Illustrations by Paul Cox

“Between you and me…”

Our theatre gossip columnist spills the beans on his fellow actors

On the Stage

Carry on loathing

News that Kenneth Williams’s typically unkind letter at Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s expense was up for auction reminded me of my own run-ins with the deceased viper.

The Carry On star used to insist  on threatening all and sundry they’d end up in “the book” — namely his posthumously-published diaries — should he ever be crossed. Indeed, I struggle to recall him ever having a good word for anyone, barring old partner in crime Maggie Smith who often channels Ken in her dotage.

Full of trepidation, I, like many who’d known him, braced myself for the said diaries’ eventual release … only to be appalled to find he hadn’t mentioned me once.

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I for one welcome news that  John Cleese’s stage farce “Bang Bang!” will  be touring theatres in 2020.

Those impertinent industry types who suggest his “funny bone fell down the stairs 30 years ago”, fail to appreciate the sacrifices the great man has been forced to make since American ex-wife number three “did him for $20 million”. Who are we to say that all those lucrative  daytime TV adverts were “beyond embarrassing”?

While old pal Michael Palin is knighted for being nice, poor John’s regular public interventions are all
too easily mistaken for bitter, out of touch ramblings by those unaware he remains at the peak of his powers.

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Concern grows for octogenarian Sir Anthony Hopkins’s courageous attempts to engage with fans on the interweb, via a string of videos from his native Welsh valleys (otherwise known as Malibu). While forced to give up the bottle long ago, Sir Tony’s alarmingly manic demeanour prompts some to unkindly conclude he was “better off on the sauce”.

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A sudden parting of ways with a supposed “agent” leaves me entering the festive season convinced more rewarding chapters lie ahead,  albeit while regretful at having entrusted so many prime years with a man woefully unfit for the task. When falsely accused of “unprofessional conduct” by a surprisingly humourless transgender co-star at a kangaroo

 court in Whitstable, one hoped one’s representative would step up to the plate and confirm his client to be of mainly exemplary character, barring one long ago incident in Shrewsbury. Instead, the now ex-representative hanged his loyal performer out to dry, while treacherously getting the said transgender co-star on to his books, assuring him/her there were “lots of exciting opportunities” ahead. This most disreputable and miserly of figures shouldn’t  be surprised to receive a visit from three spirits this Christmas Eve — be sure his perpetually “resting” actors are more than ready to play the roles!

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Calls to ban clapping after performances — apparently it distresses the mad — reminds me of an ill-advised appearance in a north London “fringe” production many moons ago. Clearly ahead of their time, the five or so Islington residents in the audience regularly avoided the emotional hazards of applauding us at all.

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Following an announcement that the Guardian’s Michael Billington is standing down as chief critic after 48 years, let us instead swiftly turn attentions to his most admirable successor, Arifa Akbar. Now that her views are to hold considerable weight in the theatrical world, I trust she’ll be good enough not to forget those of us who’ve long loyally championed her writing talents — considerably superior to has-been Billington’s!

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Gyles’s Miles

After my alarming item last month about the murky adventures of Gyles Brandreth, special thanks to those concerned readers now proving to be my eyes and ears on the ground.  Reports suggest this dangerous self-publicist 

has since been spotted in Eastbourne, Ely, Chester, Dundee (again!) and Aberdeen. Well-placed informants add that the good folk of Taunton, Plymouth, Walsall, Crewe and Wellingborough should all be on high alert, after hearing word Brandreth and his apocryphal array of showbiz tales will soon be brazenly riding into town.

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Aren’t Dame Mirren’s ongoing attempts to win favour with the gloomy sisters proving tiresome? The old girl recently tried — in admittedly muddled fashion — to voice feminist objections on the BBC airwaves after a charming-looking woman innocently suggested she’d portrayed a few “feisty” ladies in her time.

Those of a certain vintage more fondly remember the carefree Helen of yesteryear, when the saucy minx glided about the place, complete with feather boa, unhindered by such concerns. Or, as another contemporary nostalgically recalls: “When she waited all of seven minutes before jumping into the sack with that bit of rough Liam Neeson.”

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With an increasing number of Shakespeare’s male characters being cast as women by the soberly-clad types seizing playhouses up and down the land  – the RSC’s “King John” among the latest  – traditionalists among us can only lurk in the shadows.

My theatrical ancestors in the seventeenth century were eventually generous enough to concede the ladies’ parts in the Bard’s works weren’t always necessarily best portrayed by gentlemen players of the day. Should one now dare make a similar suggestion about the ladies being men, you find yourself swiftly hauled over the coals!

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Star Quality

As the tiresome hype machine from outer space/Disneyland arrives to serve us another unnecessary instalment  of 1970s film franchise Star Wars — apparently the climax of a “trilogy” —  memories turn to Sir Alec Guinness, who admirably put professional reservations to one side when making bagfuls of lolly from such tosh. Friends still fondly speak of Sir Alec’s award-winning look of pained dignity whenever encountered by some spotty-faced clod announcing, “May the Force be with you!”

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How heartening to learn old chum Richard Briers’s ashes have finally been buried in the grounds of the Actors’ Church, Covent Garden. I distinctly recall him once whispering in delightfully conspiratorial tones that his Good Life co-star — and long-serving Middle England sexpot — Felicity Kendal was “very strange”.

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Oh, yes he is…

Although my own association with the world of pantomime ended some time ago following a disappointing experience in Colwyn Bay, others shamelessly soldier on despite claiming they’d be doing otherwise. Many of us smelt a King Rat when Christopher Biggins first started wittering on to the press about his planned “retirement” from the panto circuit back in 2017. Needless to say it was all nonsense: I hear the publicity-hungry Dame can be found shamelessly plying his trade in Bromley this year.

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