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Friday, 29 August 2008

Happy Birthday, Happy New Year!

Towards the very end of 1990, I was booked to perform on what TV people like to refer to as "event television". This was in the days before event television meant twelve property show presenters competing to eat the most fresh effluent on live TV to be crowned this years "King of the Sewer". Someone somewhere had worked out that the 100th anniversary of the London Palladium coincided with the coming new years eve, so the plan was hatched to stage a big song, dance and variety spectacular from the Palladium and broadcast it live, incorporating the traditional midnight countdown into the bash. Sounds awful, doesn't it? But it was, at least, an event. They called it "Happy Birthday, Happy New Year".

They needed a bunch of jugglers to dick about on stage and generally get in the way of the dancers during a few big musical production numbers, so, essentially someone was dispatched to go to Covent Garden with a big net and bring back a few of us. They ended up with me, Polish Pete, Dave the actor, Digby, Queenie Gandini and the great Tony Anthony. I know it sounds like a list of names you'd more readily associate with a bank job, but they were all jugglers, and all instructed to be at the Palladium early the day before New Years Eve for a long day and night of rehearsals.

Rehearsing any variety show is a long boring process but when you factor in that it was over three hours long, and had to be timed perfectly for live TV (complete with commercial breaks and a countdown to midnight that HAD to be right), and that instead of normal variety schmucks, every section involved someone who was in some way famous, it was bound to be a long day.

Our stuff was fine, just a matter of "wait for this bit in the music, the go over there and juggle, then when we get to this bit, go over there and juggle". Not rocket surgery, even for a circus performer. The whole cast, of course, had to hang around getting bored all day, and since most of the cast were famous, most of our day was spent sitting around, recognising people and grading their celebrity-ness. This had both positive and negative outcomes.

I spotted Ernie Wise standing in the auditorium aimlessly watching rehearsals. I waited a while, making sure he wasn't doing anything. He wasn't. This is a legitimate comedy legend, I thought to myself. I won't get this chance twice. I took a slow breath, carefully worked out what I was going to say, and aproached. "Excuse me, Mr.Wise", I said, "I'm performing on the show as well, and I just wanted to say thank you for the enjoyment that you and your late partner gave me over the years". He looked at me for a second, his face completely blank save for the slightest hint of disdain. Then he turned his back on me and continued pretending to look at the nothing that was happening on stage. He might as well have punched me in the nuts. Had he heard me? Was he in fact needed on stage? Had a committed some major showbiz faux-pas. No. He'd heard me. He wasn't doing anything. He was blanking me and waiting for me to walk away. He was just a dick. I walked away.

All the other people were much nicer, however. When it was lunchtime they laid on huge amounts of sandwiches in the theatre bar and everyone pitched in, famous or not. That was fun. Felt like a show should. I ended up sitting on a staircase sharing a plate of cheese salad sandwiches with Suzi Quatro. One of my favourite name-drops, that.
Jim Dale walked up to me and mentioned that he'd heard we were street performers. I confirmed the rumour and he grinned widely and started telling me how great he thought we were and what a fan he was of what we do. Always nice to hear. He told us how he opened Barnum on Broadway and during rehearsals got friendly with a bunch of New York's street performers to learn a little about what it's like to be a circus-type showman/shyster, and in doing so, he'd become a fan. For the Palladium show he was doing a song about Lupino Lane called "Son of a song and dance man", an old fashioned soft shoe, waistcoat and bowler hat type number. It would climax, he hoped, with a trick with the bowler hat where he would throw it high into the air and catch it a certain way exactly as the music ended. He couldn't make the catch in rehearsals. Did I have any ideas, he asked. I mumbled a few ways to throw and catch hats, still a little overwhelmed at someone I'd heard of giving me praise. He shook all of our hands and disappeared. Firm handshake, full of energy, still slim and tap-dancing. Fuck Ernie Wise, Jim Dale's the man.

During the show all went well, even if I did drop a ball exactly as one of the TV cameras cut to a close-up. Backstage, as you can imagine, it was chaos. You know how they portray backstage in old comedy films? Full of showgirls and cowboys and romans and people in alligator suits and opera singers and clowns? In real life, during these kind of big shows, it's exactly like that. Except it's full of Tiller Girls and Russ Abbot and Bea Arthur and someone dressed as Little Titch and Max Bygraves and (shudder) Bobby Davro. The best thing you can do is keep out of the way, find somewhere quiet and watch the show on the internal TV system. I found one of the wardrobe rooms. After a while, so did Madge and Harry from Neighbours. So that's how I spent the show, sitting next to Madge and Harry watching the little TV. Occasionally either me or them would go and do a bit, then when we'd come back lavish praise would be administered and drinks would be drunk. It was like sharing a silly joke with a long-lost aunt and uncle. Fun.

Jim Dale did his bit and it was good. Sang, danced a little. Made me cry a bit, and dammit if he didn't catch the hat perfectly. Bang. Exactly on the final beat of the music. Pro.

The last part of the show we were all required to be on stage for. It was the big countdown to midnight. Russ Abbot, in his "Jimmy the Scotsman" outfit was, of course, doing the countdown because, well, y'know, Scottish. We had been told simply to hang out on stage and, when the bongs bonged, just mill around a bit and wish whoever is closest to you a happy new year, as if it's a party. All casual like. It all went off without a hitch and by the nature of randomness, the first people I ended up talking to that year were Gary Wilmot and Russ Abbot himself, who, although his mic was off and only I could hear him, stayed gloriously in character and shook my hand saying "Seeyouhappynewyearyaknowjimmy". This made me giggle.

There was a party afterwards at the beautifully-named "Cinderella bar", so we all got a glass of champagne and toasted the ridiculousness of a bunch of Covent Garden buskers having just been on national TV at the Palladium, and now drinking champagne in something called the Cinderella Bar. Absurd. Pete, me and Pete's girlfriend went out on the balcony and watched all the new years drunken fun in the West End below us. Pretty soon I left Pete and his girlfriend and went back inside to find that Digby had discovered that his stage costume was almost identical to the Cinderella bar waiters outfits, and had therefore decided to spend the night delivering canapes to only the famous and/or attractive. "Best way to meet people", he'd explain.

I was living in Wood Green at the time. That's quite a long way North of the Palladium. I walked all the way home that night.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Groundcare Solutions Groundcare Solutions Groundcare Solutions

A little over a year ago I wrote on this very blog about the wonderful Easyjet losing my bags en route to a gig in Belfast (You can find that post here: Nothing spectacular about that. I was even a little ashamed to be writing about it as, I figure, everyone who (a) writes a blog and (b) flys a lot will have posted a bit of a rant about lost luggage. Tis the way of things. This week, however, this dropped into my email inbox:

"Dear Mr Ricardo,

Your comments on your blog have just been drawn to my attention by someone googling Groundcare Solutions.

I understand that blogging is an interesting way for your fans to follow you however the content gives me cause for concern. It is not for me to comment on how Easyjet would view your blog but it has implied determent to my company Groundcare Solutions.

It does not appear from your blog that you actually have any complaints with GCS but it is implied that on receipt of your luggage from the handling agent at LGW we did not conduct our delivery service to your satisfaction.

Unfortunately luggage does go missing, lots of it, but when you consider the volume of travellers worldwide it is minuscule. In all the years we have been trading we have received 2 complaints neither from yourself. It would have been appreciated that if you had a complaint against GCS that we were given the opportunity to address it with you directly.

Despite this incident being over 12 months old If you do have a complaint with GCS please raise them with me directly so that I may investigate please bear in mind information on your specific file will be limited. I would like to assure you that we operate an on going staff training programme and put relevant training in place if it is found to be required.

If you wish me to investigate further please contact me directly and revise any negatively implied comments on your blog re Groundcare Solutions."

Apart from the hilarious assumption that I have fans, this raises many thoughts.

My comments were, apparently, drawn to their attention by someone googling the name of their company. I think we've all been there - bored and sat in front of your computer, googling your own name in a slightly shameful fit of curious vanity. Never thought that people did it for the name of their company though. Unless it's someone's job. Some kind of P.R. person given the mission of "gauging public perception of their company through new media feedback and creating/managing buzz in the blogosphere" or some such codswallop.

Either way, I enjoyed the gentle threat of "It is not for me to comment on how Easyjet would view your blog". No, it's not. But you kinda did, didn't you. With a bit of a tut tut, and a glance over the tops of your glasses. Honestly, I would imagine that Easyjet would have better things to do than worry about the whinging of a tired, cynical old juggler on a blog that has less readers than your average Rubik's Snake fanzine. They're thick-skinned. They've had worse criticisms and I'm sure they'll be fine. They didn't email me. Groundcare Solutions did, however.

The thing is, if you go back and read my piece, I hardly attacked Groundcare Solutions at all. Pretty much all of my whining was directed at the pretty ropey customer service I received from Easyjet, together with the chaos of neither company being able to comunicate effectively with the other. I didn't say, or even imply, anything bad specifically about Groundcare Solutions, except that the driver who finally delivered my bags admitted he was late because he hadn't actually been to London before, which is, obviously, funny. Even that wasn't an opinion or an implication, it was a fact, unless he was lying, in which case don't employ lying drivers.
I had very little bad to say at all about Groundcare Solutions in my original piece.

I do now, though.

Groundcare Solutions told me that they found this blog by googling the words "Groundcare Solutions", which is why I have worked very hard to include those words as many times as I could in this post, to attract their googling little eyes again.

So safe in the knowledge that they're reading (and honestly, they must realise I'm going to write another piece about this, surely), here's an open letter to the little scamps:

You probably thought it was a good move to, once you'd had my blog brought to your attention, go to my website, find my email address and get in touch. Problem was your email had a tone of surliness to it, implying that I might be in trouble if Easyjet found out I had a gall to write about a bad experience, ticking me off for not being one of the two people to ever lodge a complaint, suggesting that I "revise any negatively implied comments". Not friendly. If you're going to get in touch to try to revise someone's opinions of you, then be nice, otherwise really, why bother?

"Unfortuately luggage does go missing", you write, "Lots of it". I know. I travel a lot. Saying that doesn't help. It just makes you sound patronising. Treat each customer like they're special, don't remind them that they're just a tiny part of a crowd, and that most of the others are just peachy.

"I would like to assure you that we operate an on going staff training programme and put relevant training in place if it is found to be required."

Allow me to help with that. Take the person who spends their time googling your company name just in case a blogger implied something you don't like, and, if they've been to London more than once, make them a driver.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Greased reality

This should have been an easy trip. Three days on a cruise ship. And for once I didn't have to take a plane to another country to board the ship, it was leaving from Southampton, just an hour and a half train ride from home. Bingo Bongo Bango. Easy.

The bad news started when I chatted to my taxidriver while he was driving me to the dockside. "Sea Princess? Not arriving until five". The current time was 10.30am, so this was not good news, especially since my papers told me that it was leaving at 5pm. Engine trouble, I was told, but the plan was to do the turnaround (the massively chaotic process of getting all the old passengers and their luggage off the ship and all the new ones and their luggage on, which normally takes a whole day) in a few hours and leave that evening so the schedule could be stuck to. "Is that going to work?", I asked one of the port staff. "God knows", she replied.

Ok, so I have a whole day to kill in beautiful metropolitan Southampton. The Venice of the Solent. If Venice was like Coventry. I get another taxi back into town with the idea of having a long lunch. After telling my story to the can driver he offers to help me fill the day by showing me Stonehenge. "Ever been to Stonehenge?", he asks. "No", I say, "is it close?", "Ish", he replies.

I decide to opt out of the Stonehenge trip and instead I find the classiest restaurant in central Southampton. After a couple of hours though, I leave Pizza Hut, walk around a shopping centre for a while then go back to the dockside and pass the remaining time reading.

The ship limps in an hour ahead of schedule and I check in, collect my paperwork and go through security, where, as usual, I inform the people x-raying my suitcase that there are pretend theatrical knives inside because I am working on the ship as a juggler. This is never a problem. Very occasionally they'll make me juggle the knives to break the boredom of their day, but that's as serious as it ever gets. Except today. They confiscate the suitcase and tell me that they need to call a security officer from the ship to clear them. So I wait. For another two and a half hours. Until, on my third attempt at hassling them, someone finally lets the suitcase come on the ship, but separately from me. I have to meet my suitcase on board. One more half hour queue and I'm on board, so I go off to find my suitcase, only to be told that they're confiscating the knives until they have been personally cleared by the head of security. "I don't think you quite understand", I say calmly, "that they're not real knives. They are theatrical props designed to look like knives. But to not be knives". They're not listening by this point and have taken my knives, taped them together in a clump and are saying "Thank you for understanding". "But I don't. I don't understand", I reply before stomping off to find my cabin.

Almost always I have the same kind of cabin that a passenger has, and it's all very pleasant. Today, of course, I don't. They've stuck me in a crew cabin, deep below decks in the middle of the labyrinthine and claustrophobic crew area where suddenly the ship throws off it's pretence of being a floating hotel and reveals that it's a smelly, noisy, dingy..well..ship. I don't care though, I just need to eat and sleep, so after a quick visit to the buffet, I hit the sack.

Only to be woken, at about 3am, but severe unpleasantness. I open my eyes and feel wrong, but it's not until I sit up in bed and the room spins around like someone has heavily greased reality that I know something's not right. I immediately start having a panic attack, because anything like this reminds me of the terror of my former days as an epilepsy sufferer. So after a few minutes of falling around in my tiny cabin moaning and freaking out - literally bouncing off the walls so fucked is my equilbrium, I get it together to kneel on my floor in Japanese seiza position and do the kung-fu breathing techniques that are so often my best friend. They slow my stampeding heartbeat let me get me head together, they chase away the panic attack and give me enough respite to suss what's going on. This must be some kind of severe motion sickness. The ship hadn't started moving when I had dropped off to sleep, and these decks are notoriously close to the engine, and the lower centre of gravity of the ship tends to exaggerate the motion in these cabins.

Carefully, closing my eyes whenever I have to move my head more than an inch, I put some clothes on and leave my cabin. The long narrow corridors tip and pitch and blur in front of me and I fall flat on my ass. I get back to my feet making even slower progress and eventually manage to get to the stairs, up one deck, and to the front desk, where I am given a phone with a nurse on the other end. Yes, she can help me, she can give me an injection for this, but it'll cost $150 for the call-out charge, and another $100 for the treatment. I'm stunned. I'm not sure how you can justify a call-out charge when I'm the one visiting you in the medical centre of the ship that you work on that I have just boarded. I'm coming to you, can't I charge a call-out fee?

Regardless, even in my woozy and nauseous condition, I'm still able to whinge to her about how I can't really afford that, and I say goodbye, satisfied that even if I die tonight, I still woke her up and whinged at her, so it hasn't been a complete waste.

I stagger back to my cabin, take some old ginger anti-seasickness tablets I find in my show case, and lay in bed for about an hour breathing slowly with my eyes closed and trying not to move. Somehow I manage, eventually, to fall asleep.

The next morning I'm still feeling shitty, but it's noticeably less. I take a shower without ending up on my ass, which is a victory. I take some more ginger tablets and go to the gym. Work through it, I figure. I do a good hard workout and that, combined with the fresh blustery wind on deck and the news that I'm not working until tomorrow, make me feel more positive than I've felt in the last twenty four hours.

Then, sitting on the bed in my cabin, the bridge make an announcement. They still have the engine trouble that causes the ship to be late yesterday. The took on a whole ship full of passengers knowing that the ship was broken. Wow. They can't reach top speed. They're going to try to fix it today, but if they can't, then we're going to be skipping the port in Lisbon and going straight to Barcelona. This worries me a little as I'm supposed to be leaving the ship and flying home from Lisbon. Bugger.

A few hours later and I have had a room service sandwich, which always helps things along, and the captain is back on the public address system. He has good news, they have fixed the engine and we will be reaching Lisbon on schedule. He thanks the three thousand fingers he thinks were crossed and then apologises and says he has to go now as three couples are waiting for him to marry them.

After a slightly more decent night's sleep I wake and receive my show and rehearsal times for that night. Remembering that the security people still have my fake knives, I call them on the number they gave me. No answer. I try the other number. No answer. I go to the front desk, explain the situation and ask that they call them up to meet me. The staff member mutters, looks at his feet and says "Yeah. They wouldn't come". Ok then. So I find out where the security office is and go there myself. I explain that I'm the guy who they took the fake knives from and they tell me that when I need them I am to come and collect them and return them right after I've finished using them. I lie and say that I need them right now, with no intention of returning them. The security girl tells me to follow her, we are, apparently, going to the brig. THE BRIG! That's exciting. That's what they threaten Steven Seagal with in Under Seige. It's the closest thing to a prison there is on board. And my fake knives are in it. I hope they haven't become someone's bitch.

The brig turns out to be a cupboard containing an old tarpaulin, a couple of unused litter bins and a cardboard box with "CREW CONFISCATED ITEMS" written on it in black marker, and, from what I can see, just my knives in it. I sign the release form and she gives them to me. "Going to do some tricks with them now?", she asks, "No, I thought I'd go kill some people. y'know, random style", I reply. She's not listening, I know this because she replies, "Ok, thank you for your co-operation". Then, she lets me go. Holding the knives that are so dangerous that they can be only given to me right before I work and must be returned right afterwards. I walk back to my cabin through the ship, holding these three big (fake) knives. Drawing the most spectacularly brilliant looks from crew members as I walk past. I'm giggling now. First time I've had a smile on my face for a couple of days.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Queen

You know how, when you were a kid, you had two grandmas, and how one was a little bit posher than the other? Well, the QE2 smells exactly like your slightly posher grandma's house. Looks a bit like it too, all purply-red carpets and things made of wood and brass.

Anyway, so the QE2 is quite great. It's the only cruise ship I've been on that actually feels like a ship once you're inside. Most of them look and feel like luxury hotels, all marble, glass and water features - which is lovely, but the QE2 feels like a big boat. And a satisfyingly old one at that. No electronic card keys for your cabin door here, just a clunky yale lock. The elevators are slow and dodgy, and the clattery doors take forever to close, half shutting and then opening again with a mechanical stutter whenever someone inside so much as breathes heavily.

I'm quite chuffed to be on the QE2, as in a couple of months, it goes out of service, hangs up it's 41 year career as a classy cruise ship and retires to Dubai where it will be some kind of floating retro hotel. So bearing in mind all of that, it's nice to have worked it before it stops being a cruise ship.

During one of my late-night wanders I found, in a stairwell in the middle of the ship, a long glass case filled with old photographs of many of the famous and powerful people who have enjoyed a cruise here. I spent a long time gaping at this. Made me feel all gooey, it did. There's all the Royals, obviously, and scum like Thatcher, but then there's the good stuff... We get Spencer Tracy, one foot up on a chair, hat pushed back on his head, looking rakish. Winston Churchill stands on the deck looking exactly like a cardboard cutout of Winston Churchill. Bette Davis with a cocktail, Lucille Ball at dinner, Jimmy Durante clowning around with a waiter, Fred Astaire, David Niven, George Burns, Bob Hope, Dudley Moore, Athur Askey, Lena Horne, Bing Crosby, Liz Taylor, Buster Keaton. Excuse my French, but Buster Motherfucking Keaton. And then, right in the middle of this smorgasbord of heroes, as if he belongs, Eddie Large. From Little & Large. All sweaty face, perm and fat bow-tie. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of his early classic stand-up routine "Famous people starting their cars" as any right thinking child of the 70's is, but it does not qualify him to be inches away from Buster, Lucille or Astaire. It's just wrong. Might I suggest a "b" board, for all the slightly lesser stars, and Thatcher, obviously. And I'm not sure where I'd put Askey, the more I think about it.