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Occasionally heartbreaking, often hard, but often lots of fun. Ockie resident Dave Thomas writes about his life as a stand-up comedian.

Have you ever wondered why writers of TV dramas don’t like happy endings? I know the world is full of doom and gloom but in real life we can laugh and try to look on the bright side. As a teenager I worked in an East End paper mill. The days were full of wisecracks and banter and much of the old cockney rhyming slang had me in stitches. It was a joy to go to work.

My dad was one of life’s great characters. He worked in the store room of John Lewis in Oxford Street but looked like the managing director when he went to work – bowler hat, black jacket, pin-striped trousers, starched collar and cuffs. Once walking past Buckingham Palace wearing a camel coat, bowler hat and carrying a rolled umbrella, a guard sprung to attention, thinking he was an officer in civilian clothes, despite the fact that he was only 5’4” tall.

At a family wedding in a freezing church, dad gave me half a crown and said ‘light some candles, it will warm the place up a bit’. On another very cold day he came home with a hot water bottle tied round his waist with a piece of string. No one could believe he’d been out like that. His funeral was the best one I’ve been to. Aunt Carrie was telling all the younger members of the family wonderful stories about him and the room was filled with laughter. He would have loved it.

As a fourteen year old watching the comedians on stage at the Finsbury Park and Hackney Empires, I started to think how wonderful it must be to entertain and make people laugh. A few years and many variety shows later, I thought: “Yes, I could do that.”

I entered my first talent competition at Islington Town Hall – the start of a wonderful 35 years in show business. National Service gave me the first opportunity to organise and perform in many shows. The Aldershot Hippodrome was one venue where I performed – in the Army Show and later in a saucy Nude Review. Spotted by a London agent, I was offered a week at Collins’s Music Hall in Islington when I was demobbed. This opportunity – only ten minutes from my home – was short lived. Collins’s Music Hall burnt down before I got on stage! (This was in 1958).

Undeterred, I tried the theatrical agents in the Charing Cross Road. The very first I tried, Morry Apel, looked me straight in the eye and said ‘Do yourself a favour, Dave boy, get out of the business’. I didn’t realise at the time that he was trying to tell me that the business was changing. Theatres were closing. It was “Goodbye variety, Hello clubland”. But my mind was made up. After a year of talent contests and charity shows I packed my bags and went up north – to Manchester, the heart of clubland.

young dave.jpg  Young Dave Thomas in action

There were a nice venues– old cinemas converted into night clubs– which were a pleasure to work in. Then there were the working mens’ clubs: rough, noisy, hard, drunken audiences, quite a different challenge. The first weeks were really tough although I managed to get a few club dates and seemed quite successful. You could never tell – some clubs would be great with the audience shouting for more at the end of the act; at others the audience seemed to hate you and you died the death or, even worse, were paid off.

Luckily, I seemed to have more good nights than bad, so I hung on. At first I stayed in tatty theatrical digs – an old Victorian house which had never been redecorated: rickety furniture, a musty smell and a landlady who looked like Dacula’s daughter. Breakfasts were appropriately diabolical. But I was practically skint and forced down the appalling food, even saving bread from breakfast to make jam sandwiches for lunch. Things came to a head when the landlady caught me throwing a revolting plate of egg and bacon on the fire. I left shortly afterwards.

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  Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club, Stockport

Things slowly started to look up. I was getting weekend gigs. But I needed a record player for part of the act so, still absolutely broke, persuaded a mate to pawn his suit. Much haggling later (only the jacket was new, the trousers had been recently worn and were still wet from the rain) I raised the £2 necessary to secure the record player. It served me well for many performances.

Some years later I was on the way to tour Scotland with a ‘Road Show’ which comprised six acts, three dancers, an organist and a drummer. Our caravans were parked by a river overnight and the next morning I persuaded Chas, the drummer, to join me in a dip. A few minutes later, sitting in the water, with shaving cream on our faces, we noticed a bus which had stopped on the bridge a few feet away so that its passengers could amuse themselves at  our expense. But we were pros. We simply stood up and bowed to our audience; they waved and applauded.

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A week of one night stands in Doncaster brought a whole new experience. The digs were packed with club acts and late evening cups of tea with other performers revealed the competitive streak in many old pros with each trying to out-do the others in describing the great performances they’d just given.

My first night was spent on the settee in the lounge. At 3 am I was awakened by the sound of effing and blinding outside, followed by a couple climbing in through the window. They were a man and wife double act, famous for arguing, who had got locked out. The next morning they emerged from the bathroom where they’d shared a bath – quite a surprise after trying to kill each other the night before. I had a camp bed in a room which I shared with two other acts and two builders whom I never spoke to since we got back late and they left at 6 am. I played seven different clubs during my stay in Doncaster and never saw the builders awake. I also never saw my show biz room mates again.

ken Dave and Ken Dodd

Most variety theatres has closed by the early sixties but the famous City Varieties Theatre, Leeds was still going strong. So I was delighted to be booked for a week there immediately after my Doncaster experience. Thereafter I was to appear at the Continental Theatre Club in Huddersfield, a booking fixed up by a London agent, R.G. Blacke, whom I’d visited during a trip to visit my parents in Islington. The fee was £25 for a week’s work. ‘£25, is that all?’ I asked. ‘It’s better than a kick up the arse’ he replied. I couldn’t argue against his logic. ‘I’ll take it’ I said.

I had a wonderful week at Huddersfield in contrast to many experiences in the Northern working mens’ clubs. Many Yorkshire clubs had a noon as well as an evening show. If they didn’t like you at noon, they hated you in the evening. Dying once a day is bad, twice is terrible. Noon shows were all male with most customers reading the paper and shouting ‘when’s the bingo on?’ above the clatter of bottles and glasses. “Don’t worry, lunchtime’s always like that,” a club committee man says. “Evening audiences are great”. Not true: night time comes and you walk in to hear comments such as: “Oh no, it’s the lunchtime comedian again. He’s crap – God help him”.

In fact you never knew what to expect; it was always a journey into the unknown. On a great night when the audience were cheering and asking for more you would come away feeling like a superstar; the next night when you came off to the sound of your own feet. You sometimes began to doubt yourself:”Am I as good as I think I am?”. Then the next performance you tear the place apart and, still hearing the applause in the dressing room, you say “Yes I am”.

Some clubs were well organised with good facilities, others were real dumps run by people who hadn’t a clue. If the club didn’t have a stage door you had to walk through the audience carrying your gear. On the way in they looked at you as though you had two heads. If you’d ‘died the death’ they stared again as you walked out. But this time they were looking as though they’d just scraped you off the bottom of their shoe. I knew a couple of acts who actually climbed through the toilet window to avoid the long walk through the club. I must admit, I was tempted once or twice.

empire                  At the Sunderland Empire 

Over the years I’ve appeared in many theatres, pantomimes and summer shows and that’s where I’ve felt at home. And the best night of all was in Sunderland. I was in a touring show of clubs and civic centres including the Sunderland Empire. As soon as I got to the theatre I knew it was my sort of place. A few years before there had been hundreds like it, now most were car parks and supermarkets.

The theatre was more than two thirds full and I was nervous as I’d had some bad times in working mens’ clubs in the area. But as I walked forward to the front of the front cloth all my doubts disappeared. I always did a five minute warm up at the beginning of the show and on this night, in perfect surroundings, the audience was out of this world. I couldn’t wait to get back to do my act. When I came on, the audience were pleased to see me back and I could feel their warmth. It was my best performance ever and the roars of laughter just didn’t die down. I now knew how Jack Benny must have felt, I could relax, entertain and enjoy. My night at the Sunderland Empire was the greatest of my career.

variety                     The City Varieties. Leeds

The funny thing was that some people in the clubs hated my act; Eventually I realised that I was born for the theatre. The trouble was that the days of variety were long gone. That was why Morry Apel told me to get out of the business all those years before. I’m glad I took no notice. I made my living doing what I loved.

It has been said many times that being an entertainer isn’t a proper job and I guess it isn’t. but it’s still the best job in the world.

Not everyone makes it, but it’s fun trying.

Dave Thomas May 2011

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