I’m thrilled to the core by the magnificent tribe whose talents shine the world over
There’s something about a flesh-and-blood entertainer doing his nut in front of a flesh-and-blood audience that thrills me to the core. I’ve no idea why. Maybe because my great-grandfather was a pantomime dame. Maybe because I’m a far-flung twig on the Littler family tree — the dynasty that includes Emile and Prince Littler, impresarios who dominated music hall and pantomime in the first half of the last century.
Whatever the reason, and despite (perhaps because of?) the fact that I have not the ghost of a talent myself at standing up to entertain, I see in the man or woman who can walk out in front of a sceptical crowd and make them laugh, or cry, or gasp, a heroism higher than that of the hot-blooded warrior. I’ve watched high-wire acts in travelling circuses in the steamy towns of the Bolivian Amazon, men eating fluorescent tubes for a living in Cuzco, Peru, and card-sharps on the Ramblas in Barcelona, and felt them to be, every one of them, part of the same magnificent tribe. They are the brotherhood, and sisterhood, whose art has not at its core changed very much over the millennia and changes little from continent to continent. They always have, of course, their particular skills, sometimes to a high degree, sometimes more homely; but the skill they all have is the talent to warm their audience up and win them over from a standing start — sometimes on the streets, or gathering a crowd in a market place, or captivating the children in a village hall, or competing with the buzz of conversation after a grand dinner. They are their own fanfare, their own roll on the kettle-drums, their own whipper-in.
I can still remember a Christmas visit in Southern Rhodesia from a distantly related great aunt whose stage name was Rona Ricardo and who had been beached in South Africa when the touring company that shipped her there foundered. I don’t think she had her fare home and so had decided to take her chances in a new continent. Miss Ricardo must have been past 60 but she had flame-red dyed hair and, as a professional entertainer, had become (or so we Parris children were led by our parents to suspect) none too choosy about the manner in which she entertained. She had started a beauty salon as well as performing in cabaret. We all thought her a tremendous sport.
Rona, I fear, was on her way down. Fay Presto — whom I met some years ago at a conference dinner where I was speaking — was on her way up. A transgender magician and entertainer, she was providing the after-dinner fun, while I did the worthy stuff. Literally ‘while’ — to my horror her spellbinding table-to-table tricks continued through my dull speech. Afterwards, she was kind. ‘Lovely speech,’ she said, consolingly, ‘how long have you been on the circuit, darling?’
Three times in the last seven days my spine has tingled in empathy and admiration for the troupers who walk that wire. Last week we recorded a Great Lives programme in which the magician Paul Daniels chose Harry Houdini as his hero, and afterwards Paul stayed behind and did card tricks for us in the studio. At 71, his childlike delight in tricking this tiny audience with his patter and his sleight-of-hand — and our childish excitement at the performance — beat (for me) a million slick, recorded TV shows.
And then on Monday night, when the Derbyshire women’s British Legion branches did me the honour of asking me to ‘receive’ the purses of their charity collections over the year, I watched another professional — of local rather than national fame.
The ladies had been promised an entertainment after the worthy part of the proceedings was over, but it appears that a youth choir had let them down at the last minute. So as an emergency measure, Mr Mick Partridge, for years a mainstay of the Youlgreave village pantomime and a fantastic dame, treated us all to half an hour’s hilarious patter — his jokes just the right side of the line as he strutted backwards and forwards like a caged wildcat. Then he did some magic tricks, getting a volunteer lady to throw imaginary knots into his top hat, whereupon the unknotted handkerchiefs we had seen being stuffed in all appeared with knots. Finally he cut another volunteer lady’s head off — or rather didn’t, as his stage guillotine sliced the carrots at her shoulders, but left her neck unmarked. There’s such a thing as professionalism at every level of the entertainment industry. I don’t know what Mr Partridge charges, but he’s worth every penny.
The following night I was back in London, at the Ritz. It was a birthday treat for two good Derbyshire friends, one of whom was turning 60, and for my beloved secretary, Mrs Wright, who turned 79. I’ve never been to the Ritz and had expected to find it overdone. It was overdone — but magnificently overdone. Food, wine and service were splendid, the atmosphere celebratory and the décor florid. And as we dined I became aware of a pianist, tinkling away in the background.
Tinkling, that is, so long as you relegated the music to the background. But if you listened — and for five minutes we all did — the pianist was really very good. A couple of times we applauded him, and he nodded his appreciation. Before leaving I walked over to compliment him and we began to talk. He was perhaps late-middle-aged, and though of Indian appearance his name was Ian and his English perfect. His surname being Gomes (he gave me his Ritz card) I wondered whether he might be Goanese, but felt it would be impertinent to ask. Mr Gomes told me he had once had his own radio show in India, playing the piano. He gave me his CD.
And he told me about the time once many decades ago, as he played a selection of Gershwin melodies, and after he had finished ‘Embraceable You’, an appreciative elderly gentlemen in his audience had come over to tell him how well he interpreted the great composer. ‘Thank you,’ Mr Gomes had replied, ‘I often wonder how George Gershwin, if he were still alive, would feel on hearing me play his songs.’
‘Oh,’ said the gentleman, ‘my brother would have like the way you play very much.’ It was Ira Gershwin.
We gave Mr Gomes a wave as he departed, which he acknowledged with a small dignified bow. He too is one of that band of brothers. Were I to believe in Heaven, I should like to suppose there’ll be a sumptuous and continuous feast there, décor à la Ritz, attended by Paul Daniels, Mick Partridge, Rona Ricardo and Fay Presto — with Ian Gomes playing the piano.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 26, 2009