They had been all over the UK, playing to enthusiastic audiences since October last year. “We only had another week to go,” says one of the stars of that production, Mark Curry. “We were going to finally bring down the curtain in Brighton the following week.”
But then came the lockdown announcement. “That was it, we packed our bags and left. Not much time for any fond farewells to any of my mates in the cast and crew. That was it, all done, over.”
Curry, who grew up in the mining community of Allerton Bywater, near Castleford, wasn’t alone. All the theatres in Britain “went dark” overnight. Thousands of performers suddenly found themselves in limbo. “We all hit the buffers, just like everyone else, of course. It’s been an appalling time for everyone. But I can only speak personally, and for our industry, and I’ve seen how much it has affected my colleagues and friends in the business. There were some youngsters in our show, for example, who were really looking forward to appearing in another production they were lined up for. That instantly became an impossibility,” he says.
“I’d also got an audition to take over one of the lead roles in Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, in the West End. Will that reopen when curtains go up again? I can only hope that it will, but I fear for the future of so many of our theatres.”
However, instead of retreating to his home near Eastbourne and sitting the whole thing out, Curry started thinking about how he could help others. “One of the first things I heard was that our union, Equity, was getting unprecedented numbers of calls from fellow performers who were absolutely desperate. Ours is a precarious business at the best of times, but this crisis created unbelievable problems. They were telling the people on the Equity switchboard that they just couldn’t afford to pay for their basic shopping. They were just like so many other folk in the community. We are by no means a special case, but when it hits the people you know and love it becomes a very focused problem.”
Curry came up with an idea after stumbling on an Italian performer on YouTube raising money online. “It struck me that maybe I could do the same thing, not by singing, or dancing, but by checking out the availability of some of my good mates and asking them to sit down and to chat about their careers, the people they’ve worked with and really getting them to open up. Not exactly a chat show, but a series of conversations.”
Out of this came Conversations With… Mark Curry, with every penny made from online donations going to the charity Acting for Others. “I’ve been so chuffed that so many of my friends and colleagues have been willing to give up their time and to take part, and I’ve been astounded at the level of support we’ve had,” he says.
His guests have included Toyah Wilcox, Millicent Martin, Jenny Seagrove and Susan Penhaligon. And, just for fun, Curry got back together with Peter Duncan and Janet Ellis, co-presenters from his Blue Peter days. “It’s funny”, he says, “you work very closely with people for quite some time and you think that you know everything about them. Well, I was wrong, because they were both telling me things that were very new, it wasn’t just a rehash of old stories and nostalgic memories.”
Interviewing people is something that Curry hadn’t really done before, and he believes the skill is in listening to what people say. “That’s something a lot of so-called ‘chat show hosts’ don’t do. They have an agenda – plug the book or the CD or the show, and do it in four minutes, tops. This show gives us time properly discuss issues. And I have to admit, every time when it ends I’m sitting there thinking ‘where did that last 50 minutes go?’”
Curry has performed on stage for many years and recalls being among the cast for the centenary tour of Charley’s Aunt. “It was a brilliant company and one of the others in the cast was the much-missed Patrick Cargill, and I had the great good luck to have a few scenes with him. What he didn’t know about timing, and making the most of your role… well, he was a master at it. One day, he took me to one side and said ‘Mark, I hope that you don’t mind me suggesting this, but you are not quite getting the delivery of that line right. May I give you a few tips? You’re getting two laughs by saying it the way that you do, but just tweak it a little, and you’d get one huge woofer. Always remember that a single big one is far better than two small chuckles, every time’. I tried it. He was so right.
“And I remember Patrick’s face on another night, when we were halfway through a performance at the Bradford Alhambra, when I turned – I was in full drag and heavy skirts – and did a huge flounce. I missed my balance and collapsed into the fireplace. It brought the house down. But it was a complete accident. In the interval, I apologised to Patrick, who still had tears of laughter running down his face, and that lovely man replied: ‘Mark, keep it in. Do it every night. It’s hilarious and I haven’t had so much fun for years – neither has the audience.’”
Curry has been a stalwart of the pantomime season for much of his career (his first one was on TV, opposite Bonnie Langford, another of his guests on the Acting for Others broadcasts), and when it comes to entertainment he believes that observation is one of the keys to success.
"I’ve had the great fortune to appear with some remarkable performers and I’ve always, ever since I started, watched the other people on the set, in the rehearsal room, or on the stage. That is 99 per cent of learning your trade. Watch and listen. It’s far better than several hours of lectures on acting theory, believe me. When youngsters ask me for my thoughts on getting into the business, I always tell them to give it 100 per cent and to be prepared for rejection all the time. If you fail an audition, bounce back. Learn from that rejection and try again. The other one per cent? That’s having the great good fortune to land the job in the first place.”
Curry is passionate about the theatre and live events which we are all missing right now. “I love it, whatever the show may be. I know so many people who are the same. They love their concerts, their recitals, their drama and their musicals. We all just take it for granted, don’t we?
“We’ve all learned one huge lesson – that you simply just don’t know how much you miss it all, until it isn’t there. And that’s a horrible feeling. A void in all our lives.”
Acting for Others can be found on the YouTube website, and at www.actingforothers.co.uk. Donations can be made at https://justgiving.com/campaign/actingforothers
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