The combination of my breakthrough with Alan Dossor and the terrifyingly challenging work with Van Load created an amazing grounding for me, and it was in fact Funny Peculiar that took me down to London and into the West End after a short season at the Mermaid Theatre in Puddle Dock. It transferred, in the spring of 1976, to the Garrick Theatre in Charing Cross Road, where Richard Beckinsale played Trevor, my husband, and Pete Postlethwaite replaced Kevin Lloyd as Desmond the baker in one of the funniest scenes ever to be staged: the aforementioned slapstick scene. Suffice it to say that a lot of real cream buns were involved and the two characters, after having words, embark literally on a bunfight, ending up with them both covered in cream. I have rarely heard laughter like it in a theatre since.
Funny Peculiar at the Garrick marked the first time that my mother came to see me in a play. She had rung up not long after we opened and both the show and I had been declared a hit by the critics. She said she wanted to come and see it, adding, ‘I don’t mind how you live,’ meaning that she had guessed that I was living with Pete and she was giving her stamp of approval.
He and I had been living in a legalised squat in Whitechapel for a couple of months but had been thrown out because the dog had not only chewed through the wiring to the stereo system but had also left one too many little messages on the shag pile. To add insult to injury, the girl whose squat it was came home unexpectedly one weekend to find Pete and me in her bed. Worst of all, the dog had, unbeknownst to us, ripped the crotch out of her best knickers, a habit Babs never quite grew out of. Well, we had thought she wouldn’t be home that weekend and it was a much better bed than ours.
So we found ourselves a new flat in Greek Street, Soho, with Babs, of course, in tow. It cost £25 per week and was on the second floor, with an office underneath us, an Italian restaurant on the ground floor and, in the tiny flat above us, a pair of over-friendly, slightly suspect girls, visited by a long succession of men traipsing up and down the stairs, throughout the evening and on into the small hours. Our flat consisted of one huge, L-shaped room with a large bathroom at the back, and the whole place was carpeted in deep purple, which also carried on into the bathroom and up the side of the bath. Its three tall windows looked down on to Greek Street. The first thing my mother saw when she walked in and went over to the window was the sex shop opposite with a neon sign that flashed ‘The Soho Sex Centre’. She said nothing but laughed a little nervously. This just heightened my anxiety about her seeing the play, as it involved references to, amongst other things, oral sex and fellatio in particular, whilst the final scene of the play involved Trevor lying in a hospital bed with a cage over his legs and my character, Irene, putting her head down under the cage, to his obvious enjoyment. I was dreading seeing my mother afterwards, not knowing what on earth she would make of it. To my amazement she said, ‘Oh, Julie, that was funny! You would keep looking under the sheets, wouldn’t you?’
In this last scene, I would sit on one side of the bed and Trevor’s ‘mistress’, played by Susan Cameron, would sit on the other, eating chocolates; she would put her head under the sheets after popping a chocolate into her mouth and come up again to say something, the chocolate having been eaten. Therefore specific chocolates were chosen, that is, ones with soft centres, so that she could eat one quite quickly in time to come back up and say her line. One night the wrong chocolate was put in the box, a hard caramel, and although she did her best to eat it, it was impossible so she had to spit it out on to the sheet. However, when Richard got out of bed for the curtain call it looked as if he’d had a terrible accident. His pyjamas were covered in melted chocolate from the discarded caramel, which was smeared all around his nether regions, and he, poor thing, had no idea, while the rest of us could barely bow for laughing.
I stayed in the play at the Garrick for a year, during which Pete, Babs and I settled into our version of domesticity in the flat at number 6 Greek Street. Life in Soho was peculiarly suited to life in the theatre, in that, like us, the place came alive at night. The street had two nightclubs, Le Kilt and the Beat Route, which only got going at about ten o’clock at night, so the flat had a constant thump, vibrating its floor and walls until about three in the morning. Spookily, and unbeknownst to me, on the door of the Beat Route at that time was a tall, dark, handsome doorman whom I was to marry some twenty years later. Grant must have seen me walk past on numerous occasions and I’m sure I must have clocked him.
Once the clubs closed in the small hours, it was the turn of the dustcart. Its engine alone created a huge amount of noise, plus there were all the mechanics at its rear end. Crate upon crate of assorted bottles from these clubs as well as the numerous restaurants, not to mention the one directly beneath us, would be hauled, smashing and clanging, into the back of the cart, an extremely loud and lengthy process lasting at least an hour, with the dustmen shouting to each other above the clamour. Throughout the night there would be various fracas, as people, the worse for wear, would turn out of the clubs and restaurants, and groups of drunks would descend on the many strip joints and brothels. Even when there was no fracas, they would rarely talk, preferring to shriek at the tops of their voices. So it was not until around three or four o’clock that any sort of peace would descend and we could go to bed. By day, which started for us in the early afternoon, the flat became a drop-in centre for any actor who happened to be in town for a voiceover or an interview, and we were continually running out of tea, coffee and other provisions. I longed for a bit of space of my own and frequently went to the theatre early to spend the afternoon down in my dressing room, reading, with a cup of tea and a chopped-liver sandwich, something I wouldn’t dream of eating now, from the little caf’ up the street. The dressing room was my home away from home. It was here in this one-room flat that I discovered a need for time and space alone, which I still have today and which I crave if I don’t get enough.
Greek Street was not an ideal place to keep a dog and taking her out for a wee last thing at night on the streets of Soho was not a walk in the park, if you get my drift. Pete always did that whilst I took her out during the day and, even then, I was frequently pointed at by tourists and smirked at by office workers, who quite obviously thought that I was a prostitute. I suppose that walking through the streets of Soho, with no bag and a small dog, given my penchant for lots of eye make-up, could have given the wrong impression. More than once I heard someone say, ‘Look! There’s one.’ Or on one occasion, ‘How much do you charge, love? Is the dog thrown in for free?’
On several days during the week and on a Sunday, I would take Babs on the tube to Hyde Park. This was a massive risk as although Babs was intelligent she was pretty much a free spirit. One Sunday morning during that boiling summer of 1976, I had taken her to the park and decided on a bit of a sunbathe in a deckchair before it got too hot. At first Babs settled down underneath the chair but after a short time, and as more people began to arrive in the park, she staked out an area around the deckchair. Anyone who had the audacity to cross over her boundary was seen off with a barrage of yapping and a baring of teeth. Eventually she palled up with a Border collie type belonging to a man who was sunbathing just outside her designated protection zone. I watched, the proud mother, enjoying the sight of the two of them nipping one another playfully and bounding around with great joyous leaps into the air.
The game then seemed to heighten in intensity, culminating in the two of them chasing one another round and round this man’s deckchair, each circuit getting faster and faster, and then just as they were becoming a blur they both stopped dead and peed with shivering excitement, one after the other, on the man’s clothing, which lay in a pile next to his chair. I leapt up in a panic, got my things together and tried to catch Babs without waking the man. This resulted in my chasing her and the collie in circuits around his deckchair until, with a flattening rugby tackle, I pinned her to the ground. Just as I thought I’d escaped the man woke up.
‘Oh hi ! . . . I’m just catching up my dog. Time to go home now.’
‘Oh yes,’ he said, smiling sleepily at Babs. ‘What’s her name?’
‘Babs . . . What’s yours called?’
‘Oh, I haven’t got a dog.’ The stench of dog pee was already rising off his clothes in the summer heat. The collie was nowhere to be seen.
‘Oh . . . ah . . . OK. See ya.’
Along with her free spirit, Babs also had, paradoxically, a rather strait-laced, disapproving side to her. She simply took against anyone who was different in any way and would randomly berate people for wearing, say, yellow socks or a panama hat, and on one occasion in a desperately embarrassing incident she started a horrible, almost howling attack on a black man, whilst I was at the pick-and-mix in Woolworth’s. Everyone stopped and stared, first at her and then at me, with ill-disguised contempt for what they interpreted as my rampant racism, something that had clearly rubbed off on my dog and had possibly even been trained into her.
Once whilst I was taking her for a walk along Oxford Street, a girl dressed as a punk, with bright-pink hair glued high into a spiky Mohican and wearing very tight red jeans, minced her way past us in the crowd. Babs, without warning and employing a brilliant vertical take-off, leapt up and bit her on the arse. The girl screamed and rounded on me with a string of expletives, kicking out at the dog, which, straining at the leash, continued in a fit of frenzy to bark and growl at her. I think I probably didn’t help matters by trying to explain that Babs didn’t really approve of what the girl was wearing, because this seemed only to crank her fury up a notch, at which the expletives became totally unintelligible and froth started to ooze at the corners of her mouth. At last she teetered off on high-heeled boots, looking back red-faced at the dog and rubbing her buttock angrily as she went.
We always took Babs with us when performing in the theatre, once foolishly taking her on stage at the Mermaid Theatre for the curtain call, where the sight of hundreds of people clapping, a sign that we used to indicate that she was doing something we disliked, caused her to evacuate her bowls there and then, in front of a rather bemused audience. Once in the theatre she would make the dressing room her home and then woe betide anyone with the temerity to enter. She had bitten more stage-doorkeepers than I care to think about, even cornering one poor dresser in my dressing room for the whole of the first act of Funny Peculiar. I came off at the interval to find her cowering up against the wall with Babs snapping at her feet, having lost her voice, the dog, that is, after an hour and a half of persistent barking.
I had Babs for seven years and was heartbroken when, having nowhere to live at the time and having exhausted the goodwill of all the kind people to whom I had farmed her out in the past, I was forced to give her away, albeit to a nice old pensioner who adored Jack Russells, and who I knew would find her odd little ways endearing - for example, not minding discovering the crotch missing from his underpants every now and then.
Directly across the street from the flat was number 59 Greek Street. It was built in 1883 as the Soho Club and Home for Working Girls; in the 1920s it went on to become the Theatre Girls’ Club, a home for women working in the theatre; by the time we moved in opposite it had become a hostel for homeless women. Whether it took on this last incarnation because the actresses housed there had been out of work for so long that they had been rendered destitute, I’ve no idea, but they certainly involved themselves in an inordinate amount of drama.
On our first night in the flat, after being woken by the sound of breaking glass and awful, unearthly-sounding wails and screams, we flung up one of our windows to find that some poor soul had thrown themselves, or had been thrown, from a third-floor window and was lying there lifeless on the pavement, her pale limbs stuck out at unnatural angles like a set of matchsticks. The paramedics were in the process of manoeuvring her on to a stretcher. The police were also there (which subsequently seemed to be the case every other day), trying to calm the situation, while hanging out of the windows above were a motley group of women in varying states of d’shabill’ and what seemed to be varying degrees of mental disorder.
It was like a scene from Marat Sade. One of the women was waving a carrier bag down at a young policeman whilst shouting something unintelligible. Then, getting no response as the policeman was otherwise engaged, she tipped the carrier bag upside down and emptied its contents down into the street, where it landed, not upon the policeman at whom it was aimed, but on what turned out to be one of the inmates who had been dodging about, generally getting in the way of the emergency services. Although it was both rainy and chilly the woman was dressed only in what looked like a thin, grey, ankle-length nightdress, which threw into relief her squat, Michelin-man frame. She instantly wheeled round on the spot, letting out an almost operatic scream. This scattered the little group of inmates who had gathered around the injured woman, as well as the police and the paramedics, and there were various cries of, ‘Oh no!’, ‘Mind you don’t step in it!’ and finally from the woman herself, ‘The dirty cow! Come down ’ere and say that!’ Then from above came a booming voice, surprisingly cultured, if a little slurred.
‘I won’t be troubling myself, thank you very much, and I think you’ll find that that mess belongs to you, as, following the stench, I found it in your bed.’
Much cackling followed from various quarters. Then a bucket appeared at the window and, before another word was spoken, it was emptied of a liquid, the identity of which can only be guessed at, on to the heads of the group below, narrowly missing the paramedics who were loading their patient into the back of the waiting ambulance. After a screaming match between the two protagonists, too tedious to record, people started to disperse.
‘I don’t know what she thinks she’s looking at.’
It was a loud, rasping, cockney voice, roughened by years of drink, cigarettes and God knows what else.
‘It’s fucking rude to stare.’
At first we couldn’t tell where it was coming from or to whom it was addressed.
‘Yeah, you, ya little tom!’
It then became clear that it was coming from one of the top-floor windows.
‘Lady fucking Muck.’
In the corner, backlit, was the silhouette of a big, round woman, her arms and her tumescent, unsupported, but thankfully clothed bosom flopping out over the windowsill, her face, somewhat sinisterly, in complete darkness.
‘What is she? Queen of all she fucking surveys?’ And then rather mysteriously, but megaphone-loud, ‘You are what you eat!’
Oh my God; like a member of an audience picked on by a comedian, I almost looked behind me to check that it really was me that she was shouting at, but as I was the only person that I knew of to be eating a banana in Greek Street at half past four on that particular morning, I pulled my head in so fast and pulled the window down with such a bang, that my banana got severed three-quarters of the way down and a small crack appeared in the corner of the pane.
We lived in Greek Street for two years and I don’t think a single day went by without some comment from the woman opposite. It could be anything: ‘How many fags have you had today?’ or ‘Look at the state of the place! What are the punters gonna think?’ or ‘You’re not wearin’ that, are ya?’
I never made any reply, for fear of encouraging her, and all in all her observations, some too close to home for comfort, forced us to keep the curtains closed an awful lot of the time.
There are three characters whom I recall with something almost resembling fondness from number 59 Greek Street: the first was the above commentator; the second was the posh woman who threw the turds down on to the pavement and who screeched out into the night such gems as ‘Thou knowest not the day nor the hour!’ and once, ‘If you do not remove your enormous crack from my vicinity, I shall be forced to fill it with my boot!’ The third was ‘Yella-Bellied Brenda’.
Going by her accent, it seemed that Yella-Bellied Brenda came from Northern Ireland. She got her name because every so often, day or night, she would take to the streets, for no apparent reason, chanting the phrase, ‘Ya yella-bellied bastards!’ over and over again at the top of her not inconsiderable voice. God knows what had happened to the poor creature, or what hell she was reliving when this occurred, but it was generally met with reactions that were not steeped in the milk of human kindness. If the weather was inclement, she would actually shelter in the doorway of number 59 and shout her accusations from there, causing an absolute furore within. The bucket would frequently make an appearance on the windowsill above, the posh lady booming down with her own somewhat mysterious and particular kind of threats: ‘If you do not cease from these incantations, I shall be forced to take a drink and you know what will happen then!’
This was followed by the bucket being emptied of the suspicious-looking and often steaming liquid on to the head of the hapless Brenda.
The commentator would be a little more blunt: ‘Shut the fuck up!’ Then with her huge, bare arms wobbling, she would close her window with an ear-splitting bang.
I am ashamed to say that this behaviour created huge entertainment for us opposite and, indeed, probably for our entire side of the street. It was like watching Candid Camera as unsuspecting office workers, passing by at the time, jumped in fright and darted out of the way, wondering what on earth they had walked into as the steaming urine cascaded down, often missing Brenda and splashing on to them in the process. I suppose, once back in the warmth of the office, with their clothes drying off nicely, they would soon be in no doubt as to what, in fact, they had wandered into. On one occasion a man wearing a chef’s hat and whites, who worked in a nearby restaurant, came out and, quite clearly driven to the end of his tether by Brenda’s incessant wailing, stood on the pavement, screaming at her to stop, a large butcher’s knife in his hand. The police was called. The man was taken away, still angrily remonstrating, but Yella-Bellied Brenda was left to continue her refrain.
One night there was an incident in which the window of the sex shop opposite was smashed by a drunken man, setting off the alarm and also, unfortunately, Brenda. She came out almost instantly and began to patrol the scene with her usual rant. The police arrived ten or fifteen minutes later to find that the entire contents of the window - which consisted of several giant dildos and a couple of sets of extremely uncomfortable-looking underwear, strung together with leather thongs and metal rings, and having holes where there usually aren’t any - had been looted. The window-smashing culprit quite clearly hadn’t taken them as he was still there, lying flat out on the pavement in an alcoholic stupor, although several ladies from number 59 had been bobbing about but had now gone inside. The police proceeded to manhandle the drunk up on to his feet, but on waking he became violent, thrashing out in all directions with kicks and punches, and shouting drunken abuse at the coppers.
Meanwhile, Yella-Bellied Brenda was reaching a kind of hysteria with her own rantings. Once the police had wrestled the drunk into the back of the Black Maria, either they had decided to teach him a lesson, or they thought that Yella-Bellied’s insults were aimed at them, or quite possibly, like most other people, they couldn’t take any more of her wailing, but whatever the reason they shoved poor old Brenda into the Black Maria too. For a short while after they slammed the back doors shut, there was a very welcome silence, and then Brenda started again with her ‘Yella-bellied bastards’. The man joined in with some sort of shouted, drunken response, while the old Black Maria shook as if a rugby scrum were taking place inside.
In the meantime the police had gone across the street to the Beat Route Club to tackle some other altercation. By the time they returned, at least a couple of hours later, the Black Maria was completely motionless; the man had long since gone silent, but dear old Yella-Belly was still going at it full pelt. It was a marvel that this woman never came near to losing her voice. At this point they opened the doors and let her out, but just before they slammed them shut again, a slurred but plaintive cry of ‘Merciful heaven!’ was heard quite clearly from within.
After we’d been living in Greek Street for two or three months I had a clear-out and took a bag of clothes over the road, thinking the women might find them useful. A matter of hours later, I saw a massive woman waddling down the street in a pair of my shoes. I take a size three and a half and the woman barely had her toes wedged into them; a sleeveless cardigan of mine was also stretched tightly across the vast expanse of her back. I watched her as she wobbled off. There was something of the little girl dressing up in her mother’s clothes, and something in the pleasure that she appeared to take in wearing her new clothes and her deluded sense of her own appearance, that I found immensely touching. After she’d got about fifty yards she stopped abruptly and pivoted around on the spot, looking directly up at our window as if she had known that she was being watched. I quickly stepped back, not wanting to be seen and therefore shouted at. I waited a minute or so and then took another look. She was still standing there and, on catching sight of me creeping up to the window, she placed a thumb in each ear, waggled her fingers and stuck her tongue out, and then with a girlish giggle she turned her back, bent over, wiggled her bum at me and pranced off down the street. Although I’d never been able to properly catch sight of her face when she was in her usual place at the window, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was the commentator. Even if the great wobbling arms - although they were a bit of a giveaway - had been covered, there was no mistaking the mixture of aggression, cheek and a surprising element of charm in the turn of her head and the swagger of her walk.
It appeared that the majority of the women housed there were mentally disturbed in some way and fell into a sort of no man’s land between mental health care and prison. My husband, Grant, who had been a young policeman at West End Central, told me much later that number 59 Greek Street was well known to the police. They dreaded the inevitable call to go round and it was always palmed off on to the ‘rookies’, because no one else wanted the job. It seemed that the women used to get rather excited by the sight of these young men (Grant was then only eighteen) in their policeman’s uniforms. Once inside the building with its dimly lit corridors, where the odour of unwashed bodies was all pervading and where haggard faces peered through the cracks of half-opened doors from the darkened rooms behind, the young men were subjected to harmless but nevertheless creepy catcalls, and a lot of exposing and propositioning went on. They were told back at the station that it was a home for old actresses. Grant finally admitted that he had laboured under that delusion until very recently. When I put him right he said he’d always wondered what it was about acting that had made so many women go round the bend. And as I said to him at the time, that is an entirely different matter.
Greek Street eventually got to be too much. Today Soho is much improved and less seedy than it was then, when it gave the impression of being a place in which people came to abuse both themselves and others. The lonely, disaffected and damaged gravitated towards it; you could hardly walk through the little garden in the centre of Soho Square for homeless winos and drug addicts. The detritus and paraphernalia of their lives were scattered around on the grass and in the flower beds: bottles and cans stacked under the benches; needles stuck into the trunks of trees. Above the mostly pleasant aroma of coffee and food cooking in the various restaurants, the traffic fumes and the generalised city smell, there was always the pungent stink of stale urine.
I used to think sometimes that people - and when I say people, I suppose I mean men, and when I say men, I suppose I mean drunks - came to Soho specifically to urinate. The door into our building was round at the side in Manette Street and it opened directly on to the road, above which was a Dickensian-looking arch linking us to the Pillars of Hercules pub. Being sheltered, fairly dark and out of the way of the main thoroughfare, it reeked, needless to say, of old piss and was forever being mopped and disinfected by the restaurant on the ground floor. On a couple of occasions on coming home late at night after the show, I had trodden in something soft and with an unmistakable stench, only to discover that someone had crapped in the doorway. I suppose you could say that this was the last straw and one morning not long before I moved out, I returned home after doing a bit of shopping to find a man brazenly pissing up against the door. Boiling with rage and without a thought in my head, I took a run at him and kicked him with some force up his bottom, causing him to pitch forward and nut the door with his forehead. He spun around - tall, bearded and unkempt-looking - and I immediately felt sorry for him; in fact I was on the verge of apologising when he began a tirade of screaming, frothing abuse. I backed away, instantly regretting my actions, as he advanced on me, his flies still open and his penis half sticking out, while propelling out a string of invective on a cloud of stomach-churning breath becoming more agitated by the second. I retreated, terrified, one hand held up, palm out, in a conciliatory gesture, unsure as to whether I should let him know about his accidental exposure, but quickly coming to the conclusion that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to bring his nethers into it. He proceeded to harangue me with a curious mixture of hell and damnation, added to the threat that he, himself, could rip my guts out and very much enjoy the experience. I was halfway up Manette Street in the middle of the road by the time I turned tail and ran, and it was a good hour before I returned, peering tentatively around the corner to make sure he’d gone. I spotted him in the crowd milling along Oxford Street a few weeks later and crossed over the road, lest he see me and recognise me as his one-time assailant, prompting the haranguing to start all over again.
When I finished in Funny Peculiar in the spring of 1977, I discovered to my surprise that I had lost three-quarters of a stone in weight, which took me down to just under eight stone. On the day that I left the Garrick, I looked at the poster-sized picture of me as Irene, the character that I played, at the front of house and wondered what had happened: the girl in the photograph had a rounded face and thicker legs and arms. This is a syndrome that has repeated itself throughout my career. Whenever I am engaged in a long run in the theatre, I gradually lose weight. Just recently in the sixteen weeks that I performed in Acorn Antiques the Musical I lost just over a stone and I wasn’t exactly overweight to begin with, but no matter what I ate I couldn’t seem to keep the weight on. It was suggested that it was due to the dancing, singing and general physicality of the part, which was true to a certain degree, but this weight loss occurred with any part that I played, regardless of the physical energy exerted, if it was played over a period of time. I believe it had more to do with the effort required for me to re-create the part every night, putting a huge pressure on myself to make the audience believe in and engage with it each second that I was on stage, and with the adrenalin rush that this produced.
Shortly after the run finished we tried to go down the same route with Willy Russell’s hilarious play, Breezeblock Park, as we had done with Funny Peculiar, starting off at the Mermaid, with Wendy Craig in the central role, played brilliantly at the Everyman by Eileen O’Brien, but after a mauling by the critics we took it valiantly into the Whitehall Theatre, with Prunella Scales instead. Playing the very dim, lovable and funny Vera, I had a ball. The show was adored by the audiences and although the cast, myself included, were well received, the play was trounced once again by the critics, despite the fact that several of them were seen to be convulsed with laughter on press night. It came off after a few weeks with audiences roaring their approval to the last.