Friday, 4 September 2015

Cilla and I

'Cinema' 50cm x 70cm Acrylic on Board

I fell out with Cilla Black in 1971. In fact she almost had me sacked from my job at the London Palladium. I was in my early twenties working as a theatre electrician, mainly as a way of getting a union card so that I could get into films. Among the shows I worked on was 'Aladdin' a classic Palladium pantomime starring Cilla Black.

One of my stage jobs was to 'page' Cilla's microphone cable. Paging a cable was basically keeping any trailing wires from tripping the performer. To do this I had to stand at the side of the stage, out of sight of the audience, with the microphone lead coiled in my hand. When Cilla moved towards my side of the stage I had to reel it in and when she moved to the other side I had to let it out. Simple. At least it should have been simple. Except that sometimes she would run across the stage – and fast. 

The sequence in question was near the end of the show; a filler to give the stage-hands time to prepare for the next big scene. She was good at working an audience and in this five minute section she would get them to sing along. To make it more entertaining she would get one half of the crowd singing one thing while those on the other side sang something else. To encourage the audience Cilla would run, full pelt, from one side of the stage to the other. At this point I was either furiously reeling in the microphone cable or letting it out as quickly as possible.

Although they couldn't see me I could see the audience. I loved watching them, their total concentration. Adults and children immersed in wonder. They were the embodiment of Coleridges idea of 'suspension of disbelief' so completely were they taken in by the spectacle before them. The audiences were, quite simply, beautiful. I often thought about painting them. In fact many years later I was commissioned to paint an audience; a cinema audience full of 1950s and 60s British film stars (see above).

But you don't want to know what I was looking at or thinking about – you want to know what happened next.

Cilla was running across the stage away from me when the microphone cable slid under a piece of scenery and stuck fast. The cable went taught, her arm was pulled out straight and she came to a very sudden stop. The force was so much it was a miracle that the microphone and its cable stayed connected. Somehow she stayed upright and kept hold of the microphone. The audience, who thought it was part of the act, loved it but I got a look from Cilla from across the stage that told me I was in deep trouble. There was nowhere to run and when she came off stage I got the full force of her anger. I can't repeat what she said but the gist of it was that I was an extremely low form of life at a very low position in the pecking order and that I would never work in the theatre (or, if she had anything to do with it, anywhere) ever again. She said this using the minimum of words - four, if I remember correctly, two of which were new to me.

In those days even the smallest human error was a sacking offence, no second chance. Amazingly the stage director, Tommy Hayes - a fearsome man who ran the stage with an iron fist in an iron glove, took me to one side and told me it would be OK if I just kept out of Cilla's way for the rest of the run. Which I did.

So I survived to page another cable another day which was, if I remember correctly, that of the, even less predictable Tom Jones...but that's another story...