NORTHERN LIGHTS IN TIGHTS - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

NORTHERN LIGHTS IN TIGHTS

Nobody at the Pule Side Working Men's Club particularly thought about performing their all-male panto anywhere other than the village hall. Not, that is, until they got the offer to go on tour to Bridlington

And if they go away from home, their reason is equally cogent: "What does it signify how we dress here, where nobody knows us?" - Mrs Gaskell, Cranford

WE MUST look like a pretty odd collection of people, the 90 of us gathered by the lych-gate with suitcases and bags at half-nine on a Saturday morning. One man cracks open a can of beer and his wife shakes her head in despair. A woman in a spangly gold blouse and leggings pours tea from a flask and offers the cup round. A couple come out of a house across the road and join the rest of us, talking about the weather and looking at our watches. When the two coaches arrive, we load the bags and cases into the big black cave of each boot, and the drivers in their short-sleeved white shirts with black epaulettes share a cigarette, one of them flicking the smouldering dimp into the river. Someone scurries about with a clipboard ticking off names from a list: Muskett, Haig, Carter, Howarth, Norcliffe, Armitage, Byrom, Lodge, Hall, Hoyle, Dyson, Schorthorn, Whitehead, Kewley - we couldn't really be from anywhere else other than West Yorkshire.

The wagon turns up, full to the back with props, costumes and scenery, and the driver sounds the horn a couple of times making a noise like an American freight train, leading the convoy up Peel Street and out of the village.

We're a mixed bunch, there's no doubt about that, with very different ideas about what to wear for a weekend in Bridlington at the end of April. For some people it's jeans, trainers and a T-shirt, for others it's a heavy woollen suit with braces and brogues, and for those of us who've spent any time on Yorkshire's east coast, it's a thick jumper with a waterproof coat in reserve. Most of us talk louder than we need to about which guest- house we're staying in, how we're going to kill time before the evening, whether or not we've remembered to pack everything we need. The coach stops a couple more times along the main road to pick up the handful of people who don't actually live in the village, then on into Huddersfield. Past the derelict facade of Ivanhoe's nightclub where the Sex Pistols played their last British gig - the gig that you always say you went to, but didn't. Past the McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield Town's relocated ground - enough of a stadium to host the likes of REM and Oasis last year, and some half-decent football matches as well. Past the scrapyard where Peter Sutcliffe bought his false number plates, and then we're chugging up the slip road and on to the motorway.

The man in front of me studies the racing pages of the Yorkshire Post. The man in front of him shouts out crossword clues from the Guardian. The man in front of him can't wait a minute longer, and unpacks a steaming bacon butty from a parcel of silver foil. In front of him, two men go through a script together, rehearsing lines.

"I'd give you a peck on the cheek, but I've got scruples."

"Don't worry, Lancelot, I've already had them."

"I shall seal our love with a kiss."

"I'm hoping we can seal it a lot tighter than that!"

"Guinevere, I love you. I shall kiss you on the lips or bust."

"Well make your mind up!"

And so on. On the M62 the coaches and the wagon overtake each other, which brings about a variety of hand signals and gestures, ranging from a Royal Wave to an up-and-down movement of the thumb and index finger in the shape of a circle, mainly between the men towards the back end of each wagon. The wagon driver pomps the horn again as we overtake him up the hill out of Brighouse.

Further east, on the section of the motorway that becomes straight and quiet like a runway, we turn off at the Goole exit along a road running between two fields of sugar beet, before pull- ing on to the gravel forecourt of a truck stop, the bus bottoming on the uneven surface of potholes and puddles.

"Greasy Spoon", somebody moans.

"It's a road-house," his wife corrects him. "I'll have tea and an orange Kit-Kat."

WHATEVER the Redbeck Cafe is or isn't, the six or seven customers inside are slightly bemused when we all pile in, and a man in an orange Railtrack diddy-jacket puts on his glasses to watch us forming an orderly but noisy queue between the Formica tables and the video games. A lorry driver pumps money into a slotmachine in the far corner that plays "The Star Spangled Banner" every time it spits out a 10 pence piece. A couple with two children smoke without speaking to each other, while their kids lick their fingers and draw on the table with ash from the ashtray. In our party, the hungriest push to the front to order the breakfast special, a slimy mound of bacon, eggs, mushrooms, sausage, beans, fried bread and tomatoes, covered over with a helping of chips. pounds 2.30. The rest of us stand for 20 minutes, soaking up the cigarette smoke and the hot fat in the air, reading the "Missing, Can-U-Help" posters of long-lost teenagers and watching Monster Truck Racing on the telly bolted to the wall. You're sent by some of the women to check out the toilets, and walk down a long corridor with battered shower units to the left with wooden pallets on the floor to stand on. You're expecting the loos at the far end to be slarted with the shit of a thousand lorry-driving arses, but they're clean and shiny, with dozens of toilet rolls stashed behind the flush-pipe like rounds of ammunition. You give the thumbs up, and the women set off down the dark corridor towards the cubicles, in pairs.

MOST people have taken their drinks outside and are sitting on a concrete wall with the sun just beginning to break through. A 12-wheeler spins out of the car park throwing up a small grey cloud of dust, and some of the men look on admiringly. A woman feeds the last bit of a sausage sandwich to a dog through a half-opened car window, and shrieks when it wolfs down the paper plate as well. Your mum comes outside with red cheeks and tears rolling down her face. "Swallowed a crumb," she manages to croak, and someone slaps her hard between the shoulder blades until she coughs it out. Your dad lights his pipe and blows the smoke through his teeth with his head back, looking at the sky. Then he turns around and sees you watching him, and winks. You nod your head. Then the wagon driver gives one long pull on the horn and we climb back on the buses, some people wiping the grease from their lips on the back of their hands, some people spilling coffee from Styrofoam cups as we wobble out of the car park on to the road. The next 20 or 30 miles are a steady cruise between fields of potatoes with scarecrows crucified left, right and centre, and past hundreds of pigs, sunning themselves outside their own cut-down Anderson shelters.

AS WE get near the edge of town, there's growing excitement on the coach. People stand up to get a better view, even though there's nothing to see. Nearly everyone in West Yorkshire has been to "Brid" on holiday at some time in their life, just like nearly everyone in Lancashire has been to Blackpool, and there's a great deal of "this- is-where-so-and-so-happened" or "isn't-that-where-what's-his-face-did- such-and-such", before we turn off the High Street into avenues where every house has a B&B sign outside and a "Vacancies" notice in the window.

At the front of the bus someone pipes up, "This is like going to Wembley" which is a nice idea but not really a fair comparison. Amateur footballers probably dream of the twin towers every night, but nobody at Pule Side Working Men's Club ever had any real desire to perform their all-male panto anywhere other than the village hall. When the Northern Operatic and Dramatic Association asked us to take the production to their annual conference, at the thousand-seater Spa Theatre, it was such a pie-in-the- sky and off-the-wall and out-of-the-blue idea that nobody really knew what it was we'd agreed to. But that was six months ago, and today's the day, and tonight's the night, and it's a big deal. The bus draws up alongside four landladies having a chinwag on the pavement; we're taken off to our guesthouses, all within 50 yards and facing each other. There are more hand signals and gestures across the street from those of us with rooms at the front.

ALTHOUGH Bridlington's gone the way of most seaside towns during the last 20 years, it still has its self-respect. It might be one of England's deteriorating coastal resorts, but it also has the feel of a place where people live and work, even if it isn't clear what they do. We walk through what might well be the rough end of town, past a butcher's with meat going grey in the window, past half a dozen charity shops selling socks from plastic dustbins at pounds 3.99 for five pairs, and another with pac-a-macs and brown polyester slacks hung up on the outside of the window. In the town centre, four of us call at an ice-cream parlour for a knickerbocker glory, something you were never allowed when you came here on holiday. Segments of tinned fruit sink like slugs to the bottom of a glass chalice where molten ice-cream curdles with half an inch of raspberry-coloured chemicals. It's disgusting, and we end up catapulting pineapple chunks at each other with the long-handled spoons. We're also disappointed to see that it isn't even the most expensive item, and that for another 30 pence we could have gone the whole hog with an ice-cream sundae, any flavour.

Everyone's split up now, and we keep bumping into various branches of the tribe along the prom and on the harbour. Muskett goes past with a fried haddock hanging from his mouth, unable to speak. The Whitehead sisters have just bought two Supa-Soaka pump-action water pistols for their kids, and grin as they go by sharing the ear-plugs of the same Walkman, mouthing the words of the same song.

You're gawping into a shop, Hilda's, that has 12 pairs of enormous white knickers laid out in the window without price or explanation, when your mum taps you on the back. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Yeah. Where's Dad?"

She points in the direction of the Spa. "He's on pins. He's gone for a snoop."

I can see him walking along the front towards the theatre, pipe smoke curling over his shoulder.

"You know what he's like," she says, "See you later."

She marches up the street to join him, and you watch them looking at the zipper sign on the side of the theatre, with the moving message advertising tonight's performance in electric-red letters.

If he is more nervous than the rest of us, then he's probably got every right to be. For one thing, he wrote the pantomime, and for another, he's the producer. No matter how much any one else is involved, it's all down to him in the end. Not only that, he's putting himself on the line in front of his friends and colleagues from the strange world of amateur dramatics, and putting his faith in a bunch of blokes whose common bond has nothing to do with acting or singing and everything to do with the club where they go drinking. He's slapped a "no getting pissed" order on the cast, but given that we don't go on stage till midnight, the chances of it holding are pretty non-existent. He walks on towards the theatre with my mum, and another puff of tobacco smoke rises up into the ether.

TO PASS the time, we walk along the cliff path to Sewerby, the better end of Bridlington, despite what the first two syllables of its name might suggest. We pay for a game of Crown Green bowls, but because our footwear is "too clumpy" we're invited to wear a pair of overshoes - rubber heels with straps, like the back half of a black sandal, or something given to a child with one leg shorter than the other. The green-keeper fishes them out of a big cardboard box that looks as if it might have gas masks in the bottom as well. We waddle around on the green for an hour in our surgical appliances, taking great divots out of the turf every time we trip up, then wander back towards the town, past the profoundly sad or blissfully contented donkeys carrying children backwards and forwards along the cliff-top for 50 pence a go.

HAVING DRAGGED its heels all afternoon, the day suddenly begins picking up pace, gaining momentum towards midnight. At six o'clock we're eating a curry in Bridlington's best Indian restaurant. Someone's written "very fantastic" in the visitors' book. Five minutes later, at seven o'clock, we're striding down North Marine Drive in black jackets and white shirts, five of us, like the beginning of Reservoir Dogs. Nobody says so, but somebody whistles the tune. Ten more seconds and it's 8.30pm, and we're sitting in the back five rows of the stalls watching the "other" show, Whitby Operatics singing a London Medley in cod cockney accents, followed by a selection of songs and routines from Oklahoma to Oliver, with no apparent connection. During the wedding scene from Fiddler on the Roof, the groom's father sings the line "When did he get to be so tall?" and looks proudly towards his son, who just happens to be the smallest man on the stage by a good six inches. Half the people in the audience implode with convulsions of suppressed laughter, and the other half laugh out loud. Fortunately, the man himself sees the funny side of it, and even from where we're sitting we can see that he's smiling. We're generous with our applause because we know that in three hours' time they'll be part of the audience listening to us, but privately we're glad it's nothing better than pretty good. You can hear your dad thinking, "It's not a competition, but we can win it."

DURING THE half an hour it takes Whitby to clear the stage and dressing- rooms, we go for a drink in the ballroom, and find out there's been a bit of "afters" between some of our contingent in the balcony and a man who whooped and wolf-whistled and made other animal noises during the concert. He's been asked politely at least three times, apparently, but not to any effect, and following on from that, somebody has followed him into the toilets to "have a word". No one asks which particular word it is, but when our man comes back to the bar readjusting his tie and straightening his cuffs, that's the end of the matter.

Eventually, finally, we're allowed backstage, and clamber up through the orchestra pit and look out into the empty auditorium. It might not be the Albert Hall, but it makes Marsden Parochial Hall look like a doll's house. Somebody shouts "Hello" and the word disappears into the gloom beyond the front of the balcony. Spotlights clunk into action somewhere up in the gods, blinding us all for a minute. Just when we're on the verge of wondering what the hell we're doing, doors swing open at the side of the stage and the wagon backs up to the entrance. For the next half an hour we haul boxes and crates and cases and bags into the wings, stretchering rails of clothes to far-away dressing-rooms, hooking curtains and batons to cables and ropes that hoik them upwards into the rafters, marking the floor with chalk and gaffertape,then dragging great blocks of scenery juddering into position. Green, yellow and purple lights flood the stage, and the lighting crew strut around wearing microphone headsets, like air- traffic controllers.

Dad stands in front of the stage, about five rows back, bawling orders at everyone and checking his watch. At about 11.30pm, when it looks like we might have time for a bit of a rehearsal, there's a technical hitch, and we have to make do with singing a couple of songs and speeding through a few pages of dialogue. At 11.45pm, from behind the closed curtain, we can hear the chattering and chunnering of a thousand am-dram snobs from all over the North - big women in glittery backless dresses and mock-croc stilettoes, small cigar-smoking men in white tuxedos with long-service medals pinned to their breast pockets - all fingering the makeshift programme that one of us slipped through the office photocopier during a fire alarm.

At 11.55pm, most of us are lined up in a corridor outside the make-up room, not saying much. King Arthur blots his lipstick on a napkin, and Merlin clamps his stick-on beard to his chin. One of the fairies asks one of the knights to do up his dress at the back, and another fairy stuffs a third pair of socks into his bra. A man who has only ever been seen with a pint glass in his hand takes a long slug from a bottle of mineral water. A bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label gets passed around, but no one has more than a toothful. Over the intercom we can hear the audience applauding the orchestra - two pianists and the village barber on drums then a few seconds' pause before the first bars of the overture. Dad calls us all on to stage as if he's about to give a team talk or make some big speech, but he just says "Enjoy it" and disappears. We line up across the stage in darkness, and then silence, and stare at the thick red curtain in front of our faces, until it flies open.

FROM OUT there it must look weird, even for a pantomime. We range in height from five-foot-nothing to six-foot-five. In age, from 14 to 60- odd. In weight, probably from around eight stone, soaking wet, to something approaching 20, with those at the top end carrying a lot of it just above the belt. Maybe this wouldn't be so unusual if all the various bodies weren't squeezed into tights, leggings, tutus, tabbards, smocks and capes, and if the faces and heads above them weren't caked in panstick and crowned with wigs, smurf hats or tiaras. No one's ever asked why it's an all-male performance, which is just as well because nobody really knows, and it must be obvious by the time we've barked through the first number that no one's expecting red roses at the stage door, or a recording contract, or an audition in the West End.

There's a split second at the end of the song when nothing happens, a hard silence, in which every one of us on stage must wonder if the audience have taken it the wrong way, if they haven't "got it". But it is only a split second, and then an avalanche of clattering applause follows us off the stage and into the dressing-room, to jump into the next robe or frock or chain-mail tank-top and get back out under the lights.

ENJOY IT. And we do. From when Arthur yanks the plywood sword from the papier mache stone to an hour later when, in an unexpected twist to the legend of Camelot, Merlin plugs him with a Second World War revolver, turning to the audience and saying "Well, he wasn't up the job".

During the finale, the stage staff sidle on to stage, followed by your dad in a dinner jacket and bow tie. Even through the darkness at the back of the hall, it's possible to see everybody in the balcony stood up and cheering, waving their programmes, and he stands with his hands behind his back, leaning forward into the applause as if it were sunlight on his face.

The curtains sweep across, and that's it. In one of the dressing rooms there's a scrum for the only bar of soap as 30 of us try to wash in one bowl of lukewarm water, like hippos round the last muddy puddle at the water hole, and in five minutes we're striding back up the promenade, ready for a drink. It's two in the morning.

NO ONE can really remember how it went, but it doesn't matter, because in the private bar of the Mon Fort Hotel we go through the whole damn thing again, song by song, 80 or 90 of us now, plus three or four bewildered residents in the corner, smiling nervously. At one stage, a drunk in a lumberjack jacket comes in from the street and wanders over to the buffet table, and has to be given "the Scarborough warning". I don't know what the Scarborough warning is, exactly; a lot of the men have just had their 50th birthdays, which makes them part of the baby boom generation, and every now and again they fall into a kind of armed-forces lingo which probably came from their fathers. Whatever it is, it works, and the lumberjack returns to his seat outside on the pavement, staring at the sea food vol- au-vents and tandoori chicken drumsticks through one of the bottom panes in the bay window.

NIGHTS LIKE these never end. Whatever time you decide to pack it in, there's always somebody at the bar buying another round. It's more a question of selecting your own personal point of exit - like jumping off a merry- go-round that never stops - and just before the sun comes up, half a dozen of us spill out on to the road and amble back to the B&B through a cold sea-fret, ready for the end of the day. Four hours later, there's a full English breakfast for those who can manage one, and tea and dry toast for those who can't, served in a mock Tudor dining-room which also incorporates a Scottish theme, including a tartan carpet, a framed photograph of a Highland Terrier wearing a sporran round its neck, and a set of bagpipes nailed to the wall above the bar like a Loch Ness octopus. Somebody rattles paracetamol like dice in a tumbler, and everybody wants one. Eventually we all stumble out of the guest house into the sunshine, dragging suitcases and bags on to the pavement, and the coaches arrive. Some of the party from the B&B across the road have started drinking again - either that, or they never stopped - and we fill the street, pointing at one another and laughing, saying how great it was, going on about it.

Riding home, we loll about on the back seat telling stories about school. How Mrs Dyson made Terry Pamment piss his britches by saying, "You can go to the toilet, but you may not." How Jumbo Ellis and his mates broke into the school, and Ellis got stuck in the window, trapping them all inside like a cork.

"He was gynormous," says someone.

"He's dead," says someone else.

How a fifth-former threw half a dozen hens into the school one night, followed by a fox.

"That true?"

"Nope," says the person telling the story.

All the way down the bus, people fall asleep against the windows, their faces and hair squashed flat, leaving big greasy smudges on the glass. We arrive at the church gates, tired and a little bit sunburnt, telling each other we can't decide if it feels like a lifetime ago or no time at all. The old people in the flats across the road stare out of their windows at us, wondering if it was this morning when they saw us loading suitcases into the back of the bus, or possibly yesterday, or maybe the week before last. Everyone sets off walking home, slowly, traces of lipstick still colouring their mouths, stubble growing out through a hint of rouge, mascara hiding the sleep in their eyes.

! The above is an extract from Simon Armitage's collection 'All Points North' (Viking, pounds 14.99), published on 27 August.

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