I like to think that my wildly caricatured impressions of Derek Acorah on the podcast are mildly accurate, but Georgina and I have always prided ourselves on doing impressions of celebrities that sounded absolutely nothing like themselves. Like Georgina’s wild stab at sweet Scottish actress Hannah Gordon, or my dreadful Ray Winstone, who sounds much more like Bob Hoskins.
I’ve never claimed to be able to act. It’s just “Brian trying to do a funny voice”. I did, however, go to Mountview Drama School in my late teens, though sadly not to study acting. I spent most of my time climbing ladders and burning my fingers while attempting to adjust stage lights.
But while I was at Mountview I met an actor who turned out to be something of a mentor in my life – and to whom I know I owe a huge debt in terms of what I’ve been able to achieve since. Forbes Collins is probably best known for his role as King John in Tony Robinson’s brilliant and innovative BBC childrens’ series Maid Marion and Her Merry Men. But back in those days Forbes was one of the most prolific fringe theatre directors in London, and a well- known face in many of the best-known television series of the day. Blackadder, Doctor Who, Lovejoy, Minder, Forbes used to pop up in them all.
Meanwhile, he had an extraordinary talent for persuading his fellow actors to take part in numerous hair-brained profit share shows. I think Forbes viewed me as a young prodigy, and he would invariably give me the job of stage manager on these theatrical events. Sometimes, if he was feeling generous, he might even dub me “producer” – but either of these jobs generally meant little more than being in charge of making the tea or going out and buying cigarettes for the cast. If I performed these duties well, I would occasionally be entrusted with the sound desk or even the lighting panel.
Forbes’s big house in Finsbury Park, The White Lodge was regularly filled with an unlikely repertory company of talented people. I can remember sitting wide-eyed in Forbes’s overgrown back garden listening to a seemingly never-ending stream of showbiz tales from his famous friends. Burt Kwouk chatted about filming Return of the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers. Don Henderson told of playing General Taggi in Star Wars, and Forbes himself shared his experiences of working with the legendary Franco Zefferelli, in Lew Grade’s Jesus of Nazareth. Forbes actually had a Call Sheet from that movie framed and hanging in his kitchen. It showed his name, in a single scene, alongside Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm and Anthony Quinn.
I remember those days with enormous affection, and I’m sure I was inspired by them. One afternoon, during a break in rehearsals for a Forbes play at Hoxton Hall Theatre, I recall a young actor from the cast sitting at a piano and banging out a couple of songs he’d just written.
“What do you reckon?” he asked.
Everyone seemed to agree that they were quite catchy.
The actor was Richard O’Brien, and the songs were destined to become part of the score for The Rocky Horror Show.
After much nagging, Forbes eventually allowed me to play the occasional small part in his shows. I remember appearing as Nately in his extravagant fringe production of Catch 22, and one Christmas I even got a part in the panto. That holiday season it was Aladdin, and the reason I remember that year so clearly is because the panto was produced by Martin Campbell – a fresh faced lad who would one day direct the James Bond movies Golden Eye and Casino Royale.
So, it’s not difficult to see why I might have been inspired by those early days on the London fringe. For over a decade, Forbes produced spectacular, critically-acclaimed fringe shows with no budget whatsoever. No one ever got paid, and virtually everything on the stage was either begged, borrowed or stolen. But people loved those shows. They adored them because they were inventive and crammed with great ideas and great performances – and that’s what tends to happen with Art when there are no commercial pressures.
Forbes taught me that if you have a little imagination, and unstoppable drive, anything is possible. But the most important commodity on the fringe is the ability to bullshit.