between the lines

One of the first lessons of performing is: if something can go wrong it will, as the actor Tony Haygarth learnt when he tried to copy Houdini

When I was 18 I got a summer job as a lifeguard in Torquay, until one day I got drunk on scrumpy, took a boat and drifted out to sea. I was rescued by the coastguard and sacked immediately. Which left me with the problem of how to make ends meet. I could juggle and fire-eat, but I wanted something more dramatic, so with my friend Ivan I decided to perfect a Houdini act.

By the sea front, there was an outcrop of rock around which the water was about 10ft deep at high tide. We got a big old sack, sewed a plastic zip into the bottom, and bought some chains and a lock that didn't close properly. The idea was simple. I'd get in the sack and Ivan would chain me up. Then he'd pull out a fake pistol, fire a couple of blanks at me and push the bundle into the sea. Underwater, I'd unzip the sack, swim round to the other side of the outcrop and get my breath back, while Ivan racked up the tension, counting off the seconds. Only when it seemed impossible that I could have escaped drowning would I miraculously bob to the surface to great gasps from the crowd. Bingo: we'd be quids in. This, however, wasn't enough for us. Ivan's pistol let out a great spark when you fired it, so we decided to dowse the sack in lighter fuel. When he pulled the trigger, the sack would go up in flames and thus my plunge would be all the more dramatic. We practised it and it worked like a dream. So we got a loudhailer, and Ivan made lots of claims about the death-defying this and that, and so we did it for real. I was in the sack, and I could hear the bangs of the gun and feel the air start thinning as the fuel caught light. And then I felt a nudge and heard a yelp, and then a whisper: "Tony, I haven't got any sandals on, and it's burning my feet." So it was left to me, to great laughter among the onlookers, to hop along as best I could and propel myself into the water below. We never did it again - too dangerous. But it did at least teach me two basic rules of the stage: over-elaborate at your peril, and if something can go wrong, it will.

n Tony Haygarth is in 'Twelve Angry Men' at the Comedy, London SW1 (0171- 369 1731)

Interview by Adrian Turpin

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