career - performing

Richard Stilgoe

When I was fourteen I formed this band.   Tony Tyler(bass), Brian Owen(piano), Bernard Falk(rhythm guitar and owner of the amplifier, and  the same Bernard Falk who was much later a reporter on Nationwide ) Andy Barr or Nick Seddon on drums.  The drummers are still alive, though the other three are all, alas no longer with us.     We played skiffle and early Rock’n’roll and some Fats Waller and Big Bill Broonzy and we were called Tony Snow and the Blizzards.   Liverpool’s best group at the time was called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, so our name was based on theirs.  The Hurricanes had a drummer called Ringo Starr, who left them to join the Beatles.  There are rumours that we played at the  Cavern with the Beatles, and I’m not sure whether we did or not, but we did come second to the Quarrymen in a talent competition organised by a local swinging vicar.  I should say that we came second by quite a long way – we were really bad.

Like many supergroups we split up, and in the school holidays I toured my freaky bass voice round Liverpool’s clubs singing Ole Man River and Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud.  My ambition at the time was to be an opera singer, and though I did a few bits and pieces later on I was never going to be the real thing. 

The next stage was Cambridge.  I got a choral exhibition to Clare College (this is a sort of scholarship for people who can sing loudly) and immediately joined the Footlights club.   My year at Cambridge (you are supposed to do three, but you have to pass an exam to do the second one, and I failed that) coincided with the final years of John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, David Hatch, Trevor Nunn and other big talents, and gave me a fatal glimpse of showbiz possibilities – much as the presence of the Beatles had in Liverpool.   So I set off down the yellow brick road.  In June 1962 Nic Ullet and I were hired as a double act at the Royal Court Theatre Club above the famous Sloane Square theatre.  The proprietor was Clement Freud, who would warm up the audience with a series of anecdotes of such suicidal lugubriousness that whatever came afterwards was a relief. 

When Nic, who had passed his exams, went back to Cambridge I went solo and moved to the Blue Angel in Mayfair, working with (and sometimes, as a precocious nineteen-year old, introducing) David Frost, Dave Allen, the Southlanders, Noel Harrison and the wonderful Leslie Hutchinson. 

There was then a long stint out of work when body and soul were just kept together by playing the piano in The Fountain, Camberwell Road, (and a proper job for a while at J.Walter Thompson as a copywriter, which I needed in order to convince Lizzie’s parents to let me marry her.)    The minute we were married (I was twenty-one, she was twenty) I dived back  into entertainment, with the aid of Noel Picarda, a rumbustious and fearless person who had persuaded a Hungarian restaurant owner called Stephen Kennedy to let him produce a series of revues at The Poor Millionaire in Bishopsgate.   We did Something’s in the City, From Rush-Hour with Love, The Carrier-Baggers, Not Bloody Likely, Those Magnificent Men in their Washing Machines – these were all spoofs of hit films of the time, and contained about one decent joke and half a decent song each.

In 1966 I got my only two jobs as a real actor – at Bristol Theatre Royal in a show called 60,000 Nights, celebrating 200 years of the theatre, and then in Jorrocks,  a musical about Surtees’ fox-hunting grocer which had predictably limited appeal. 

In 1967 Glyn Worsnip and I were asked to bring a revue to the Belfast Festival by the festival’s director, Michael Emmerson.   This was called The Cocaine Mutiny, and was a naive piece about a drug called Sentimenthol which made everybody love each other.   As part of the Festival I was also asked to give a lecture on song-writing.  This became the one-man show ‘Take me to your Lieder’ which was to occupy many of my evenings for the next forty years.  I did it the following year at Belfast and then, thanks to Richard Gregson-Williams, at the Newcastle and Nottingham Festivals, along with two revues called God is Alive and Well (about Religion, starring Lesley Joseph as the Virgin Mary) and Poking Fun (about sex, and starring a young Joanna Lumley).  I also did a show with Michael Copley and the Cambridge Buskers at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival.

The one-man show, and a cabaret version of it adapted for many different firms, was my bread and butter for a long time.  Computer firms – particularly IBM, just going through the birth pangs of the first Personal Computer – were especially good and lucrative employers for anyone willing to write songs to cheer up their exhausted sales force.   I was even allowed to record the show for EMI and tour it round Australia twice.  Those of us who did this lonely form of entertainment never met, unless there was a monumental cock-up by the agents and two of us turned up on the same night.   We knew each other by reputation, and by seeing each other’s posters in the places we appeared in.  Pam Ayres, Jake Thackray, Mike Harding, Richard Digance, George Melly – there were not many of us.   Nearest to me in style, though vastly superior as a pianist, was Peter Skellern, who was writing topical songs for Stop the Week when I was doing the Today programme.  We lived close to each other, and became good friends, and in 1984 Tony Swainson of the Lord’s Taverners suggested we do a cabaret together, because he thought ‘Stilgoe and Skellern Stomping at the Savoy’ sounded good.  So we did it, and enjoyed it, and for the next eighteen years we became a two-man show instead of two one-man shows, which was nice because we had someone to talk to in the interval.  The king of the one-man show was Victor Borge, who I once met.  His show was two hours long without a break, and he said that he didn’t have an interval because there was no-one to talk to.

There is a huge buzz about being up on a stage persuading everybody to listen and laugh and sometimes ponder.  And I get just as much of a buzz now, getting young people to perform and experience the same feeling.