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!!!

I LOVE MY JOB

I LOVE MY JOB

Tales from an from old school comic

It’s been a while since I last attempted to write a blog, but I’m going to give it another go and I will try to blog at least once every couple of weeks. The problem I have had with trying to blog and make it interesting is that I am usually positive and I don’t really want to post negative views on here. I will rant every now and then if I have a travel story that needs to be aired but I certainly will not be posting any negative comments about or involving companies that I work for, I’m not stupid!! Any way, all my clients are wonderful and so are their ships and I am happy to work for them all.

Also, due to a stage school education where I spent most of my time dreaming of being a comic you will notice that my grammar and spelling is not that great.This was my fault and not the wonderful Barbara Speake stage school’s fault as I was the one who didn’t pay attention in class. In fact I passed for grammar and if I had paid attention I would have got lots of Levels and A levels and probably would have ended up with a job I didn’t love!! I apologise for this in advance and hope it wont spoil your reading.

As most of you know if you have been directed here from my social media status updates, I am a British comedian, I have been in show business for over forty years having started out as a child actor at the age of thirteen. I often say on my status up dates that ‘I love my job’. I genuinely do and this seems to rub up some fellow ‘turns’ the wrong way. One comic who I respect and still consider a friend actually went off on one on his Facebook page saying that any comic who has to say he loves his job is dead behind the eyes. He also went on to say that he hopes he never has to do cruise ships, I totally get where he is coming from. Some comics and other entertainers really do think it’s a bit of a come down. For me, I really enjoy performing on the ships, what’s not to love about performing in theatres that are as good as any of the top west end theatres and playing to packed houses most of the time. I also really enjoy the challenge of changing my act to appeal to international audiences. Anyone who tells you as they often do that American audiences just don’t get British comedians have not got a clue what they are talking about. If a British comedian does his homework and covers subjects that American audiences are familiar with he will enjoy playing to them as much as a British audience if not better. The problem some times being is that American audiences are so enthusiastic and will stand up for the almost any show. If an entertainer does a run of American ships then suddenly plays to a British audience they take it personally that the audience will not give them a standing ovation and they complain that they are tough when in fact the audience have loved the show. I personally enjoy doing a run of British ships performing two different forty five minute shows then going to an American ship where we are usually just asked to do one show. The American show seems so easy after having worked so hard to the Brits.

A British guest on QE2 having seen me the night before perform to an audience consisting mainly of New Yorkers who loved the show once asked me “those Americans….all that clapping and cheering and laughing….does it put you off?” That says it all.

Some times when I am on a British ship and there are a lot of guests from north of the Watford Gap, I have to work harder at winning them over than I do to Americans. I’ve had northerners tell me that they didn’t come to my show as it was billed as ‘Laughs From London’. In the old days I faced this a lot, for many years I would play the northern clubs and got paid off a handful of times. If I am honest, the first time I got paid off I was so relieved as I had been told by other ‘soft southern comics’ that playing the clubs up north was a nightmare and they would tell me stories about when they got paid off and I used to wonder if it would ever happen to me. I once worked a week in Scotland for an agent called Adam Buggy (Central Scotland Artists?) I stayed in a hotel in Airdrie where it was mostly just entertainers. I shared a room with a great singer called Peter Saint. One morning the owner came in to the room and said “Peter, did you want waking up at half past eight or nine oclock.” Peter whispered “half past eight, what time is it?” The owner said “Ten o’clock, your late.”
Back to my original point, I was doing that run of gigs for Adam Buggy and one night I was booked in Kirkcaldy, to say I struggled would be an understatement. I felt as welcome as Donald Trump on a chat show hosted by Megan Kelly from Fox News. In those days if you were a comic and you were struggling the other comics would tell you to always do you time. If they try to dock your money or pay you off you would stand more chance of getting your money if you did your time. I did my 45 minutes just being stared at, when I walked off to the sound of my own foot steps I was told to go in to the office to sort out my money. When I walked in, there was the committee and they told me that they were paying me off and that I would only get half my fee. I was so pissed off but I didn’t want to show it. I reacted by saying “You know what, my family have got money and I am only doing this to see what the inside of a club like yours looks like. Forget paying me and put my money in to your benefit fund .” Well, they were amazed, the entertainment secretary then went in to his pocket and counted out my full fee and gave it to me insisting their money was as good as any other clubs money and they didn’t need me to boost the benefit fund. As the son of a milkman and a carpet lady from a normal working class family this made me laugh big time that I had managed to fib my way in to getting paid my full fee. However, when I got back to the digs I was told that the agent had called and that I was to pack my bags and go home via his office where I would pick up what was owed to me for two other gigs, I was being paid off. The agent who paid me off called Frankie told me to think abut giving up the business as he’d never heard so many bad reports about one comic. A few years ago I was on an American ship and having a great time, who should I bump in to but Frankie who still felt I was in his opinion a crap comic. Some things never change, we laughed about it and by the end of the cruise I managed to change his mind. Thank God he wasn’t the cruise director or I would have been off at Vigo our first port of call.

This year is going to be my busiest year ever, I have over 43 cruise contracts booked in and I know that in these hard times for entertainers and comics in the UK I am one of the lucky ones. To be honest, the reason I am doing so many is that not only do I want to keep my family living comfortably I have really changed my ambitions. No longer am I chasing spots on TV shows and I really don’t want to be a TV warm up comic like I was a few years ago. I really enjoyed my time doing that job and I worked on some great shows but it came to a point where I stopped enjoying it. When you end up warming up an audience of students and asking them to clap a meal…thats when you realise you are no longer the comic you set out to be. On the cruises, the night I am on I am the comic and the reason the audience have come in to the theatre and it’s a much bigger boost to the ego than handing over the rains to a comic half your age who you secretly despise. I will never say never and I am sure I will step in every now and then to do a warm up for shows where they might want an older comic over 30 but its certainly not in my four year plan. (More of that in a future blog) By the way, there are some superb warm up comics out there now and they do a wonderful job making a great living ,my good friends Andy Collins and Ian Royce spring to mind immediately.