The day I nearly met my match on stage
PUBLISHED: 17:23 30 August 2020 | UPDATED: 17:30 30 August 2020
Keith Skipper looks back at his time on stage at productions big and small
It’s the sort of question designed to test your sense of humour, power of imagination or ability to face the truth – “Have you ever died on stage?”
Thankfully, I can employ all three in modest doses while reflecting on an array of performing roles from reciting and singing at village Sunday School anniversaries to playing the rustic fool in pantomime at Norwich Theatre Royal.
I recall bowing out earlier than planned at an All Preachers Great and Small show in Alby Church when my throat gave way. That inspired a few plaintive “There is power in prayer!” murmurings from old friends in the congregation. My wife had the last word with a closing poem.
An unrehearsed disappearing act at Broome Village Hall, near Bungay, stands out as a highlight of travels with my Press Gang entertainers. I tumbled off stage as my chair wobbled and fell into the well at the side. A curtain softened the blow.
I had to suffer running gags about crash courses and fall guys for rest of the evening. Tony Clarke, at the microphone in the guise of deadpan comedian Boy Jimma as this drama unfolded, told a full house: “He dunt normally dew that”. Cries of “Keep it in!” greeted my recovery.
A later visit to the same palace of homely varieties found a mattress placed strategically by the stage.
A notice warned certain performers not to stray too close to the edge. Perhaps it was a friendly reminder not to sail too close to Suffolk waters …
There have been plenty of traumatic pauses, tips of the slongue, ad-lib adventures, overtime sessions, precarious props and everlasting raffles from decades of public appearances, both as solo mardler and member of various entertainment ensembles.
However, it is all but half-a-century since I died on stage during a bold but short-lived run as a “proper” actor with Rackheath Players. And even that dramatic exit was bedevilled by the sort of bizarre incident for which amateur groups are known and loved.
Ted Bell was my boss at work as the 1970s opened, a kindly and gifted sports editor on this esteemed journal and others under the umbrella of Eastern Counties Newspapers. He fed enthusiasms rather than dwell on obvious shortcomings.
He suggested I might find another outlet for all that mucking about in the office with his dramatic colleagues at Rackheath. He and his wife Bunny, perhaps a little less forgiving when it came to accepting others constantly playing the fool, worked overtime to steer me and several others towards proper use of disparate talents.
I made a handy old-time music hall chairman, banging the gavel on time, gently mocking performers and audiences in turn and occasionally downing a pint of bitter that went with the job.
I relished the freedom to be daft in pantomime romps and joined Ted in writing some of the scripts featuring characters like Genie With the Light Brown Ale and spirited highwayman Dick Turpintine.
Then came “serious” plays in all their structured glory. Frankly, I found that chasm too wide between free spirit arena and strict rehearsal room for dedicated thespians. Walking a tightrope soon became best-rehearsed feature of productions calling for a far more organised repertoire.
A couple of dark glowers from Bunny Bell may have played a key part in the rush for redemption. She had the lead role in Madame Tic-Tac, a deaf and blind leader of a gang of reprobates. She communicated by sign language, I had to learn words as Rudge, a small-time gangster destined for an untidy end.
Old friend David Long, commonly known as Tosh, curtailed my James Cagney-meets-a-cockney-sparrer cameo with a well-directed bullet. I breathed my last with some delight as those left standing had two more acts in which to thicken the plot.
Halfway through the run my spectacular demise almost turned into an act of instant cremation. As I slumped to the floor and the curtains shuddered, a box of matches in my trousers pocket caught fire.
“He’s not dead!” yelled a spellbound lad in the front row. ”I see him move!”. I may have twitched as the curtains swished but that had nothing on the “get-em-off!” drama played out in the wings. I did the resurrection shuffle and shed all inhibitions to get rid of a truly horrendous prop.
Still some way to go for a matchless performance.
Skip’s Aside: Whenever I’m tempted to size up country life through rose-tinted glasses, I turn to the searingly honest writing of Victorian novelist Mary Mann.
Out of a Norfolk rural scene littered with derelict farms and overgrown fields, she cultivated superbly-crafted stories crammed with acute feelings and ruined lives.
She was determined to show countryside misery rather than rustic charm. Her most celebrated chronicles, first published in 1902, are contained in The Fields of Dulditch, brutal accounts of blighted labouring families at a time when demeaning poverty wasn’t only commonplace but seemingly inevitable.
A merchant’s daughter born in Norwich, she married a local squire and moved to the small village of Shropham, near Attleborough, first to Church Farm and then to her husband’s family seat at Shropham Manor.
Her writing drew heavily on suffering and injustice all around, employing a potent mixture of colourful dialect and bitter humour to underline depths to which parts of Norfolk had sunk.
Stark local voices are at the heart of harrowing tales providing a telling answer to any lingering nostalgic notions about the “good old days” on the land. When these grim stories were republished in 1976, sparking fresh hopes of belated but genuine appreciation of her work, Ronald Blythe of Akenfield fame wrote in his introduction:
“Although she reproduces the picturesque speech patterns of this lowly, grimly-rooted and – for her – blighted society with sufficient colour to entertain the reader, her central purpose is not to show rustic charm but rural plight.
“By enduring the misfortune of their birth, their ignorance, their incessant toil and their malnutrition, her characters receive their own special nobility, and it is this which ultimately concerns her. She describes first the barren soil of a particular life and then the little miracle of its flowering”.
Her gravestone in Shropham churchyard is an open book with the epitaph: “We bring our years to an end as it were a tale that is told”. Mary Mann used Norfolk dialect in a way no other writer has matched either in terms of expanse or impact.
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