Outside Edge: Duncan Steer goes fundraising in Twickenham

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The Independent Culture
A summer Saturday in west London and Twickenham is looking like a Seventies edition of Celebrity Squares. We're at Brinsworth House, since 1911 the Entertainment Artistes Benevolent Fund's retirement home for erstwhile showbiz performers. We're in the garden, to be exact, for one of the home's main fundraising events of the year - the celebrity fete, mixing all the familiar bookstall and tombola attractions of the season with an array of visiting entertainers.

Stalls line the outside of the garden. There's a stage in the middle, of course, and performers come and go all afternoon, but the real action is in the autograph tent, where a curious public queues to pay pounds 1 a time for signatures. Sat behind a row of trestle tables Faith Brown, Roger de Courcey - but not Nookie Bear - and grappler Mick McManus create a stir of interest. But it's the other end of the tent that attracts the real double- takes. Stand on tiptoe and you can see, immaculate in polka-dot tie and blazer on one of the year's hottest days, Frankie Vaughan and, later, Norman Wisdom. These are proper stars, into a fifth decade of fame, and the crowd relishes the thrill of being so close to celebrity.

With so many celebs mingling among the home's showbiz residents, anyone dressed even vaguely flamboyantly tends to attract a second, quizzical glance. I spot Bella Emberg, Russ Abbott's stooge, on the 'Splat the Rat' stall, belting a fabric rodent with a large stick.

On the stage, we've had good-time jazz, some sea shanties from Norfolk and a very misplaced balladeer, trying to interest a crowd of jovial but sweltering pensioners in his rendition of 'Help Me Make It through the Night'. But the afternoon's real denouement comes with the Cox Twins, variety veterans, sometime support to Max Miller, comedians and showmen. They tap dance] They sing] They look completely identical] And then, unnervingly, they take their clothes off right down to their matching red underpants. Pensioners, mums and dads and small children alike don't know quite how to react. But soon the twins put on some tunics and are doing a sand dance and getting us all to link arms. 'They're very good for their age, aren't they?' remarks a lady near me who says she's seen them before, on the Barrymore show.

'How old are they, then?' I ask.

'I don't know,' she says. 'But they must be getting on a bit.'

Time for the raffle and our MC has one more ace up his sleeve. He introduces the one and only Val Doonican and a ripple of pleasant surprise passes among us. Val, who's kept himself fresh by not being trapped in the autograph tent, is all grins and easy- going charm. Overhead planes, absent holders of winning tickets and even a heckle of 'When are you coming back on television' cannot ruffle him. He doesn't do much but he exudes goodwill and the people smile and it sums up the afternoon. The celebs from the autograph tent retreat into the house for tea and things begin to break up. It's half-past four: pounds 10,000 has been raised and a moment has passed.