The Lights Are Warm And Coloured. The story of a serial killer. A suspenseful dark comedy for theatre. Promises promises. If you’ve ever sat in an airing cupboard over winter watching a hyacinth grow from bulb to flower, you’ll be familiar with the pace of this play. Lizzie Borden took two acts, and gave the audience forty winks. When they all left by the door, she gave reviewers forty more.
Grelle was less than amused.
Mike, my friend of many years, had come with me to see a Centralian Players production in the village of Abbots Langley. As I was reviewing it for the local paper, I had free tickets, so I’d told Mike we’d get dinner afterwards. My treat. On expenses. Partly. I only got a measly Â£2.50 maximum meal allowance but still, dinner was to be commensurate with the quality of the performance. If it was really good, we were destined for the finest curry house in town.
It wasn’t good. It wasn’t even mediocre. We ended up sat in a car park in Garston eating junk food. “I can’t believe you,” said Mike, around a mouthful of Big Mac. “We should have left in the interval. Like everyone else.” I nodded, digging into another handful of fries. I’d never left anything in the interval. On the other hand, I’d never been to anything as dire as this. The rain spattered relentlessly on the windshield as we recalled how appalling this amateur effort had been.
The audience had been outnumbered by the cast to start with. The tea break made it worse. As the curtain rose on the second act, apart from ourselves, there was just one other person left in the large village hall. I felt duty-bound to provide an honest review as the actors spoke shyly to the scenery lest they catch our eyes while fluffing their lines. The most intelligible dialogue came from the prompt whose voice boomed out clearly across the empty theatre.
With the exception of the lead player’s bright suit?a suit which would have delighted George Melly or Rupert the Bear? The Lights Are Warm And Coloured barely achieved tepid and monochromatic. It plodded. It ambled. It shuffled. It shrugged and died, right there before us. It was uncomfortable to watch but for the fact I knew how much fun it would be pulling it apart. Oh, this was going to be grand. High on grease and carbohydrates, Mike and I laughed like drains as we gave it the last rites.
Next day, I wrote up the sorry saga starting with the hyacinth analogy and finishing with a comment on costume departments stuffed with comedy trousers. Poison flowed tappity tap from my keyboard to the screen and I buried the hapless Centralians under six foot of scorn. I salted the earth, or rather the boards, trodden by these purveyors of pap in an effort to ensure they never inflicted such misery on anyone again. It was incredibly funny stuff, every line a gem, every paragraph a self-indulgent joy to behold. As was often the way, I was full of myself.
I transferred it to Grelle White, the arts editor, for publication in the Go section, our arts and entertainment pages, then I started working on something else. I watched furtively to see when she read it. I knew when the moment came. Her eyes bugged. She stopped reading and looked up. She waved me over, imperatively.
“Keith, what is this?” Grelle asked, incredulous.
“It’s fair comment,” I replied. “They were dreadful.”
“But were they really this bad?”
Wearing a satisfied grin is not a good way to look innocent and I certainly wasn’t looking innocent then. The Grin of Badness was upon me. I had amused myself and was feeling greatly pleased. Grelle’s a good person; she doesn’t understand unkindness. She didn’t see why I should be so pleased. And she certainly didn’t get my sense of humour.
“Well, I think you’re being too unfair. Good grief, if those poor people read this, they’d never act again,” Grelle said.
“Which would be a good thing!” I said.
“In your opinion. They’re just amateurs.”
“They charged for tickets. The few people who had paid left in the interval. They were just wasting people’s time.”
“Well, they weren’t wasting their time. You know, there’s other reasons to belong to a local drama group than appearing in front of an audience.”
This stopped me in my tracks. What? Was this some kind of parallel universe logic? Maybe some strange notion Grelle had brought over from Denmark where the high latitude and strange weather played tricks on the mind?
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“People join a local theatre company as a social activity. There’s pleasure in it for them to be part of this group, organising, rehearsing and putting on a play.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Well, there was no pleasure in it for me. Or for the rest of the audience.” I countered. “They could go and join something else, something less public. Pottery classes, perhaps.”
But Grelle wasn’t having any of it. “Keith, this is just too harsh. You’ve crossed the line into cruelty. Go and take out everything you think is funny. It’s not going in like this.” And so I emasculated it of ridicule and the Centralians review was published. It was still scathing, but now my copy was as lukewarm as the play. They’d be less likely to read it and more likely to use it for wrapping up fries at the McDonald’s drive-thru.
As it turned out, someone must have read it because a few days after publication, a letter turned up from one Gerald Holm. “A few lines in the Go columns of your paper alerted me to an amateur production of a play about Lizzie Borden?? [surely you jest, I thought] “The Centralian Players turned out to be a highly accomplished body of actors? I could not have seen it done better at Hampstead Theatre or at the Palace Theatre, Watford?”
That didn’t say much for Hampstead or Watford, did it? Hello? Hello? Earth to Gerald, come in please! Hmm. Gerald Holm, that name looked familiar. Not with the space program, no. I wondered which local theatre company I’d seen his name associated with. Nevertheless, our esteemed editor published the whole steaming crock in the letters page.
The trouble was, I’d been spoiled. The week before, I’d taken Mike to see something else: Terra Nova at the Abbey Theatre Studio, performed by The Company of Ten. The Company of Ten were also amateurs but this had been breathtaking. This production of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s desperate journey to the Antartic and the doomed expedition to the South Pole remains to this day one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. We sat on hard plastic chairs two feet from actors who performed before a backdrop made up of silk parachutes.
The acting was superb. We were held spellbound throughout the entire thing, the rigid seating forgotten along with the rest of the world as we were magically transported to the frozen wastes. This was how theatre should be. I remember Les Peacock as Captain Oates shedding a tear as the bitter cold froze off another body part. Aurora Borealis projected in soft colours on the icebergs behind and we were there, with him, feeling his pain.
It was absolutely fantastic. If I was going to the theatre, I wanted more of the Company of Ten and less of the Centralians. Grelle’s agenda, however, was to please everyone. She figured the Centralians would be around forever, longer than I’d be there at least. She also had four pages to fill every week and one good play a year wasn’t going to do it. My quest for artistic integrity, for dramatic purity was thwarted. Almost.
The thing was, Grelle did have those four pages to fill, come rain or shine. And there were a few rounds of golf to squeeze in too. Time and space were on my side. I knew that one thing Grelle wasn’t interested in reviewing but which remained popular was a horror movie. In fact, no one was interesting in reviewing them. Opportunity knocked. I happened to mention one day that I’d gladly take on writing up this drek and Grelle cheerfully agreed. That’s how I ended up sitting in the front row at Mr Young’s preview theatre in Soho, a beer in one hand and a bacon sandwich in the other, watching Phantasm II, a woeful tale of zombies running amok.
It was staggeringly poor. The Centralians no doubt watched this kind of thing in their master classes, taking most of their cues from the living dead. Even the free T-shirt I’d been given as a competition prize quivered in its bag under the seat, shocked that it could have been chosen to market something so feeble. I nevertheless wore that T-shirt with perverse pride for years to come.
On the way back I found myself concocting ever more amusing ways of sticking it to this tripe. Standing on Farringdon station, I read through the programme notes for inspiration and found the same director had also made Phantasm ten years earlier when he was a mere 25. Somehow he’d been let out of wherever he’d been locked up in the meantime, I reasoned. Lost in this reverie, trains thundering past on the tracks opposite, I didn’t notice a shadowy figure coming swirling up the dingy platform, trademark trenchcoat billowing behind him. It was Jon Challis.
Now, Jon Challis was deputy to the head of St Albans Leisure, a private company which had taken on the role of managing the districts sports and leisure facilities. Mid-thirties, smartly dressed, a go-getter, hungry for success. That was Mr Challlis. On a journalist’s expenses form, he was good for 14 miles, round trip. A not altogether unvalued contact, in fact. Tim had a saying for him, as he probably had a saying for everyone. “How do you know Jon Challis is lying? His lips are moving.” Nevertheless, even Tim had to admit, the management of St Albans Leisure made things happen and got things done.
“Keith! How are you doing?” Jon said, squeezing my hand and pumping my arm like a publican serving free beer to a winning rugby team. “I’m good, John. Very good. I’ve just been to see a film.” “Sounds good. Was it?” “I’m afraid not…” And that’s how we fell into conversation for the journey home. As it turned out, John was actually an interesting traveling companion, at least for that thirty minute train ride from Farringdon to St Albans. We spoke of films and the entertainment industry. Somewhere along the way, John asked me, “How’s work?” “Dull,” I admitted. “But… I do have a few ideas…”
Following Tim’s admonition about Mr C’s lips, I was a bit reticent. But I was also wildly enthusiastic so it wasn’t hard for him to draw it out of me. “Well,” I said, “what I’d like to do is get into TV and film making myself.” “Any luck so far?” “As it happens, I’ve been taking a few courses.” We talked on about films and film making, and also about the possibilities for local television. Our train pulled into St Albans Station and we parted cheerily.
Some time later I bumped into Jon again–although he appeared on several expense claims in the meantime. I happened to mention that I’d been talking to the local cable company who weren’t really doing anything much. “Oh,” John said, “well, you should come over to the local council offices some time and see the new information system we’ve set up for them in the foyer.” “Okay,” I promised, but that was later. Right then, I was ready to hammer Phantasm II with a barrage of keystrokes that would have made Freddy Krueger wince.
“I love film. I love all kinds of films. Except this one.”
Several weeks later, at a training session for junior journalists, I showed the editor of another local paper the two theatre reviews and the Phantasm II piece (which Grelle had left untouched) as they had appeared in the Watford Observer. “Nice,” he said. “These could count towards your training log if you like.” “Well,” I admitted, “that isn’t how the Centralians one originally looked.” I pulled out a print out I’d kept with the introduction about growing hyacinths and passed it to him.
It’s rare to see someone laughing out loud at your copy, especially when you’ve been led to believe it’s so self-indulgent. I savoured the moment. “This is great stuff,” he said. “Why didn’t they use it?” “You would have?” I asked. “Of course!” Oh. I explained Grelle?s reasoning to him. “Okay, I can see her point,” said my tutor, digesting this. “Maybe it is a bit cruel. But it’s still good. I would have used it.” I was clearly on the wrong newspaper. At least for theatre.
Yet, as far as film and television went, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And Jon Challis was to play a key role as the drama unfolded.