Chitty at the Palladium by Ben Stock
Firstly, thank you for asking me to contribute to your magazine. The first BLOC show I saw was OKLAHOMA! in the late 80’s when I was a member of the then named Junior BLOC! I’ve seen many shows since and was sad to miss Chitty Chitty Bang Bang... especially as I was lucky enough to spend 18 very happy months in the show at The London Palladium.
Alex T asked me to recollect memories from my time with the show and I’ve had to germinate this for a few weeks as I actually have the most terrible memory (except for learning lines!). So, these are a few hotch-potch vignettes from that very happy time.
I remember laughing every day - it was such a happy company... onstage and backstage... mainly due to the escapades of a certain Christopher Biggins who played the Baron. You can only begin to imagine the people who came to see him and he was (and still is) so generous in sharing his friends... Cilla, Cliff, Barbara Windsor, Joan Collins... the list went on and on. We used to play “Pass The Fish” on Sundays where a plastic fish is passed around the company onstage and you had to hold it for at least 10 seconds before passing it on... whoever had it as the curtain fell had to buy cake for the following week. We had fancy dress warm-ups - often judged by one of the afore-mentioned celebs... backstage games of “Hunt The Toot Sweet”... all encouraged and egged on by Biggins. This all sounds terribly unprofessional - but believe me - the show came first… these things just helped keep eight shows a week fresh!
NEVER-ENDING! I was second cover to Potts (never got on) and due to children employment laws the kids changed every four months... with two months rehearsal with the two teams (plus understudies). On top of that the Childcatcher changed at different periods to keep the publicity fresh (mine were Lionel Blair and the now sadly gone and dearly missed Stephen Gately and Alvin Stardust). I also worked with three Potts (Gary Willmott, Jason Donvan and Brian Conley) so more rehearsals there and on top of that we had our own weekly understudy calls and because the creative team were never satisfied with them - three different versions of the opening and two versions of Me Ol’ Bamboo... with Gillian Lynne and Adrian Noble at the helm (even Biggins was on his best behaviour!). I think there were only about three weeks in the whole run where I purely did eight shows! I also used to teach two mornings a week. Good job I was young and fit!
Oh dear me... the car! When it worked - it was quite honestly the most magical sight - especially from onstage where you could see the wonder in the audiences’ eyes. At the time - with a price tag on £1,000,000 it was the most expensive stage prop ever. Now to be fair, most of the time she worked perfectly - but she was a stubborn mistress! She gained the reputation and name “Martine”. Any guesses why? Well... at the time, there was much publicity surrounding Martine McCutcheon missing shows in My Fair Lady across the river at The National. Rather unfair... but it seemed neither could be persuaded to go on if they chose not too...!
In my opinion The Palladium is quite simply the greatest theatre in the world! The building just reeks of history. It seats somewhere near 2,000 people - but somehow - due to its design and original intention to be a variety house - feels as intimate as The Redgrave! You feel almost hugged by it. There is a huge mirror just before you go into the wings on stage left and it was your last chance to check your costume... I was looking into it one show and someone said “imagine the faces who have looked back through that mirror”… it made me go cold... everyone from The Crazy Gang to Marie Lloyd and from Judy Garland to Elton John... magical!
Sunday Breakfast Club
We were one of the only shows to do Sunday matinees at the time and a tradition crept in of everyone meeting on Carnaby Street for breakfast. Cast, crew, wardrobe, wigs, front of house... it grew and grew. They were raucous, noisy, delicious and a great way to end the week. Happy times!
It never got easier! I think I still have the costume somewhere...! It was a fab number to be in but my oh my it was hard work - I was just one of the “oldies” at the back doing a much simpler version! I remember in rehearsal reducing Gillian Lynne to tears of laughter as she told myself and my partner in crime Nigel Garton that we both looked like contestants from The Generation Game! We did improve with time... I hope!
Reading this back, I realise I’ve talked mostly about what happened offstage, but as with so many shows it’s the people you are working with that stay with you. It was a real privilege to be in the show - and to meet and work with The Sherman Brothers, Gillian Lynne, Adrian Noble and so many other talented and lovely cast, crew, stage management, wardrobe, wigs, automation, creatives, musicians, management, front of house, wigs... have I left anyone out? They really were a very special 18 months... I now wish I’d kept a diary Thank you for helping me take this trip down memory lane and I hope you have as many happy memories of your “Fantasmagorical” show!