There are those moments that dont really fit in the memory. Yes, you are sure they happened, but somehow, when you go back and linger on them, you’re sure they can’t be quite true. The anomalies are too apparent, the memory just too skewed and odd to have been true. But thats why they settle in the memory, the very weirdness of them. They get aired as lively, often alcohol fuelled anecdotes in social situations, neatly trimmed and polished to give a good narrative flow, and put back again. I was recently chatting to a friend, who also grew up in the lovely town of St. Apleford, and she gave me a cracker, which I’ll tell you about soon, but first, heres one from the depths of my own memory banks I must commit to type before my advancing years render it a symptom of dementia rather than a true recollection.
Its 1987, and possibly a half-term, as I’m not at school. Could have been that treat that peppered my Comprehensive days, the Teacher’s Strike. But that detail is irrelevant, I’m off school and the phone rings. It’s my friend Lee, and he has just witnessed something bizarre and must tell. He’s just seen the telly people. And they’re doing something up the woods. We have to get there immediately.
One of the amusing things about growing up under Broxtowe Borough Council was the belief, which I held for several years, that the dustmen were also the same people who made telly, as they’d come around weekly with BBC across the back of their donkey jackets. I never really gave it much thought how these two noble professions were combined, it seemed perfectly rational, given the initials. At the time such juxtapositions were commonplace, in town a wallpaper shop also sold a huge range of sweets, and our milkman was also our coupon man, so such things seemed normal.
Other than that, telly didn’t come to Stapleford. Anneka Rice once flew over en-route to Wollaton Park during Treasure Hunt once, the one mention of the town caused immense chatter and pride in the playground for weeks. Someone nearby once went on Bullseye, and won a boat that rusted on their driveway, unused, for years, but I didn’t know them by name. Still felt touched by stardust as I delivered their paper. Telly didn’t come to town. Until that morning…
What could be funnier than Randy Crawford singing Cockney Classic ‘Knees up Mother Brown’? Seemingly nothing, back in the day. Thus the ever-grinning Gary Wilmott carved out a career as an old fashioned variety comedian, singing and japing,-and with the twist, and it really was a twist back then-that he was brown, rather than the normal orangey complexion that entertainers wore over their gin-reddened cheeks. I mention this detail for a reason, of which more later.
In 1987, he hosted a popular, ITV primetime comedy sketch show called ‘Cue Gary’, with two other comedians, one with a beard, and one without, as she was a woman. In those days ITV actually had viewers, and a primetime show on a saturday would have an audience composed of a sizable chunk of the populace. His appearance, on Hemlock Hill in Stapleford, was thus akin to Brad Pitt deciding to use Beeston Square to shoot a few reels of his latest blockbuster. I can’t overstate it enough, this was GLAMOUR. I just checked Cue Gary on IMDB, and the article is an empty shell. Oh, Ozymandis…
We scurried up the hill, at the time the grassy stage where we played out our Vietnam war fantasies and practised our SAS techniques cribbed in equal parts from Combat and Survival magazine and Scouting For Boys*. There, atop the steep slopes of the hill, and beneath the the black decayed mushroom** of the Hemlock Stone, was a tv production team in jeans and casual tops, some extras in various articles of fancy dress, a grand piano, and in dapper top and tails, Gary Wilmott. I felt as blessed as those Irish housewives Daniel O’Donnell drops round on for a cup of tea. Clutching my notepad-cum-autograph book in hand, we climbed the slope.
The scene they were trying to film, despite the continued interruptions of a burgeoning band of kids (this was, remember, well before instant messaging and text messaging, word back then spread by bicycle and Hi-Tech Silver Shadow) was concerning the fact that Gary had mistakedly bred a doberman with a mole and voila-the DoberMole sprang forth. These were present on on set, fist-sized balls of fluff with joke-shop dracula fangs. Wilmot was singing their wonderfulness on the grand piano, its location on the hill to provide a dramatic, sweeping vista. As he sang, a chorus would emerge from the bracken, the aforementioned extras in fancy-dress. The song, and I am being so bold to try and remember the lyrics here cos I very muchj doubt I’ll be contradicted, went thus:
You are my life (my life) my heart (my heart) my soul
Oh my joy it never ends
With my fangy no legged friend
You’re my dober (its his dober) you’re my dober (oh my dober)
Should anyone wish to hear the actual tune, Im recording and will upload it to iTunes soon. Or ring me, and I’ll blast it down the earpiece for you.
Such a simple thing to film should have taken a few little takes, and everything packed up and ready for the editing suite well before dusk. But never underestimate the effect Staplefordians, especially the kids, can have on things. First, we were just basically annoying; pushing each other into shot forcing retakes, bugging Gary for autographs and a rendition of Knees up Mother Brown, the usual. Then, a more sinister element appeared, and things got a bit nasty.
Eighties Stabbo was, despite being thoroughly white, a hotbed of mild to extreme racism, the ‘Shop Lot’ the most visible face. These were a terrifying bunch of young, gluebag-sniffing thugs who hung round the Montrose Court precinct of shops and menaced all who dared pass their way. Shane Meadows perceptivly portrayed these in the film ‘This Is England’ , even using Stapleford and Bramcote as locations. They were thugs, spurred on by bostik and far right politics, hating everything. They evolved onto the Trent End at NFFC, and the local pubs, before drinking themselves to death or, worrying, refining their politics into activists for the BNP and C18. They somehow got wind of the fact that a non-white was occupying a local hill, and were not having it. What next? Lenny Henry using Bramcote Park to walk his dog? They armed themselves with eggs, and climbed the hill.
We saw them, at first skulking, then as they grew more bold, pushing towards the front of the gathered crowd. Then the shouting began. ‘Fuck off, wog’ was the milder end of their proclamations, and Gary was visibly rattled, but it wasn’t until the eggs started to rain down on the piano that the situation became serious. A few of the adults in the crowd tried to remonstrate, but these weren’t the skinny haunched skunk-whacked ratboys we are used to today, these were angry, fired up wiry nazis, and weren’t going to be revert to politeness through the request of their elders. They got more vocal, and people talked about the police being called, but something, and this is where the true weirdness of the day reaches its peak, happened.
An extra who we had previously not really noticed, despite his comedy scot garb -kilt, stockings, ridiculously sized tam o’ shanter- stepped forward. A tall slight man, with commandingly pointy features and the air of authority, he consulted with the crew, then strode up to the knot of nazis without a touch of fear. It was then that we realised that this was no extra. It was, and I promise you I am neither on the wrong end of a crack-pipe right now, Leslie Crowther. Who, at the time, was an ITV god, hosting the Price is Right and popping up anywhere that light-entertainment occured. Leslie Crowther, who was there to give a few lines but the delay in filming has thus so far kept him on the periphary. Leslie Crowther. Leslie Crowther was walking towards the Shop-Lot with purpose in his gait.
They also realised who it was at the same time I did, and their vitriolic beying ceased, replaced with bafflement. He picked out the ringleader, who I shall call Paul, cos it was his name, and said something none of us could pick out, but was delivered with real force, for the nazi went white***. There was a tense moment, where Crowther didnt relinquish his stare one iota, and then a swift nod over Paul’s shoulder and they melted away, spasmodically shouting pathetically defiant racist remarks as they did so. A cheer drowned these out, and after a swift confirmation from one of my friends ‘You Leslie Crowther?’, ever the professional, he replied in character: ‘Aye, laddie, aye, and Im also Willy McSporran’, we rushed over for autographs.
The rest of the day passed in the way location filming does, repetitivally, dully, and the as the sun diminished, so did the spectators. The novelty wore away, and I eventually sloped off well before witnessing the logistics of getting a grand piano down from the hill, and I can only vaguely remember watching the broadcast many months later, only a fleeting scene in an half hour programme. Wilmot went on to be a bit of a hit in West End musical theatre, Paul drank himself to death in the centre of Barcelona with numerous arrest warrants outstanding for his upstanding work in the field of football hooligism, and Crowther sadly suffered a near-fatal car crash in 1992 before heart failure killed him in 1996. To this day though, he still has a starring role in one of my weirder memories: when Leslie Crowther Fought The Nazis- and won.
*The evergreen amusingly-titled holy book of those who have ever been acolytes of Baden Powell: and a holy book it is, as after The Bible, The Koran and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, is the most published book in history.
**Cheers DH Lawrence, who also described it as ‘standing out pathetically on the side of the field’; though bless him, that was in Sons and Lovers, and he gave it a much more flattering role in The Rainbow, as a ‘mystical place’. I agree, as you will hear about in my still-in- production article ‘Beestonia, Mushrooms, and my former penchant for Tie-Dye’.
***this is to obvious an annotation to make.