Before there were plays there were sketches. I started writing sketches in my early teens, mostly rip-offs from Round the Horne and ghastly laboured puns. These were performed at school, at scout camps, at Sunday school. I was nearly expelled from Highgate School over one such revue, but that’s another story.
My first success was a show that I wrote for the St Edmund Hall annual revue, in 1974, which went up to Edinburgh as an OUDS show in the summer. I went with it as a performer.
There was a mime sketch, Shhh! which was set in a library which ended in throwing a lot of books around. One night, Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times was in to review the revue.
Hobson suffered from polio as a child and walked with legs in callipers for the rest of his life. On this occasion, as books flew in all directions, one of them struck him on the calliper with a clang that echoed through the auditorium.
With a sinking dread, I realised that this had probably scuppered our chances of a decent review. I was wrong. It was a rave: it was the best revue on the Fringe; it shone the harsh light of political reality on issues such as Northern Ireland, where other revues were empty-headed froth.
Hobson went on to nominate it for ‘Best Musical of 1974’, and it became the most commercially successful show I’ve ever had. It cost £28 to put on in production costs and took something like £3,200.
At this distance in time, I can confess to extensive plagiarism, mainly from the US magazine National Lampoon which had not yet branched into movies or made it to these shores.
I knew it from an American boyfriend who brought issues back with him every time he returned to Oxford.
I was commissioned by a company called MMA on the strength of it, paid £25 a week for eight weeks to write a revue script for, of all people, John Cleese and Glenda Jackson. More extensive plagiarism, I’m afraid.
At this stage, having been a rather solitary only child and lacking ordinary social skills, I was consumed by feelings of inadequacy and had no belief in my own inherent talent. I’m sure I was rumbled, because I heard no more; though frankly the whole idea was intrinsically improbable, if not impossible.
The one good thing which came out of it was that I got to meet the great comedy script-writer Denis Norden (of Muir and Norden). He was a director of the company, and before I started writing he called me in for an afternoon which was essentially a three-hour master class in comedy script writing.
I still remember his advice, as I remember the man himself; very tall and thin, with an enormous head made larger by glasses with lenses the size of picture windows.
Revue was also a good place to start exploring sexuality, and what could be written about sexuality, in bite-size chunks. The first was again a National Lampoon adaptation, Dragula, Queen of Darkness. Horribly self-oppressive in retrospect, but the very act of writing it and playing it was part of the ongoing process of coming out, gaining confidence, and being gay by performing gay.
The great thing about sketches and, to a lesser extent, songs was their flexibility; you could mix and match from show to show according to cast availability. Performances of songs were dependent on finding an accompanist, at least till the new century furnished the technology for reasonable quality backing tracks on light-weight players.
My first accompanist was also my first boyfriend, Reed Wodehouse, an American from Annapolis who went on to work with a large number of US opera companies and is currently a vocal coach at the Juilliard School. I could have done with some of that coaching; as it is, I went to the Lee Marvin School of Singing.
Then there was my friend from University, David Harrod, who wrote a large number of my song tunes as well as the music for five musicals. Quite simply the best in the business, his tunes are almost all earworms as well as being intellectually satisfying.
It is one of my profound regrets that he lost what little appetite he had for commercial success when he married and settled down. Song writing collaborations are like marriages, a perfect match is rare, and a wife or husband is not easily replaced. I have been bereft ever since, although we’ve done good opera work with Robert Ely and Peter Murphy.
There have also been, in no particular order:
The shows came in various potpourris, from brief sets at benefits and regularly at Pride for the last forty-three years, to full-length musical revues:
The sketches still appear occasionally, although the sketch form is largely superseded by stand-up, and anyone still performing sketches tends to be surreal or self-consciously retro. The punchline has virtually died out.
The sketches posted here were written from 1972 to the present. Many have dated, no doubt. The Sam and Albert verse monologues are parodies of Stanley Holloway pieces written by Marriott Edgar for Holloway’s variety act.
These verses were hugely popular in the 1920s to 1940s, although now Holloway is more remembered for his roles in Ealing Comedies and as Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady.
They are all a record of a very important function for a Queer theatre company, and for me in particular, entertaining the troops. Not for nothing did I bill myself the Vera Lynn of the Gay Movement.
Peter Scott-Presland (June 2021)
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