Tony Bell: Diary of a Gossip: Week Six Coventry (with a bit of Norwich)

"The truth about Chris Myles and the best legs in showbiz"

"The truth about Chris Myles and the best legs in showbiz"

Two blogs ago I wrote about living with the Abbess in Coventry – not the Cathedral you understand, and not the real Abbess, but a terrace with a camp bed, and the cross-dressing icon, Councillor Kennedy, formerly known as Chris Myles. I’d like to move on to Norwich now, but I can’t yet because I left a bit of my heart behind with Chris, (as well as a Pilates DVD and a rainbow sock from Help the Aged).

I know I complained about his banana fetish in the last blog, about his sightseeing fetish two blogs before that, and about his fig fetish the blog before that, but you know it’s only because I love him. He’s my oldest Propeller mate. Since 1997, we’ve been everywhere together. He’s rescued me from Mexican gangsters, Philipino lady boys, the Watermill river, and incurable “foot in mouth” disease. We are the last remaining ‘founders’ of the company, (which means we were in the first show, ‘Henry V’, also meant to be the last show – where did it all go right?) But while I took two years out to be tactless and unemployed, Chris has never missed a performance in thirteen years. So far he has done approximately 1,123 of them.

On February 12th 2007 he would have missed “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Old Vic, because Rachel was having their second child. He was given the night off to watch his wife do all the work, and cry at the end, but the show was cancelled. In a remarkably intuitive act of grace, the cleverly named Grace came out at 7:39, so her showbiz father would have made it back for his first entrance. However, as fate would have it, Simon Scardifeld and I had the lurgy that night anyway, and Simon was playing the shrew, and therefore indispensable.

I know Petruchio is also the lead, but it’s not called ‘Petruchio, the Shrew Tamer,’ is it? That would be silly. And besides, when he wrote it, Shakespeare was far too experienced to choose a dodgy title. “A Comedy of Errors,” on the other hand – but that was his first try, that’s why it’s all a bit rhymy isn’t it? Yesterday, in Norwich, a punter said to me, “I loved both plays but Richard felt like it was really modern, not Shakespeare at all, whereas Comedy seemed really Shakespearean, did you rewrite Richard?” “No, we just cut an hour out of it, and ‘Comedy’ is all rhyming couplets, which is probably why it sounds more verse driven,” is what I said, as his friend talked about making the last bus.

I do a disservice to the two founders, as well as Dougie who played Petruchio, when I say we cancelled because of Simon. Chris and I were obviously indispensable too, and it is really hard to understudy three people at once, at two hours notice. So the only Propeller show ever to be cancelled, was, er, cancelled, mainly so that we could help Chris maintain his one hundred per cent attendance record. Usually of course, the understudy system means the show must go on. For three days after Grace’s birth, Jon Trenchard did a brilliantly aggressive job understudying Kate while Simon recovered from a more serious man flu than mine, and last week Wayne Cater stretched his comic muscles as Dromio of Syracuse when Richard Frame damaged a nerve in his foot in “Richard,” cutting Chris’ stomach open and taking out a pound of sausages. It didn’t happen then actually, though Chris’ stomach is quite stubborn, it happened jumping off the gurney. Richard does a lot of jumpy type things in both shows, so it could have been the cumulative effect, or perhaps Dougie really stamped on his foot instead of pretending during their servant-master double act, which does seem to have a very unusual physical vocabulary, drawn more from the world of “Commedia Del Boy” than “Commedia dell arte.”

But back to Chris, and our long and loving history with Propeller. We didn’t have much stage time together in Henry V. Chris was a very alluring Alice, who mainly scrubbed the back of an equally alluring nighty-clad Jimmy Tucker in a bathtub with a loofer on the Watermill river. Later I carried a less alluring shorts-clad Jimmy Tucker through the audience crying “Kill the boys and the luggage!” in my best Pakistani-Welsh. Some nights I banged Jimmy’s head on the roof, sometimes on the concrete floor, sometimes I accidentally pulled his shorts off, but I was always in a very distressed emotional state so I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Next up was the first version of “Comedy,” and again we had no scenes together. I was Egeon, the father, far too young of course, but mature beyond my years. Egeon, is the tragic part in an otherwise rip-roaring farce, which means if, like me, you need audience laughter to feel okay about yourself, you’re in a bit of hole. Chris was the Goldsmith, who is a man, so that was a stretch for him too. I don’t think anyone connected with our once in a lifetime tour of the Far East of Asia will mind me saying that riding through the Sri Lankan waters on the back of an orphaned elephant was a tad more exhilarating than explaining to the Duke of Ephesus in fine iambic detail how I tied my babies onto a “small, spare mast, such as seafaring men provide for storms.” The “Comedy” and “Henry” double bill put us on the map, but this version of “Comedy” is better. There, I’ve said it. Shoot me down in flames, all ye nostalgia junkies.

We’re nearly at the millennium, but we have the original Twelfth Night to talk about first. This was the first time Chris revealed his truly remarkable showbiz legs. He played Maria in a pair of fishnet stockings, and even Feste, whose only love lay in a flower strewn “sad cypress” grave, fancied him. I mean her. Which one did I fancy, Maria or Chris? They were as one, perfect bum and perfect legs, stilletoing across my eye line every night for four brief weeks. We had some lovely scenes together, all of us, Toby, Andrew, Maria et al, all ganging up against Richard Clothier. Nothing changes.

Then followed the embryo of “Richard III,” “Rose Rage,” memorable for many reasons, but here are the ones I think of first. Rotting entrails on a Sunday afternoon at the Haymarket, Piccadilly, the day after the fridges broke down, and all the butchers offal, the literally raw material for Ed and Michael’s abattoir metaphor, smelt ‘offal’. Chris and I cycling home on our bikes after a night in Century, the actor’s West End club, saying goodbye as he went left and I went right - right into the back of a windscreen of a parked car. I locked the incapacitated bike to the nearest lamp post, walked into the police station, reported the damage, walked into Casualty, got a few staples in my head, and a telling off, and jumped onto the night bus home. It was packed, but plenty of people gave up their seat. Funny that. Now at this point I’d like to issue one of those “Don’t try this at home” warnings. You see, Chris was completely sober and got home safe and sound, but I didn’t on account of the fact that I have a very, very low alcohol tolerance. I can become quite incoherent during post show talkbacks while nursing half a glass of lager, I just have to sniff it, or is it that I have too many ideas running round my head all trying to get to my mouth? I don’t know, but whatever, don’t drink and cycle, kids. There, done now. In case you are wondering, the bike was a right off but I got a new one, the windscreen was a write off, not the car, but I paid for it, and the next day I was a more authentic Jack Cade, with a stapled, bloodied face. A true leader of the rebellion, or a bit of an idiot, you decide.

I said these are the moments of the “Rose Rage” tour I remember first. They aren’t. This is what I think of first when I think of “Rose Rage.” All of us sitting in the deserted Green Room of Theatre Clywd watching the television on September 11th, and wondering whether we should finish the tech or just go home. In the event we played to twelve people that night and acting out our 2001 interpretation of Shakespeare’s 1593 interpretation of the War of the Roses seemed both resonant and futile at the same time. None more so when Talbot said: “Who in a moment even with the earth, shall lay your stately and air-braving towers.”

The Dream was next, and since we played Quince and Bottom, it was a time when the Myles and Bell, (or Bell and Myles – we haven’t worked out the billing yet) double act was truly forged. This meant in practice that I gave Chris notes on comic timing every single night for eleven months, and Chris listened with grace and inordinate patience. I wouldn’t have, I would have clubbed me with a large stick. But Chris is Chris, unbelievably sanguine and ego just the right side of selfless. And I am me. I like to think the years have made me more easy going, less of a control freak. They have haven’t they Chris? I know I went on about the bananas, but that was ‘tongue in cheek,’ honest.

The real truth is, Chris makes me think of Brian Clough quite a lot, not least because he supports Derby County, Clough’s first love, and I support Nottingham Forest, Clough’s second love. Derby is now managed by Nigel Clough, Brian’s son, an unassuming lad, with a lot of skill and intelligence, not unlike Chris. In the eighties when Nigel was a young centre forward for Forest, knocking on the door of the full England squad, his father who was also his manager and referred to his son as “the number nine,” was interviewed on Match of the Day. This is what he said about Nigel: “He’s not a big lad. He’s not all that quick. He’s not flashy, but he can pass, and he can shoot. And he has a heart as big as a bucket.” I’d like to say that about Chris. There. I’ve said it.

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