s well as Mum successfully infiltrating the local am-dram society, Dad was also a keen musician, having played the piano and guitar in bands since he was sixteen. (As an actress/musician pairing, they were in many ways a precursor to Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, but without the home-made nautical porn - as far as I know . . .)
John met Gillian at a concert at the Guildhall in Gloucester, at which his first band, the Beathovens, were performing. By the time I became sensible of the world at large (that is, when my own memories take over from details I know about myself from other people), we were living over the aforementioned music shop, a short walk from the Guildhall, and Dad was playing keyboards in a show band called Pendulum.
They were well known locally, and became even more so for a short while after they appeared on Opportunity Knocks, the 1970s precursor to Britain’s Got Talent, presented by popular eyebrow wiggler, Hughie Green. We tend to regard the TV talent show as a modern phenomenon but it's been around a long time. It's only recently, however, that we've begun to relish the failure of the contestants as much as the success.
Back in the day, the audition process was an unseen filter specifically designed to sort the talented from the not so talented, and was done and dusted before the show was aired. Either we didn't care about seeing people desperate for external validation, brutally humiliated in public, or we didn't know we wanted it, the urge lying dormant within the human genome, like herpes. I'd like to believe it was the former. I'm not suggesting we were somehow nobler, or better human beings back then (let's not forget, The Black and White Minstrel Show was enjoying huge audiences around the same time), I just think the culture of hate and humiliation associated with contemporary talent shows is a product of an age in which television has become a demythologised free-for-all.
The idea of actually being on television was entirely different in the 1970s. In those days, the ‘box' was as enigmatic as its nickname suggested; a far more mysterious object, it was a conduit through which we were given passive access to a faraway world. It was magical and inaccessible, a means of happily observing a party to which we were not invited and that we didn't necessarily want to be at.
In the early eighties, everything began to change on a grand scale. The advent of home video gave us dominion over television, shaking us from its thrall. We could decide what to watch and when. We could record programmes and films and hold them captive, watching them multiple times then discarding them by erasing them from existence. We puffed out our collective chests at that once inscrutable piece of tech in the corner and said: ‘Who's the daddy now?'
Video cameras became readily available in the high street, further eroding the mystique, not only of TV and TV production but of the very idea of actually being on TV. With a modicum of head-scratching and a few leads we could see ourselves on the small screen every night, so what was the big deal? This, coupled with the evolution of reality television, as we know it today, has arguably engendered a sense of entitlement among certain sections of the viewing public, who have morphed from happy observers into rabid participants in the scrum for media exposure.
Consequently, there seems to be a large amount of bitterness levelled at those who manage to get their faces among the pixels. For instance, the depth of bile levelled at contestants on Channel 4's Big Brother has markedly increased since the programme's first airing in 2000. The public interest began as fascination, even admiration, and transformed over successive series into a dedicated hatred for all but the final few and even then the admiration is somewhat short-lived and begrudging.
Similarly, the entertainment value of shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent is, at least in the initial stages, about seeing hapless wannabes parade themselves before a panel of unforgiving ‘judges' and cataclysmically fail for our pleasure, providing instant Schadenfreude. What else is the emotion behind the laughter? I always feel an enormous amount of sadness when I see people's self-belief shattered by these sneering ‘determinators' with their corporate agendas defining what constitutes talent and art. Isn't self-delusion better than desolation?
Of course, it's eternally defendable by way of the argument that nobody is forcing these people to sacrifice their dignity to the masses, but that's not really the point, is it? The X Factor isn't a million miles from Channel 4's nineties car-crash magazine show The Word, presented by Terry Christian, in which people desperate to appear on television would eat bulls' testicles and lick pensioners' armpits as part of a segment poignantly entitled ‘The Hopefuls'. The makers of contemporary talent shows know there will always be a supply of hopefuls, whose need for facile validation far outweighs their fear of public failure, or, worse, who are happy to settle for public failure as a means of attaining the moment of exposure they feel entitled to. In light of this conveyor belt of catastrophe, Warhol's famous prediction seems overly generous. Ironically, ten years after the show was axed, Terry Christian appeared as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother. Talk about pap will eat itself.
Anyway, back in 1975, Pendulum's audition took place in Bristol and was presided over by the show's producer, Doris Barry, and Hughie Green himself. The band knocked out a version of Jimmy Webb's ‘MacArthur Park' but were asked to perform something a little more poppy and so launched into an impromptu rendition of ‘That's the Way (I Like It)' by KC & The Sunshine Band, impressing the judges enough to secure a place in the finals.
Sponsored by Iona Robbins, wife of the then Mayor of Gloucester, the band travelled to London to record the show. There they met the other contestants, the usual array of jugglers, magicians and ventriloquists, as well as a fellow West Country girl who wrote comic poetry, with whom the band struck up an immediate bond. They recorded their spot as live on the Saturday night and comfortably won the studio audience's vote on a sophisticated appreciation-measuring device called the ‘Clap-o-meter'.
Dad returned from London on the Sunday, buzzing with success, and the whole family gathered the following night to watch the show air. It was all extremely exciting, staying up past my bedtime to see my dad on television (actually on the television!) was beyond amazing. At one point I fell over and got a cocktail stick stuck in my hand and yet even this momentarily worrying impalement failed to dampen my ardour at the wonder of it all.
I can still see him singing into the microphone, and if I really concentrate I can feel my grandparents' house unfold around me, filled with excitement and finger food. All the contestants are gathered together at the end of the show, waving and smiling at the camera as the credits roll. The only face I can recall is Dad's; he was, after all, the only one I was watching. Years later he told me that during the goodbye shot, Pendulum's drummer, Paul Holder, had placed his penis into my dad's hand, which was resting behind his back. I often lament the fact that there is no record of the show; it would be worth watching if only for the expression of surprise, which apparently exploded out of my father's cheesy goodbye grin as he realised that Paul's knob was lolling in his palm.
In the end, despite the ‘Clap-o-meter' triumph, the definitive decision came from the viewing public. There was no phone voting in those days; public opinion was a strictly postal affair. Votes would be written on a blank postcard and mailed to Thames Television, then counted up to determine the victor. The result was announced on the subsequent show before the whole process kicked off again. Much to our collective disappointment, Pendulum didn't quite capture the public imagination as much as the talented young West Country poetess, who won the viewers' votes with a genuinely funny poem called ‘I Wish I'd Looked After My Teeth'. Her name was Pam Ayres. The fact that Pam is still writing and performing to this day and often crops up on the television actually makes me very happy. It's a testament to her talent that she remains successful, and somehow makes her triumph over Dad's show band less disappointing.
Pendulum were approached by the Joe Loss talent agency and got a few high-profile gigs as a result, including the National Television Advertising Awards. However, Loss's desire for the band to work aboard cruise ships led to tensions, which eventually resulted in a split. Half the band had mortgages and children and couldn't really take off around the world at a moment's notice. I have a very vague recollection of Dad telling me about a possible trip but it never happened.
It's interesting that I have never heard Dad talk about his experience on Opportunity Knocks as an opportunity missed; the big break that could have propelled him to stardom. He is an extremely talented pianist and I have never known him not to be in some band or other. You can currently catch him
performing in various venues in and around the South-West as part of a delightfully tight outfit called JB Jazz & Blues. The JB stands for John Beckingham, which are my father's first and second names respectively. Beckingham was my second name too until 1977 but we'll get to that later, maybe . . . Have I told you my dog likes eating socks?
An earlier incarnation of JB Jazz & Blues can actually be seen in Spaced. The band perform Louis Jordan's ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby' behind Tim and Daisy as they dance themselves closer into one another's affections at the bitter-sweet conclusion to series one. It's a lovely moment and I was so proud and happy to have Dad be part of the show. The whole family didn't all gather in one place to watch that though. There was no sense of occasion or cocktail sticks. Everyone just watched in their own home or else taped it. Funny that.
aving been exposed to theatre at a very early age, I was keen to participate in drama as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The first major role I recall taking on was the young Francis of Assisi, in a play about his life staged in the Lady chapel at Gloucester Cathedral. I must have been extremely young, since the boy playing Francis in his dotage can only have been about ten, and the boy playing Francis's father was even younger at eight!
Appropriately, I played Francis as a tiny boy, in a scene where his father sits the future saint on his knee and imparts some nugget of wisdom, which motivates Francis in later life. The boy playing my dad walked on to the stage as if returning from work (not sure what Francis of Assisi's dad did for a living; maybe he worked at the Wall's factory on Eastern Avenue), at which point I leapt up and exhaled a booming ‘Helloooooo, Father,' which reverberated around the walls of the Lady chapel and garnered an unexpected laugh from the audience.
Once seated on my eight-year-old father's lap, I was given a plastic tube full of fruit jellies, which I tucked into enthusiastically as Dad delivered his scripted words of wisdom. The cue for my next line came and went, but there were still three sweets left in the tube and I was determined to finish them before I spoke. The older kids in the front row were all leaning forward and hissing my line at me, which I knew full well. I nodded at them reassuringly and continued to chew.
The tittering started again and I realised it was because of me. I grinned broadly out into the auditorium with a face full of fruit jelly and calmly waited until I was able to advance the plot further, which eventually I did much to the relief of the assembled parents and clergy. I was never reprimanded for confusing my theatrical priorities with my sweet tooth, and my parents were clearly amused and even proud of my faux pas. I certainly didn't feel as though I'd done anything wrong, far from it, I felt it had all gone rather well.
The following Christmas, the inevitable nativity play rolled around, but much to my surprise, I was not cast as Joseph but instead some weary traveller, whose narrative purpose was to demonstrate that a lot of people had come to pay their taxes in Bethlehem and accommodation was in extreme demand.
I was instructed to walk across the stage, looking for a room, which I did with ridiculous enthusiasm, getting down on my knees, looking under chairs and even under my own armpits, only to hear a frustrated voice sternly whispering ‘Simon!,' similar in many ways to the voice I would hear five or six years later as I closed in for my fifth kick of the papier-mache model of St Peter's bell, the real version of which had barely ceased to vibrate at the commencement of our nativity service and the debut of my man looking for accommodation character.
By the age of seven, I was performing alongside my mother and her friends in musicals such as Carousel and The Music Man. Even now, when I hear songs such as ‘If I Loved You' and ‘June Is Bustin' Out All Over' or even an orchestra tuning up, I experience a powerful sensation of excitement and anticipation. It was a magical time for me; the shows were hugely popular and would play to audiences of five hundred every night for a full week with matinees at the weekend. Hanging out at the theatre, getting into costume, putting on ridiculously thick make-up, seeing my mum's friends in their bras was all a tremendous thrill.
As well as the physical and emotional rush of performing, I was developing a love of theatre as an extremely evocative mode of storytelling. I obviously didn't interpret that love as such, I just remember the shows having a huge emotional pull on me. Carousel had a particularly significant effect on my sense of the dramatic, probably because it dealt with themes such as love, death, loss and parental responsibility. It also includes a paranormal twist towards the end, when the main character, Billy, accidentally stabs himself, becomes a ghost and is transported fifteen years into the future to alleviate the stresses caused by his departure. To a nerdling it was appealing for obvious reasons - ghosts, time travel and moderate violence - but I think there were probably deeper emotions at work within me. My grandfather Albert had died a year or so before, my first intimation of death, and my parents had separated shortly afterwards. Those themes running through the play's narrative probably affected me more than I know, resulting in something of a subconscious catharsis, which engaged me with the moment and fastened it in my mind forever. It's strange how I don't remember The Music Man so well and that was a whole eighth of my life later, although if drunk enough, I can I still sing the first few verses of ‘Seventy-Six Trombones'.
It was during Carousel that I experienced my first incidence of performing in the face of adversity (this being a full year before Denise Miller's threatened kiss inspired me to get intimate with a brick wall). There were a number of young people in the show, varying in age from my tender seven years to cool guys and sweets-smelling girls in their late teens. I loved being the little kid in the gang; there's always one: from the Double Deckers to the Red Hand Gang. I was the one who could fit through small windows, or sneak past the policeman, or pretend to be lost so that the security guard at the junkyard didn't notice the rest of the gang sneaking in behind him to rescue the mean old man's dog. In reality it wasn't like that - we just used to hang around at the bottom of a backstage stairwell before the show started and I would try to gain acceptance by acting like a monkey. I told jokes, did impressions, performed pratfalls, all in the pursuit of those status-affirming laughs that let me know I was ‘in' with the big kids, although in reality I was never ‘in', just tolerated.
I was a puppy for the girls and a chimp for the boys, which is quite versatile for a seven-year-old. Before one evening performance I was particularly eager to finish getting ready for the show and get down to the stairwell to commence hanging out, since my fellow gang members were already down there. I hurtled from the dressing room, down the corridor, through the fire door, then, just as I reached the top of the stairs, tripped. Much to the horror of my ‘friends', I rolled head over heels, down the concrete steps, grinding my lower back against the hard corners, which were edged with an aluminium strip to limit wear and tear. I managed to right myself before I got to the bottom of the staircase and ran back up, barely containing the explosion of tears that issued, once I fully understood what had happened. I glanced back at them as I headed back to the fire doors and noticed their expressions of concern were morphing into smirks as they tried to contain their amusement. I clearly wasn't too badly injured or I wouldn't have got up at all, and their amusement was as much the product of relief as it was an enjoyment of my misfortune (probably about 30/70).
I was a little hurt by it though, because until that point the laughter I had elicited from them had seemed to me to be on my terms, whereas now I just felt like a clumsy little idiot. One of the older girls chased up the stairs after me and found my mum, who managed to calm me down and establish that nothing was broken. I had bruised my coccyx fairly badly, and as my first scene approached, the pain in my lower back grew more acute. I was playing one of the Snow children in the show, the prissy offspring of Enoch Snow, a stuck-up society type, if my memory serves me correctly. Our first scene consisted of a dance routine as the children follow their father somewhere, like obedient little ducklings. One of the moves required us to bend at the waist, something I was finding increasingly hard to do by the time it came to go on, I was stiff as a board, but to save face and, in my mind, the entire show, I persevered. I distinctly remember making a slightly pained face as we performed the move as if to show the audience that I was being a trouper, as if they would sit there in the darkness of the auditorium thinking, that kid sure has got a lot of moxie. It was an odd thing to do considering nobody in the audience had any idea that I had recently taken a spectacular tumble down a flight of stairs. Whatever my reasoning, there is no doubt that I relished the drama, which is somewhat appropriate for a budding actor, although I'm looking back now (as I often do while writing this book) and thinking, what a prick.