Friday, September 10, 2010

Yuletide Feast or Famine

The Christmas season across the globe, to all practising Christians and to the vast majority of non-Christians who are bombarded with the festive spend-your-hard-earned- cash-with-us advertisements that ooze from our radios and televisions, is usually a joyous time of the year.

To the jobbing actor this time of the year is no different from the rest. It is, as it always is, a feast or a famine. Except that at Christmas either the feast can be so gigantic that one needs a month after the event at a health farm to recuperate or the famine is of such dire proportions that one needs to book into the local Salvation Army hostelry. During the course of my illustrious career I have had the pleasure of experiencing both scenarios.

While most of the world is busy taking a holiday and having a break from their daily working routine, the entertainer is often required to help these hordes of holidaymakers enjoy themselves. Such work could always be, and sometimes still is, found in many diverse locations. On a luxury liner cruising the Caribbean, in an old Victorian theatre in the North of England, at a working man’s club, or at an exclusive invitation-only party thrown by the likes of Richard Branson in Dubai.

I have never been fortunate enough to receive an invitation as either a guest or a performer to a function in style similar to the last. This is perhaps because I have never moved in the right social circles or maybe because my networking skills are pretty close to zero.

 However, I have trodden the boards of several Victorian and Edwardian mausoleums in the United Kingdom. This was in my youth when the Grand in Newcastle and the Opera House in Blackpool were venues for the regular Christmas pantomimes.
At both these theatres I was cast as the back end of a cow. You could say that these performances were during a low point in my career, but allow me to let you into a secret: they were in fact a stepping stone to something far more catastrophic and humiliating.

I assume that you all know the story of Cinderella and, if you do, then you will know that a cow is not an integral part of the Cinders script. However, during the fifties and early sixties in England, all children throughout the country used to receive a free bottle of milk at their mid-morning break at school. This generous freebie was part of the National Health scheme and the government of the time thought that it would be beneficial to have a nation of youngsters with good healthy teeth and a regular dose of lactic acid.

The director of the pantomime, Mr Brian T. Cosy – yes, you’ve guessed it, he was a teetotaler – thought it would be novel and educational to inform the watching audience of mainly children that all that wonderful free milk they drank came from a cow’s rear underbelly. From the “Teats”, as he liked to call them. He was further directorially inspired to have Cinderella herself do the milking and the drinking.

So when the dear, gorgeous and well-endowed Cinders, played by a local beauty pageant winner, was ordered by her ugly sisters to go and pull her “Teeeets!”, the double entendre was immediately caught by the adults, and the children were delighted when on walked Mrs Lactose.

That was my character’s name.

Mrs Lactose was a beautifully costumed Jersey cow with a huge contraption strapped to the underside of her belly. Her udders were bursting with a full load of National Health milk. A fellow junior thespian, Paul, was the front end and used to guide us to our designated position downstage centre, whilst Cinders crossed to join us with her milking stool and a bottle. The main curtain then closed behind us to facilitate a scene change whilst Mrs Lactose and Cinders did the necessary.

We did three performances a day and four on a Saturday. The Lord Chamberlain’s rulings were still in force then, so there were no shows on a Sunday. The property master/chippie was no genius and the contraption he had built to contain the milk was a cumbersome and heavy Heath Robinson affair. It consisted of a large plastic container with pipes leading to Mrs Lactose’s four separate Teets. 

Cinders used to coo sweetly into Mrs Lactose’s ear. “Oooh, ooh, my dear sweet Mrs Lactose, and what have you got for me today? Please, please give me all the lovely milk you can, otherwise my sisters will be horrible to me.”

She would then settle herself onto her stool and grasp a Teet. It was then my duty to apply pressure onto a plunger system that would send the National Health elixir into Cinder’s pail.

I should point out that it was not our job as actors to fill or maintain the milk-delivering contraption. That was the duty of the assistant stage manager, who was meant to check that all the props required by the actors were in full working order before each performance commenced. All Paul and I had to do was climb into Mrs Lactose and be zipped up by one of the dressers from the wardrobe department.

We were always ready a good five minutes before our entrance and I, like the true professional I am, always used to check that the plunger was working. On the fourth performance of our Boxing Day show, it was jammed or there was some other malfunction in the system. I quickly informed the dresser and Paul but, before the assistant stage manager could be found to rectify the problem, our entrance cue came and on we sauntered. Mrs Lactose was milkless in Gaza, so to speak.

As you know, my Toddie and I hardly ever part company. But as our director Mr Cosy was a teetotaler and greatly frowned upon any member of the cast indulging in any kind of alcoholic beverage, I had been a good boy throughout the rehearsal period and the whole run of the show. 

Well, almost a good boy.

I have always been a man of great ingenuity and improvisation. I may be boasting today if I said that, had I still had been in my youth in the early eighties, I would have been perfectly cast in the role of MacGyver. Unbeknown to anyone other than Paul, I had rigged up a secret supply of cheap Yate’s cooking sherry inside Mrs Lactose’s wooden frame. It was secreted away in the padding just above Paul’s backside and it was no problem at all for me to pull it out and for the two of us to enjoy several slugs whilst Cinders was pulling on our Teets.

With MacGyver-like dexterity I quickly disconnected all four of the pipes and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I discovered that the container was completely empty, otherwise Mrs Lactose would have been dripping milk from all parts of her underbelly.

We waddled into our position gently mooing in time to our step as I pulled the cork out of the sherry bottle with my teeth. Using the simple concept of filling my mouth with sherry and then forcing it down the right pipe on Cinder’s cue, a whole two-pint bottle of the finest cooking sherry squirted out of Mrs Lactose’s udders and into Cinder’s pail.

The problem arose at the end of the scene, as Cinders had to pour the contents of her pail into an enamel mug, sample the milk and invite the children up from the auditorium to taste the wonderfully healthy liquid that Mrs Lactose had so kindly given her.

The headlines in the local newspaper the next day told the whole story. “Actor fired. Cecil Poole arrested for trying to poison local children with cooking sherry!”

I shall never forget that particular Christmas or the nine days I was kept in police custody till my trial on January the third. The press, my producer’s lawyers, the crown prosecutor and the local magistrate had a field day.

Accusations were hurled across the courtroom but, after numerous witnesses had been called, it was finally decided that I should be acquitted due to unforeseen circumstances. The Christmas of 1962 for me was certainly not a feast but then neither was it a famine. Her Majesty’s Government kept me fed and watered and after the trial I was offered at job as a barman at Yates’ Wine Lodge.


Luc said...

Brought a smile to my face. Nice work Ron and keep them coming

Anonymous said...

Great to have a talented writer in our milky way.

Solo said...

Your stories are very interesting to me.
It tells about the life and the other world, of which we had no idea.
We have grown up in the Soviet Union behind "Iron Curtain", and did not know how to live there, in the rest of the world.
The only thing that we knew exactly what our Communist propagandists can't be trusted, and therefore thought that all people in Europe, and even more so - in England, living in the "capitalist paradise".
Your stories say it was not as we had imagined.
This is very interesting, though a bit sad ...

Sir Cess Poole said...


Solo, Thank you for your comment, it is greatly appreciated.My father was Polish and escaped during the war to join the British air-force.My young years in the UK were very hard as we were face with rebuilding and a lot of basic foods, butter, sugar , tea were rationed. I'm glad the stories are helping you to gain an insight into English life. Please keep reading, pass on to friends and make comments.