Fifty years ago today I made my first professional comedy debut at The Edinburgh Festival. It was August 1963 and I had miraculously received a telegram somewhere in Germany where I was hitch hiking ordering me to report immediately to Cambridge for active service. That year’s Footlights Comedy Review, called puzzlingly A Clump of Plinths was being taken into the West End by Michael White under the more commercial title Cambridge Circus leaving a hole in the Footlights commitment to the Edinburgh Festival. The telegram was from Humphrey Barclay, he, myself, Graham Garden and David Wooderson were to replace Cleese, Oddie, Chapman, Brooke-Taylor and co, using their material, on stage in Edinburgh in three weeks.
No problem. Cambridge during the long vacation is as nice as it ever gets, the sun shone, it was the sixties, idyllic times when the girls skirts were beginning their plunge upwards and their pants downwards. We lay in punts and drank Pimms and wrestled with bra straps. Well not quite. We rehearsed like hell on the tiny stage in the little Footlights club above smelly MacFisheries and suddenly found ourselves in a freezing, cold water flat, six stone stories up somewhere in Edinburgh.
The Cambridge Theater Group never thinks small. A character called David Missen had conspired a theatrical first for the University players, the Cambridge actors were going to put on a world premiere, of a previously unheard of play by Henry Miller. Not Arthur Miller the playwright. Henry Miller the novelist. It was called I’m Just Wild About Harry and featured quite a lot of rude behavior and a midget.
This World Premiere was to take place in an old chapel. We had two weeks to turn it into a theater. Not only that but they were building a revolving stage to accommodate the many changes of scene. It’s quite difficult to turn a chapel into a theater in two weeks. Stage, wings, auditorium, all had to be built by Cambridge amateur volunteer set builders. The flats themselves were enormous and all had to be built of canvas on plywood frames, stretched and painted. It was all hands on deck. By night we Cambridge Footlights were to put on our black tie review, funny sketches and songs sung by me and played by Jim Beach (now manager of Queen) on the piano, with a full English Lord on drums. Since our show was ready to open we were expected to give a hand in the making of this World Premiere, which involved taking small parts in the play itself, but more exhaustingly staying up all night painting scenery and generally helping to turn a House of worship into a Playhouse.
We were young, there were girls sharing this freezing walk up cold water walk up flat, the Beatles were constantly on the radio and whisky was readily available. So somehow, with several overnighters we managed to construct the stage and the revolve and mount the huge flats, but we had had no time for even a signle a technical rehearsal.
Missen, already a master of PR, contrived a reason to delay this long anticipated world premiere of Henry Millers only play. The Edinburgh watch committee had objected to certain dirty words and actions they proposed performing on stage, so Missen announced that we would not go ahead with this censorship without the authors permission. It wasn’t much but it was good enough to contrive a reasonable reason to delay a day for the Festival Press, so that we could call Henry Miller in California and tell him his work was being censored and what did he feel about it? This was all concocted of course. But suddenly Miller himself was on the phone and Missen was explaining the problem and we all sat around in awe that Henry Miller was actually on the phone. He really didn’t seem that concerned. This amateur production of an old play was hardly a big deal for him. OK, we said, if you really don’t mind slight cuts we will go ahead tomorrow.
The dress rehearsal was a shambles, but the Footlights Revue opened immediately afterwards and we were our usual glittering selves. We had all the material of Cambridge Circus at our disposal, and many classic sketches and songs. We killed. The London critics raved. Harold Hobson, the big wheel chair bound panjandrum from the Sunday Times said “they attract admiration as effortlessly as the sun attracts the flowers.” The audience went nuts, we were an enormous hit. Now for the Actors opening night premiere.
All went well with the first scene. I was on stage with lots of others doing some comedy business up a ladder, the midget was a professional and knew her lines, the scene passed. Then came the revolve. It refused to budge. No matter how hard we all pushed the stage was jammed. Eventually after a grinding twenty minutes the second scene slowly hove into view. The London critics crammed into the first six rows of seats waited patiently holding their pencils poised. The second scene went rather well. Now came the time to revolve the stage into the third scene. Chaos. A series of stuttering juddering moves, resulted in the huge flats beginning to topple. They wavered, they tottered, they leaned dangerously and then slowly began to fall like a pack of cards, knocking each other over on to the front six rows of London theater critics, who picked up their pens and dashed for the rear of the hall and safety; all save one, the world famous critic Harold Hobson, who was stuck in his wheel chair as the set collapsed into the seats all around him. Mercifully he survived. The play didn’t. I think we did a token read of the second Act but it was dead. Off. Never heard of again. Jonathan Lynn and John Shrapnel went on in Waiting For Godot the next night.
The Footlights continued to stun. But I’m Just Wild ABOUT Harry was gone. And the director of this debacle, one Stephen Frears, who would go on to better and more successful things….