So everyone is pissing theirselves, apart from Buster Merryfield, who’s looking confused. And Mike Smith, is looking at us both, and..
Oh sorry. I was just telling a showbiz anecdote. I’ll start again shall I? But, I’ll be honest with you, because I cannot abide those links that say things like, ‘ You won’t believe what happens next!’, and I’ll forewarn you now, this is not the best anecdote you have ever heard. Not by a long chalk. But it was a nice personal moment, and Mike Smith was part of it, and Mike Smith has died, and it just came to mind, and it made me smile. So..
59 is, as they say, no age. No age at all. As I get older, I find myself saying more and more, Oh dear, really? That’s sad, I worked with them years ago, you know.. This time, sadly, it’s Mike Smith.
You may or may not know/remember that, apart from the stuff his obituaries will mention, like being Noel Edmond’s sidekick, a Radio 1 DJ etc, the guy also hosted a long running popular TV panel show that gave many ‘alternative comics’ their first (and often, only) taste of mainstream TV exposure. At a time when acts who played places like the Comedy Store and Jongleurs were only usually allowed onto late night, naughty and anarchic TV, it was Smith’s light entertainment vehicle, ‘That’s Showbusiness’ which aired on BBC1, from 89 -96, in a post teatime slot, that broke the mould and let a bunch of notoriously foul-mouthed and supposedly untameable anit-establishment jesters through it’s doors. The result was mainly ok, all things considered. These unknowns (to an early evening beeb audience, at least) were flattered to be asked, truth be told, and were quite chuffed to be paired up with soap stars, and other assorted celebs. It felt like proper showbiz, telly that your mum could be proud of..
And Mike Smith always helmed the show with an easy, understated good humour. Not a gushy luvvie type, nor a detached, eyes-glazed-over cynic either. And best of all, he didn’t try and come over all ‘alternative’ and down with the hip new comics. He had a touch of the enthusiastic, but long suffering teacher about him; inclusive of all in the class-room, ever affable and always gave you room to do your gags. There was no side to him. And, tellingly, I never heard any comics making snide remarks about him, not even from the safe distance of a Jongleurs dressing room bitch-fest..
Anyway, to my showbiz anecdote. I appeared on the show a couple of times, on one occasion being paired up with none other than Buster Merryfield. I admit, I did have a few initial seconds of resentment, – why couldn’t I have been put with that amazing looking girl from the Austrailian soap? But I quickly checked myself. It’s bloody Buster for god’s sake. Uncle Albert rom Only Fools.. – He’s a ledge! And he really was as humble and lovely as you hoped he’d be. Chatting away, with some pathos, about how he hadn’t taken up acting professionally until late in life, aged 57 in fact, after his mother had passed away. You see, he’d promised his ma that he would never give up his steady day job at the bank, because she worried about him. He sometimes had trouble hearing my side of the convo though, because dear old Buster was as deaf as a door post. Which brings me to my story..
One of the rounds in That’s Showbusiness, the only round, in fact, that involved any pre-planning, was the karaoke round. This entailed each pair of contestants being played a well known song, which would cut our, and they had to carry on singing, hopefully keeping time, until after a few bars the track was played back in, with the celebs in perfect sync, or not as was often the case. Contestants would be given a few minutes to listen to the song before the recording. It didn’t usually help.
So me and Buster were allotted, Gimme all your lovin’ by ZZ Top. This gave Mike the opportunity to get an extra laugh by throwing a false beard over to me, (which I genuinely didn’t know about) so that we could ape the hirsute look of ZZ Top. But when the beard appeared, the opposing team, who were Dale Winton and someone who wrote a soap gossip column, began making jokes about the rather sorry looking bit of ratty fuzz, likening it to what Sharon Stone had ‘down there’ in that scene from Basic Instinct. The remarks weren’t that risqué by today’s standards, but back then, for a pre-watershed beeb 1 crowd, you just knew these quips wouldn’t be kept in. I myself was restrained and did not join in, mindful of edits, but Dale and the soap gossip columnist kept up the smutty banter, none of it useable, but it did amuse the audience.
So eventually we got to the end of the show, and all that was left to do were the re-takes. Now, as anybody who has sat through a TV panel show recording (or indeed, appeared in one), will know, the re-takes can be a bit gruelling. The show itself, usually massively over-recorded to begin with, is all done, but the tired audience is now required to sit and be quiet or react accordingly whilst the host does a number of clean and tidy links and intros, eg: ”And so we come to the quick fire round” and ” Checking the scores, we can see that it’s very close’, etc. There were quite a few re-takes to do on this occasion, and by the time we got to the bit where Mike throws the beard to me, we were all flagging. I had to try and look surprised again, and the Manchester audience, by now needing to wee badly and get their buses home, were wearying of trying to react appropriately and the atmos was all becoming a bit strained.
But Mike implores us all to hang in there, promising we would soon be done. Just the beard bit to do again, the bit that was unusable because of the previous rude gags in the recording. We do a couple of takes, but the producer’s not happy, probably because by now it has lost all spontaneity. I can feel the tension in the air and it’s bordering on tetchiness. Mike breathes deeply. We all just want this finished now, and to go to the bar. He throws me the beard, I catch it. (silence). I then look up, ”Why thank you Mike,”. And then, holding the beard up, I turn to the audience and exclaim ”Look! An exact replica of Sharon Stone’s fanny”. There is beat, and then the laughs come. I’d done it to break the tension, and it worked. The audience cracked up, the other team members cracked up, and I look at Mike, wondering for a sec if I’ve overstepped the mark. Then his eyes crease, and his shoulders start to heave and I know it’s ok. The tension in the room is gone..
So everyone is pissing theirselves, apart from Buster Merryfield, who’s looking confused. He puts his hand behind his ear, looks at me, then Mike. ”What did he say?”. Mike is looking at us both, and i’m thinking, no way, I am not going to explain to this very lovely old gentelman that I was comparing the tatty, old false beard to a movie star’s vagina – from a film I don’t think he’s even heard of! –
Anyway, Mike said something to put him at ease, I can’t remember what exactly And then we did the final re-take again, relaxed and successfully this time. And that was that. That was Showbusiness. And 59 is no age.
RIP Sir..(and Buster)