home’ in the traditional sense. I had the bed, Mel a sleeping bag on the floor, and we all knew he wasn’t going to be slipping anything under my covers.

Mel confided to me that he aspired to ‘buy Mom a mansion’ with his first million, but in fact I couldn’t picture Gloria Corns in a roomy, austere home. Modest as her house was, its very walls exuded love.

Pictures, frills and nick-nacks occupied every square inch, as though she loved all of her possessions so much she couldn’t bear to consign any to a cupboard. The family cat, a corpulent tabby called Cherub, was nuzzled up on a patchwork cushion.

On Saturdays, World of Sport would blast out of Gloria’s little TV while she baked in the adjoining kitchen. She was addicted to the wrestling and would vigorously cheer on the local hero Lord Lump Hammer the Gornal Grappler (real name: Walter Goody) against Big Daddy or Giant Haystacks.

I met her next door neighbour, who had similarly chatty, bustling personality and was named Alice Cooper, would you believe. She wore considerably less mascara than her famous namesake. When Alice and Gloria nattered, passing the biscuit tin back and forth, it was easy to see who inspired Heidi and Poppy. I could picture the young Melvyn, ostensibly watching The Sooty Show but really eavesdropping like mad. He’d lifted some of their patter word for word for his act.

One night we went to the Legion to watch Poppy A. Peel in action. Poppy was a somewhat tamer creature than the Heidi Sausage who Mel unleashed on Birmingham’s late-night gay crowd, but he was right when he said she went down a storm with the old soldiers. One, who had cataracts, declared that Poppy was more attractive than his wife, and requested ‘her’ phone number.

Fifteen years later, Gloria, Alice and I were on the studio front row when Mel – who by now had adopted his ‘Melba Most’ alter ego, having wisely decided ‘Heidi Sausage’ was not very telly-friendly – won The Big Big Talent Show.

It was a long graft from the tough Birmingham club circuit to eventual mainstream stardom, which saw Mel(ba) presenting game shows and standing in for Judy on This Morning, in a beautiful bouffant wig and custom-made versions of Gloria’s 1950s halter-necks. His act became more refined over the years. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though.

******

In my second year at college, Mel and I became flatmates. Four of us shared mildewed digs on the Bristol Road in Edgbaston. My friend Linda, who was doing the stand-up comedy module at BAPA, and I were labelled ‘fag hags’ for lodging with Mel and Nelson, the flamboyant dancer, but we didn’t care. It was a happy time.

I drove past the place only a couple of months ago, as it happens. It’s a mobile phone shop now, but in my mind’s eye was a vision of Mel’s decrepit Yugo (he was the only one of who owned a car) plonked on double-yellows outside, and us gleefully unloading endless boxes from the boot and lugging them up the poky staircase.

Late that night, the four of us, lolling in the deckchairs that constituted our provisional ‘lounge’ furniture, toasted our new home with sparkling wine in mugs.

I never forget how elated I felt that day. I was young and independent in an exhilarating city, I was enjoying the job at Rackhams, my three best friends and I were going to be megastars, and I was tenaciously in love with a fledgling pop star.

Two weeks later, I caught Gareth around the back of Rackhams with Romy Rotunda. It was my worst birthday ever.

Advertisements