Many years ago, when I was at a feng shui master class, I started chatting to another participant, a woman who loved Chinese astrology. She offered to do a quick reading for me and I was curious to find out if there would be any mention of my desire to publish a novel. So I was rather puzzled when she said, ‘You’ll perform your own words.’ What did that mean? It didn’t sound like publication. I had an image of reading from a lectern in a village hall. It felt preposterous. But many years later, that is just what I do – I write and perform my own words for the radio.
I’ve become comfortable reading out my own words. When I first started, I would go into the ABC studios and I was so nervous that my heart was nearly bursting out of my chest as I recorded my pieces. I’m much more sanguine now, especially as, since Covid hit, I record them at home and just Dropbox them to the programme’s producers. I love doing it and often have to pinch myself that it’s gone on so long.
I often think I would have enjoyed being an actor, a real performer. Rather as I used to read a novel and think ‘I could do that’, I still watch actors on television and think: I could do that. Too late now. But I was always game for acting. I’m not sure that playing Sylvester the cat in a school revue when I was thirteen counts, although I was assured the black tights I wore as part of my costume made an impression. I was always in school plays, the best being ‘The School For Scandal’, in which my best friend Glyn and I were the dreadful gossips, Sir Benjamin Backbite and Crabtree. It gave us free rein to be as affected as we wanted to be in real life and thereafter we would often drop Sheridan sentences into our everyday conversation. If I were to describe to Glyn an unattractive new colleague at work, for instance, I might say, ‘To be sure, he has very pretty teeth’. The inference was clear. (I’m less superficial now.)
During one school holiday I joined the North Yorkshire Youth Theatre and toured in a rather leaden piece in which I might as well have been scenery, and I was in several university productions that I knew could have been better. Meanwhile Glyn, in the dreaming spires of Oxford, was performing with people who would go on to make a real mark, like Imogen Stubbs and Hugh Grant.
The interest in acting never left me, even when I worked occasionally to build or break down the sets at Greenwich Theatre when finances were especially tight. I liked the atmosphere, the idea of putting on a show. In Australia I joined the local amateur dramatic group and had a ball. This was amateur theatre on a semi-professional scale, with its own sweet little theatre and a run of twenty two performances after several weeks of rehearsal. It was quite a commitment. I spent half of the first play I was in, ‘Silly Cow’ by Ben Elton, lying ‘dead’ on the floor, but it didn’t stop me from shaking with laughter when the lead mangled a line, replacing ‘no one’s going to prison, Peggy’ with ‘no one’s going to preson, piggy.’ I was a very unprofessional, shuddering corpse that evening.
The last play I did there I struggled to remember certain lines, especially a long piece about a court case and so I ended up writing it down in the ledger I was supposed to read from. But oh, the feeling before the curtain went up, hearing the first strains of the opening music and feeling the dusty heat from the lights, and the knowledge that once you hear your cue there’s nothing you can do but walk on stage and do your best. I understand why actors return again and again to theatre rather than television or film, the total immersion in a complete performance over a couple of hours. Whereas in television, they can spend hours just filming someone running through a door.
I witnessed that many times when I was a film and TV extra. I told people it was an interesting way of making some extra money but really it was just for the fun of it. Not always, of course. Often it was terribly, terribly boring, especially when I was just one in an enormous crowd. But there was pleasure to be had, even if I was only the husband lying fast asleep in bed next to the wife being woken by a cartoon cat demanding more cat food. It was definitely fun being the drunk couple snogging on a dining table at the end of a 1970s dinner party even if that scene never made the cut in the film. I loved dressing up in costume and pretending to be alarmed or happy or busy in the office. Being an extra might have meant only doing the looks and not the words but it had its moments. It brought out the secret show-off in me and my love of simply playing, being someone else for a while (a Confederate soldier, a doctor, or even – rather good, this one – an architect in an insurance ad). It’s not the same as performing my own words but it’s performing all the same.
I think we all have a fascination with performance, even if the idea of doing it fills us with dread. It’s about trying to imagine what it must feel like to be out there, so exposed, everyone watching you. As a teenager who loved classical music I would often imagine myself walking out to the applause of a packed concert hall before a silence falls as I play the first notes of a Rachmaninov concerto. ‘Gosh, who knew Colin could do that?’ the astonished audience would gasp. It’s rather like the famous advertising line for a music school in the 1920s: ‘They laughed when I sat down at the piano – But when I started to play!’ Except my performing history is a little more like Bob Monkhouse’s version: ‘They laughed when I said I’d become a comedian. Well, nobody’s laughing now.’
I feel a bit the same. No one ever took me seriously when I mentioned the idea of becoming an actor and maybe there was a good reason for that. I never had the self-belief to take it further. But the little buzz I still get from reading my own scripts on the radio today more than makes up for that.
Have you had the performer bug?