In the flowerpot

Some years ago, I used to be fairly active on the local amateur dramatics circuit. This all came through one outlet – our local church, where I was one of the pianists in residence. The stuff we did could be divided into two camps: on the one hand, we performed a trilogy of musicals over the course of three years, beginning with Godspell in the millennium year and ending up with Jesus Christ Superstar in 2002, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sandwiched neatly between, usually mounting these big productions in spring and summer. When the weather turned, we would arrange a succession of annual revue and sketch shows at the end of each November, known as Chaotic Chorus.

(Parenthesis: if you want to skip the pre-amble, jump straight to paragraph five. I need to give some context but I don’t want to bore you!)

There was a deeply religious angle to all of this – members of the theatre group were bound by faith and by our dedication to each other. We left the politics to one side, and there was none of the backstabbing or upstaging that you often see in local am dram, to the extent that our story would make a rubbish documentary. Egos – mine exempt, I fear – were checked at the door, and by far the biggest problems I had to deal with as musical director were working out what to do with the doddery chap who had an absurdly inflated view of his own (limited) acting abilities, finding keys that people could sing in, and getting everyone to learn their lines. They were good days. I was single, but the evenings kept me busy, and I was never for want of friends or company.

Moving away, getting married and – eventually – having children has reduced my available hours significantly. These days I get time to play once a month on a Sunday morning, but that’s about it. There’s no board-treading or occasional solo numbers or panicking and refusing to eat before the evening performance. I don’t have the energy to miss it, nor do I feel unfulfilled as a result, having found other ways to exploit my creative side. But I was looking through those old running orders and sketches quite recently, and feeling dangerously nostalgic. I still haven’t seen the video of Joseph, in which I made a rare appearance in front of the piano, rather than behind it. They asked me to play the title role, which involves quite a lot of reacting and less singing than you’d expect (given that the Narrator is the real star). I had to wear a ridiculous hospital gown, but it was nice to do something different and tread the boards, rather than spending the whole evening hearing them squeak above you.

Nor have I seen any of the Chaotic Chorus videos, which I’d no doubt now find embarrassing to watch, purely in terms of all the mistakes I’m sure I made on the night. I make no apology for this: I’ve always been an unconventional accompanist, eschewing sheet music in favour of what sounds right, and when you have twenty-five songs to remember over the course of an evening, and when you have to cope with Terry’s arrhythmia and Nina’s occasional memory lapses, you can perhaps be forgiven the odd bum note yourself. The songs and sketches sound so much better in my head than they probably will on grainy VHS, so perhaps it’s better they stay there. I’m also glad that – as a copyright concession to the Really Useful Group and owing to the fact that it was an act of worship – we never recorded Superstar in any form. Sometimes you gain a greater sense of value from keeping things in the moment.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because the Chaotic Chorus evenings were arranged on a variety of themes – we did war songs, hits from the 60s and 70s and songs from the shows, amongst others, but one of the recurring images was that of Doctor Who. This came about in mid to late 2000 when I was putting together the spec for the show with Jon Skeet, a Cambridge graduate / programmer who now works for a major international corporation and won’t tell me what he does. He was my best man, in more ways than one. He was a writing partner, co-producer and director and the one with all the ideas. He also has a fine singing voice and an obsession with The West Wing, which I confess I still haven’t seen.

Jon is friends with Gareth. That should give you some idea. Like Gareth, he is one of the cleverest people I know. He’s mercifully easier to please than Gareth, which means that the protracted arguments about the relative merits of New Who didn’t happen with him; instead, back in the days where we spent a lot of time together, we’d go and see bad films and try and work out whether he enjoyed Hollow Man more than I did because of all the Pro Plus he’d taken that evening or because it’s better than I’ll give it credit for. Those Friday evening sessions were glorious: I’d knock off my dead-end admin job at quarter to six, do a little shopping and meet Jon and his wife Holly (and, quite frequently, our other friend Douglas) at the local Warner Village for popcorn and Sprite, and then head back to casa del Skeet for pasta and late night sessions of Die Siedler von Catan, which he would invariably win. If we were working on a show, we’d brainstorm. I was very good at finding songs. Jon was great at staging them. Between us (and with a lot of help from Holly) we did great things and made a lot of people happy but it was always done out of love of simply doing it, and I think that’s what kept me from losing interest.

That 2000 production was Songs From Across The Century, moving from Gershwin and music hall through Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, finishing up with the Spice Girls (don’t look at me like that; we had a number of teenage girls in the cast and you have to give them something). I adapted an old I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again sketch and added a ditzy sound effects girl (played with great gusto by the minister’s wife, who was also Mrs Potiphar in Joseph and Yvette in the ‘Allo ‘Allo sketches we did). Come the finale we had the whole audience singing ‘White Christmas’, which is as good a show-closer as any. And stage right: my father, in an absurd scarf and black fright wig, sweltering in my dark blue overcoat.

If you’re going for an iconic Doctor, it needs to be the Fourth. It’s the one everybody recognises. I still don’t know where we got the scarf, but it was perfect. Sadly the only photos I have of my father in that outfit are blurry and also feature me, which is why you don’t get to see them. Our props master / set builder constructed a TARDIS, from which we had the Doctor emerge in the opening sequence, in order to invite a group of bored children on a trip to see the Bee Gees. Naturally it goes awry and they spend the rest of the show trekking through the twentieth century, munching jelly babies. Every time one of the kids had to ask the Doctor to clarify one of the suggestive jokes, he would look flustered and reply “I’ll explain later”. In his first entrance we sequenced a flushing toilet to immediately follow the TARDIS materialisation effect, which got the biggest laugh of the night. (I also made the classic mistake of having the Doctor refer to himself as ‘Doctor Who’, which I think can be excused on the grounds that the BBC were doing that in the credit crawl as late as 1981.)

My father would go on to compere Chaotic Chorus for the next three years. The first repeat appearance he once more played the Doctor, but in 2002 he elected to appear as himself, saying that the coat was just too hot to wear for the entire evening. He was persuaded back into it one last time for our 2003 show, which saw him gatecrash the Blue Peter set which had also, earlier in the sketch, been invaded by the Thunderbirds puppets. In full costume, he glances round, announces “Ah! Er…I’m not in this one, am I?”, before exiting to thunderous applause. If I had to pick a highlight from my five year involvement with the show, it would probably be that one.

The Thunderbirds puppets. That's Valerie Singleton on the left. Jon is the one dressed up as Brains.

Anyway. One Sunday afternoon when Jon and I were trading ideas, he began to write a Bill and Ben sketch that we used for the segment that sees the TARDIS stuck in the 1950s. It started out as a conventional sketch and then just got silly. Two of the girls played Bill and Ben, Jon narrated and his wife spent the entire skit standing in a flowerpot with a daffodil on her head, playing Little Weed. It took him no more than fifteen minutes to throw the thing together but I think there’s a reason why I still remember it over a decade later. You will have to imagine the flobadobs, which really were quite effective.

Curtains open. There are two large (cardboard) flower pots centre stage (apparently empty) with a weed between them. Weed knocks on each flower pot and Bill and Ben emerge.

Bill              Flob a lob?

Ben            Slob a dob a deb!

Narrator     (Off) Hello Bill. Hello Ben.

Weed         Weed!

Narrator     Yes, hello to you too, little weed.

Bill              Question

Narrator     No Bill, I can’t see the gardener anywhere. It’s safe to come out.

Bill and Ben emerge from their pots

Narrator    What are you doing today, Ben?

Ben          Long excited answer, including vigorous head nodding

Narrator     Really? How fun. What about you, Bill?

Bill              Shrugs. “I dunno” kind of answer.

Narrator     Oh, that’s a pity. Maybe Ben will let you come with him while he looks for a new flowerpot.

Bill              Asks Ben.

Ben            Answers briskly

Narrator     That’s not very nice Ben! I suppose you’ll have to amuse yourself Bill.

Bill              Okay” type response. Starts explaining things he could do.

Narrator     I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Bill. I don’t think the Property Committee Chairman would be very happy.

Bill              Brief and terse response.

Narrator     Now that really isn’t very nice!

Weed          (Tapping Ben on shoulder) Weed? (Points at Bill)

Ben           (“Hugs” Bill) “You can come too” type response.

Bill             “Yay!”

Narrator     Thank you Ben. That’s very kind. Do you know where you’re going to find your new flowerpots?

Ben            Some response

Narrator     In the shed? That’s a good idea.

Bill              (Gesturing) “I want a really big one!”

Narrator     A big one? Gosh. What about you, Ben? What kind do you want?

Ben            Some response

Narrator     A pretty one with engravings? That sounds lovely. But what are you going to do about the gardener? Won’t he notice?

Ben            Longish explanation

Narrator     You’re going to put your new one inside your old one? That’s a good idea.

Bill              (Dejectedly) “But that means I can’t have a really big one.”

Narrator     No, you won’t be able to have a bigger one and put it inside the one you’ve got now. We’ll have to think about this.

Weed         Weed? Weed weed weed. Weed!

Narrator     No little weed – putting the old one inside a new big one wouldn’t work either. I think the gardener would still notice!

Weed         (Hangs head.) Weeeed…

Ben            Rebukes narrator.

Narrator    You’re right Ben. I’m sorry little weed. It was a very good idea really.

Weed         (Lifts head.) Weed.

Narrator     How are you going to carry the pots back? Won’t they be heavy?

Bill              “We can do it together” (Ben nods head)

Narrator     You can do it together? What a nice idea. Perhaps it’s a good job Bill didn’t have other plans today after all, Ben.

Ben             “Yes.” (Bill and Ben look at each other and do very short happy dance.)

Narrator     You’d better go quickly, otherwise the gardener will come back. Off to the shed then.

Bill              “Right.” (Bill and Ben go off. Doctor enters.)

Weed          (Shouting) Weed!

Doctor        It’s all right little weed – I’m not the gardener. I am the Doctor.

Narrator     Doctor who?

Doctor        Yes, that’s right. How did you know?

Narrator     I am a Time Lord too. I was trapped in this garden when my TARDIS went astray.

Doctor        Yes, I know that feeling very well. Mine’s currently stuck as a police box.

Narrator     Mine’s currently disguised as a shed. Oh no…

Weed         (Distressed) Weed! Weed weed weed! Weeed!

Doctor        It’s all right – I’ll go and get them.

Narrator     Thank you. Go quickly – I think I hear the gardener coming, too…

Doctor        (Pokes head off stage.) Bill! Ben! The gardener’s coming! (Bill and Ben come running back on.)

Narrator     Are you all right?

Bill              (Puzzled) “Yes, but (etc)”

Narrator     Yes, I know it’s surprisingly roomy inside that shed…

Ben            Some response

Narrator     (Surprised) Yes, it is a TARDIS… but how did you know?

Ben            (Knowing look) Some response

Narrator     The Boys’ Big Book of Knowledge? Well I never.

Bill              Something

Narrator     A Dalek? Where is it now?

Ben            Some response

Narrator     It fell over on the steps? That was lucky. Well, I think you’d better get back into your pots now, don’t you? (They get back into their pots.) Good night Ben.

Ben            “Good night.”

Narrator     Good night Bill.

Bill              “Good night.”

Weed           Weed!

Narrator     Yes, little weed – good night to you too.

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