HOW WE MET: SHEILA STEAFEL AND BARRY CRYER

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The Independent Culture
Sheila Steafel was born in Johannesburg, but moved to London to launch her acting career. She has appeared in numerous radio, stage and TV productions, including her one-woman show which was first seen in 1981 at the Edinburgh Festival and is still touring. She now lives in north- west London with her three dogs, Ben, Tess and Nicholas. Barry Cryer was born in Leeds in 1935. A veteran comedian, he started his career in variety as a singer and actor, and went on to become an award-winning comedy writer. He is married with four grown-up children, and lives in north-west London with his wife Terry and their dogs, Harry and Holly

SHEILA STEAFEL: To tell you the truth, I can't remember the first time I set eyes on Barry, though I can't remember life without him. It's very likely that he first set eyes on the back of me, because I was an usherette in those days, at the Players Theatre in Villiers Street, and he was a punter. Later on we both worked there, but I showed him to his seat first.

Our first real meeting would have been to do with comedy, to do with writing - this is all dredging the memory, because it was a very long time ago. I won't say exactly how long, because I'm trying not to give my age away. I'll say early Sixties. It must have been to do with writing, because after the Players, the next time we came across each other was The Frost Report. I was being the crumpet in The Frost Report, with the Two Ronnies and John Cleese, and Barry was one of the writers. They had wonderful writers - extraordinary, when you think of the team that got together for that show. They used to write sketches, send them in, and we'd read them. If the sketch didn't get a laugh from us, it never went into the show; after a very short while, we realised that if anything came up you wanted to do - if there was a good part for me in it, for instance - you'd laugh your head off at the end of it, and then it would go into the show.

Barry came to see me in the odd show I did, and he would come backstage to say hello: it sort of grew like Topsy, our relationship. It's called having the same sense of humour: wry and ironic and things. Barry's a very funny man to be with. He makes me laugh a lot. We're on the same wavelength. You can't have phone calls which last a short while with Barry. He's lovely and jokey and cuddly and sexy and a great, stalwart friend; certainly somebody whose shoulder you could cry on, though I haven't cried on his shoulder very much. But I'm one of those stiff-upper-lippy girls - I don't cry on shoulders, I cry in toilets, and Barry's not allowed in the Ladies, as far as I know.

There's always been no barriers between us - oh God, isn't that an awful thing to say. But I think Barry has that effect on everybody. I've never heard anyone say a bad word about Barry. He's a little love. He's a little lovey. No, he's a very good friend and I think I speak for a lot of people.

Curiously, we haven't actually worked together much. We've done quite a few charity shows together - but that is hardly working together, it's standing backstage together and hoping they'll give you a glass of wine, then doing your bit separately. There were the Kenny Everett Video Shows, which Barry wrote along with Ray Cameron, but he was writing and I was doing. And then there was the film Bloodbath in the House of Death with Kenny Everett, which we both worked on - I was putting together my one- woman show at the time, and I nobbled Barry so we could talk about ideas and write things. I couldn't actually have got my show off the ground without Barry's help, because he's terribly good. We used to post things back and forth to each other. He'd write something and I'd write things in that I wanted and change things and I'd send them back and he'd do the same; so my one-woman show consisted of a lot of stuff by Cryer-Steafel. I even asked him to write me links because I was so nervous - it was a case of: "Please write down for me, 'Good evening, I'm Sheila Steafel'." There was no renumeration - I did try and pay him from time to time, but failed.

We don't see each other that often. But one of the nicest things about showbiz is that you can not see people for, oh, really, literally for years, and as soon as you see them its really not a big deal. Apart from the first "Oh, gracious me. What have you been doing?", you just pick up where you left off. It's great. You meet so many people in so many situations and you work with them years later and you just pick it up as if you saw them yesterday. But Barry is constant in my life and if I'm not seeing him I'm possibly referring to him or something or seeing him on telly. And then he pops over to dinner, and him and Terry give great parties - I like that. And I'm included in their family things as well. I like that because I don't have a family of my own.

Something that appeals to me very much about Barry is his huge sense of humour about himself, which I can't live without and I'm absolutely sure that Barry can't live without. It's just such a bonus in this frightening world, with everything coming down round your ears. Barry is the sort of per- son who makes things coming down around your ears seem pretty funny and not something you have to endure. Though he doesn't listen! It drives me mad. No, Barry's not a great listener. That's all I have to say.

I have very few friends. I have a lot of acquaintances, but very few people I consider friends and Barry is one of them. He does me favours - I'm very independent and I avoid favours. But I feel like I'd actually ask Barry. And I'd tell him the truth as well. Yes, I'd tell Barry the truth about almost anything, no holds barred, because I trust him.

Will we still know each other in 20 years? You're talking to a Jewish cynic here. If it was one year, or 10 years ... good heavens, I think my mind is refusing to leap over this ... let's come down to five years. Oh, Barry and I will go on forever, definitely yes. There's no life without Barry Cryer. When I die, he's going to stand up and say things. He'll make the jokes at my funeral oration.

BARRY CRYER: We must have met at the Players Theatre, where Sheila was working before she actually started performing. She was ushering people to their seats and looking after them. I was a customer then, though we both worked for the theatre subsequently.

My first impressions when we met properly were of how funny she was. Hilarious, she had them rolling in the aisles. It's still enormously difficult - it was worse then, but still applies now - for a woman to be funny, as opposed to being a comedy actress. We've always been rich in comedy actresses, but women doing a turn, doing jokes and lines and funny songs, I think is very difficult. And I knew she'd got it first time I saw her do it.

And I fancied her rotten - very sexy and funny, you see, the perfect combination, though I never acted on it, oh gracious no. There's a school of thought that says a woman can't be funny without sacrificing her femininity and all that stuff, which is rubbish. It doesn't happen very often; Sheila's a case in point.

Our relationship is completely erratic, like a lot of lasting friendships. You pick up as if it were yesterday when you meet. There's no gap at all, there's no awkwardness or anything. It's just seamless. The older you get, the more you sort of boil it down and reduce it, friendship. When you start counting the fingers of one mitten, or whatever the expression is. People who really are friends are people who you could ring up or throw yourself on the mercy of, or you would be very happy that they did the same to you and you feel quite relaxed about it. There are very few like that, and Sheila's one.

I felt relaxed with her from the start and we have a very similar, or identical sense of humour. But Sheila is a terrible organiser. She tends to take over and start running things, but the really annoying thing is she's good at it. That is unforgivable. Somebody who organises and starts sorting things out, that's bad enough. But when you realise they know what they're talking about, that's just awful. She has a very firm hand on the tiller, when anything going's on. She's a marvellous hostess. And that comes with the organising. She's a practising catalyst. She gets people together very well.

Something else we have in common is dogs, there's a great canine link here. We got Norman from Sheila, and he proceeded to father, with no pause whatsoever, a litter with Holly. Holly is 18. We think she's another incarnation of the Queen Mother, in actual fact she's got slight problems with her back legs, bless her. We always say she's had the hips, the artificial hips done. She's a gallant stager, Holly, she'll go on and on, though sadly we have lost Norman. So this canine link goes on through the generations.

Sheila's very warm and very funny - that's the main thing about her. It's very hard to be with people who don't laugh, at least from time to time. I worked with a radio producer years ago who never smiled, never mind laughed. He was a very nice man, very good at his job, but it was awful working with him, because he appeared devoid of any humour whatsoever. It makes it very difficult. It's a great easer of tension, when things are reaching bursting point and someone says something and you laugh. Particularly if they say it about themselves. That's the most endearing thing, if they say it about themselves - that's good, because a lot of people can dish it out, but they can't take it.

When we met I didn't think in terms of how long the friendship was going to last. I'm just very happy that we are still friends. You don't project ahead at the time. You think "I'd like to know more of this person", or "I hope this carries on the way it is", but you don't project ahead and say: "Oh, I could imagine in 35 years from now, we'll still be ... whatever." But we are, and that's what's lovely. So if I'm spared, as my mother used to say, I'd like Sheila to speak at my memorial. Then she can say what she really thinks of me.

! 'Victoria Plums', songs and sketches from Sheila Steafel's second one-woman show, is out now on CD (Redial/Polygram).

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB BARKANY

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