What in the name of sanity am I doing here? If anybody had told me six months ago I'd be standing here dressed in Edwardian clothes, and with make-up daubed all over me fillet of plaice, I'd have said their heads wanted looking into. But here I am - waiting to go on to the stage of The Birmingham Old Repertory Theatre, where loads of famous actors have performed in the past.
If I'd known that encouraging my eldest daughter Audrey to have a crack at amateur dramatics would have got me into this mess, I'd never have opened me mouth. But what else could a caring father do when his first-born tells him she'd like to have a knock at acting, but that she's too scared to go and try it on her own? I went with her didn't I?
Apparently there's a shortage of men in amateur dramatics; you could tell that was true as well, because these acting people wasted no time in trying it on, that very first night we went to the community centre where they rehearse: "are you interested in acting yourself Mr. Hughes?"
Well of course I just laughed. I mean - me? Sid Hughes? A fully paid up member of the Transport and General Workers Union, dressing up and prancing about with a bunch of lovies. No chance. But I did say I wouldn’t mind helping with scenery building and lighting and other more manly - sorry – manual tasks.
So Audrey and me forked out our sub money and joined in with the general chat that was going on. I was surprised to see a couple of old mates of mine there. Never pictured Charlie Hargreaves and Terry Perkins as theatricals though.
Later on in the evening they began reading this play. This is where the director encourages people to read and speak different parts. More or less like an audition really. Truthfully, I've always enjoyed a bit of reading and doing daft voices and accents and things; so when one of the group didn't turn up, and they asked me if I'd like to sit in on the read through, I said - okay.
Thinking back, I realise it was a bit of a set-up, because the missing bloke arrived later, and there were eight male parts and just eight men to read 'em - including me.
I've heard it said somewhere that we've all got a price we can be bought for. Well that night I was bought pretty cheaply - with a little bit of flannel from one of the actresses a really posh old bird...
"Oh you read excellently. And aren't you good at dialects Sidney; and such a wonderfully resonant speaking voice."
So - here I am - waiting backstage to walk out there and make a fool of meself in front of two hundred and odd people, including a couple of mates. Well that's if I can ever remember what my flaming cue line is. Oh God, please help me. Deep breaths - yes that's it, slow, calm, deep breaths.
Yes, that's a bit better. The old pulse rate seems to have slowed a bit anyway; feels like it's come down from the two hundred mark to about one-fifty.
Right - come on now, think. Inspector Follet is questioning everybody about the murder, and has just asked Lord Middleton about Andrews, the butler (that’s me). So it's getting close to where I make an entrance. I wonder why it is my nose always itches when I'm nervous.
That's it - I remember now. Lord Middleton says: "I'll send for him now," and tugs the bell-pull. Then I have to allow about thirty seconds so that it seems as if I'm coming all the way from the kitchen, before going on to the stage. Phew. Thank heaven I remembered.
Hang on. What do I say when I get on there? Oh great, I've remembered my cue and now the lines have gone. All that practise over the last five months and they've just gone. And now my heart's beating so loud in the old eardrums I can't hear what's being said. I'll just take a peek through that crack in the scenery. Well what's going on out there? They're all just sitting looking at each other, and nobody's saying anything.
Ouch! The stage manager's poking me in the ribs - and he's mouthing something. Oh blimey - he's telling me I've missed my cue and to get on stage quick.
How did I get talked into this mess? I wasn't cut out for this caper - oh blimey, what's my first flippin' line?
Crikes - it's like walking into a lit oven - the heat coming from the stage lights really hits you as soon as you step on to the stage.
'Are there you are Andrews,' says Terry - sorry, Lord Middleton.
'You rang m'lord?' How about that then. My lines just came to me without thinking.
'Yes Andrews. The Inspector is interviewing everyone in the house regarding this dreadful murder. He would like to ask you a few questions, so will you please remain until he's ready for you?'
'Yes m'lord.' There I go again, never even hesitated – word perfect.
I have to stand here now for about four pages and for the life of me I can't think what my next cue or next line is. In the meantime what shall I focus my eyes on? I must remember not to look at the audience the others told me. Mind you, with these lights in your face I don't think you'd see 'em anyhow.
Concentrate Sidney. Listen to the play they said - treat it as if it's real life happening now they said. Not easy to do that though. Not when you look at Charlie Hargreaves acting as a policeman, and knowing he's really the Brummie equivalent of 'Del Boy' who works at the local market selling dodgy stuff that's mysteriously fell off some lorry. And it isn't easy imagining Terry Perkins being Lord Middleton, when you know he lives in a cramped two-bed terrace with his three kids and liability of a wife who's got him snowed under with debt. And then there's me as a flipping butler - me, a donkey-jacketed lorry driver, complete with regulation "transport café-type bacon and egg", induced stomach ulcer.
Oh blimey, you can see the audience from up here you know - 's'truth - there's a couple necking over by the exit door. Well that don't seem right in a theatre somehow; in the pictures all well and good but not here. Probably think we can't see 'em. Oh and there's Billy, a mate from work. What's he looking at the floor for? Here hang on - he's ruddy well asleep. Come on Billy wake up, you're gonna miss my bit.
Blimey, I wish I hadn't put that grease on my hair; I'd swear it's frying my scalp with the heat from these lights. And as for this fly-collar, talk about stiff and sharp. I daren't turn my head too quick else I'll probably cut my throat. I just feel such a plonker in this get-up. Well never again I can tell you.
Here - what's that geezer in the third row thinking of doing with that dirty big tomato in his hand? I hope he's not planning on chucking that in my direction; I shall be down there sharpish to sort him if he does, and that’s the truth. He's giving it a polish on his trousers now the cheeky... now what's he doing? He's biting into it. Oh I see - it's a red apple.
Phew, I don't know whether I can cope with these lights much longer; the sweat's running free and fast down the length of my body; front and rear. And just to think I shaved my beard off for this, just ‘cos the director thought butlers didn't have beards in those days. Twenty-five years that beard's kept my face warm; it was like an old friend; a sort of facial security blanket really; something to hide behind I suppose. Mind you - I could do with something a bit more substantial than a beard to hide behind just at the minute.
'... taking place Andrews?'
‘H’m?’ Charlie's just said something to me. Oh blimey. That means I've missed the cue. What do I do now?
'P-pardon Char'... er, Inspector,’ is all I can manage.
Charlie's looking daggers at me now for some reason. 'I said - where were you when the murder was taking place, Andrews?'
Why's he gritting his teeth like that? He never did that in rehearsals.
Oh blimey here we go again - I'm stumped. No - hang on, I think I've got it:
'I was with his Lordship sir.'
Now what's up? Why's he staring at me and not saying anything? Oh blimey - he's forgotten his lines now. He’s looking at me as if it’s my fault.
'Is that correct Lord Middleton?' It's Yvonne, the prompt, from the side of the stage, giving Charlie his line.
Difficult job that I should think – giving people their lines loud enough so they can hear it without the audience hearing. So difficult in fact that Yvonne doesn’t manage it; everybody in the house, audience and actors, is looking at the side of the stage where this disembodied voice has just come from.
'Is that correct Lord Muddleton - Middleton?' Charlie says. It amazes me how he can speak with his teeth gritted like that. No wonder he's started sweating - and look, his left eye’s twitching. And it doesn't seem to me like very good acting for him to be looking at me, when he's supposed to be talking to Terry - I mean, Lord Muddleton - Middleton.
'Yes that's correct Inspector. Andrews was with myself and Lady Middleton all evening. We were discussing our plans for a ball we're holding this coming weekend.'
Unusual for Charlie, forgetting his lines like that. He's been word perfect for weeks in rehearsals. I think something must have put him off. He's looking at me again:
'Very well Andrews, that'll be all,' he says.
I don't remember him shoving his face into mine like that in rehearsals.
Still, thank God that's me finished; let's get off quick. Now what's happening? I can't move my blinking right foot. My leg's stopped working. Oh blimey - I've probably had a stroke or something with all this tension and sweating; it's not natural. It's like my foot's stuck to the floor. Hang on - let's just bend forward and have a look - well would you Adam 'n' Eve it. Somebody only dropped a great gob of chewing-gum on the floor.
Well you'd think one of 'em could give me a helping hand instead of just staring at me. Wait a minute though - that's got it - I'm unstuck. But the ruddy stuff's still stuck to my heel; oh well - I’ll just have to tiptoe off, that's all. No – Never again.
That's the most welcome pint of bitter I've had in ages. Best part this; nice drink in the bar after it's all over and a chat to my mates. Seemed to go well though - everybody seems to have enjoyed it. Apart from Charlie that is. He seems to have taken the hump about something - wouldn't speak to me. I expect he's a bit miffed 'cause he forgot his lines and I was word perfect; it being my first time an' all. Never again though. They'll not get me on a stage again.
'Well done Sidney. You were very good.' It's Penelope, the director. She’s nice but does tend to gush a bit in that hoity-toity voice of hers. 'I loved the way you kept everybody waiting for your entrance. Building up the tension weren't you?'
'Yeah, that's right – well that's what I was trying to do anyway,' I lie. 'So it came across alright then did it?'
'Superbly. And I adored the way you made the Inspector wait for your replies. Didn't know we had a method actor in our midst. Very Marlon Brando-ish. I must admit though, I didn't really understand the limp when you made your exit.'
'Old war wound luv,' I say.
'Oh I'm so sorry darling,' she says, and gives my leg a little rub. 'Now Sid. I can rely on you to take a part in our next production can't I? I have this wonderful play I want us to do which requires eight men, and we only have eight in the group; so you will be available won't you darling?' She gives me a peck on the cheek, and before I can answer, legs it in Charlie's direction.
D'you know - I've got this really weird feeling. You know what I mean? Sort of like a feeling of something happening before. I think it's called - day jar view.