There can’t be many people who don’t know the successes of Stoke-on-Trent — like Jackie Trent & Terri Wade — but what about the miserable failures? Like poet-author, and editor of “The Bentilean”, John Steele…..or is it?
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why the blummin’ heck am I going to audition for “Opportunity Knocks”? Such were my thoughts as the coach drew ever closer to Manchester.
I remember the trailers: “Send a SAE for an application form, to try out for the next series of Opportunity Knocks”. I remember being pig-sick of trying to overcome my hatred of writing long enough to make it as a writer. I remember the Bright Idea: send for a form and see if I can make it as a male Pam Ayres.
Afterall, what has she got going for her? A pretty face? A funny accent? A cute smile? Awful poems? Well, I’m not Bad Looking. Born and raised in the Potteries I must have a funny accent to half the nation. My cheeks dimple when I smile broadly. And I write awful poems! got everything, right?
Wrong!! I hate cameras, I almost have a coronary reading my stuff out at the local WEA Writer’s Workshop, and the only time I’ve been on a stage was as a dwarf in Infant’s School. And then it occurs to me: if I’m halfway successful at this ‘male Pam Ayres’ lark, I’d be right back behind my typewriter trying to bash out a bookful of blummin’ poems!
Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!!!!!! (As they say in Bella magazine).
And the venue did little to calm me down. Big as a mountain on the outside (to a poor lad from Stoke), the Sashas Hotel was even bigger inside. And what greeted me as I walked through the doors? Lifesize stuffed animals! A polar bear, tiger, and stag to be exact. Jeez! I thought, I hope this isn’t the audience. It wasn’t. They were worse.
After having my Polaroid taken by a stick-insect wearing glasses, I was shown through double-doors, stauncly withstanding several hundred decibels of Rock Music, and into what I could only assume was a converted aircraft hangar, half-crammed with fellow starlets/loonies.
The ‘Why?s’ started buzzing round my head again, as I took a seat next to two singer-guitarist who called themselves “Just Variety”, and a fellow in a magicians cloak sitting next to another fellow sporting a wild, white wig, fishnet stockings, and a green leotard. For a moment I almost forgot that too-soon I would have to go out in front of these weirdos and make an even bigger eejit out of myself.
We were all crowded down one end of the hall, on three rows of chairs, some leaning on the back wall, some crowded up the sides, but all behind a long row of tables, seating soundman, small close circuit video camera, the producer, and several whose function I couldn’t discern. The stage was just a rectangle of floor, lit by four blinding TV lights, with not even any ‘wings’ to have yourself a quiet nervous breakdown in before going on. It was worse than a vindaloo and beans.
A hour and ten minutes of watching singers, dancers, and musicians, who were all far too good for my liking, and it was my turn. Thanks to my late arrival in Manchester I had missed my official time and had been sitting there hating every good act lest I should suddenly have to follow it, and praying when a stand-up comic went down like a lead life-jacket that I’d be next. I wasn’t. Not until some blond, middle-aged woman came over to me and said, “Richard” (for I’d called myself Richard Mears), “you’re on next. After this act, just make your way down the other side of the hall, and the stage manager will show you to your spot.”
Suddenly I wanted my mummy, and all to soon was given the choice of a hand-held or free-standing microphone instead. “Wait for your cue,” I was told. It came, I started, and another lead life-jacket hit the ocean floor.
Consistent to the end, I’d chosen to do “The Secret Service Poet”, which cries out at every line to be performed, and merely recited it. Worse still, it starts “Shhh! If my appearance surprises you, whatever you do don’t show it” and I was the most sensibly dressed person there! (All dressed in my black theatre front-of-house vol-ing clothes and a borrowed bright red bow tie) And then the poem was evidentally too short, as I had to tell them that I’d finished!!
Still, I’d done it. Me, who’d never performed since the age of seven. And when I’d announced I’d finished, I had even been given a round of applause at least on par with my fellow failure, the comedian. And not a single thrown tomato! And when I retook my seat, I was in such a good mood I even spoke to somebody!!
What’s that you ask? Would I ever do it again? No. No…no…no…and a thousand, million, zillion times maybe.
©John Steele 1991, 2011
Article originally self-published in The Bentilean Mini-mag Issue 2 community magazine. The poem, The Secret Service Poet, appears elsewhere on this website — here.