I was that lovely assistant

As a roving reporter for The Independent, Julia Stuart is used to difficult assignments. But could anything have prepared her for a part in Britain's last traditional end-of-pier show?
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Personally, I blame Debbie McGee. How else can I explain growing up with a rabid desire to be a glamorous assistant? There was just something about that heady combination of looking good and being useful. Those hands which so beautifully gestured, that right knee cocked so prettily against the left, that smile which was wider than anything ever seen in a Poligrip denture ad, the fancy hair-do, those doll-size sparkling frocks... Me! Me! Me! I thought every time the lovely Debbie popped up. But, as the years have gone by, the sorry truth is that the nearest I've ever come to glamour is having clean hair on a week night. I've never even had a sniff of a sequin. Shop assistants steer me away from anything shiny, no doubt guided by my obvious appreciation of the fine work of Messrs Kipling and McVitie.

Realising that time is fast running out, I call Cromer Pier in Norfolk, home of the last traditional end-of-pier variety show in Britain (the others rely on celebrity names these days). Is there any chance that I could be shoehorned into their splendid Seaside Special, I enquire? Miraculously – as far as I'm concerned – Michela Paladini, the show's glamorous assistant, has twisted her ankle. I'm out of the office faster than you could say "gold lamé".

Waiting for me at the Pavilion Theatre, a former bandstand at the end of the pier, is its manager Morgan Van Selman. The pressure is on, he explains in the bar, which like the rest of the theatre is done out in deep red velvet. Last week, the house was 99.98 per cent full, and the matinée has been sold out since June. The Stage newspaper has just given the show a stupendous review, noting that it "in many ways surpasses" the seaside glories of 50 years ago. I will be following in the steps of the mighty Bradley Walsh and Darren Day, Mr Van Selman points out. One woman comes every night during its 10-week run to see it. There are regular coach trips from Chelmsford. I'm beginning to feel a little daunted.

I am to assist the show's star, comedian Richard Gauntlett (who is back "by popular demand") during his plate-spinning act. What precisely will I have to do?

"Essentially, it's handing the plates out at the right time," says Mr Van Selman.

How cross would he be if things went horribly wrong, I ask.

"I wouldn't be very cross, but I imagine Richard would be none too pleased. It's not rocket science, but they have to be handed out at the right speed." It's clearly not the right time to avail him of my nickname – Slug Stuart.

"Lots of teeth and smiles to the audience is important," he continues. I show him my mottled stumps. "Not grimacing, smiling," he corrects. "Fluffy, bright sparkly eyes. Sparkle with showbiz fairy dust."

I share with him, sotto voce, my fear of not fitting into Michela's costume. She is a 19-year-old nubile dancer, I hiss. I, on the other hand, am a lardy 34-year-old desk-bound hack, who considers it a triumph, frankly, given my unflagging support of the British biscuit industry, to be able to see my toes, let alone touch them. "It's amazing how accommodating Lycra can be," Mr Van Selman replies, going off in search of the seamstress, Penny Richardson.

Mrs Richardson, who is reassuringly grey-haired and shod in Jesus sandals, is in the ladies' dressing room holding up a red and black striped bustier, with matching bustle. Does she think I'll fit it? I ask. I quickly learn that Mrs Richardson is not a woman to mince her words. "Probably not," she says.

She hands me a pair of American tan tights, which I put on. I am secretly very excited at my first step towards glamourdom, but manage to stay professionally cool. I clamber into the bustier leg holes and Mrs Richardson attempts to do it up. "Tell me if you're suffering too much," she calls from behind. "Keep going," I squeak.

"You're going to give the audience a good show because you've got more bust than most dancers," she says, still struggling. I look down at my chest which now resembles two squashed piglets desperately seeking air. Mrs Richardson has a look. "It does look a bit desperate," she notes. Both longer and stouter in the body than the lovely Michela, I can't straighten my shoulders, and stand stooped like Quasimodo in drag. The seamstress decides to put on longer straps and a strip of extra material in the back. She then presents me with a pair of gold peep-toe sandals with diamanté straps. They're adorable. I put them on, and gaze adoringly at my new sparkling feet. I think I might love Mrs Richardson after all.

I head off to the stage to rehearse. Richard, 37, tells me I have to move three pieces of wood, each with five poles sticking up out of them, into position. I then have to walk over to a table, pick up a pile of china plates, and hand them to him one at a time as he sets them spinning on the poles. He advises me to move the pieces of wood with my feet. "That's not very Debbie McGee," I point out. But Richard is more concerned with his plates. During the last 10 weeks he has only broken three, a record of which he is understandably proud.

I return to the ladies' dressing room, and apply some blue eyeliner in a round sweeping motion. I am sweating with nerves. My big toe has already bored its way through my tights, and I spot a hole halfway up my thigh, which is about to explode into a ladder. I'm not on until the second half, and spend my time watching the show from the wings, and struggling for long periods in the toilet trying to get my costume off and on again due to a nervous bladder.

Just before I'm due to go on, I meet Richard backstage. "Don't drop the plates," he whispers. "They're my last ones."

I sweep on stage after my cue "...and now, the lovely, the glamorous Julia!", and fling one arm in the air, curling my fingers prettily, and put the other hand on my hip. My right knee is cocked against the left. Debbie would have been proud. I hold the pose as the audience goes wild.

The curtains behind us swish open to reveal the pieces of wood. Richard asks me to put them into position. I start tapping at them, but realise that terror has made my smile disappear. I look for help from the wings, and the dancers all pull exaggerated grins. I look back at the audience and show some teeth. The pieces of wood are as near to the marks on the floor as I can get them. I totter over to the table, hands fetchingly flicked up by the sides of legs. I pick up the weighty pile of plates, and start taking elephantine strides back across the steps. I suddenly remember where I am, and trip back across, bobbing and curtseying all the way, teeth bared towards the audience.

"She had a breast reduction last week," says Richard, nodding at me. The audience guffaws. "I think she looks much better with just the two." The audience break out into near hysteria. I grin back. It's fine by me – if they're looking at my chest, they can't be wincing at my barrage-balloon thighs.

I start walking backwards, doing my best to "sparkle with showbiz fairy dust" handing out the plates to Richard as we move down the lines of poles. Within seconds I'm at the end, mission accomplished and Richard's reputation still intact. I give a majestic curtsey, and scoot off to change into my long, red-and-gold sequinned frock for the walkdown.

The rest of the cast sail back onto the stage and take their respective bows and curtsies. I am the last to come on and trip to the front of the stage and sink into a deep curtsey, head slightly lowered in humility as the audience applauds. I resist the temptation to cup my hands over my heart and mouth, "I love you".

Once off stage, Richard tells me I was "wonderful", though he admits he had his back to me during most of the performance. Mr Van Selman says I was "very glamorous and very helpful". He denies that I was better than Michela, but surely he was just saving her blushes...

'The Seaside Special' at Cromer Pier runs until 22 September. The box office can be contacted on 01263 512495

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