Thursday, 14 February 2013

Things I used to be

photo by John Brown
Ages ago I promised someone that I'd find and post some photos of my 'musical career' - that sounded quite grand, and it really wasn't, though I did have a song-wot-I-wrote* played by John Peel, and then 'playlisted' by Radio Forth.

I began doing comedy in the early 1980s with an Edinburgh-based Feminist Theatre company called Mother Hen (don't blame me, I didn't name it!). One year (date eludes me) we called ourselves Polly & The Phones (groan) and took on the offer of a two week run at Theatre Workshop during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  Here's a pic of me being Deeply & Seriously Feminist.

School For Clowns/TheatreWorkshop
I was also performing in a production of Ken Campbell's School For Clowns in the mornings (an hour's solid frolicking - phew - never been fitter) during the course of which, on the first performance, I managed to break my own finger by sitting on it (I was supposed to pop a balloon, and it wouldn't always pop, so...). Ouch. Art-injury.

(I'm the naughty clown on the bottom right, tootling a tootler.)
Anyway - in the evening shows I did sketches, did a monologue (as another of my alter egos, Mrs McGillicuddy, who talked a lot about the quality and price of groceries) and, more to the point of this rambling story, performed a rap called 'Classic Tweeds' (*with the help of music-maestro Lenny Love, the single was sent to the John Peel show and indeed he did play it) with the house-band (eek, we had a drummer and guitarist who were not women, though the bass player was).
Poppy Newton Stewart/ Derek Reid

The rap consisted of me, as yet another character: Poppy Newton-Stewart. She spoke in a posh voice, and in rhyme, about the marriage of Charles & Di, of jolly times skiing in Gstaad, and of the dreadful ignominy of having to walk home in a ball gown. I wrote this half a year at least before Tracey Ullman did her 'Yah' sketches on A Kick Up The Eighties. Tough, when someone famous gets there first.

We recorded Classic Tweeds and a couple of rather dirge-like you-broke-my-heart songs in a tiny studio in Penicuik. I wasn't involved in the Grand Plan of selling the resulting vinyl object at the door of the theatre; and unfortunately those who were responsible (financially, too, so I have no gripe really) on that side of it didn't know anything about the music business, or about selling. I may still have a few copies - in their hideous yellow paper sleeves - up in my attic, but I wouldn't care too deeply if it was never seen or heard of again.

Except that, dammit, the lyrics were funny, and it's useful to remember where one started liking things one writes, and attempting to regain the sense of play of early times.

Around that time I'd also begun singing a capella with two other women. We called ourselves The Midget Gems, at my suggestion, because we were all under 5ft 3, and it was a kind of comic reference to all those Motown-ish girl-groups with more glamorous names like The Supremes, or - well - The Pips - whilst also being the name of teeny little iced biscuits mostly popular with grannies.

Midget Gems/GinnieAtkinson
The Midget Gems entire act was to croon songs from the '40s, '50's '60s & sometimes later, adapted to emphasise the stupidity and sexism of their lyrics; so, we'd speed things up or insert ridiculous harmonies, make our voices very deep or very squeaky, and generally camp around.

Songs included Cliff Richard's nauseating 'Living Doll', 'I'd Like To Get You On A Slow Boat To China', 'Bye-bye, Blackbird', 'Let's get Together, Yeah Yeah Yeah'- ah, can't now remember what else, but I really enjoyed listening to old '45s on my red Dansette, transcribing the words, working out ways to make them funnier. 

Here we are 'rehearsing' for the camera, c. 1985. I'm on the right, with the punk haircut, having my dress unzipped by Myra McFadyen who is being fawned over by Grace Kirby.

We would come on stage wearing sunglasses, big 1950s duster-coats, stilettos, fishnet tights (apart from Myra, who didn't dress 'femme', so she went for a more 'If Sammy Davis Jr hailed from Winchburgh' look). After a couple of songs we'd take off the coats and sing a few more; after that we'd take off our shiny little dresses to reveal 1940s swimsuits. One night we shared the stage (as they say) with The Proclaimers (who got booed quite heartily) and Billy Bragg (who suggested we might tour with him as a support act. My fellow Gems didn't want to. Regrets, yes, I've had a few...  *sob*)

Hang on, you're saying. Swimsuits? SWIMSUITS? Yes. Feminists, having it both ways... happy days.

NB - the costumes all came from my years of trawling jumble sales and charity shops. I still have some of these items up in the famous attic.

 End of part 1

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