Apparently, the fake platform 9¾ at Kings Cross Station receives 1.2 million Harry Potter tourists a year. I sat watching them take selfies and pose accordingly waving their scarves, wands and stuffed owls before disappearing in a Hufflepuff of smoke to spend their money in the Warner Bros shop next door. The stores at St Pancras, Heathrow and at Gatwick turned over £26 million last year. It started me wondering about selling my own line of Ghost Stories merchandise; underpants, character cufflinks or even (Spoiler) our own brand of cat food.
Everyone in the company had been looking forward to the York leg of the tour. Those that had been before waxed on about the many cafes, pubs and restaurants that have made the area famous. I think I came here with my Aunt Sue 107 years ago to visit the Railway Museum when I was a mini ginger rugrat. I was a member of the RailRiders Club - a society for young train enthusiasts run by British Rail in the early 80’s. We’d taken an InterCity 125 up from Birmingham. I remember the celebrity patron of the club was a man named Jimmy Savile – Wonder what became of him.
I sat in my usual antisocial spot of the Quiet Coach of the 1030 train - Stopping at Peterborough, Doncaster, dropping us off in York and then it continues north to Edinburgh - the trip we’ll hopefully be taking in a few week’s time. From my view I could observe Lloydy eating a banana and tapping at his phone. At the far end of the carriage I could see Josh buried in a book. I smiled to myself. What would our fellow passengers think if they knew that these three men – apparent strangers – would, in only a few hours, be standing on stage fighting, screaming, scaring and crying with one another in front of 700 people?
Having said that, anything scary we could inflict on the Great British public seemed to pail into insignificance when compared to the dreaded C word that was, literally, on everybody’s lips this week. The Coronavirus epidemic has hit our audience numbers pretty hard in York. The entire company had received an email from the producers on Sunday evening telling us that we’d all be given antibacterial wipes in the dressing rooms, our props would all be cleaned before and after the show, we’re not to invite anyone backstage after the performance, we’re not to shake hands with anyone we meet at the stage door and if anyone waiting wanted a programme signed, they would have to hold it whilst we write using our own felt tip which would be supplied by the company. Frightening stuff!
All this was reiterated by Claire upon our arrival at the Opera House just after 2pm. She thrust a sanitised Sharpie at me through my dressing room doorway - That’s not a euphemism. Apparently West End audiences are down 40% and Broadway has gone totally dark such is the fear amongst the stalls. I guess this explains the incessant audience coughing I’ve been whinging about over the last ten weeks.
The Grand Opera House is not as large as its name suggests. Sat side by side with the burst banks of the River Ouse, it hides amongst the many red bricked structures of the area. The stunning Grade II listed Magistrates Court of 1890 a ten second walk away. The names of the many nearby streets baring guttural nods to its Viking past. Scandi monikers such as Beckholme, Skeldale and Nether Poppleton adorn the front of passing buses.
Lloydy and I were sharing a dressing room this week. Him having to deal with my Liam Gallagher obsession and pomegranate scented candles and me suffering his handsome reflection in the light-bulbed mirror next to mine. We got on well enough though. We both still feel that we have won a competition to be doing this job such is our enthusiasm for it. We have often caught each other simply laughing out loud in incredulity at the whole situation. We also have a similar taste in brightly coloured socks.
The audience on Press night were very warm. We were all grateful that they had faced the dreaded plague to join us. During the curtain call, I saw two couples wearing face masks covering their nose and mouth. They must be from the Daily Mail I thought. Quite disconcerting.
After the show, clutching our Sharpies, we marched down to the stalls bar for Press night drinks. I had a philosophy that, if the government had suggested we wipe our hands with alcohol, then swallowing some might do our insides the world of good too. I passed on my theory to the rest of the company and a decision was made to head to Plonkers wine bar for some more life-saving libations. Upon arrival, it seemed the crew had had a similar idea as they were already there panic buying Guinness and stockpiling red wine. I think it was too late for our lighting guru Andy Taylor. The virus seemed to have taken him early as he had already begun showing symptoms of slurring, imbalance and experiencing double vision.
This week’s accommodation was a bit of a lads’ fest. Bad Billy had organised that he, Lloydy and I share a house about a ten minute walk from the stage door. Clean, tidy and cheap - a fair description of both the digs and us three boys. I woke early on the Wednesday as I’d promised to cook us all breakfast. I popped round to the local Sainsbury’s for the essentials of ciabatta, avocados, smoothies and eggs. When did this council estate orphan become such a middle class oik?
After a long chilly run along the river, a mooch around the shops and an hour of reading, it was time to get into show mode. Our preshow fitness routine has now gone stratospheric. Apart from a full body stretch and vocal routine, we are now up to 186 press ups each. Who’d have thought it from week one of the tour when we struggled to manage seven. Some days it’s easier than others. We line up on the stage and whack them out but a lot of venues have quite a steep rake meaning gravity is against us. But Pauly’s Sergeant Majoring has definitely worked. I can see a physical difference in everyone. Tamsin’s like a machine and Gus’s bulging boobs are breaking his shirt buttons!
After the show, a few of the company popped over to Plonkers again for more internal antibaccing, but Lloydy and I aimed homeward instead for some self isolation – stopping at a working men’s pub for a quick game of pool and a pack of pork scratchings. The Edinburgh Arms was a very old school boozer with boxing memorabilia hanging on its ochre walls and cheesy brass signs reading things like “Free Beer Tomorrow” and “The wife and I had 18 very happy years. And then we met!”. Liverpool were losing on the TV in the back bar and the monotone of a bored pub quizmaster echoed about the snug. It was the quintessential English local, and it was utterly glorious.
Later that evening we sat watching Netflix and drinking tea. Like a young Jagger and Bowie but with better manners. Bad billy joined just after 1am with excited talk of getting a pizza delivered. I declined his kind offer of a spicy stuffed crust meat feast but then watched with regret as he massaged slice after slice into his fizzog. He’d then swallow like a ravenous goose without so much as a cursory chew. I have never met anyone who can fit so much food into such a slim vessel. It’s like a superpower. I might ask him to start packing my suitcase for me such is his talent for squeezing stuff in. His tummy’s like the TARDIS. I took my voracious belly bedward promising myself a big brunch in the morrow.
I struggle for adjectives to describe how pretty I find York. Like it’s been designed by God herself for Instagram. Half Peaky Blinders set, half Happy Potter. Peaky Potter. The people are so friendly. That irreverent mix of the old world, flat cap and whippet with the young wave, fake tan and lippy. If York were a person, it’d be Michael Palin - Traditional, cheeky, handsome and kind. The sandstone buildings, the Shambles outdoor market, the traditional butcher’s shops, florists, cobblers, teashops and churches. England on a stick.
Oh, and the antique shops! Lloydy and I gorged on Georgian and chewed on Tudor as we minced about the many emporia. Vintage flags, jewellery, maps, pens, trinkets and various collectables. We were in heaven. I’ve banned myself from putting any more ‘hard earned’ cash into this ridiculous obsession. However, a 1930’s, hand turned, Waterman fountain pen with 18ct gold nib and lever fill may have found itself onto my writing desk. Well, we’re all going to die soon apparently so one might as well go out with a little style.
Talking of which, Covid-19 stepped up from a supporting character to main player as our week went on. Claire gave us daily updates and advice from the grown ups (Smith & Brandt – our producers) with regard to the future of the run. By Thursday we were told it was business as usual but, if any of the company were to begin showing symptoms, the tour was pretty much over for us all. Continue washing those hands, burning those tissues and keeping those post show hugs to a minimum.
On Friday morning, I had to go to Leeds for a costume fitting. Serendipitously, a director I worked with many years ago contacted my agent and offered me a guest bit on Emmerdale. It filmed on the following Monday which is our day off so I was available, and it records up in Yorkshire so the theatrical Gods were smiling on the whole timing of the deal. It meant that I had to stay for an extra day up north whilst the rest of the company aimed south but I was very flattered that the director, Dominic Keavey, had remembered me. Actor’s love offers – No audition, no stress, just the acting bit. The best bit.
Claire and Lloyd very kindly kept me company on my little daytrip to the ITV studios. We jumped on the 1005 train for my fitting at 11am. The studios are about a mile from Leeds train station so we trotted our way farmward and arrived in reception to be met by the costume assistant Katie. We antibacced, bumped elbows and she led me off to the wardrobe room on the first floor overlooking the offices of daytime TV. My trip buddies skulked off to wait in the ITV canteen to swig luke warm tea and suck stale biscuits.
The fitting took about 15 minutes. Me, being me, had some ideas on what my character should wear so Katie and I tried on three or four options which she snapped on her camera to send to Dominic for approval. The acting world is so strange. In what other profession can you imagine meeting a client for the first time at 11am and then be stood wearing nothing but perfume and pants nine minutes later? Actually, I can think of one profession.
After the fitting, we heading back west to Leeds city centre. Claire suggested the ubiquitous Bill’s for lunch. We sat and chatted whilst our waitress Mel furnished us with platters of fish fingers, chips, steaks and super juices. Well, it was a two show day – Calories don’t count on matinee days. Any thesp will tell you that.
Back in York later that day, Lloydy joined Gus and Bad Billy to visit the York Dungeons for a busman’s holiday of shocks and scares. Claire and I decided to waste an hour in Betty’s Tearoom instead. A resplendent Edwardian establishment dating back to the early 1900’s. All polished brass, doilies and raised little fingers. Right up my cobbled street.
The 1800 performance on the Friday was a banger. An old friend from University, Angela, had emailed to say she was booked in to see the show. We read drama together 20 odd years ago and I’d not seen her since. We had appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in the late 90’s. Me giving my spotty Lysander to her shrewish Hermia. She’s now a teacher in Redcar and had brought along 30 of her 15-year old students to see the play. I managed to grab a quick 2 metre air kiss and a catch up at the stage door before the half. She hadn’t changed one bit whereas I now look like a poor man’s Rick Astley.
She emailed after to tell me that her students had loved the show. She said that she’s in trouble with the headmistress for shouting; “F’king ‘ell!” in front of the kids at least a dozen times. Glad to be of service.
The evening audience was even better. Blown away that we were still playing to 600 odd people even though the apocalypse was continuing outside of the theatre. Après show, we three sons of York headed back to the digs, holding a kebab and feeling fab. I facetimed the current missus before hitting the hay knackered. A long day of costumes, cod, cake and Covid.
Early Saturday morning I took myself off back in time to the York Castle Museum. An absolutely brilliantly curated collection. It was started in the 1930’s by Dr John Kirk. A GP from Pickering with a strong fascination for interesting objects he called 'bygones'. These were everyday objects - horse bridles, milking stools, apple corers, snuff boxes, bottle corkers, cake moulds and even police truncheons - which he felt represented a way of life fast disappearing as the Victorian age drew to a close.
The museum covered a really eclectic mix of York’s historical past ranging from the Romans’ residency, the Vikings’ visits, William the Conqueror’s castle building of 1068, the 5 million KitKats made in the area every day through to a swinging 60’s exposition and a fascinating WWI exhibit. I could have spent all day there.
Alongside Kirk’s collection stands the old York Prison where various villains have been incarcerated over the years. The most famous inmate being Dick Turpin in 1739. A tour guide ushered me into his cell which was a little bigger and cleaner than my Nottingham digs. I was just peeking through the prison’s barred window when I heard booming from behind “STAND AND DELIVER. YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE!” I turned, having tearfully soiled myself, to see the man himself. A wild eyed dandyman stood in the doorway with eyebrows and pistols raised. He asked me to hand over my pearls. Alas I had only my house keys and a half eaten banana to offer. I managed to placate him with a selfie before he shuffled off to scare a mask wearing German in the cell next door.
Later that morning I was having a frothy slurp in the coffee shop next to the theatre when the inevitable news we were all dreading came through from Equity via email. It was bound to happen really. The closing of mainland Europe due to this virus, our diminishing audiences and the general fear that was beginning to permeate the UK had all added too much pressure on the world and so it was never going to be too long before the entertainment industry had to listen and take heed. Our trade union had had an emergency meeting that morning and sent a message to all of the fellowship that the following, heartbreaking, action had to be deployed:
“Equity advice to all its members. IMPORTANT. It is wise in this period to refrain from going to pubs and clubs or other areas where you are in close contact with people”.
As I mournfully entered the stage door, word had obviously reached the other actors too. I could just hear Andy McD’s sonorous voice travelling down from his dressing room – “Why? Why? Why?” His howl was positively Lear esque in its passion. It put me in mind of a wounded animal such was its haunting whine - Like an orca or a lycanthrope. Bad Billy was no better – Trying to eat through his grief.
Touring can be a lonely existence so the after show swig in a nearby pub coupled with a well timed anecdote is always welcome. Sadly no more for this band of rouges and vagabonds – Back to the digs for us every night, walking in a straight line with well rehearsed tales between our legs.
I’m making light of the situation of course. Word is fed day by day on the global and economic disaster that this thing has caused and we all genuinely hope beyond hope that we continue to play the next six weeks and finish the tour. It would be tragic if we fell at the last leg. On a base level, we’d all lose money but worse than that; most of us would lose our dream. I could certainly feel a dip in the company’s mood as much as everyone was fighting to maintain the contrary. It’s only natural what with the constant and relentless bad news filtering in.
But on the other sanitised hand, the last two houses on Saturday were still really well attended considering. The response, as always, was hearty and kind at the curtain. At least we can all semi self isolate next week as it’s another commuter venue. The stunning splendour of the Richmond Theatre. All actors love playing there, plus it’s Gus and Claire’s birthdays and so hopefully a little optimism will be gifted. I genuinely hope so. Everyone works so hard at creating this strange and wondrous bit of art, they all fully deserve to do it whilst smiling.