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!!!