Outside edge: Sabine Durrant meets the captain of cruise ship entertainment

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GARRY BROWN likes to think he takes the bored out of on-board. He books the acts that entertain the floating holiday-maker, the tourists that do it by cruise. Once, all they got was Linda's Leggie Lovelies or, at a push, Johnny Cooper's Sound-A-Like Tribute to Bill Haley & His Comets. Then Brown stuck his oar in and suddenly we're talking Burt Bacharach and Neil Sedaka. In the cruise-entertainment business, this man sits at the captain's table.

Garry Brown Associates (International) works out of Garry Brown's house in Cheam, Surrey. 'It's the house with the white ranch fence,' he said on the phone, 'you can't miss it.' There are other clues, too, like the signpost - a rustically fashioned slice of varnished log - with 'The Browns' scrawled across it; like the wide gravelled drive; like the three expensive fluffy dogs that roam the smooth sward of lawn. Brown himself, a neat, dapper man, sits inside - not in the office extension (where three employees type, phone and stare out at the dogs), but in the lounge.

'This', he says, 'is the nerve centre. We also have satellites all over the world. Hundreds of agents who provide entertainment to our laid down standards. You want to send a steel band out to Africa? You want Max Bygraves for a boat in Bali?' He taps his personal organiser. 'It's all in here.'

A professional musician from the age of 16 and a one-time member of the Johnny Dankworth Band, Brown first discovered there was 'a niche in the leisure-stroke-entertainment business' back in the early Seventies. He'd worked for Rank Leisure Services (ballrooms, ice rinks, bowling centres) and had dabbled with cruise ships but, beginning 'to stagnate', he decided to set up as an adviser, talent- spotter, booker and agent. 'I'd always felt more of an ideas man,' he says. He now handles weddings, parties, funerals and 167 Hilton hotels, but the Cunard Line, his first client, remains his trickiest.

'Rule one, you don't use people who do nothing but cruise,' he says. 'You've got to remember, most of the people watching them spend 50 weeks of the year ashore. They see TV, they know what's around. You may think they're a captive audience, but they're not: if they don't like it, they leave.' Here, then, is where the ideas man got to work. 'I went to the Cunard board and said 'We've got to have a name'. They said 'You're out of your mind'. But I said, 'Trust me' and signed the singing duo Sandler & Young. We're talking dollars 20,000 for two shows as opposed to the normal dollars 1,000, top whack, but it was worth it. People were hanging on the rafters to get in.'

The search for quality takes up much of Brown's time. He's always in New York, or San Juan or the West End, trying out new acts. In Manila once he heard 12 singers use the same Sinatra backing track. In New York he's auditioned in the back of a stretch limousine. And then there was the time he was approached by a wealthy couple mid-cruise.

'They'd invited me for a drink in their state room,' he says. 'And suddenly, the wife brings out an auto- harp and starts playing South African folk-songs. For 20 minutes. She wanted me to take her on. I suggested she enter the passenger talent competition. It was the only place for her.'