Arts: Welcome to the twilight zone : The 'Directory of the Entertainment World' or the 'Encyclopedia Britannica of Wishful Thimking'? Martin Kelner thumbs through Showcall

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It is not every day you find a book that captures life's ineffable sadness, while celebrating the unquenchable human spirit that helps us survive. The Grapes of Wrath, Schindler's List . . . and now Showcall 1994, Artistes and Attractions, published by Stage and Television Today. The Directory of the Entertainment World, its publishers call it. Too modest. It's the Encyclopaedia Britannica of Wishful Thinking, the Larousse of Hopeless Optimism.

Two volumes, nearly a thousand pages, an artiste or attraction per page, all available for work. From Aaron Aardvark, outrageous comedy hypnotist (no sole agent, contact at his home in Chester) through to Zippo's Circus (available from Martin 'Zippo' Burton of Winchester), by way of Steve and Megumi Biddle, exciting and original work in paper folding, Tommy Bond, magic fingers with a magic smile, and Jake the Incredible Talking Parrot, this is a triumph of hope over experience. A thousand artistes, all - with the possible exception of the parrot - wearing their best showbiz clothes, and that showbiz smile that says; 'Book me, book me. For God's sake, give me a gig.'

For all I know, of course, many of these artistes and attractions may be rattling good turns whose phones never stop ringing and who are rarely home long enough to mow the lawn, but it is impossible to appear in a book like Showcall without seeming desperate.

I know. I was once in a directory of radio and television 'personalities'. I submitted what I imagined to be a fairly cool photograph of myself and some light and witty copy to accompany it, only to be faced several months later with a horrific volume in which my entry, jostling with those of lving legends like Ross King and Diddy David Hamilton, screamed out the subtext: 'Hello, I'm a very sad person, who would be prepared to do almost anything for money. My deepest desire is to knock over a pile of pennies in a pub or record a carpet commercial for Radio Orwell.'

As those of you familiar with Network 1987 will know, the publishers refused my very reasonable addendum reading, 'Hey, look. Sure I'm available, but not as available as some of those other nonentities, and I'm only in here anyway because I was offered a free entry.'

In any case, a sudden unaccountable downturn in the market for people whose main selling point was the willingness to trade every last vestige of human dignity for a brown paper envelope full of five pound notes, left British Telecom relatively untroubled by my entry. Or perhaps the bookers who thumb idly through these volumes have learned to disbelieve the extravagant claims we artistes and attractions make for ourselves.

Happening, for instance, upon Julie Rogers's entry in the current Showcall in which she is described as a 'major TV personality', and discovering she last graced the charts some years before decimal currency, your cigar-chewing seeker of artistes and attractions is likely to ascribe to 'major' its more correct meaning of 'minor'.

The Rogers' entry is one of many bearing the legend 'international singing star', and while it is possible that Julie works abroad frequently (in major venues), in Showcall-speak the word 'international' more often means something like: 'Performs mainly in the Kettering travel-to-work area, but wouldn't say no to a cruise ship.'

So there could be a credibility problem with the entry for Mel Day, international recording artiste, and 'undoubtedly the singing sensation of the 90s'. Certainly, several people on whom I tried out this proposition admitted to the odd doubt. But Mel has none, and that's what matters. The supplicants in Showcall are the sole surviving species, outside of Hollywood musicals, who believe the sun will come out tomorrow if only you start each day with a smile.

Spend long enough in this show-business twilight zone and you learn a whole new language. The Hilarious Barbarian, for instance, promises 'low-key fire-eating', the casual consumption of a box or two of Swan Vestas, possibly, while singing 'My Way'. And what are the 'bizarre antics with broken glass (adults only)' offered by an act called the Anorexic Indian Chief Burning Flame and Company?

The booker will know. He probably has his own way of reading between Showcall's extravagant lines. The phone number test for example. It is possible to gauge just how desperate an act is from the list of phone numbers included. In Ken Dodd's entry, one number, take it or leave it. But for the slightly less, shall we say, global acts, there are home numbers, office numbers, mobiles, 24-hour Ansaphones - 'You want a comedy act at 4 o'clock in the morning, you got it' fax numbers, agents' numbers. In some entries the list of phone numbers takes up half the space. The rest will comprise press endorsements, often unlikely sources - 'A sparkling act - Gloucestershire Echo' - or details of obscure and embarrassingly distant awards - 'Best knife-throwing act in Macclesfield, 1987'.

And behind it all, the hope that springs eternal. The thought that some producer or other is going to be so impressed by the press acclaim and the list of credits from long gone Anglia TV shows that he will drop everything to grab you on your mobile. Yes, he'll shout, I must have Karen London and her Amazing Dogs, probably the best trained personality dogs in the world. Look at her credits - Freeze Frame (TSW) and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop.

But wait. Multi-Coloured Swap Shop? Doesn't that go back to the days when Noel Edmonds' Seventies look was almost fashionable? Television producers don't want amazing dogs or sword swallowers any more. They want some asinine panel game with Mike Smith or Danny Baker, or some dismal new comedian who couldn't fold paper or do any low-key fire eating if his life depended on it.

But Showcall acts don't throw in the towel. If you are Arbie, the Rolls-Royce of Robots, you keep going lest someone looking for a robot act ends up with the Hillman Avenger. And should a producer be seeking England's number one Neil Diamond look- and sound-alike, then Showcall has his number (and his agent's, and his mother's).

The pity is that Showcall 1994 is not available in the shops, since there's much in it even for the casual reader with no immediate need of the services of a comedy hypnotist or international singing star. There's the fun, for instance, of finding people you thought had disappeared years ago still out there, giving it their best shot. Wee Willie Harris, Susan Maugham, Hedgehoppers' Anonymous, and Tony Marks, for goodness sake, the voice of Parker in Thunderbirds (in his entry it's the puppet who wears the showbiz suit and smile).

It's uplifting to find these acts still ready, willing, and available, and helps confirm the theory to which most of the people in Showcall probably subscribe, that there is indeed no business like show business.

(Photographs omitted)