I'd be lying if I said "the greasepaint was in my blood, love" or some such thespy tosh you might read in some acting type's celebrity biography. We weren't from an acting dynasty like those pesky Cusacks and Foxes; and we didn't tread the hallowed boards of Eton and Harrow like the Hooray Henry Irvings of today. No. My Dad was a lorry driver and my Mum was a waitress, so it was more Yorkie bars and After Eights in our house, rather than interval hors-deurves. And yet there was always a bit of the showman in me and my two brothers.
Middle of three on an estate before Mario was even thought of, it fell to we Roberts boys - the Attenboroughs of Hayton View - to entertain the cul-de-sac kids. We'd cut our teeth on family talent shows when really wee, (who could forget Jem's heartbreaking Ugly Duckling producing tears from our captive audience of uncles and aunts with its hint of Charles Laughton's Hunchback?), but as we got older the material became more sophisticated. If you can call cowboys and 'Wham!' sophisticated.
I remember us roping in Titch on a lasso act. We had Dad put up the tent in the back garden and made our own tickets - posting them through neighbours' letterboxes. We'd rehearsed on a makeshift stage - sticking a plank from Dad's garage between the slats on the swing - until the whole thing came tumbling down mid shoot-out and I risked my sons ever being born with a swing-seat rupture.
I think the gunslinging got some kind of ovation from our tolerant audience, but I really don't think they knew what to make of our grand finale. 'Wham!' was big at the time and my elder brother Nick thought it would be a great idea to recreate their video for 'Bad Boys' - with himself taking the starring role of pre-cottage-caught George Michael, of course. You might think this was typical sibling behaviour of the firstborn pulling rank and I should suck it up and take my Andrew Ridgeley with good grace. And I would have done if the role of Ridgeley was offered to my precious younger self. But I didn't even make it to George's infamously sidelined sidekick. I didn't even make it to Shirley. Or even blacking up as Pepsi in these unenlightened times, come to that. No. Whoever was responsible for the casting of this masterpiece, (I'm pointing at you, Big Brother), saw fit to cast me as the headscarved fishwife Mum screaming "Where were you last night?" at Gorgeous George. I tried to get answers from neighbours Carl and Shane on why I had to drag up as the Hilda Ogden lookalike, but they were just as cagey as my megalomaniacal mogul of a brother. As the saying goes, 'Bad Boys Stick Together - Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! Whooh! Whooh!'
And then there were the nativities and school plays. Only two renditions of the Lickle Baby Jesus stick out in my mind. One an ancient memory of playing the bass drum on 'Mary Had a Baby Yes Lord' in amongst moustachioed Wise Men and teatowel-headed Shepherds and waiting for Santa in the silent snow. But this could be one of those memories mixed up in the mists of time with my own kids' infant godbothering, as I distinctly remember Sam's Balthazar 'tache and Natey elastic banding tea towels in late November. The other was when I borrowed Uncle Roy's pipe to play a family Dad in a progressive post-modern 'play within a play' a little older at the Junior School. Again, the potency of smell as a memory-maker is all that stays with me from this Nativity as whenever I catch a whiff of pipe tobacco I remember folding a paper and pointing out a star. And I think of my Uncle Roy and his red beery cheeks. And his Cancer.
As for the plays, this was where I got my own back on Brother Nick and his cross-gender casting tyranny; for whereas his own starring roles dried up after a brief star shining as some Maharajah in a sub-panto (only because he was the biggest in the class, I'm sure), my thespian CV went from strength to strength in these formative years. I was cast as the chauffeur in Mrs Speed's 'Snow White and the Seven and a Half Commuters' - a modern take on the fairy tale favourite with an early 'eighties un-PC title which was clearly sizeist and bordering on racist as little Timmy Chan was cast as the smallest 'Commuter'. My 'Chauffeur' role was a twist on Snow White's Huntsman, taking the heroine into the woods and hoodwinking the Evil Queen with a pig's heart. I remember splitting Mrs Speed's ample sides when I led Snow White out of the limo and provided my own sound effect with a desultory 'Slam!'
Mrs Speed must have been a connoisseur of pre teen comedy and a championer of talent because she became Phil MacIntyre to my burgeoning comedy writing career when she decided we'd stage an adaptation of my 'Bib and the Magic Hedge' story as our big main play. We'd done our fourth year project on conservationism and the nature of the hedgerows and we had to write a creative story about a hedge. I decided to write a mash up of all my favourite kids' cultural references with 'The Magic Hedge' as a backdrop. And when I tell you the main pitch is it's about a boy wizard pitted against an evil force which he must defeat with his own ragtag order of misfits then you'll realise how pissed off I became when a certain cafe-scribbling single mum managed to publish her own derivative 'Star Wars / Worst Witch' rip-off repackaged as the Potter phenomenon many years later.
My boy wizard was a kind of Dorothy in a pointy hat who was sent on a mission by a stuttering king to defeat an evil witch by turning her into a peanut. (What did they put in Junior School cheese pie?) Along the way he gets help from an obese spider; a farming mouse and a conman in a trilby called 'Otter Daley' (I know, inspired eh?) Like all kids into writing from an early age, I was influenced by everything from 'Minder' to 'The Sinister Secret of Frederick K. Bower' by Anthony Horowitz. My own son now writes dystopic fantasies which impress the hell out of me until I realise he's ripping off 'The Hunger Games'. But it doesn't matter if kids don't know the difference between an homage and a copycat; the point is they're writing. My son is writing. And I was writing back in 1984. And more to the point a grown up saw something in my writing and staged it, allowing me to have the odd say about entrances and exits and hooking me into the buzz of directorship.
I remember Eileen Speed getting me up in front of the whole school in my knitted Coca Cola jumper to take a bow as the author of the piece. And it was the best feeling I'd ever had in my young life thus far - Christmas morning bikes notwithstanding and bearing in mind this was pre getting a grip over girls. I hope it's not too precious to say that there was a little bit of this Oscar Wilde moment in every good review or parental praise letter or cast party thank-you beer I ever had from directing folk around a wooden 'O' from that moment on.
You'd think that after this my star would be in the ascendant when I got to the Big School, but it was never meant to be. For some reason me and theatre just didn't happen for a while. It can't have been the usual "It's for poofters" homophobia that kicks in along with adolescence as I'd come out as hating football years before and so had pissed on my chips with all the locker room lads. In fact, for most of my time in Senior School it wasn't the in-crowd everybody wanted to be like that interested me; but rather the malcontents that everybody feared. If life was becoming 'The Breakfast Club' then I was mates with Judd Hirsch, not Emelio Estevez. And little did I know Anthony Michael Hall was waiting in the wings to save me…
So by the time I got to around the fourth year I'd been blacklisted by the Artsy Fartsy Music and Drama department at school. It may have been because of that time I hit Kevin Seaborne in the knackers with some maracas - a rhyme, incidentally, that should have automatically got me some kind of school Music award; or it could have been the time me and Carl Spach giggled all the way through 'Windmills in My Mind' leading a tearful Mr Maunder to threaten us with violence for mocking his beloved lisping polar-necked Noel Harrison. Either way, I wound up in a kind of sump group of ne'er-do-wells - the sour cream of the local estates. The Cai Pikes and Dale Willises of this world. Lads with onomatopoeic hard-man names : Karl Hogg. Hecky Gilbert. And the walking oxymoron that is Timmy Moriarty. They'd roll up their sleeve and have me, as the token arty type in the gang, draw bare naked ladies on them in biro. The association served me well in the hormonal jungle of the latter years of senior school, as knowing some genuinely hard estate lads kept the faux hard bullies at bay…
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