Duggie Small, who touched the heights: He won the TV talent quest New Faces in 1986. But he's still playing Butlin's, Minehead. Andrew Morgan meets a comedian once beckoned by fame

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LENNY HENRY and Victoria Wood only won heats on New Faces, the television talent-spotting contest that would-be stars used as rocket fuel. Jim Davidson, Les Dennis, Roger de Courcy, Marti Caine, Michael Barrymore, Showaddywaddy won the final. So did Duggie Small.

On December 13, 1986, 12 performers, including Duggie, appeared in the final at the Birmingham Hippodrome, distilled from the 3,000 acts that had auditioned for the competition. Telephone voting gave Duggie Small, 5ft 2in tall, a huge vote. He waited to emerge as a star after years of toil in the clubs.

The son of a bus driver, Duggie allowed himself to dream of growing adulation, becoming perhaps the next Tommy Cooper, Eric Morecambe or male Victoria Wood. 'Thought I was on my way,' he says, peering through bottle-thick glasses, 'can't think what went wrong.'

Duggie remains a journeyman cabaret artist. He spends half his waking life on the road and is still part of the army of entertainers setting out on a draining season of one-nighters during the holiday season. Last month he made his debut at the Sandy Glade Caravan Park at Burnham-on-Sea in

Somerset.

Sometimes, it is working men's clubs, other dates are far smarter, but it is always broadly the same act, delivered in tracksuit and trainers. He covers more than 60,000 miles a year; his car's mileage clock is now on its third

circuit.

Duggie, 46, real name Alexander Cairns, still lives in the same semi in Newcastle. Every Monday this summer he will play the Trevelgue Holiday Park, near Newquay, in Cornwall, 500 miles from home.

Recently he played to an audience of supermarket employees in Weston-super-Mare. Most dates go well but sometimes he bombs - such as the night at the Middlesbrough social club when the concert chairman pulled him off after 12 minutes. He works a lot of hen and stag nights. Swearing is out for hen nights and his spot is often sandwiched between male stripper acts. One of his props is a dildo popping out of a Thermos flask.

Such dates did not feature in the dream after Duggie won New Faces. After a night of celebrations, lost in a haze of drink, he arrived home in Newcastle, knowing his fees had doubled and that he had a golden chance for big money, big stardom. His wife, Helen, was swept along. 'Of course, we thought fame and fortune could be round the corner,' she recalls. 'After years on the rounds, the chance was there.'

It was an incredible situation for a former Newmarket jockey (300 rides, two wins) who had broken his back and then plunged into the club circuit from his native Glasgow. After the win he remained with northern agents, not trying hard for London, but thinking it would take off anyway. But television companies were reducing variety output at the time and, while he had some screen work, the phone was not hot.

'The smart move would have been to get a London agent,' he reflects. 'Better guidance. Some help with the material.'

A year after winning New Faces, he compered and starred in a variety special on television that attracted 12 million viewers. 'London did not bite. I knew then that nothing massive was going to happen. Nobody's fault. Don't ask me why - haven't got a clue.'

Occasionally, he ponders why Lenny Henry and Victoria Wood are famous and he is not. 'Right place, right time, I suppose,' he sighs. 'I'll never understand this business as long as I'm in it.'

On the night of our interview, Duggie is starting his summer work at the Butlin's camp in Minehead, Somerset. Butlin's says it is not a 'camp' and Duggie is officially at Somerwest World. The logo of rainbows, yachts and sunshine at the entrance has been bent in two by a gale.

Cabaret acts are split between two rooms: the Broadway is big enough for three B-52s and is where acts made big by television can draw pounds 2,000 a night. Tonight, it is Wayne Dobson, a comic magician and known to many in the

audience.

The other room, Barnum's, is for lesser-known acts. This is where Duggie intends to have them in stitches with his impressions of Mick Jagger and Tom Jones. Wayne Dobson will earn six times Duggie's fee, a fact that causes Duggie no rancour. 'I could wipe the deck with the guy. Get a better audience reaction. But good luck to him. There's no anger. Just happy to be working.'

In Barnum's, Duggie is due to be on stage for 45 minutes but starts with a song routine so manic that a cardiac arrest seems inescapable. He brings on a dressmaker's dummy made from wicker - 'Michael Caine' - and uses the cabaret comedian's lifeline, the Irish joke. He makes V-signs at a telephone receiver: 'An Irish obscene phone call.'

Later, he tells of the convicted Irish murderer who opts for death by lethal injection of the Aids virus. The man laughs as he is injected: 'It'll never work. I'm wearing a condom]'

Duggie's act, largely put together by himself, is mainly visual, with references to television characters - many of them now consigned to the archives: Columbo, Peters and Lee, Bruce Lee, Bill and Ben, Muffin the Mule ('That's illegal'), the Incredible Hulk, the Nolan Sisters. 'Remember the Seventies, weren't they great?'

It is old-fashioned and seems right for a Butlin's audience. But television would demand more originality. He has other impressions: Frank Sinatra, Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill's Fred Scuttles - 'My tribute to a genius. God bless, Benny.' He adds jokes picked up in pubs. His wife is the arbiter. A smirk means inclusion. 'An outright laugh means bloody genius class.'

His props come from packing cases strewn across the stage, all arranged by his son Sean, 26, his assistant and lighting man who shares the endless miles on the road. Says Sean: 'I know the act backwards but parts of it still amuse me.'

Afterwards, in his breeze-block dressing-room, Duggie, exhausted, is packing. 'Enjoyed it a lot. Of course, it might be interesting to have a settled season, like a big end-of-pier show. Better than constant travelling. But the big stars choose their own people. And I'd need a TV series to be even considered.'

Pocketing the pounds 300 payment for the night, he sets out for his chalet, which will cost him pounds 15.

His life could have been different - the soft-top Jag, the house in Weybridge - but he says bitterness is not a word he knows. 'I've touched the heights. That's more than most. To be working is a gift.'

Belatedly, Duggie has linked up with a London agent, Phyllis Rounce, at International Artistes, who once acted for Tony Hancock. Duggie still has his dreams - his own television show, being a hit sitcom writer. He has also invented two formats (top secret) for game shows and is waiting for reaction.

In his act, Duggie finishes one section with a maudlin song: 'My lucky star shines above/One day, maybe, that star will shine on me/ Don't laugh at me 'cos I'm a fool.'

The next night, it's an old-comrades club. They always love him there.

(Photograph omitted)

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