The Way I Was: The night there was nothing like a dame: Derek Nimmo tells Nicholas Roe of his most memorable night in the theatre

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AT FIRST, Charlie Girl seemed terribly disaster- ridden. We changed directors, they were rewriting pages, it all seemed to be flawed and a week before it opened in 1965 I said, 'I want to get out of this.' I took my contract to a lawyer but there was no way out, so I had to open.

It's funny, the way things turn out. There are things that one wants to do - such as Tamahine, a film I'd done a year before, which I thought was going to change my career totally; but that just fizzled. Yet the one I would have got out of if I could was the thing that made all the difference to my life.

Charlie Girl became the longest-running musical ever at that point, and within a couple of weeks I was offered a number of television series and all sorts of things came out of it. Soon afterwards I did a series called The Bedsit Girl with Sheila Hancock, then I got my own series, Sorry I'm Single, and then All Gas and Gaiters, and all the others came along. A year or two later I started doing Just a Minute on Radio 4, which I'm still doing.

I started off life in insurance and had I remained there probably my career would not have been dissimilar, because I gradually got promotion within the show. My billing, which had been pretty tiny at first, down about number seven, gradually ended up at number two. The part didn't change. The only thing I put into it that wasn't there originally was my feet.

The year before I'd been doing a show called Bedtime Story with Moira Lister and we were lying in bed together during rehearsals and I was twiddling my toes, and Moira said, 'What very funny feet you've got.' I said, 'I don't think I have,' but we got the stage-hands to take their shoes and socks off and it was adjudged that my toes were indeed a bit peculiar, rather prehensile. So we put them into Bedtime Story and though the play didn't get particularly good notices, and neither did I, my toes had a triumph. I used to do nursery rhymes: 'There's the church, there's the steeple . . .' They had a life of their own.

When we started doing Charlie Girl, there's a scene where we did yoga, and I put my feet into that - I wriggled them, and again it seemed to amuse the critics. The culmination of it all was when the British Medical Journal came out and there was a photograph of my feet occupying the whole of one page.

Now, this photograph was taken the day Anna Neagle, who starred in the show, was made a Dame of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - which, of course, we knew nothing about beforehand. I just opened the papers like everyone else on the day and saw it.

Working with Anna had been a total joy. In all the years I was in it, which was from 1965 to 1971 and then for another year in Australia and New Zealand, I don't think she uttered a single nasty word about anyone. She was just a truly good woman. In Australia, people curtsied.

So that day I telephoned round the whole company, including the orchestra, then I got from Drury Lane the band part from South Pacific - in particular, of course, the song, 'There is Nothing Like a Dame', and we all came into the theatre that afternoon and rehearsed it.

Anna knew nothing about it. When she came on that night for her first entrance the audience stood and cheered, and it was all terribly emotional. When we got to the final curtain, instead of striking up the reprise of Charlie Girl, the orchestra played 'There is Nothing Like a Dame'. She cried, we cried, the audience cried, and it was one of those extraordinary nights of the theatre that one will never, ever forget. Spine-chilling.

(Photograph omitted)

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