Only a short while ago I was earning my keep by driving a typewriter at the House of Commons, where I had worked contentedly for 26 years, ever since leaving University with ambitions (happily long since abandoned) to be an MP. I wasn`t even a household name in my own household and my husband, for whom I was working, was just an anonymous member of the Government, quietly running the country.
Now, after a few convulsive years, we have left far behind the fantasy world of Westminster and embraced the real world of television, entertainment and showbiz. By a bizarre series of happenings, we have become household names.
I hate the word `celebrity` being applied to me – a perfectly normal, ordinary person – but I have had to accept it. The word is so vacuous, conjuring up all the wrong images, but no-one can come up with anything to replace it. Celebrity certainly does change your life. The general rule is that, unless you are happy for it to appear on the front page of the `Sun` newspaper, then don`t do it – whatever `it` might be!
You have to be aware that a chance remark can be taken out of context and printed as fact; your husband`s regular trips to the bottle bank can be analysed in the local press (surely she doesn`t drink THAT much!) and the contents of your supermarket trolley can be held up for all to share. You think I`m joking? Frequently, supermarkets sell champagne at half-price when they over-stock – in particular for the Millennium. Like many others, Neil piled up a trolley-load, not only for us but also for family and friends. The following week a whole page in our local rag screamed to know how a bankrupt could afford such luxuries. A reader`s letter then complained that, by buying a large quantity, Neil was depriving others of their right to cheap champagne!
An innocent little kiss from me, in response to a request from a demure eighteen year old student at Oxford, ended up as front page news on the Sun, with several pages of utter fabrication and embellishment inside. I laugh about it now but it wasn`t pleasant at the time when a totally harmless embrace was highlighted as some kind of `Mrs Robinson` act.
Minor irritations apart, we are happy to live with the problems of a goldfish bowl and, after the vilification we have endured in recent years, it warms our hearts when people stop us in the streets and supermarkets etc with supportive comments and encouragement. I am sometimes asked if I miss politics. Certainly not! I am now a liberated lady, having joined the 98% of the population which doesn`t give a damn what happens at Westminster – and that 98% includes Tony Blair! I have left the world of tragedy and tedium for the world of comedy and entertainment. I am having enormous fun, and happy to be able to call it work.
Over Christmas 2002 we spent six weeks rehearsing and performing pantomime; “Jack & The Beanstalk” at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. I was, of course, well prepared for pantomime by 20 years of marriage to Neil and I firmly believe, in good pantomime tradition, that Good does triumph over Evil, even if life takes some wonky turns on the way!
As the Good Fairy Battleaxe I was able to fulfil every little girl`s dream and now realise that I was born to be a fairy. It was a fantastic part; I just adored every minute and had to be reminded to take off my crown and glittery false eyelashes before dashing into Guildford between shows to do some last minute Christmas shopping!
Fourteen years in the Westminster Palace of Varieties proved to be the perfect training for Neil`s role as the impoverished King of Merrydale. Appropriately cast (because he did actually have experience of government) he ruefully reflected that, at Westminster, all the jokes, however appalling, seem to get elected.
We had huge fun at all 45 performances while the boring old farce at Westminster plodding along its weary way. Politics tends to make people miserable and we are now in the grand old business of cheering them up. Pantomime is a great British tradition and, for many children, it is their first experience of live theatre with all the excitement of the lights, music, colour, magic and energy. Only the stonyhearted could fail to be enthused and enchanted by the wide-eyed, awe-struck faces and roars of laughter from the hundreds of tiny theatregoers in every audience. It was a real responsibility on the cast, not just to amuse but also to plant the seeds of appreciation for a lifetime of live theatre.
Established actors tend not to welcome `celebrity drop-in`s`, generally regarding them as a pain in the neck and something to be tolerated rather than encouraged. The announcement of our arrival in the cast at Guildford had already prompted adverse comment in The Stage with remarks to the effect that we were taking the bread out of the mouths of members of Equity, the actors` trade union. If we didn`t think we were capable we would never have agreed to take on the parts but, clearly, we had to prove ourselves.
Snobs dismiss pantomime as easy, low-grade slapstick but it is, of course, nothing of the sort. In good panto everything, particularly the chaos, is very carefully choreographed and timing is all. Entrances, exits and myriad cues follow each other with alarming speed. Concentration was vital to avoid mistakes or we could have ended up colliding with the back end of the absurdly endearing `Daisy`, the cow who received such rave reviews from the critics. `A cow beyond praise` according to the Sunday Telegraph. Our chorus were dauntingly versatile. As well as playing energetic villagers, scarecrows, milkmen, insects and ballooning folk, being cast as one half of a cow might not seem the pinnacle of theatrical experience for Jorden and Mario, two third year students from the Guildford School of Acting, but they gave her their all and she easily emerged the Star of the show. I had not previously realised quite how much character could be injected into a lifeless animal, but tap-dancing Daisy, with her fluttering eyelashes, shaking legs and gloriously uncontrollable udder, was superlative.
Truly a multicultural equal opportunities cow, her front end (Jorden) came from Barnsley and her rear (Mario) from Mexico. When Jorden cut his head open and had to go to casualty during the interval one day, Mario moved to the front and a new back end (Pauline) from Scotland moved in. As Pauline was technically my understudy, she was delighted to move up in the world by taking over the back end of Daisy instead!
What proved a nightmare was trying to bash the lines into my head after decades of relative mental inactivity in politics. I have not had to memorise anything substantial since I was a student and it was much harder then I had anticipated. I was seriously amazed, and slightly horrified, at how difficult it proved to drill those lines into my brain. But, practice made perfect and I was fine by the time we opened. It was a relief to learn from our Director, that even the greatest performers can dry up. The Twin Dames, Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike, were appearing together in “Waters of the Moon”. A sudden and unexpected silence on stage elicited a prompt. Nothing happened. After two further prompts, Dame Edith strode over to prompt corner and announced: “We both know the line, dear. But neither of us knows which one of us says it.”
As well as the delights of Panto, in the last year Neil and I have shared the role of Narrator during the 30th Anniversary tour of the `Rocky Horror Show`. Playing a Fairy and a King was a welcome respite from a sex, drugs and rock & roll musical, and I reflect that if Neil had worn black fish-nets, suspenders and a basque as an MP he would have had to resign or been arrested. Now it is part of his career and I happily admit that he has the best legs in the family.
Sadly, we felt obliged to turn down Pantomime last Christmas. We were offered parts to die for at a huge venue – Neil as Baron Hardup, Cinderella’s father, (hugely appropriate as he is still bankrupt!) and me as her Wicked Stepmother – mother of the Ugly Sisters. We would both relish the roles (I may have loved being a Fairy but I cannot wait to play a ‘Baddie’!) but, after a lot of heart searching, we just did not feel able to make the time commitment – eight weeks living in a metropolitan hotel. Panto leaves you precious little time for family at Christmas and we felt we had to revert to family priorities for one year at least.Whatever next? We do not take ourselves too seriously and, as long as it is `legal, honest and faintly decent` we are game for most things. Most New Year resolutions are quickly forgotten or abandoned but I look forward to the unfolding tapestry ……`
`Never have a dull moment in 2003 – or 4 or 5`. That is my perpetual New Year resolution and I look forward to an ever-changing melee of stage, screen, air waves and print. Roll on, roll up and roll over!