8 March 2015

Polly Toynbee article about Freddie

Not, perhaps, the most obvious chronicler of his doings, but after meeting Freddie on a cruise in 1978 Polly Toynbee came to Hastings to write a piece for The Guardian about rehearsals for his summer show at the White Rock. Many thanks to Ms Toynbee for allowing me to reproduce this article, which originally appeared in The Guardian on July 3rd of that year. 

  Mr Parrotface and company ... 

From Frinton to Margate, and Skegness to Llandudno, the seaside variety shows are opening up. At the White Rock Pavilion, Hastings, rehearsals are in progress for the opening night tomorrow. It will run for ten weeks, until the last of the holidaymakers are gone and the season is over.

I have been to the Hastings show for the last five years, a summer holiday treat of unmixed delight (except for the year Bobby Crush, England's answer to Liberace, was the star).
The shows have a special charm, the last remnants of the old world of variety. The performers struggle on from summer season to Christmas pantos as best they can. The dancers take secretarial work in between. The singers and comics higher up the bill traipse round the humbler Northern clubs, moaning about the lack of facilities and the drunken audiences, describing it rather grandly in the programme as "cabaret work."

This year the star of the show is Freddie Davies, known as Mr Parrotface; he is also the director. He has devised the whole thing, choosing the songs and arranging the production numbers. Last year he did a show in Skegness.
The billing is still as important as it was in the old variety days. It matters a lot where you come. It matters too what you are being paid but that is the deadliest of secrets - no one would even hint at it. First on the bill comes the title "Bunny Baron proudly presents." I've often wondered who Bunny Baron is, with his face appearing so prominently on the programme. It turns out he is an impressario well known in the trade for 40 years, and his organisation stages five summer seasons and five pantos a  year. His wife selects all the chorus girls, and they are billed as The Lisa Gaye Dancers.

After the star (with photograph) comes the speciality act: "A brilliant show of fun and colour with Anna Lou and Maria, Magic and Glamour," a conjuring act with dogs and doves.

Below them come the James Boys, Dynamic Singing and Instrumental Duo, two brothers who've been in the business since childhood. In smaller type comes Freddie Stevens, the utility man, who sings, dances, plays straight man to the comic, and as his title suggests, turns his hand to anything in the show. This year he has had to learn how to operate a large clown puppet.

The guest star, Peter Goodwright, appears last on the bill but in letters exactly as large as the star ("guest" means he is spared most of the production numbers). He will spend time wandering around Hastings gathering local information to add to his material. "They love it if you mention that the coffee in such-and-such a cafe is expensive," he said.

The Hastings holidaymakers largely consist of the elderly and young foreign students. The language schools in the town entice 30,000 foreigners a year. Last year the compere made a point of calling out things like, "Have we a party here from Groningen, Holland?" and a lot of bewildered hairy-kneed Dutch cyclists would shout back "Ja!" Or "And where are my lovelies from South Croydon Derby and Joan Club?" to shrill cries of "Here!" from another part of the auditorium.

Freddie Stevens was pondering about the bill. "One does like to find one's got reasonable billing," he said, as he rolled up cotton wool snow balls ready for an act of his. "The trouble is, these days the trend with the big stars is just to put 'Ken Dodd and Full Supporting Company,' which just isn't the same thing. You know, everyone thinks stardom is just around the corner. It's not, but well, it might be. Even the musical direcotor there," he said as we watched the MD hammering the piano in his braces. "I expect he's dreaming of being Val Parnell at the London Palladium." Television, though, is the real symbol of success. Every year any performer who has ever appeared on the box goes out of their way to rub it in with the audience.

A run-through of the opener was beginning on stage. The girls went through a routine which ended with them shooting out their arms to a crash on the piano to welcome in the star. Freddie Davies hurried on, the whole company sang, "It's a comical world, a hysterical world!"

"Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!" he called out to the empty hall. Then he sang out, "Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye, Four and twenty budgies baked in a pie, When the pie was opened, What did the budgies say? We're going to report you to the RSPCA!" The company thundered in with "Happy, happy, happy, happy day!" Then Karen the choreographer came forward with her clipboard and said tentatively, "Sorry, Freddie. It's a song you do there, is it? We had it written down here as a gag." Freddie replied, somewhat shortly, "That was a gag." "Oh," Karen said, retreating to her place, "So sorry."


The dancing girls, tired by the hard work, were draped over the front stalls. "How many auditions do we go to? I couldn't count them. We go to as many as we can fit in a week. And you see the same girls over and over again." Don't they get sick of auditions? "I hate them," said one girl. "But you get used to it." They had no hope at all of working between the ten week summer season and the one month Christmas pantomimes, in all only four months of they year. They earn £50 a week while they're dancing.

In the wardrobe a round Mrs Tiggywinkle of a woman was unpicking a turquoise glitter dress. Mrs Gladys Monk has worked for the Bunny Baron summer and Christmas shows in Hastings for years. The rest of the time I'm just a plain housewife," she said, with pins between her teeth.

The Baron organisation keeps a warehouse of sets and costumes in Broadstairs. The costumes are a major, in fact almost the major feature of the shows. The girls seem to climb in and out of a different set of luminous orange, lime green, or peacock blue net and glitter creations every few minutes. On a shelf in the wardrobe was a row of the most enormous headdresses I'd ever seen. How could they possibly dance in these? "Oh they can't. They're made with crash helmets as a base and they can't move much, just parade around a bit," Mrs Monk said.

The White Rock Pavilion is owned by Hastings Council, and it has that ineradicable corporation air. It seats 1,200 people but I was sorry to hear from the council's entertainment department that they reckoned they were doing well if it was 50 per cent full for the show. I had always assumed that these shows were straightforward commercial entertainment, one of the last corners of free enterprise theatre. I was astonished to hear that all of these summer seasons in the seaside resorts are heavily subsidised from the local council's tourism budget. It's not what springs to mind when you think of subsidised theatre. Hastings Council expects to lose £25,000 on the White Rock this year.

The stage was needed for that night's concert, and rehearsals continued in a rooom with a piano downstairs. "Come on everyone, it's the finale," said Freddie Davies, as people gathered round the piano. "Oh, the banale finale," some tired person sighed. The piano started up. "The world is a stage! The stage is a world of entertainment!" they all sang. The musical director got the dancing girls to do a backing to one number, "Ah, ah, ah, ah," they sang. "Should that be an Ooh, Ooh, Ooh, Ooh, do you think, Freddie?" he asked turning from the piano. "No, I think I like an Ahh better than an Ooh" Freddie said.

Then came the last song of all, "It's not where you start, it's where you finish, and I'm gonna finish on top!" - the classic seaside revue theme, sadly ironic in the context. There was a terrible moment last year when the soubrette made a joke that was too near that particular knuckle for comfort. She came forward and announced solemnly, "I'd like to share with you this very special moment in my life. I've just signed a five-year contract with Granada Television." There was a small gasp, I suspect of amazement, and then a little embarrassed clapping. She was late with the punchline, "Yes, I've just rented a colour TV set for five years!"

The company was really into the song of the finale and the musical director was urging them on. Even the James Boys seemed to have learnt some of the words by now and as I left to catch my train, they were belting it out loud enough to bring the house down. "It's not where you start it's where you finish, And I'm gonna finish on TOP!"

                                                                            Polly Toynbee

This show was to prove a milestone in Freddie's career, as he explains in his autobiography Funny Bones, now available from amazon (paperback) or direct from Scratching Shed Publishing (paperback or limited edition hardback); read an extract here.