Perhaps he should have seen it coming. After all, would you pay £17 to see a 20-stone, 55-year-old Yorkshireman doing a Dorothy Squires tribute act? But last Sunday night, Mike Terry, a cabaret artiste from Wakefield, stumped up £5,000 for the hire of the 1,200-seater Her Majesty's Theatre in London, where he belted out Squires standards such as "Gypsy" and "I Am What I Am" to a painfully sparse audience of 176 punters and one critic. Even the review wasn't kind. "The only word that comes to mind to describe his performance is grotesque," declared Patrick Newley in The Stage. "Mike Terry's 'tribute' looked like giant haystacks in drag."
The review went on to call the show "one of the great West End disasters of our time", but when I tracked the diva himself down to his Wakefield retreat, I found him unrepentant. "I might have looked grotesque to Patrick Newley," rumbles Mike Terry, "but he's no oil painting either. He wants to look in the mirror before he starts commenting on people's looks."
And, he protests, he doesn't do the act in drag. "I suppose it could be described as semi-drag. It's a unisex suit in sequins, and I've trimmed the edge with feathers, just to give them a hint of Dorothy. I'm portraying her, not impersonating her. I don't profess to look like her, and I'm not quite the soundalike either, but I'm the nearest they're going to get."
Terry spends his winters as a resident performer at The Talk of the Town, Benidorm, entertaining elderly holiday makers with the Squires act. "They stand up every night for me. They come in every night and they flock to see it." A Sunday-night spot at Her Majesty's, however, is a very different proposition. Squires - who died of cancer in 1998 - would, in her later years, probably have had trouble filling the theatre herself, so wasn't it rash of him to hire such a huge venue for a tribute act to a singer rapidly slipping from the public consciousness? Someone, it has to be said, whose career limped on until the late Eighties, but whose last hit was a 1961 number entitled "Say it with Flowers". Not according to Terry. "She's one of the evergreen performers," he enthuses. "She's never going to die. Well, she's dead, obviously, but her name is never going to die."
Dorothy Squires was born in 1915, in a caravan parked in a field in Pontyberem, Carmarthenshire. Her adult life was scarcely more stable: though she made money early in her career, her fondness for drink and litigation put her in the bankruptcy courts twice. And she was involved in numerous tussles of both the legal and physical kind. In 1968, she sued the actor Kenneth More for libel; in 1972, she landed up in court for kicking Bernard Bresslaw's brother in the face; in 1973, she was accused of bribing the producer of Family Favourites to give her songs more airtime; in 1979, she sued the publishers of her autobiography, when she received no payment for the book's serialisation in the News of the World. She tried to take so many people to court that she was eventually labelled a "vexatious litigant", and barred from pursuing further cases with permission from the High Court.
Her first marriage, to singer-songwriter Billy Reid, ended in a fist fight in the Llanelli Theatre bar in 1950. Squires's father attempted to drag the arguing spouses apart, and was punched in the face for his trouble. A protracted court case followed. She married her second husband, Roger Moore, in 1953, when he was still a Brylcreem model, enticing him from his Streatham council flat to her mansion home. But just as his television career took off - in series such as Ivanhoe and The Saint - hers began to falter.
Their relationship deteriorated, and Moore took to sleeping in the garden to avoid arguments with his wife. They were finally divorced in 1969.
It was at around this time that Squires met the most faithful man in her life, a rehearsal pianist who eventually became her chief confidante, a beneficiary of her will, and her most loyal acolyte. According to him, anyway. What was his name? You guessed it. Mike Terry. "I was very close to her," he says. "We fell out 10 times a day, but we always made up."
They almost met on a much earlier occasion. Terry's first contact with his idol came at the age of 12, in a primal scene of showbiz glamour: "The gravity of the Suez Crisis stopped the Royal Variety Show, which was headlined by Winifred Atwell, who taught me the piano. My birthday treat was to go to the show, but of course it couldn't be.
"So I was sent up to bed and the show went ahead in Winnie's house. I was watching from the stairs. I saw Liberace, Dorothy and Roger, Max Bygraves, Beryl Reid. It was like Aladdin's Cave ..."
Terry shared the bill with Squires in a momentous comeback concert she gave in 1970. She personally hired out the London Palladium, and sold all 2,300 tickets, vindicating her belief that it was a conspiracy between the BBC and London theatre managements that had held her back in the past.
It was this successful event that Mike Terry was hoping to emulate on Sunday. In financial terms, his attempt was a miserable flop. But he takes issue with a report in the London Evening Standard which claimed that 21 of his sparse audience walked out of the show halfway through. "The whole audience stood up four times on Sunday night. Nobody walked out. It was less than half-full but it is a 1,200 seater. And whether there was 10, 176 or 1,000, it doesn't matter because everybody enjoyed it."
His optimism unbroken, Terry is planning at least three more Squires concerts before he returns to his Benidorm cabaret residency. On Saturday, he takes his act to Port Talbot, where punters will also get to see him do a turn as his other showbiz mentor, Winifred Atwell. Two more Welsh venues - one in Squires's hometown of Llanelli - have been hired for May. And even if he has to play to an empty theatre, the show will go on - sequins and all. "You can't go through show business thinking that everybody's going to like you all the time," he declares, defiantly. "It might not be a critic's cup of tea, but they're not the audience. And they don't pay for their tickets, either." And when you've only sold a few of them, that probably matters a lot.
'An Evening of Squires' is on Saturday at the Princess Royal Theatre, Port Talbot (01639 763214)Reuse content