William Donaldson's Week: The Algarve without Alison

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The Independent Online
I'VE HAD two worries on my mind this week. The first has been whether Michael O'Mara will be displeased to discover, on returning from his holiday in Tuscany, that I've gazumped several other keen young writers in his absence and am now the lead title on his autumn list.

The second, and more important one has been whether I should tell Alison, my beloved, that I will not, after all, be taking my own annual general this year in Barcelona with her, but with the chaps in Portugal.

Nor, when I say the chaps, do I mean Catey Sexton, Jenny 'Toddy' Zamit and Rachel Salter from the Root Into Europe office. Frankly, I've dropped them and have now palled up with an altogether smarter set, whose heavy centre consists of Sue Vertue (Beryl's girl) of Tiger Television, and Alison Bell - henceforth, and to avoid confusion with Alison, my beloved, to be referred to simply as Miss Bell. Miss Bell happens to be Michael O'Mara's right-hand man and is the steely backbone, if you ask me, of his somewhat head-in-the-clouds operation.

There's nothing I like more than a chaps' night out and I'd be the first to admit that during the development of Root Into Europe and later, while it was being shot, Catey, Toddy and Rachel served their purpose. As I made clear at the time, however, they tried to draw me into the alcohol culture, insisting that we rendezvous in public houses, where they stood cheek by jowl with pub writers and advertising personnel, and told jokes that would have been near the knuckle even if men had not been present.

Worse, they thwarted my plan, during the actual shoot, to use them as a fifth column to destabilise the command structure of the enterprise, turning out to be crisp little goody-goodies who jogged keenly on the spot while receiving orders from Mark Chapman, the director, and Justin Judd, the producer.

Onwards and upwards and so forth, and I wouldn't have given Catey, Toddy and Rachel another thought - wouldn't now mention them here, indeed - had it not suddenly occurred to me, in the course of a chaps' night out on Tuesday with Sue Vertue, Miss Bell and some of their young friends, that I should take advantage of these new and better connections to pull the rug out from under Mark Chapman, to let Sue know that I would like henceforth to be thought of as a Tiger Television artiste.

'You'll be interested to know,' I said, 'that I worked recently on a television development with a director called Mark Chapman. The fact is, I have certain other developments still in his pipeline, so to speak, which, just between you and me, I'd like to switch, without his knowing, to Tiger Television.'

'And you may be interested to know,' said Sue, 'that Mark Chapman happens to be a great friend of mine; further, that he's working with us at the moment on a new comedy documentary.'

'Directing it, is he?'

'That's right,' said Sue.

'You've fallen at the first hurdle,' I said.

I could see Sue was enjoying this light-hearted badinage, so I pressed on amusingly.

'Improvised, is it?' I said.

'Some of it, yes.'

'Always a mistake,' I said. 'Either an exercise in showing off by a group of conceited young men, or a bare-faced fraud. Sometimes both, as in the case of Whose Line Is It, Anyway?'

'I don't agree,' said Sue.

Oh dear, oh dear. 'Look,' I said. 'I know about improvisation. In fact, I introduced it to Shaftesbury Avenue with The Premise.'

'One of your flops?' said Sue.

'Certainly not,' I said. 'I didn't always put on the wrong show; sometimes I put on the right show, albeit by mistake. One day, and for reasons that must have seemed sound at the time, I asked Arthur Johnstone, who had been captain of boxing at Winchester but was now an estate agent, I think, to book The Second City, an improvisational group from Chicago. He booked The Premise, I don't know why, who traded in New York and did the same sort of thing, though much less skilfully. No one was more surprised than I when the posters went up for The Premise rather than The Second City.

'Nor was it improvised, of course - and how could it have been, since this was in the days of censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. The cast had a number of dodges - plants in the audience and so forth - but relied on the whole on old scripts written on bits of scenery. We took the scenery along to the Lord Chamberlain and he passed it without a single cut.'

Sue was talking to someone else by now, but Miss Bell said that if I cared to put these experiences into a book, she'd add it to O'Mara's autumn list while he was still in Tuscany.

'Won't he be cross?' I said.

'It won't matter if he is,' she said, 'since we'll all have moved on to Portugal for a chaps' annual general in a villa. No men, no make-up, dress in any old thing and nothing more exciting than raiding the fridge in the middle of the night and chaps' talk round the kitchen table.'

'Just my cup of tea,' I said.

On Thursday, I worked up the courage to tell Alison, my beloved. 'I'm off to Portugal with the chaps,' I said.

'Rather you than me,' she said.

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