How We met

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JACK TRIPP: When we first met at Richmond in Dick Whittington 10 years ago, I was already a fan of Roy's. I'd seen him at the Palace Theatre with Danny La Rue, and I'd seen him in Underneath the Arches, which he co-wrote - a wonderful show. So I was delighted to hear he was going to be the main comic in this production. At the first cast meeting Roy and I both arrived early. We started chatting about the theatre, and within 20 minutes we were old friends. We saw eye-to-eye on everything. An d when it came to deciding what to put in the script, it just clicked into place. "Why don't we do the so-and-so gag " It was if we'd been working together all our lives. When we went on stage, we instantly had what we call a 'twinkle'. That's when you k now it's working: between the two of you, and with the audience.

Roy is most particular in rehearsal, as he is in life. You should see inside his briefcase - pens, papers, so organised. I've worked with lots of star-name comics over the years and mostly they'll leave things rather loose and vague.

This first panto was a huge success and we did two more. Then Roy said, "I'm going to write and direct a panto next year. Will you be in it?" I said, '"But will you be in it?". We've been doing the current show now for eight years round the provinces, and we adapt and refine it each time. The joy of working with Roy is that we can say things to one another we might not take from anyone else. One of us might say: 'That gag wasn't quite right. You used to get a big laugh there,' and the other might say, 'By Jove! So I did. So what's going wrong?'. We advise each other that way: not on timing - an art you've either got or you haven't - but details of emphasis, or checking each other if there's danger of going over the top.

Roy and I have worked up a few gags from scratch, but mostly we develop an old one in the traditional way. In the current show we do this mirror routine with a sequence of trying on hats, which I learnt about 35 years ago with Douglas Byng, a big, big p antomime dame. I was the boy in those days, the comic. I tried it with Roy first in Aladdin, and it worked wonderfully - properly rehearsed and timed and planned. Now we look forward to refining it every year. It is, in its way, a little bit of pantomimehistory.

There's a whole catalogue of gags: the haunted house, the robber scene, the slosh scene, or kitchen scene. Every production does a version of that but Roy's is actually scripted, not just slapstick. In Babes in the Wood there'll be four bowls in the kitchen: one on top of the dresser labelled egg yolks, two on the table with flour. The moves are meticulously worked out to squeeze every ounce of comedy from the situation. That's how Roy works, and how I like to work. If you leave it to the inspiration ofthe moment, it'll never come off quite as well.

Roy is unique for his generosity on stage. Most comics will get their laugh by hook or by crook, even at someone else's expense. Roy would always want the two of us to get the laugh.

As a director, his expertise is a joy: talking a new actor through his or her part, he'll demonstrate, rather than tell. He does a principal boy as well as anyone, and as the fairy he gets the poise and the enunciation beautifully. Having toured Babes InThe Wood for eight years, the ultimate prize is to end up at Sadler's Wells where pantomime began. Roy deserves that.

To me he is the best comic in pantomime. You get some marvellous television comedians doing it, of course, but they don't have the same flair, or the specific knowledge and experience. Roy's a bit of a historian. He's aware of how it started with mime, how the gags came about, and who the great dames were.

The institution for him was Dan Leno, who played Drury Lane year after year. He was about my height, with clear diction, no accent - a little, dainty, dame, and Roy always says I'm like him. If Roy decided that next year he was going to do a television series instead, I wouldn't want to work with anyone else. I couldn't now. And at 72, my biggest fear is of going on longer than I should. I don't want them to say 'Poor old Jack. 'I actually said to Roy once, 'How will I know when to stop?' And he said, 'I'll tell you, Jack.' And I do believe he will.

ROY HUDD: I remember our first meeting well because it was the year I didn't get to play Fagin in the West End Oliver! for Cameron Macintosh. Not the current production - this was 10 years ago.

I'd kept myself free for it, and not taken on a pantomime. Then at the last minute Cameron rang my agent to say he hadn't been able to get a theatre. My agent said: "Now Roy hasn't got any work at all over Christmas". So Cameron said, "Look, I'll pay hi m his pantomime money for the entire run", but added, "that's if I don't get him a pantomime". Within an hour he'd got me one - Dick Whittington at Richmond, Surrey.

We had only eight days' rehearsal. They stuck stickers over all the fly-posters saying I was in it, and that was that.

Then Cameron comes back on saying, "I've got Oliver the West End". But what about the pantomime! I said. I can t get out of it now. So I turned down Oliver, and got to meet Jack instead.

There was a wonderful cast that year; and when I heard that the great Jack Tripp was the dame, I thought oh no, legends usually mean trouble. But he couldn't have been more helpful- Don't panic,' he said, 'We'll take it a step at a time'. He's very painstaking, which I admire. He'll have you counting through the moves, you turn there, wait for the laugh, direct the audience to that bit of business ....every scene is analysed.

In the old days, everyone brought in their own gags. And for Dick Whittington I brought the slosh scene. I thought, this legendary man, he's not going to go for all this messy stuff, sloshing soapy water up the jacksy. Many of them don't, you know, they're so precious. An awful lot of dames these days are not dames, they're female impersonators. No one must touch their make-up, they mustn't ever get dirty. But Jack's different. He took this very crude kitchen scene I'd got, and refined it. He remained pristine till the very end, but then he got the slosh twice over.

There's nothing grubby about Jack's dame. He's like that lovely auntie who when she's had a few gins at Christmas, puts the balloons up her skirt and does a belly dance but the rest of the year is very polite and smells of lavender water. What Jack trades in is honest vulgarity That's a phrase the great George Robey used to use. Pantomime should never be smutty or knowing.

The great thing about Jack's act is that for years and years he worked with great people - George Lacey, 'Dougie Byng, Sid Field - and bits of them have rubbed off on him. I remember once after a rehearsal Jack was talking about what he'd learnt from these people. but there's the tragedy, "he said. "Who will the kids learn from today? And one of the dancers pointed and said, 'You, Jack'. I could sit back and watch him every night, because he's a marvellous actor. He doesn't think he is, but when you play a scene with him, you look into his face and there's truth written in it. He's really worried about losing the babes; he is that naughty auntie. And he tap dances like a dream. I don't believe he practises from one year to the next, and he's never had a lesson in his life. He learnt by watching the shows at the Palace at Plymouth, where he was brought up. Seeing him dance on stage with all the kids now, he's still the best of the lot.

He's the best dame I've ever worked with, and probably ever will, because no one makes a study of it any more. When Jack first played dame, your entire career consisted of a summer season, and a pantomime. And when one pantomime could run for 16 weeks - half the year with rehearsals - becoming a dame was a career move worth investing in. But you can't learn what Jack does. You cannot learn taste. That may seem a strange word to apply to a broad entertainment like pantomime, but Jack has a delicate touchand great charm. Kids sit up the front and they like this person: she isn't frightening she isn't crude and she hasn't got outrageous eye-makeup and great big knockers. It's a real person.

Because we only meet up professionally once a year I try to keep up socially. Whenever I'm in Brighton, we'll go to Jack's for lunch. I love his company. He and Allen Christie lived together for many years and were great party-givers. When Allen died about three years ago, we were all very disturbed. We were afraid Jack would give up. But he's come on stronger than ever.

He's also a very private person. If the cast are going off for a booze-up he'll often decline, and next morning he'll be the one who comes in armed with three things that are wrong with the show, because he's been thinking about it. When you give an audience 100 per cent you have to look after yourself. When there's a matinee, Jack rests between shows, and I'd never dream of knocking on his dressing room door - only if the building was on fire.