Between the lines: Michael Feast recalls a music-hall catchphrase

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'Play the music. Open the Cage. Mum, they're laughing at me.' (The band plays 'Powder Your Face With Sunshine')

(Arthur English, spiv variety turn - c 1952)

Throughout the Fifties, starting with a sixth birthday treat, my parents took me every other week to the Brighton Hippodrome variety shows. It lit the performing pilot- light in my soul. I saw, among others, Max Miller, Max Wall, Jimmy James, Jimmy Wheeler and Arthur English. I also saw Joan Regan and Alma Cogan, but evening-gowned songsters were not my speed (although I wrote to Anne Shelton, who sang 'Lay Down Your Arms and Surrender to Mine', requesting one of her frocks for my mum). I loved the comics, treasured their catchphrases and signature tunes, and though purists claim Arthur English was merely a recycling of the late great Sid Field's Slasher Green, Arthur was my man. I won a Butlins fancy dress competition turned out as him in my dad's trilby and jacket complete with burnt cork tash and curtain-material tie. I said, 'Play the music. Open the cage. Mum, they're laughing at me.' It was my first acting experience. I have repeated the mantra just before going on stage for every first night of my career. An actor prepares. Thanks, Arthur. 'Stand well back, son, I don't know what I might be doing.'

Michael Feast is playing Thomas Becket in T S Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral' at the RSC's Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

(Photograph omitted)