Friday, 28 August 2015

Am I in America?

January 2004

Arriving in Harrogate in north Yorkshire in January I was freezing cold. The weather was icy. I was staying with a sweet old lady. And her dog. This dog was not really a dog. It was a person. The dog sat with us at dinner. The dog was lavished with presents and chewy toys and bones and goodies. The dog played all day with my land lady and then at night it slept in her bed. Oh yes. The dog slept with my land lady.

So, after a week I decided to move into a flat with a lovely cast member called Amanda. Much better. The show was the raciest thing to have hit middle class northern white Harrogate in a while. We were a company of black actors headed by the inimitable Ray Shell author of the booked ‘Iced’ and flanked by the brilliant Wendy-Mae Brown, Amanda Posner and Simon Bishop. We rehearsed in an arctic space off the town centre. My toes were so cold that I could barely feel them and my fingers felt like they were going to drop off. We wore woolly hats and scarves and two pairs of socks and set about learning the show.

Originally it was a collection of songs written by Fatts Waller with no real story line but a series of comedy songs mixed in with tragic ones like ‘Black and Blue’. The music was exquisite and we were put through our paces dancing wise as well by the choreographer.

I loved that show. Audiences were tentative to begin with but shortly they flocked to see us in their droves and tried to shake off the good ole English reserve by tapping their feet and cheering at famous songs like ‘your feet’s too big’ and ‘honey suckle rose’.

Laughing and talking loudly one day after a show myself, Wendy and Amanda were strutting through the dark, street lamps shining, when a bald Yorkshire man and his mate stopped dead in their tracks outside a fish and chip shop. The bald man turned to his mate.

‘Am I in America?’ He asked brusquely.

His mate laughed a belly laugh. Or should I say his mate laffed a belly laff. Obviously black people only live in America.

Ray Shell is a force to be reckoned with. What a man. He’s the kind of guy who always has a million projects on the go all at once. One day during rehearsals he came and sat with me while I was doing my usual thing of sitting in a coffee shop reading and drinking hot chocolate.

‘So I’m thinking you could be in my film’. He began.


‘Yeah. I’ve kind of got this idea and my nephew and cousin will be in it and you’re going to play the sister in the story.’

‘Ray. What do you mean? We’re in the middle of rehearsing a musical. When were you thinking of doing a film?!’

‘Well, I thought we could shoot it in a week-end.’ He continued oblivious. ‘Maybe next week-end. In Brighton.’

‘But we open on the Monday after that!’ I said incredulously.

‘So? So what. Plenty of time to get there and back and shoot the film.’

You’ve got to hand it to the man. When he means business he means business.

The next day a script appeared that he had sat up all night writing. I was to learn it.

So I did.

On the Friday before we were opening ‘Ain’t Miss Behavin’ ‘ Ray and I and his friend Al the camera man drove to Brighton in a big white van full of equipment. We picked up his nephew on the way- a tall good looking boy of about….wait, he was about fifteen! I couldn’t play his sister surely.

‘Um Ray?’

‘Uh huh’

‘How old am I meant to be in this film?’

‘About nineteen.’

About nineteen. Right. About nineteen. What the actual......? I was thirty-two in three months!

‘It’ll be fine. You’ll see. Learn your words.’

It’ll be fine. Oh yeah. Easy for him to say. Now I was going to have to wack on the slap. And I was knackered from rehearsing. Concealer city.

It was freezing in Brighton but I had a huge amount of fun. We worked all day extremely hard. There was a lot of waiting around in between stuff. I ate lots of snacks. In the morning after a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage and toast we got to a flying start filming scenes with my film mum and dad. We filmed in Ray’s family business a gorgeous restaurant near the sea front to start with and graduated to peer front scenes and fairground scenes and car scenes. I kept having to commit my lines to my short term memory as I hardly had time to learn them and was forever putting makeup on, paranoid that I looked twice my brother’s age.

I actually was twice my brother’s age.

Amazingly when I watched the film back a month or so later it wasn’t too bad. The camera man Al needed a medal for his lighting technique….

By the time we all got back to London on Sunday night with the film in the bag, the idea of catching a train to Harrogate on Monday morning and opening  the show that we had been rehearsing for weeks made me feel a little bit green about the gills. I stayed with my parents that night in Greenwich as I had let my flat out to a family friend for a couple of months and duly alighted the long train up to sunny Harrogate ready for our dress-rehearsal and first night.

I think the director Hannah could tell that Ray and I were totally knackered and I’m not sure that she was best pleased. I felt a bit shaky and spaced out before the show but once it was underway and my tricky first solo was over (‘I like to tinkle on an ole piana’) I relaxed and I think we were a knock out! Just goes to show that if you want something doing you better ask a busy person. That person is most definitely Ray.

Back in London town after a wonderful couple of months singing for a living I applied for the obligatory temporary jobs. I sent an email answering an advert for a publishing company who were looking for staff to help promote their business magazine. No selling, just calling people up for a business award ceremony scheduled in a couple of months. Sounded okay. I got an interview and it went well I thought. The following day I waited for a reply. Nothing. Or the next day. By Friday I sent them an email thanking them for seeing me and wishing them success with future ventures.


 I couldn’t even get a temp job.

The following Monday I received an email. There had been an error. They would love me to start work immediately. Phew. I started work and began my commute to EC1. It was in curtain road. Would the curtain rise again for me or was it, in fact, curtains? The irony of location was not lost on me. I auditioned furiously.


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