Theatre: She Knows, You Know, West Yorkshire Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
"No man has ever dallied with my afflictions - and I can say that without fear of contraception," said Hylda Baker, the Lancastrian variety comedienne who was supposed to have routinely offered 10 shillings to any handsome young blood on the bill in exchange for going to bed with "the famous Hylda Baker".

Renowned for her innuendo-ridden malapropisms, she first appeared on stage at the age of 10 and found fame late in her career through The Good Old Days, debuting with the then unknown Ken Dodd. Outrageous, gravely voiced and tougher than tough, it was she who first coined that superb insult, "you big girl's blouse". She died in obscurity in 1986.

Jean Fergusson has taken it upon herself to keep the memory of Hylda Baker alive, and though her impersonation is, by all accounts, successful, she coyly glosses over these more intriguing details of a fascinating life. Like so many great female performers - Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas - Baker's life was fraught with loneliness and disappointment. We are told, for example, that her great love, Tex, had an act whereby he undressed a woman by shooting bullets at her while riding around on a motorbike. We want to know more about this. Fergusson has said that when she began her research she could not find anyone who had a good word to say about the star, who was famously unpopular among those she worked with. "If anyone does my story when I'm gone - tell it like it is," she said, but Fergusson has been too over-protective of the memory.

The closest we get to her tragedy is seeing Hylda at the end of her career, as dementia begins to affect her performances until she shuffles into decline in Horton mental hospital near Epsom, Surrey. But these are easy tear-jerkers. At best, the show provides a facsimile of thewoman as she was when she started out.

Hylda Baker used to fill the huge old theatres like Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, and in the relatively small space of the Courtyard theatre the audience is full of people who knew and loved her, who still remember the routines word for word, mutter them before Fergusson does and then cackle with laughter for ages afterwards. I'm too young to remember her, but my cab driver on the way home saw her many times; his wife watched Jean Fergusson's show and she thought " 'twere grand".


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