What happened to Thursday?

I am writing this blog between Shanghai,China and Cairns,Australia.I’m on the last few hours of my journey that started on Wednesday afternoon in Lisbon, it’s now 5.am Cairns time on Friday morning. People constantly tell me it must be a nightmare with all the travel I do with my job and yes it can be tough but it’s not that often I do a journey of this length. The last time I did, it was a year ago and it was even longer than this one by six hours as that one was thirty five hours from London to Samoa via Dubai,Sydney and Aukland.

I have been amazingly lucky on this journey as I was offered an upgrade to the upper deck on Air France from Paris to Shanghai on a brand new plane .The main deck was absolutely packed but upstairs there was hardly any of us. The service was as good as being in business class and the flight was one of the best plane journeys I have taken in a long time. Shanghai airport however brought me down to earth, I was only in transit but you’d of thought I was trying to smuggle the crown jewels in to China. I even needed a temporary Visa just to spend two hours waiting for my next flight.

Now I am travelling on China Eastern Airlines, the bad news is it’s a really old plane with no inflight entertainment apart from a few television screens around the plane showing Chinese cookery programmes and one movie. The good news is the plane is more than half empty so I have had a row to myself to sleep in after having attempted to enjoy the anorexic chicken and block of rice served up by the most miserable group of human beings I have come across since a gig I did in a caravan camp in Chapel St Leonards near Mabelthorpe one wet Easter weekend.

The last few weeks I have been so lucky to meet up with old friends in different ports and on different ships. When the Oriana called in to Port Canavaral, I met up with one of my oldest mates in the business Larry Larkin who lives in Florida not far from the port. We went out for the day and it was so good to see him. The stories and the laughs made the day go too quickly, he hasn’t changed one bit. He still carries props around in his pocket and will get a laugh out of the most miserable people serving in a shop or a cafe. We could do with him on this plane. It was also good to see someone in the business who’s enjoying life having slowed down and no longer chasing work. We had a great day. He couldn’t get over how we fly from ship to ship doing shows now rather than staying on one ship for a few months like he did when he was working at sea,

Then I fly to one of my favourite Caribbean islands Grenada and I am walking along Grand Anse Beach and I am aware there’s someone who I thought was a local walking along just behind me and then at the side of me staring at me. I tried to stay cool, I turned round and the bloke said ‘ It is you Jeff’…..the gentleman was in actual fact my mate and fellow water rat Ian Irving who was on holiday. He saw me walk past but wasn’t too sure if it was me as I was supporting a new beard. We ended up going out for a meal that night with Ian’s partner Fiona and their friends Peter and Nickie. We had a great night and it became the end of my dry January which I was trying to extend in to mid Feb. It was well worth it though even though I was a little fragile the next day. We were in the bar and Fiona and Ian kept saying there was a famous actor outside and that he was from the show ‘Last Tango In Halifax’. I have to admit to not having watched that much TV the last few years because of my time spent on ships. They even looked up on their iPhones for a photo of the actor but couldn’t find him, I said maybe it was just a lookalike. A few days later I got on the Britannia and I was introduced to one of my fellow entertainers on the ship, his name is Dean Andrews who is a great singer who plays the lounge where guests pay separately to go and watch his show and have dinner. I went in one night and it was packed with his fans as he is well known for being in the show ‘Last Tango In Halifax’…..the puzzle was solved , it was Dean on the beach in Grenada. Once again Dean inspired me as I would really love to do some straight acting and he didn’t start getting parts until middle age. He played a part in a Ken Loach film and it all fell in to place from that part. Watch this space…..

The day I left the ship my fellow comic Mark Walker was taking over from me. We went out and had lunch in Aruba, it made me feel old as I remember Mark when he was a young comic just starting out in the 80’s. Our paths have crossed many times over the years, even on the comedy club circuit where we were both brave enough to cross over from the so called mainstream circuit. It turned out to be a sensible move as we had some great times and worked with some great comics. Now we are both doing the cruises, I wonder what circuit we will move to next?

Having spent twenty four hours at home with my wife Jane and our son Harvey celebrating our 22nd wedding anniversary I made my way to the Ventura in Southampton where once again I was to find my self working on the same ship as another close friend Paul Emmanuelle. If you managed to read my last blog, I mentioned the first cruise I performed on back on the Canberra twenty eight years ago. Paul and I worked on that ship doing our first cruise and we have been great mates ever since. Sadly we don’t get to work together that often but when we do it’s an absolute pleasure and always great to catch up. Last time I saw Paul was in Birmingham when I was supporting Johnny Mathis and I managed to get Paul and his wife Hollie some seats as I knew he was a big fan. We worked on the same night on Ventura but I managed to see half Paul’s show where he pays tribute to Nat King Cole, what a fantastic show and Paul is singing better than ever. We even managed to grab a lunch in Bom Jardin, the chicken place in Lisbon that we all used to go to back in the Canberra day’s.

So as my old Chinese plane edges nearer Cairnes I sit here and wonder who I will be working with the next month down here in Australia, I know that there are lots of friends down here doing the various ships I just hope some of us are in the same port on the same day as a night in Sydney with a few mates can not be beaten. I know one thing I am very lucky to work with so many great acts out here on these ships and that’s one of the reasons ‘I Love My Job’………………..Thanks for reading this, will maybe keep a diary of my Australian trip with a few recommendations of places to eat just don’t fly China Eastern.

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Mid February already!

I am writing this blog while on a flight from Atlanta to Grenada to join The Britannia cruise ship on Monday. I can’t believe we are already halfway through February,it just seems like Christmas was just a few days ago. I suppose the reason the first six weeks of the new year seems to have gone so quickly is because not only have I been busy but I have been having fun. I honestly consider myself a very lucky man, not only am I doing the job I always dreamed of doing but I also get to meet and work with a lot of talented people who I admire and respect.

It seems that the cruise ship circuit is a lot more respected by other entertainers now than it was a few years ago. I know I go on about this but when you see Simon Cowell on TV telling an act that he didn’t really rate that they are a bit ‘cruise ship’ it makes me mad. There is no way that he has been on the ships we work these days and so he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It was the same with some of my fellow comics when I was working the comedy club circuit, some would say to me ‘still doing the boats?’ like it was a bit of a come down. Now,I constantly get asked by well respected comedy club comics if I could recommend an agent to get them some cruise bookings. I’m not too proud to say that the ships can be a tough nut to crack. I was very lucky that I got in on the cruises in the early days when we had to perform up to six different thirty to forty minute shows over a period of two weeks (a whole cruise) some times even more if on leg of a world cruise. My first contract on board a ship was on The Canberra, I really loved that ship and we had a lot of good times. However, it was hard work and I was dropped in the deep end for my first cruise and it could have gone so wrong and could have put me off cruising for life.  It was in the late 80’s and I got an offer from P&O’s head of entertainment David Lewellyn for a three week Caribbean cruise. I was on with six other guest entertainers and one of them was the wonderful singer Paul Emmanuelle who was also on his first cruise and is still a great mate to this day. I was asked to do a ten minute spot in the welcome aboard show then four different full shows and I was asked to host and compere the final farewell variety show. If I am absolutely honest, I was way out of my depth even though I was in my mid twenties and I had very little fear. The welcome show was a little misleading as it was so easy just doing ten minutes and the audience were fresh and just a couple of days in to the cruise. However as the weeks went on the audiences got harder and spoilt with all the different entertainers performing in four different rooms nightly but what a great way to learn how to pace your self as a cruise entertainer. I cringe when I look back and remember opening with a song and closing with a song but that was what us comics did in those days. A song takes three or four minutes, thats less jokes to find. I would open with songs like Billy Joel’s My Life and closing with Barry Manilows ‘Cant Smile Without You’……totally embarrassing as at best I was just a pub singer admittedly with a powerful voice but not necessarily in tune!! I can remember the first time I plucked up the courage to go to a ship and leave the dots at home, I felt like I was going to a golf course without my clubs.

Back to The Caribbean cruise in 1988, the guest entertainers were all accommodated on G Deck or as we called it Equity Court. The cabins were below the water line and we had no showers in the cabins. We had a couple of communal bathrooms and you had to time it right to get ready for the evening. Nearly every night was either formal or informal dress code, the only night this was relaxed was Island Night when the entire theatre company and entertainment officers would perform on deck. These nights were legendary on Canberra. I can still hear the cruise director singing Lionel Ritchie’s ‘All Night Long’….in his very well spoken voice ‘ Well my friends the time has come……it reminded me of Peter Sellers singing ‘ Hard Days Night’.

The entertainers would all dine together at the early sitting in the restaurant, this was very sociable. Now days we eat in the buffet most of the time as its the most convenient and some times you can be on with other acts that you never even meet which is sad really. However,the up side of social media is that we can keep in touch and find out when we will be on the same ship should we want to meet up.

Back to the Caribbean cruise, when I said earlier that I could have been put of for life it was because by half way through my second full show I had no material left what so ever. I still have nightmares about this, we hadn’t even reached the Caribbean and I was joke-less!.My gag bank was completely over drawn. (just checking I’ve worded that right!!) Now despite what alternative comics say about mainstream comics I have never really been one to steal material from other comics (honest!!) but I have to admit that on this cruise I borrowed, begged and stole jokes from where ever I could get them. Any comic that I could remember working with,some of their jokes made it in to my act. I remembered classic jokes from my comedy idol as a kid Max Miller. I had to survive, there was no way I was going to give in. I even went on to the ships evening radio broadcast and advertised a joke competition. I managed to get enough jokes sent in from the passengers to fill a thirty minute spot. This was an idea that I had picked up years earlier when working as a Green Coat Coat on the holiday camps. I still have joke books and notes from those days at home. I would walk in to my cabin and the whole bed was covered with pieces of paper with ideas,routines and jokes written down. What that cruise also taught me was that despite some acts referring to it as ‘ship material’ the passengers love to hear you talk about the ship and the ports of call. In-fact over the last few months I have joined ships in different ports of call due to a last minute change of schedule or the ship missing the port. I have now built up a routine about missing the ship and the nightmare journey. If I join a ship in the port I was supposed to join in I feel as though I am missing out on performing a strong ‘bit’.

The reason I am writing about this is that I have just recently heard after all these years from the cruise director who was on that trip on Canberra, Matthew McLauchlan and I wanted to thank him for being so tolerant on that cruise. I didn’t do that well and I am sure that my ratings were not that good but he kept telling me that he knew I would learn quickly how to pace my self and do a good job and he was right. I thank him for sticking with me and when I rejoined the ship for a shorter cruise in the med, it was a different story. Now days I am not sure that this would happen, today its all about instant results. The TV talent shows have changed things big style, now it’s almost as if some of the acts are being voted off by the public. So many acts are under pressure to get ratings, if it goes below a certain level the chances of them coming back are minimal. I understand this completely but it does tend to stop acts taking chances and trying out new material.

Over the last few weeks I have been constantly working for P&O and its been a real pleasure. The audiences have been a little older due to the time of year and longer cruises but I have been taking chances trying new material and most of the time they have been going with it. The other night I had the strangest compliment, a lady on the ship in her 80’s told me that she doesn’t usually like comedians but she enjoyed my act as I don’t tell jokes! Anyone who knows me well will know what a compliment like that means to me. It was just one of those nights where I felt relaxed enough to go off in to the land of the unknown and the audience of hardened cruise passengers became like a Saturday night crowd at The Comedy Store.

I suppose the point I am trying to make to those thinking of trying to get on the ships, especially comics is that it is a tough nut to crack but well worth it in the end. Trust me…..I know because I LOVE MY JOB!!!