World travel, free board, good pay - cruise-ship performers have a lot to smile about

Remember when your grandmother used to boast about her glamorous cousin Vera who "went away to sing on a cruise ship"? These days when someone says they are a cruise ship performer our thoughts immediately turn to dashed dreams, misplaced ambitions and failed RADA auditions. But how close is this perception to the reality?

Alastair Greener is the cruise director of the Queen Mary II, the largest cruise liner in the world. "In the old days there weren't as many ships about, so there was an certain element of mystery," he says. "But, you have to remember that standards have also risen dramatically since then and our guests come out of performances completely stunned at the quality."

He adds: "Most cruise ship entertainers get really angry when they hear people say that working on a cruise ship is 'naff', usually from people who have no idea about what goes on." Greener knows first-hand about the role; he has spent the last 12 years working as a cruise ship entertainer and coordinator. His career on the seas started in the mid-Nineties when he was working as an actor and appearing in The Bill, House of Cards and the Warner version of Black Beauty. "I was working in panto and by chance I bumped into a friend of mine who was a dancer. She looked all bronzed and happy and told me she was working on cruise ships. I immediately said, 'Where do I sign up?'"

Greener, originally from Cornwall, worked as an actor and presenter for Sun Cruises and within two years he had become an assistant cruise director. After a spell at Princess cruises he joined Cunard as a director last year. He has spent so long at sea that, he says, "It would be very hard to leave my lifestyle now. It's both the downside and upside that you find out who your real friends are when you work on a ship. The true friends are the ones who accept your lifestyle and the fact that you aren't always around. And you get to establish a true quality of friendship." Greener says the legendary sense of camaraderie on board is very real. "When you come back after being off, it's like returning to your family."

The role of a cruise ship entertainer has changed dramatically over the years. On a Cunard voyage there are two types of performer; part of the "cast", a group of singers and dancers who put on regular shows. These usually come from agency sources and will typically train for around two or three months in Northampton before spending four to six months on board ship.

Wages vary according to whether you have an agent to negotiate personal performance fees or whether you have signed up as part of a cast. This varies from ship to ship but, says Greener, you will usually be treated as a guest and allowed similar sorts of privileges which include, at least on his ship, the legendary food and drink and luxurious living quarters. In fact, he says, "the service is so good on our ships that when I am on shore I get really angry at poor service. It's really spoiled me."

Greener feels he is creatively satisfied in his work. "I get to do a daily TV broadcast, then I get to present lectures, concerts and dances so I get a combination of live and broadcast work as well as deciding what to programme for each voyage. I also recently did a tour of the Eastern seaboard, giving TV interviews in each city. There's not many jobs where you can get that variety."

And as for the cynics who suggest that entertaining at sea is a lower form of art, Greener is keen to point out that, in this day and age it's much harder to make it on land in the entertainment industry. Moreover, cruises are actually one of the last remaining sources of live entertainment. Where else can you have a private jazz bar, a 12-piece orchestra or big band?

Greener adds: "Entertainers leave the cruises never wanting to do anything else. It's a comfortable lifestyle with appreciative audiences who are looking for a good time, which is what most entertainers would kill for."

Where to start

* Check out the pages of entertainment industry newspapers for recruitment adverts

* Contact the major cruise lines directly to find out when they are next hiring

* Take a cruise yourself and find out whether it's the lifestyle for you