You can tell he’s going to be a bore; the sludge-shade ‘slacks’ labelled him as Man From Greenwoods, or a cardboard cut-out who orders his social wardrobe from little adverts in the Daily Mail, and he’d completed the outfit with synthetic, pale knitwear that’d make a ‘fifties knitting pattern look cool, with a nylon tie. It’s one of those overheard-in-the-pub conversations which make you want to find a pencil and make sneaky notes, so I do.
I’m in a pub in Cheshire, eating. Table across the room: party of four, having a meal. Him, friend and the mousey wives, three thick and one thin; two lamb shanks, a pie and a battered cod. The sort of wives that whine and grumble that they think the peas have been microwaved. There’s vociferous enthusiasm about the Australian wines, which they’ve ordered, a red and a white, a second bottle of each, reminding him and wife of their trip to Melbourne. “Have you been to Australia, Derek? No? You’d like it.” (Notch up one point scored.) “Nowt better than a good Australian red…… This one’s stunning. Really good. Takes me right back…….”
He’s a closet thespian. By day a travelling carpet salesman from Bradford, but in his head he’s Giel-god and by night he acts out his dreams on the boards in Batley, with, from what he says about them, a company of other stiff comb-over hams also in Saga slacks or nylon cardigans. I’ve idly picked up the conversation at the point where he’s pontificating his thesis of Napoleon as an organisational expert. Like you do in a pub. His wife, who’s wearing a wig-like helmet of thin, brass-coloured hair and a bony expression, is docile and swathed in something like a curtain. Occasionally she interjects, but is instantly squashed with, ‘Can I FINISH?’ I’d have kicked him.
It’s one of those conversations encapsulated by, ‘It was the year Ben was Aladdin.’ Three decades of acting aspirations and personal destiny compressed into seven words.
Having successfully suppressed any competition with his tales of Melbourne, he flattens all before him with an account of New Orleans, which is in America, in case we don’t know. At one point in the narrative, he’s driving down the New Orleans highway playing with a voodoo doll in one hand.
I choke on a chip.
Suddenly, without warning, he pushes back his chair and strides into the centre of the room. The two elderly ladies out for a fish-and-chip dinner, who couldn’t quite understand what house wine was because by that stage they’d consumed it and were rather muddled, have tottered out. They’re not sure, they think someone pulled a fast one on them, as they distinctly remember ordering White and this was House, but they’d paid at the bar and they’ve forgotten what they asked for. So the room is, by now, almost empty.
‘I need some space to express myself,’ he explains grandiosely. ‘I can’t express myself at a table.’ He strikes an Attitude. Think Hamlet addressing that skull, think Macbeth reaching out for that invisible dagger, think Henry V motivating the troops before Agincourt. Extended arms, eyes heavenwards, pose like a spinally challenged rubber doll, deep breath and…
“What I Need!” he declaims, “Is!” – deep breath – “A Good Comedy Part!!”
I am studying my beer (Double Hop) with an intense air.
“I need……!” deep breath, an imposing pause, “….. an OUTLET!!”
Brass Hair wriggles and gives a consumptive cough, then teeters off to the toilets, wrapped in her curtain. Surprised, he shrugs, then continues in an impassioned voice, “I know!!”
The room awaits, agog. Even the horse-brasses are shivering with anticipation.
“Miss Saigon!” declares the orator, electrified, and surveys his audience for a reaction. As there isn’t one, he sits down again. He tells them why ‘Miss Saigon’ would be a good play to do next at Batley. Someone murmurs about performance fees. In the forthright manner of a Bradford man who knows he’s right, he says that’s rubbish.
Batley will, apparently, be the perfect venue. He remembers – in a mistily awed voice – the time they did commedia dell’arte at Batley British Legion…….
(If you’re not familiar with commedia dell’arte – and why should you be? – it’s a Renaissance Italian drama form with stock characters: foolish Pantalone, his love of pretty women, his deceiving wife, the boastful, swashbuckling captain, charming Harlequin, elegant Pierrot, all masked; lots of grandiose scheming, embellishments, histrionics, acrobatics… )
……. and you can probably now imagine the erotica of the ravishment scenes; picture the bony knees in scarlet tights groaning under the weight of portly bodies leaping around as playful Pierrots; the swaying stage-flats painted with urns and interiors to transport Batley to Bologna, probably realising in mid-performance that one’s the wrong way round; the hissing whisper of the prompter in the wings, “Grab the captain’s beard….. captain’s beard……beard…. ah said BEARD……”; the reluctant teenager dragged in at the last minute to work the technology (a forty year old portable lightbox) and paid in pizza, so absorbed with his iPhone that he misses the seduction scene lighting cue and everyone gets to see that the fair Maiden has kept her trousers on under her long skirt, cos it’s cold in the Legion, and she’s wearing woolly socks.
I bet Batley British Legion loved it. I bet next year they asked for a nice bit of Ibsen. But no, they’re getting ‘Miss Saigon’.
I’m convulsed. But I have to stifle my giggles. Brass Hair has swept back into the room and tucked her curtain around her again. It’s time for them to leave, and Giel-groan offers them all coffee at home (to save buying it), but the other couple can’t, because they’ve arranged to get back and they need a taxi. So Giel-gormless instructs Brass Hair to phone for a taxi. She fumbles with her mobile and finally gets it to work, dials the taxi firm he tells her and arranges the taxi.
“They say it’ll take six hours.”
“What the -? Give me the phone.” She resists. “Who d’you dial anyway?”
“That number. Hang on, I’ll ask them…..”
“They’re in Edinburgh. It’s a Scottish number.”
“Tell them you’re cancelling. Cancel the booking.”
“But I’ve rung off.”
“Phone back. Women, eh. Here, give me the phone.”
Giel-gob paces the room holding the phone out theatrically declaiming that he can’t get a signal. My spouse restrains me from offering him mine, which can. Eventually a local taxi is arranged for the other couple, and then the Giel-groans have to phone someone at home who’s coming to pick them up at the pub, so he retrieves his own mobile from his pockets.
Evidently there’s a signal from where Brass Hair is sitting, because she tells Giel-groan she’s getting the engaged tone. “Funny,” he says, “so am I. She’ll be gossiping. I thought we told her…”
Brass Head: “I’ll try again.”
Giel-groan: “So will I.”
Brass Head: “It’s still engaged.”
Giel-groan “Yes, it’s engaged for me too.”
Light dawns. Giel-git glares.
“You’re phoning her at the same time as me,” he accuses.
“So it’s your fault,” he says.
“I never thought…” she mumbles, embarrassed.
“Turn your phone off. Right off.” Pause. “Ah! Now I’m getting through.” Followed by dramatic striding round room in search of a signal. “Hallo! Hallo? Hallo? HALLO?”
Success. He reports: “She’ll be ten minutes. I’ll go and settle up, shall we?” and off the two men go to the bar. Two minutes later, purposefully striding back into the room he seizes the bottles of wine.
Giel-groan: “Is that the wine we had?”
Brass Head: “Mm, yes.”
Giel-groan: “Well, it’s French. And they’ve charged us for French not Australian.”
Brass Head: “Oh no! We ordered Australian. Didn’t we? Didn’t we order Australian? I was certain we ordered Australian.”
Giel-groan: “We did. We ordered Australian. I’m sure we did.”
Brass Head: “So can we complain?”
Giel-groan: “Oh yes. I’m going to make a right fuss about this. It’s not good enough. It’s a scam. They’re ripping us off. Giving us the wrong stuff then charging for it.” Pause. Studies bottles. “But we’ve drunk it all.”
Brass Head: “So we can’t complain?”
Giel-groan: “No, not now. So they’re charging us for French after we ordered Australian.”
Brass Head: “What’s the difference?”
Giel-groan: “Fifty p.”
Brass Head: “Then make them knock fifty p off. How much is the total anyway?”
Giel-groan: “A hundred and seventy seven pounds twenty two p.” [Gwyn chokes….]
Brass Head: “Well make them knock fifty p off.”
Giel-groan strides back into the bar. Re-emerges two minutes later. “I was right. It’s fifty p. French is fifty p cheaper.”
Brass Head: “Oh. So we’ve been charged fifty p less?”
Giel-groan: “Yes. They say they’re charging us right. Con merchants.” Picks up bottle and studies it. “These are the bottles we had, aren’t they?”
Brass Head: “Oh, yes.”
Giel-groan: “These’re French. They’re charging us for this muck and not Australian. I said it’s a scam.”
Brass Head: “That’s disgusting. I thought all along…..”
Giel-groan: “Never mind that, we’ve drunk it and now we can’t complain, and they’re charging us for Froggie bottles and not what we ordered, and we haven’t got a leg to stand on.” Pause. “I suppose I’ll have to pay…”
Brass Head: “And I thought it was Australian…”
Giel-groan: “Well it SOUNDED Australian….”
Brass Head: “But it says on the label it’s French.”
Giel-groan: “And it wasn’t any good anyway. Didn’t you think to look at the bottle?”
Brass Head: “Well, no, but….” Pause. “I thought it was quite nice actually. I was sure it it was Australian.”
Giel-grumble stumps off back to the bar, sound of light Barclaycard fire offstage, then the two men return with whisky. For themselves. They reminisce about past theatrical triumphs. And this is where we hear the consummate line, “It was the year Ben was Aladdin.”
Ben had been, apparently, a remarkable Aladdin. He looked the part. He was – for a man – breathtakingly beautiful. Quite a good act-orr, too.
“Ben was just right for Aladdin,” said Giel-groan. “He’d got…..” Pauses, reflectively, searching for the perfect simile. “…. lovely hair. Just like a Rhode Island Red.”