there's no biz like show biz

no biz like show biz
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fame a la carte

Oscar-winning Burt Lancaster (left) used to be a singing waiter.

Jenny Eclair's (right) acclaimed stand up comedy was preceded by forays into alternative cabaret, punk poetry and pop stardom. When it turned out that she really couldn't sing, she ran off to London to be a waitress.

Connie Booth, (left) who played the waitress Polly in Fawlty Towers, met John Cleese in a New York retaurant where she was, ironically, waiting on tables.

Jack Dee (right) was a waiter at a posh hotel near Winchester, where his first day ended in disaster. Lifting the cloche in front of a customer, he revealed an old sock. The diner pointed out he'd ordered salmon.

Julie Goodyear (left) worked as a waitress in a club during a three year period when she struggled as a single parent to bring up her young son.

Film star Sandra Bullock (right) was a waitress in a New York deli while studying drama at the city's respected Neighborhood Playhouse.

"remember that time Emma Disney got approached and asked to be in a play by some director when she was working on reception?" says one Mezzo waiter to another. At the Groucho Club they say the waitresses put down a CV with your drinks just in case, and if you've ever heard them sing "Happy Birthday" in four part harmony at Joe Allen's you would know that London's new breed of actor/waiters has really started singing for its supper. "If you can't act, you won't get the tips," nods actor/waiter Justin Graves of Mezzo.

Diners have long been aware that in London, and other showbiz capitals, your steak frites is likely to arrive with more than a little ham. And many a thesp, on announcing that he's an actor, has wearied of the rejoinder, "which restaurant?" But while waiters have always doubled as actors, these days they're often required to be both at once, as restaurateurs learn to make the most of their assets.

An increasing number of restaurant managers now demand acting experience from all their applicants and for many of those luvvies taking your order and mopping up your coffee, every thank you is an applause. John Shead, the senior Service Manager at TGI Friday's in Covent Garden, knows his actors are his greatest asset. "We don't actually advertise in The Stage because we think it's well enough known what we want," he says. "But they need big personalities that they can put across - they need to be able to turn it on when necessary." Shead actually tries to fit work shifts around rehearsals or auditions and enthusiastically welcomes back staff who have been off for months making their name. If you think you've seen that wine waiter before, you have. She was on The Bill last night.

"You've got to act in a place like this," says 21year old Justin Graves at Mezzo. "I mean, look at the staircase. The whole place is a stage!" True, but do you really need to have starred in Grange Hill to work here? Justin was at the school in Zammo's day - "I've lost a lot of weight since then," he says. He has also been in musicals and dance shows around the country, so he finds it hard to resist leaping on stage to do a little turn when the customers look bored.

Justin and all his Equity card holding colleagues know that the careers of waiter and artiste are completely compatible - working a four day week means you can still do plays and classes, plus you can rehearse on the job. "You need a different act for every table and here the tables can be pretty close together so you think fast." Some people, says Graves, won't even look at you while they are ordering; "It's as if you're not worth it. So you have to suss them out quickly if you're going to get a tip." But others, he says, are really appreciative; "When someone says the service was great it's like applause for your performance."

Suzy Harvey, a 19-year-old actor, works on Mezzo's reception. "It is lovely that the restaurant is new - it's so showy!" she beams. "When I mentioned acting at the interview they were really enthusiastic." Not only can treading the restaurant floor be a satisfactory substitute for treading those more elusive boards, but it can also be a great networking opportunity. One Mezzo receptionist has already been offered a part in a play and Suzy Harvey has just made friends with a pair of regular diners - the producers of The Crying Game. She is now considering putting drama school on hold.

Here even the telephonist is a starlet. Julie-Anne Barwick, 25, has just got back from a tour of America. She has performed at six Edinburgh festivals and 13 National Student Drama festivals, yet she is adamant that her current job is part of the plan. "You have to be very self confident and coherent. You are acting all the time. I have got so good at convincing myself I am happy that I can never get to sleep for at least a couple of hours when I get home - I'm too chirpy!"

At TGI Friday's the whole chirpy staff wear a costume that is something between a clown's uniform and Austrian national dress, with shorts, ludicrous braces (they have to decorate the braces "with their personalities"), hats with bells on and silly socks, and they are required actively to entertain the diners. Their "Happy Birthday" renditions, "Crazy Carry Competitions" and general on-the-job zaniness is really something to behold. "The interview was pretty theatrical," says cashier John Manley, 32. "They give you 30 seconds to impress them with some kind of performance because that's how long you'll get to make an impression on the customer. Some people perform, but the general manager just asked me how I envisaged my career with TGI Friday's. I told him I would like to start with his job and work my way up." That was seven years ago.

Manley is currently restoring a six bedroom Victorian house in Surrey, writing a children's book about a magic house, jokes for greeting cards and music for radio. This is quite apart from his extra-curricular poetic activities. He recently published a poem in the collection, London Poets. "This place looks for staff who can give from themselves," says Manley. "Anyone can sell a burger but we are a different kind of sauce." He grins at his luvvy colleague Jean-Marie Coffey who has been in The Bill and who played Guinevere's lady in waiting in First Knight. She has a T-shirt on that announces: "Baby I'm Bored". "We are playing a part and escaping from ourselves," says Manley with a twang of his braces.

Mitzi would agree with that. "She" is 28 and for ten years has been a waitress, or "one of the girls", at Madam JoJo's, London's transvestite restaurant/night-club where the performance is an essential part of the dining experience. "I always wanted to be an actor or a model when I was at school and when I came to JoJo's as a customer in 1985 I was gobsmacked," she laughs. "The show was all glitter and glamour and feathers. I'm really shy as a bloke and I never used to drag up much before. Not unless someone begged me. But here you can't be shy or grumpy - everyone expects a performance and you give it. Madame JoJo's is my life."

Since Mitzi started she has been given modelling contracts, parts in adverts and parts in TV shows. "I've got a great bum and great legs so I wear G-string leotards mostly. I can carry it off. Even my mum thinks so!" she says.

With London's restaurants getting glitzier, more and more people are carrying off the waiter/artist double act with aplomb and most of them seem to be loving it. "It makes you feel better about doing something ordinary," says John Manley in a flicker of sagacity. "Because you can perform."