When I left Basildon at the end of summer 1974 I did not know if I would ever be back. My move from there, initially, to the other side of the country was to create a breathing space, not just for me but also for someone who had become close.
Initially my only contact would be at Harry Corbett’s home in Child Okeford where Lawrence, the stage manager, and I shared a caravan for the two weeks prior to the tour.
I gave that address to my parents, who were up in North Wales, and to the one other person who really mattered. There was no email or mobile phones in those days. You wrote down what you wanted to say, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and consign it to the Royal Mail.
During the fortnight at Harry’s place I received two letters from my parents, basically family news, and that was it.
In the second week Harry gave us a list of venues and dates for the next seven months which included theatre addresses and telephone numbers which were provided for emergency use only.
I copied the list out, twice, and sent one to North Wales and one to Basildon.
As it happened, about eight weeks into the tour we would be at the Basildon Arts Centre. I should have realised this would happen as it had been a regular visit by Harry for some years.
Once we began the tour we soon fell into a routine.
Sunday was arrival at the theatre and unloading whatever gear we needed, as I mentioned previously we carried enough equipment to dress a bare stage if necessary; getting the caravan as close as possible to the stage door and linking up the power; doing a technical runthrough so the local stage crew knew what was needed and when; then the evening was free to relax, read, go to the pub or whatever floated our boats.
A normal week would be a matinee performance Monday to Friday and then two or three shows on a Saturday, 10am, 2pm and 4 pm slots and then from 6.30pm we would strip out our gear and pack the van ready for the drive to the next venue.
One or two shows a day would appear to leave us free most mornings and evenings but life wasn’t that easy. After breakfast we had to check the sets and equipment and patch up any damage, take delivery of new puppets (which were checked out by Harry and if not up to his standard would be returned); set up the front of house merchandise stall, which I manned for an hour before the show, during the interval and for half an hour after the show ended.
There were all sorts of little jobs which needed doing, from making swazzles to preparing the mix for Sooty’s “cooking” during the kitchen scene and making sure the special effects were in order for the Haunted House and Water Garden sequences.
The tasks varied from day to day which meant we had no time to be bored.
In the evenings a lot depended on what was happening in the town.
If we were lucky the town might have a multi screen cinema couple of decent pubs and even another venue for entertainment than the own we were at. Sometimes there was even an evening production at the same theatre, a play or even a concert.
The worst case scenario would be a single screen cinema and two pubs.
It was surprising how often that happened and we did have a run of five or six weeks when the same film appeared to be following us around from one town to the next and it was not a film that appealed to either of us – it was called Deadly Weapons and starred the oddly-named Chesty Morgan.
Week after week we checked the cinema and found the above poster on display. We turned away each time and went to the pub or back to the caravan.
After six weeks we finally gave in and decided to watch it.
It proved to be the most expensive cinema ticket based on cost per minute because we were out of there within five minutes.
The plot – if you can call it that – involved the star (a Polish actress) seeking revenge on the mobsters responsible for the death of her boyfriend. She tracks them down, seduces them and smothers them with deadly weapons of the title (need I say more).
Even if the face of the “heroine” had been even vaguely as pretty as the girl in the poster we would probably have still walked out. I do not normally make disparaging comments about women but the woman in the film could have been the poster girl’s granny.
There are films of this kind from this era which still managed to provide a reasonable revenge plot with a more likely use of weapon for the execution of that revenge. This was not one of them.
It has taken me years to banish the images of those fleeting moments of film from my dreams.
It was fortunate that before going to Harry’s place I had taken many of my belongings to my parents’ home for temporary storage and at the same time had selected a good number of books. classics, thrillers and crime novels, to help while away any free time on the tour.
There was a highlight every week when Harry would treat us all to dinner at a good restaurant, no expense spared. I don’t care what they might say about Yorkshiremen being mean with their money, Harry was a generous man to his friends but did expect value for money.