“Having children will change your life,” people told me before I became a dad.
It was hard to appreciate exactly what they meant until it happened, but the other day a train went past as I was walking into town and I had a barely controllable urge to point at it and shout “Look! Train!”
Having children makes you see the world through different eyes. Fatherhood has given me – a born worrier at the best of times – new things to worry about (I’ve never driven so carefully as the day I drove home with my baby daughter in the back of the car), but also magical moments to savour and celebrate. There’s something uniquely wonderful about sharing your child’s little achievements, like taking their first steps, counting to five for the first time, learning to read…
Here are five small examples of how life is never the same once you’re a parent:
You get excited about vehicles – and might even wave at them
Young children – especially little boys – love vehicles, especially trains, tractors and diggers. These modes of transport may not excite you personally, but once you get in the habit of pointing them out, it’s difficult to stop, even if you’re on your own.
The ultimate vehicular excitement is if someone in that vehicle – it could be a passing boat or train – waves at your child or, if it’s a car, honks their horn. My kids watched cars passing under a bridge when we were out on a walk, and when one of the drivers saw them and honked his horn, they squealed with delight. It’s hard not to share that thrill.
You become obsessed with poo and wee
Your children will, at some stage, develop a fascination with poo and wee. They will probably make up songs about them. Poo and wee are hilarious. Fact.
They’re not the only ones who are obsessed with poo and wee, though. You probably reach the obsessive stage before they do, and you’ll soon find yourselves discussing what was in your child’s nappy – “It looked like chicken korma!” – or how many times they’ve used their potty. You won’t just discuss it between yourselves; you’ll chat in detail about poo and wee with other parents, or even non-parents, quite possibly while eating tea.
You’ll develop an in-built toilet tracker
You’re planning a trip out. What is the single most important thing you need to know if you have young children? Where the toilets are. Because the poo and wee obsession carries over into a very practical need to know the location of every toilet in the vicinity.
At some point in your outing, you will hear the alarming phrase “Daddy, I really need a wee!” and your toilet-locating reflex will kick in. You will never hear a child say “I think I will need a wee in ten minutes so I’m just warning you”. The need for the toilet will be a full-on, red-alert emergency and the bit of your brain that says “Marks and Spencer, top of the escalator, turn right” is all that can save you from disaster.
You will have to sing in front of people
Children like learning songs and, until they become painfully self-conscious, will enjoy performing their songs to you. You don’t get away with just listening, though. You will often be required to sing songs to them, either for their amusement or so they can learn the words.
There is no humiliation filter, though. They will inevitably want you to sing in front of other people. I had to perform “We represent the Lollipop Guild” in the style of Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz in front of two friends from work. They’d only popped in for a coffee.
You will become soppy
The way you love your children will change you forever. It has made me become a soppy fool. I suddenly see everyone as someone’s child, who needs love and encouragement.
I’d never cried at a film or TV programme before I had children (except ET when I was six). Recently, I’ve cried at two episodes of The Ghost Whisperer, and I even get a lump in my throat watching wildlife documentaries. Why are there always baby elephants getting lost and looking for their mum and dad?
And now for something completely different – a comedy sketch about a man who goes to work dressed as characters from the Famous Five.
About five years ago, before depression waded into my life, I wrote a number of comedy sketches, as did my brother, Neil, and our friend, Paul. We wanted to create our own sketch show and it was going quite well until we realised it needed someone to fund it and make it – then it fizzled out swiftly and rather limply.
My sketches tended to be very silly and often surreal, inspired by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Little Britain. I found some of them recently and thought I’d share one of them with you. You know, for a laugh.
This sketch begins in a news room with anchor man Maxi Dandy, whose nightly show is called ‘Good Evening with Maxi Dandy’. Take it away, Maxi.
Maxi Dandy: Good evening. In tonight’s programme, we visit Dorset, where the actions of a local office worker have led to heated discussion about diversity and employee rights. Julian Blyton has been going to work dressed as a different member of the Famous Five each day of the week. Ivor Johnson reports.
Cut to Ivor Johnson, who is standing in a bland office setting, wearing a leather jacket, shirt and tie, and holding a hand-held microphone.
Ivor: Meet forty-nine-year-old Julian Blyton. He is just like any other office worker, except for one striking difference. Every day of the working week, he dresses up as a different character from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.
The camera draws back to reveal Julian Blyton sitting opposite Ivor on the corner of a desk, dressed as nine-year-old Anne from the Famous Five.
Ivor: Julian, tell me how this began.
Julian (very deadpan, without a trace of humour): Well I suppose I have always been a Famous Five enthusiast. It may be down to my having the same surname as the author and also the same Christian name as the eldest character, Julian. Which is quite a coincidence.
Ivor: And have you always dressed in this way… as one of the Famous Five?
Julian: I tried it at school once, but the headmaster did not like it. He did not show much concern when I went into school as Julian, but took exception when I attended assembly as Timothy the Dog. He sent me home and told me to wear the proper school uniform. I am fortunate that my current employer is more considerate of my needs. He really is a brick.
Cut to Brian, Julian’s boss.
Brian: Yes, I admit it is a curious lifestyle but as long as Julian does his job well, I am happy for him to dress how he sees fit. To be fair, I do ask him to do office-based tasks on the days he wishes to dress as Timothy, as I feel our clients might not quite understand.
Ivor: I spoke to some of Julian’s colleagues to see what they really thought of his behaviour.
Cut to a series of people talking directly to camera.
Woman in her 40s: It’s quite a laugh really. I mean, he isn’t doing nobody no harm at the end of the day. I prefer him as Dick myself. He tends to be more humorous on Dick days.
Irate 35-year-old man: The whole thing is a bloody farce! This guy turns up dressed as a nine-year-old girl or whatever and we’re meant to take him seriously and let him get on with it. Last week, right, he went missing for THREE HOURS and when he came back he said he’d found a secret passageway behind the photocopier and had been kidnapped by bloody smugglers!
Young woman: Well, live and let live, you know, but it is a bit confusing. Like, one day a week he comes in as George, right. I mean, George is a girl who wants to be a boy, so we’ve got this bloke, who’s a bloke, pretending to be a girl, who wants to be a boy. That is a bit confusing, for me.
Cleaner: I wish he wouldn’t do it myself. When he comes in here dressed as a flipping dog, you should see all the mess. You know, we had to have doggy bins installed, but sometimes he forgets his pooper scooper. It’s not right, is it?
Older man: On the days he’s Timothy, we have to make sure all the doors are closed, or else he goes off looking for rabbits to chase. It’s a bit much, really.
Cut to Ivor and Julian.
Ivor: So what is a typical day like for Julian?
Julian: Well obviously it depends which of the characters I am, but I like to start the day with a walk in the country and a bathe in the stream. Then I come to work, but lunch is the most important time of the day. Aunt Fanny does give me a wizard luncheon. There are always ripe, juicy tomatoes, a big, fresh ham from the farmer’s wife, lashings of ginger beer and a couple of her lovely sticky buns. Today, because I am Anne, I will spend much of the day tidying my desk, cooking, cleaning and washing, because that is what young girls should do.
Ivor: Don’t you find office life rather boring, you know, being a member of the Famous Five? Shouldn’t you be out having adventures?
Julian: My life is terribly exciting. You never know what might happen. Last night, I was on my way to the toilet when a ghost train came clanking by, which was most peculiar.
Ivor: A ghost train?
Julian: A ghost train, that is correct. It had two lights and it went very fast and made a clicking noise, and I thought “Ooooooh, how mysterious, a ghost train here in our office. Why, there are not usually trains here. What can be happening?” Anyway, it turned out to be the cleaning lady with her trolley, and I had to admit I had been the most awful fathead.
Ivor: I see. So what happens when you leave the office? Do you change back into plain old Julian Blyton?
Cut to Julian leaving the office and cycling home along country lanes, drinking ginger beer and shouting “Hallo!” to traditional English characters – the village bobby, postman, butcher, etc. He goes up a garden path to a quaint little cottage. A portly, ruddy-faced woman (Aunt Fanny) opens the door and moments later, the other characters from the Famous Five come charging out and run to the sea shore, where they climb into a pale blue wooden rowing boat. Julian runs with them, after flinging his bike into a bush.
Aunt Fanny (calling after them): Anne! Anne! Don’t forget you have a meeting with the new admin assistant tomorrow morning at half past nine! Oh, and I’ve put your Dick clothes out on the airer.
Julian: Oh thank you, Aunt Fanny. That’s jolly decent of you.
Cut to Ivor Johnson, who is looking behind the photocopier in Julian’s office.
Ivor: Golly – he’s right! (He disappears behind the photocopier).
If you enjoyed this sketch, let me know – there are plenty more where this came from.
If you didn’t, be kind
Think of shaved heads and what comes to mind? Perhaps those well ‘ard Mitchell brothers from Eastenders. Maybe some skinhead fascists or football hooligans. Or, far removed from those stubble-scalped scallywags, you might think of a Buddhist monk, or perhaps a streamlined swimmer.
My shaved head is nothing to do with any of the above, nor is it a fashion statement. My bald bonce represents resignation – resignation to the fact that my hairline is receding ever further from my forehead; that it’s thinning on top; that I have a shiny, round bald patch.
Round the back and sides, my hair is still quite thick – and increasingly grey. It’s no good having thick hair just around the sides, really, is it? Left alone, it would grow into some kind of bouffant interpretation of a middle-aged mad professor, and I would be forced to wear a lab coat at all times.
Shaving my head is now, for me, the only alternative to this professor chic. I see other men in similar states of follicular depreciation trying to hide their plight. They might sport a wispy island of hair in the middle of their otherwise naked scalp. Worse still, an older gent in my situation might scrape a couple of longer strands of hair from the side of his head across the hair-free expanse on top, like some kind of flappy rope bridge across a bald canyon, prone to disastrous collapse at the merest suggestion of a gust of wind.
Prince William should take a leaf out of my book. Alan Shearer, the former England footballer turned pundit, has already done so. Well, he didn’t consult me directly on the matter, but I was clearly his inspiration. Wayne Rooney chose to go the other way, and good luck to him. There’s no better way to draw attention to your premature baldness than to get a high-profile hair transplant.
There are a lot of benefits to my hair(less) do. It’s the ultimate low-maintenance haircut, and because it’s almost idiot-proof to do it myself it’s far cheaper than anything requiring the services of a professional. I don’t need to spend ages choosing shampoo or carefully conditioning my luxuriant locks, and nor do I have to worry about the unwelcome attention of headlice.
The lack of hairstyling options as a bald chap means more time spent on choosing hats. Hats are a necessity these days, either to block out the sun (sunburn + bald head = nasty, painful mess) or keep out the cold. Even the smallest covering of hair seems to make all the difference on a chilly day. A cold blast of icy wind is enough to freeze your brains. Well, it feels like it anyway. The most extreme hat I own is what I call my Yak Hat, so called because it was made in Nepal and because it is very woolly. It has ear flaps (perhaps not stylish but certainly cosy and useful for shutting out the noise of bickering children) and, to lend it extra yakiness, it smelt of damp sheep when I got caught in a shower the day I bought it.
I sometimes wonder why I went bald at a youngish age – an eagle-eyed friend and hair obsessive spotted that my hairline was receding while I was still in the sixth form – and ponder over whether it might be some sort of hair karma; a kind of punishment for the terrible hairstyles I have had in the past.
I went through my early school years with a nondescript, standard-issue schoolboy haircut, but things started to go wrong when I become more interested in my own appearance, and decided to copy other boys in my year and get my hair spiked – a fashionable look in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the hairdresser who did the spiking one ill-fated day in 1988 decided it would look good if I also had a fringe. She was mistaken. Everywhere I went the next day, I was greeted with uproarious, mocking laughter and howls of derision. The humiliation has stayed with me ever since. Laughter at the bus stop. Laughter on the bus. Laughter in the classroom. Laughter in assembly.
I moved on to a more regular ‘flat top’, but even that wasn’t without its problems. By this time I had moved to another hairdresser’s, but on one occasion there was a stand-in guest hairdresser, with maverick ideas of how to sculpt a flat top from my hair.
“Do you want it totally square or a bit square?” he asked.
“Er, a bit square?” I answered, not really having given much thought to the would-be squareness of my head.
He proceeded to reveal a rectangular piece of plastic and shaved round it, somehow creating a perfect trapezium shape out of my extremely short hair. I was stuck with this absurd geometrical tribute for a fortnight.
When I was 19, I experimented with my hair again, having moved through a fairly stable side-parting period. Just about every footballer in the top flight, and, I think, the entire England under-21 squad, had a hairstyle that was very short and combed forward. It sadly didn’t really suit me, as my girlfriend at the time pointed out. When meeting my great auntie Kathleen, she took the opportunity to ask what my dear relative thought of this new hairstyle of mine.
“With a face like that,” said Auntie Kath, “it doesn’t matter what he does with his hair.” I think she meant this as a compliment, and I really appreciated the support for my feeble fashion failure.
I eventually gave up on my hair eight years ago and baldly went where I’d only been once before (a Comic Relief head-shaving event in 1998). Of course I would rather have a full head of hair, but – to the despair of my mother – I have conceded defeat and would rather have no hair than some tufty remnants.
Tragically (ahem) I can’t treat you to any photos of my hair nightmares of years gone by, so here is a more recent photo by my friend Jo Pickles, celebrating the baldness.
If someone asked you “Did you hear about the hole in the road?” how would you respond?
A fellow dad did ask me that very question the other day, and my instinctive response was “Yes. Police are looking into it.”
It was a classic dad joke – the name given to the obvious jokes and daft puns relished by fathers across the land.
I’m not sure anyone is truly ready for the crazy world of fatherhood when it comes along. You suddenly have to learn new skills, like changing foul-smelling, generously filled nappies, interpreting screams and dodging sick, at alarming speed, all while getting no sleep. But there were two ways I was naturally ready for the challenge of being a dad. I had already mastered dad jokes and dad dancing.
Dad dancing, like dad jokes, is one of those things that dads seem to enjoy but which their offspring find rather cringeworthy. It involves lots of air guitar, some enthusiastic twisting, and possibly a bit of singing into an imaginary microphone. I have become too self-conscious to dance in the majority of circumstances, but it might just take one opportunity to humiliate my children at a wedding, and the innate dad-dancing gene could kick in automatically.
As for the dad jokes, these, like folk stories, have been passed down through the generations of my family. I can cite my own dad as my key influence in this area. My brother, though not a dad himself, has this same talent. Family meals can descend into a rapid-fire pun-down, with us three men exchanging increasingly dire puns while my mum, wife and brother’s partner roll their eyes in pity, despair and resignation.
One of my dad’s greatest dad jokes was one I groaned at when he said it, but have since come to appreciate in all its glory. We were coming back from a family holiday and passed a lorry, which was carrying tyres.
“That driver looks tyred,” said Dad. Genius.
My first real job was working as a writer and subeditor for a newspaper, when occasionally I got chance to hone my pun-making skills in headlines and stories. I remember interviewing a lady who’d passed her Spanish exam, and was delighted to find she’d got a grade C – not because I was enthralled by her prowess in the language but because I could come up with this pretty tenuous headline: “I got a C, senor.”
I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that every dentist appointment I ever hear about is at 2.30 (that’s tooth hurty – see? Hilarious), and definitely not the only one who hopes each year that someone won’t have heard the “It’s National Star Wars Day” joke, which can be told with glee every May the 4th. May the 4th be with you!
There are certain subjects that inspire great punning, but I’ll have a go at pretty much anything. I was on the phone to Dad earlier and we were talking about a walk he’s going on, organised by a sheep farmer. “Is it a RAMble?” I asked, smirking. “Are the details a bit woolly?”
Another time at work, someone tweeted that their train was delayed because there was a cow on the line. “Have you got moos for us?” I jested. “Pull the udder one! Don’t milk it!”
These jokes are obviously not the exclusive domain of dads, but as they’ve been allocated to us, let’s embrace the cheesy badness and be the champions of this light-hearted, low-quality tomfoolery. After all, our children subliminally want this and expect it of us, don’t they?
It is often said that things that taste nice must be bad for you, and that things that taste disgusting must be good for you. Sometimes though, a disgusting thing that’s meant to be good for you is so disgusting that you don’t care how good for you it is.
This is true of my adventures with a dietary supplement called spirulina. Spirulina is widely hailed a ‘superfood’. Although it can’t make you taller, make your hair grow back, give you x-ray vision, turn you into a love god or enable you to fly, it seems it can do pretty much everything else.
There were two particular benefits of spirulina that interested me:
- it reduces fatigue, giving you more energy;
- it boosts your immune system.
I was in great need of both these things when I went to talk to the occupational health nurse at work last spring.
Two of the effects or symptoms of my lingering depression had been physical and mental lethargy, and a constant stream of tedious minor ailments and illnesses. The nurse suggested a number of things – particularly some supplements to my diet - that might help to get me fit again. Spirulina was one of them.
Eager to eradicate my troublesome symptoms and get on with the business of shaking off my depression, I went out one lunchtime to a health food shop in town and left with various tablets and potions, some of which I’ve stuck with and others that had no discernible effect. And then there was the spirulina. Popping in to a nearby smoothie shop for a fruit fix, I spotted a brown bag, labelled ‘spirulina powder’. The chap in the shop raved about its greatness and offered it to me at a reduced price.
“Mix it in with a smoothie or juice,” he advised. Off I went, clutching my bargain bag of superfood, eager to try it out and reawaken my dormant inner superhero.
Spirulina is a naturally occurring algae, and what I hadn’t expected was that it would revert to its natural slimy state at the merest hint of moisture. Even before it morphed into thick, dark-green slime, the smell emanating from the open bag was a clear warning that this was not going to taste good. But it would be good for me, so I would be brave and do what was necessary to reap the rewards of this miraculous gloop.
I put a spoonful of spirulina powder into my morning smoothie, and watched it turn green. Not a nice, appetising green. Slime green. Pondweed green. Algae green. I stirred it furiously to try and blend in the claggy blobs of goo, but lumps of it stuck to the spoon. Then I took a deep breath, and downed some. So much for my new va-va-voom – this was more like va-va-vomit. It was utterly, utterly rank. Not only did it taste vile, it encased my teeth, and the taste lingered. One perfectly good smoothie ruined.
Day after day, I tried to complete a glass of this rancid concoction, and each time coughed, spluttered and gagged my way through it. Thinking I must be getting the mixture wrong, I tried different juices. Still it stank. Still it tasted putrid. I tried mixing it with water. Even worse. Nothing makes algae feel more at home than water, and the spirulina thrived in my glass, but much less so on my taste buds, which rejected it out of hand.
I persisted for far longer than any right-minded person would do, but my enthusiasm for experimenting with spirulina was in terminal decline. Having tried just about everything else, I gave it one last go – on its own. No mixture. No blending. Just the spirulina powder, on a teaspoon. Well, as bad ideas go, this one was a medal-winner.
On contact with my mouth, the powder seemed to expand and fill my mouth, so I could hardly breathe. The saliva in my mouth transformed it into one part super-claggy slime and one part dynamite. The putrescent slime clung to my teeth, tongue and gums, and the dynamite part built up in my mouth, choking me, until it exploded, leaving me staggering around the kitchen, erupting like some green-cloud-spewing volcano.
It was the final straw.
I did try spirulina tablets, the less offensive cousin of the powder, but the jar demanded that I take six tablets every day. “Not at that price,” I objected, so I took one a day, with no benefits whatsoever, until the jar was empty.
Some time later, I saw the man from the smoothie shop and he asked me how I’d got on with my purchase. I told him it had been unbelievably revolting. He asked if I’d mixed it with juice. I said yes, I’d mixed in one teaspoon of the powder, as he’d suggested…
“A whole teaspoon?” he said. “No mate, you only need half a teaspoon.”
Ah yes, that was what he had said. My memory, along with my energy, had disappeared into the fog of depression, and I’d somehow remembered the wrong quantity. But it was too late by then. I had fallen out with the spirulina and thrown it all in the bin. And there was no way I was going to put that stuff anywhere near my mouth again.
It’s had a go at my moods, my self-esteem and my energy, but one thing depression hasn’t been able to defeat is my sense of humour. Although I haven’t felt like laughing a lot of the time, there is still part of my brain that’s hot-wired to automatically generate puns at every opportunity.
Even in my darkest moments, I don’t know if I’d have been able to resist the obvious ‘tooth hurty’ gag if someone had said to me that they had an appointment with the dentist that afternoon. If you wanted a blog about double entendres I could definitely give you one. If you wanted pencil puns I could quickly get to the point. If you wanted puns about baking bread I could rise to the challenge. As for dairy puns I could milk that subject until the cows come home.
While I try to see the humour in most aspects of life, there are some things that just aren’t funny. Depression is one of those things. Confusingly, despite its extreme unfunniness, there is a link between this miserable illness and comedy. People experiencing terrible depression can still be very funny. Take Kenneth Williams, for example – a man who made millions laugh, but who suffered from depression throughout his life. He is one of many high-profile comedians or comic actors to have grappled with mental illness while making a name for themselves as someone who tickles ribs and splits sides.
Making other people laugh is a good – but often unintentional – diversion from what is going on in your head. On the outside, you appear bright and bubbly, like a glass of champagne. On the inside, you might feel more like flat cola or sour milk, but nobody would know, because you’re still cracking jokes. When there’s nobody else around to amuse or entertain, that’s when the forces of darkness are at their most powerful and dangerous. With just depression for company, there’s little chance for a chuckle or a chortle.
Humour, it would seem, comes in spite of depression, not because of it. For all those depressed people who carry on making others laugh, it’s not depression itself that’s funny. How many jokes do you know about it? I’ve just done a quick Google search for ‘jokes about depression’. It turns out there are some, but unless I’ve missed any hidden gems, most don’t actually seem to be about the depression I know and none made me laugh. This doesn’t surprise me. I’d already experimented with my own jokes about depression, substituting parts of some very old and well-known jokes with depression-related symptoms or scenarios, and found them about as funny as a cabbage. For instance:
Patient: Doctor, doctor, I have constant headaches, I’m frazzled, I hate myself and don’t look forward to anything any more.
Doctor: Maybe you have depression.
OK, let’s move on.
Why did the depressed person cross the road?
Because they hoped the other side would be better than this one.
Oh – again, not funny in the slightest.
Someone with depression.
Someone with depression who?
Let’s stop right there. That one doesn’t even make sense.
How many depressed people does it take to change a lightbulb?
Who cares about the lightbulb?
Enough! You get my point. If this blog was a stand-up routine I’d have been booed off.
Much as I love a pun challenge, I have to admit defeat. I just can’t think of anything funny – or even worth a small smirk – about depression. Can you?
This blog is about self-esteem. It’s about friendship. And it’s about a pantomime. Oh yes it is!
I have just finished a week-long run as Athos in our village panto production of The Three Musketeers. You might say it’s now BEHIND ME! Ho ho.
We’d been rehearsing twice a week since early September and it paid off – the show was a roaring success. Our audiences loved it and so did we. It was successful for me in a very personal way too.
Shortly after rehearsals began, my depression reared its ugly head and decided to make life difficult. It was nothing to do with the panto and I managed to keep going with the sword fighting, singing, dancing and acting, but I must have been on autopilot for a while. There was too much on my mind, and my confidence had slipped below zero. But this panto is a story with a happy ending. As I made my way home from our after-show party, I felt content. And, in the last couple of years, feeling truly content has been such a rare experience that I tend to write it down when it happens. “An after-show party,” I hear you say. “So you were drunk then.” Well no, not a drop of alcohol had passed my lips. Citalopram, the antidepressant I’m taking, doesn’t mix well with booze, and the last thing my jubilant panto chums would want is one of their musketeers passing out in the pub, or moping tragically in a corner.
So why the contentment?
It was a heady mix of positive things, but most notably I had enjoyed being me – the real me, the person who actually knows how to have fun and enjoy being in the moment, doing spontaneous things for no good reason other than it was funny at the time, and not worrying about everything.
During my depression, I’ve found this person rather elusive. I’ve found nights out overwhelming at times. Joining in with other people who are having fun has often been too daunting. I’ve had to give my apologies for various events, even the most minor and unthreatening of outings, because I just haven’t had the self-confidence to take part in them. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to this party either. I knew it would be busy in the pub; full of excited, happy people, having a great time. I thought I’d probably drop in for a while, hang around the edges of the main throng, then say my goodbyes and mooch off.
But I underestimated the power of the party. I underestimated the special atmosphere that my friends – some of whom I’ve known for years and others for a very short time – could create. And I underestimated myself.
That’s not to say I went diving headfirst into the core of the revelry and danced riotously on the bar. In fact, the dancefloor remained as intimidating as always until well into the night. But I was enjoying chatting to everyone, and somehow relaxed (another unusual feeling) and got into the spirit of it all. The last half hour I was at that party was among the happiest I can remember for a long time. I sang at the top of my voice – not that there was much of a voice coming out by then – in the middle of the miniature dancefloor with my energetic panto buddies. Brilliant. And there were lovely warm hugs all round, and lots of kind words. I was part of the family. People liked me (hmm, at least I think they did – there are some good actors in our group…). Heck, I even liked myself!
It was the third time that week I’d proved myself wrong, and learned a valuable lesson in the process. Well, when I say I learned a valuable lesson, what I mean is that a valuable lesson I had already learned in my counselling actually sank in and meant something: don’t worry about the future; just concentrate on the present. On top of that, you don’t have to excel at everything. Just do the best you can at that time.
On Monday, prior to the opening night of the show, I felt completely flat. Everyone else seemed excited and couldn’t wait to get on stage. I was just worried and stressed out. The thing that made me worry most was the prospect of getting ill during the week. It had happened before – only once, but enough to give me something to worry about. Fact 1: I might not have got ill, so there was no point worrying about it. Fact 2: If I were to get ill, I’d just have to deal with it. But facts often vanish behind the black cloak of my evil alter-ego, Paul Brookes, who enjoys my worrying and fuels it with misgivings.
And I did get ill. From Wednesday to Friday, I woke up with no voice at all, and spent each day downing hot honey and lemon drinks, vitamin C tablets, fruit smoothies and various throat lozenges to give my voice a chance of doing the required shouting and singing each night. But fighting this throaty lurgy had a strange, unexpectedly positive effect. It made me forget about my nerves and worries and focus on each day, one at a time. Each time I got through a show, it felt like a great victory.
The next time I felt flat was in the hour before our final show. We’d done the matinee performance and that had gone well. I’d dashed home for some tea and a top-up of my various throat-soothing concoctions, and returned to the dressing room to get ready for The Big One – the Saturday night show. It’s done differently to our other shows. There’s a bar and cabaret-style seating around tables. Demand for tickets is so high that people start queuing before 7.30am on the day they go on sale - at 11am. The audience is especially lively, and on that particular day, at that particular moment, I was not feeling up to stepping out on stage in front of them. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the dressing room was one of giddy excitement and hilarity. But not for me. I felt withdrawn, tired and lacking in va-va-voom.
Somehow, though, the mood passed, and the show was fantastic. I’d defeated the dark powers of Brookes for the second time that week. And then came the party. Paul Brook 3, Paul Brookes 0.
So thank you, Ebor Players, not just for being brilliantly talented, lovely people; not just for being great friends; but for doing more than you could have realised to give me back some of my self-esteem and confidence. All for one – and ONE FOR ALL!
- Read the review of our show and have a look through the photos by Chris Sharples
- Find out more about the Ebor Players at http://eborplayers.wordpress.com/
Two years ago, I was a power-crazed super-villain, a criminal mastermind hellbent on world domination. In my secret hideout, I ordered my henchman to detonate my super-destructive satellite weapon.
At least, that’s what I was pretending to do. What was actually happening was this: in a chilly farm shed in a rural East Yorkshire hamlet, I was dressed in my work suit, playing the part of the evil billionaire Dean Lomax in a short film. With me were two of the nicest henchmen you could ever meet – Tomasz and Krzysztof – and a film crew led by amateur film-maker Stuart Graham, the mastermind behind crime thriller The Doomsday Satellite.
Surrounded by a remarkable collection of old computers, we’d holed ourselves up in a small room, which served as Lomax’s lair. The set was simple – satellite controller Krzysztof sat at a computer while I prowled ‘menacingly’ behind him. Tomasz then came charging in with some news that upset Lomax, prompting him to unleash the power of the deadly weapon on an unwitting target.
It was all rather surreal, looking back on it. I’d seen Stuart’s advert for volunteer actors to appear in a short film, gone for an audition at The University of York’s biology department, and landed the part. A couple of rehearsals (in a classroom) later, we were ready to film on set. My scenes were about halfway through the filming schedule – somewhere between the assassination scenes shot earlier in the lab and the surprising Hawaiian footage that was to follow. Our location was an unlikely bolthole for an arch-villain, nestling as it did in the lovely Yorkshire Wolds, close to a church and down a bumpy farm track. The air of menace was diluted slightly when Tomasz returned from a stroll outside with dog poo on his shoe, which stank out the whole room.
So why am I writing about this film now? Because I have just watched it for the first time. Stuart has been a busy chap behind the scenes, creating and destroying satellite weapons and putting the film together, and now it’s ready.
Like any actor – professional or extremely amateur – I was, of course, most keen to see how I appeared and what my own performance was like. Well, now I know why proper actors can command such big fees. It is not easy to be genuinely nasty unless you have some kind of natural, in-built evil side. My attempt at villainy wasn’t helped by me using my own voice. On hindsight, something more intimidating would have been handy. Rather than losing my rag with my inept henchmen, it was like watching myself telling off my kids with a hint of a Yorkshire accent. I should have taken tips from Tomasz, whose chilling delivery of the line ‘You should not have interfered’ was vintage Bond villain.
But at around 18 minutes, the film is fast-paced and enjoyable (if not exactly suitable for family viewing due to swearing and violence), and I’m glad I was part of Stuart’s growing collection of mini movies. It was fun and a memorable experience. And, should I ever attempt to play the bad guy again, I can learn from my own masterclass in how not to do it.
And now I suppose you want to watch it, don’t you? Oh go on then:
I have a new-found admiration for Elvis impersonators. Fat ones, thin ones, old ones, young ones, good ones, rubbish ones – well done all of you.
So why this sudden outpouring of appreciation? After all, there are some important facts we have to face:
- Elvis cannot be rivalled – nobody else is going to match his voice, moves and charisma.
- Elvis wigs are terrible.
- Elvis impersonation is weird – imagine Elvis looking down and seeing people all over the world dressing up in curious parodies of his stage outfits and butchering his classic songs.
- Elvis is dead – his music lives on, but he has moved on, and anything else is a pale imitation. He’s not working in a chippy in Halifax. He isn’t hanging out on Mars. He died on the loo in 1977.
So my respect for Elvis impersonators is not based on their unique singing voices, enviable hairpieces or ornate costumes. It’s because these people (mostly men, but not exclusively) have amazing memories, astonishing stamina and nerves of steel.
I do not think of myself as an Elvis impersonator, but I DO sing Elvis songs at karaoke, I DO sing Elvis songs in my village panto (stop booing please) and I DO have a gold suit and an Elvis wig (which looks like roadkill – like a dead badger but without the stripes). OK, so maybe I am an Elvis impersonator of sorts.
And that’s how I ended up performing as Elvis this evening at an event ingeniously dreamt up by the young people of Bishopthorpe, a village near York. The Something Awesome weekend, linked to the churches in the village, brought together local talent for a cabaret evening. Local talent and me.
I was third in the running order. To say I was nervous would be similar to suggesting that my little boy quite likes diggers - a MASSIVE understatement.
I thought I was well prepared. I’d been playing Elvis songs in the car all week, and practising my two chosen songs – Teddy Bear and Are You Lonesome Tonight? – to a rather old karaoke CD that was to be my backing band for the night. Teddy Bear had caused me a few problems, as I kept getting verses in the wrong order, but ‘Lonesome’ was fine. I’d nailed that one earlier in the week, talking verse and everything. No problems there.
Back in the village hall, the hosts were introducing me, and out I went, bolstered by two Fruit Shoots (one apple, one blackcurrant), to generous applause and a sea of expectant faces. I mumbled an introduction, then the Teddy Bear backing track kicked in – or I should say it started up fairly faintly in the distance.
I have to say it went very well and I was feeling rather happy at the end of the song. No wrong words, and I even kept time despite the backing track disappearing under some loud but rather off-beat clapping.
This was like the Elvis 1968 comeback TV special – the returning rock legend, surrounded on all sides by fans cheering him on. Uh huh huh. Thankyouverymuch.
Straight into ‘Lonesome’. First couple of lines – fine. But then my mind went totally blank. No words were coming into my head or out of my mouth. Disaster! I’d forgotten the words completely. The words I’ve known off by heart since I was 19. The words I hadn’t got wrong once in the last fortnight.
Somehow I recovered, partly helped by the sight of my mum nobly mouthing the words at me from across the room, and it was all rather good fun.
It was that blank moment that made me realise that I do owe Elvis impersonators some credit. I’ve seen some awful ones, some excellent ones – none ever coming close to the real deal, of course – and some bizarre ones (the Swedish Elvis who sang Jailhouse Rock but pronounced J as Y, for example), but none of them have ever forgotten their words. None of them have ever dried up.
So fair play to you, Elvises of the world. You really know your stuff. And you do the world a great service – you remind people how much they love the real Elvis. Thank YOU very much.
Just to prove I haven’t made this up, here I am, complete with gold suit and roadkill wig…