I walked in apprehensively, carrying my props in a holdall, to be greeted by the sight of a load of blokes with tattoos and boxer’s noses crowded around the bar talking loudly above the sound of Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. While The Trafalgar Arms could be rough, this place looked like a training camp for psychopaths. In the corner under a window was a small podium with a microphone stand on it and a drum kit and amps. I felt panic began to descend on me. Why on earth had I decided to do this? I must have been crazy. But I couldn’t back out now.
I went up to the bar and introduced myself to the landlord.
‘You need to get changed or anything?’ he said.
‘Is there a room I can go to?’ I asked.
‘You must be joking. You’ll have to use the gents.’
‘Yeah. They’re at the back.’
‘Oh. Okay, then.’
All of the cubicles had puddles of water on the floor, broken locks, missing door hooks. Trying to remove your jeans and put on a pair of shorts while balancing on one leg is not an easy task.
After finishing work one evening, I had bought a copy of The Stagefrom the news kiosk outside Victoria Station. This was an odd thing for someone not particularly interested in theatre to do, but perhaps at the back of my mind I was still remembering my performance in A Doll’s House in a draughty college hall back in Derbyshire. I say performance, but all I had been required to do was walk on to the stage in the opening scene carrying a Christmas tree and say, ‘Fifty ore.’
Maybe also at the back of my mind were the memories of being a bingo caller, when I would be greeted like a celebrity by elderly women, who appeared to be sponsored by the makers of Grecian 2000. When I hopped onto the podium and flicked the switch on the machine that sucked bouncing coloured balls up through a chute into a Perspex box, they would be sitting there with cheap pens posed over their cards and eyeing me with intense expressions on their faces that suggested they believed I possessed sacred powers.
I had arrived in London full of optimism and energy, but I could feel all this starting to drain away from me. I had sent more letters to magazines and newspapers enquiring if they had any vacancies, but, as before, I hadn’t received a reply from any of them. I can recall looking up at the tall IPC building in Stamford Street, which was the home of numerous magazines, and wondering what it would be like to work there.
I’d written to a number of colleges and universities to ask if they might consider me for an English degree course with my current set of qualifications. The reply from each one was the same: no. The sticking point was that I didn’t possess a second A level. All I had was a grade E in religious studies. The category below is an F, meaning a fail. I wasn’t going to give up, though. I drew inspiration not just from Educating Rita, but also from Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, in which a young man in a small village finally achieves his dream of going to university.
I was twenty-five, working in a crummy job, living in a tiny room, and with zero in the bank. I wanted more from life. Like Jude, I also had a dream. It sounds a cliché to say follow your dream, but I think you have to. We only get one shot at life. It’s not a rehearsal.
In the classified adverts at the back of The StageI had stumbled across several for pub talent shows. ‘Anyone welcome,’ they all said. Why don’t I give it a go? I thought. I was desperate to do something to combat the boredom at Expresso each day, and I was more or less prepared to give anything a go.
I plucked up the courage and phoned one of the pubs, The Frog and Nightgown on the Old Kent Road.
‘So what sort of stuff do you do?’ asked the landlord.
I paused and then found myself saying, ‘Well, er, comedy.’
‘You’re a comedian, are you?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, surprising myself at how easily I had taken on my new persona.
He chuckled. ‘Well, you’d better be good, mate, because they all think they’re bloody comedians in this place. Come down next Friday for seven thirty, then.’