March 1994. The pilot announced the arrival of the British Airways flight into Bombay. A few minutes later the aircraft door opened and the stench of rotten eggs was overpowering. It smelt like Ghandi's Flip Flop! (Not that I know what Ghandi's Flip Flop smells like). I disembarked, collected my luggage, and made my way through customs, where I was stopped by a customs officer who proceeded to search my bags. He was very intrigued by a tin that rattled. I told him not to open it, as I knew it was the 'Jumping Snake' gag. However, because I asked him not to open it, he became even more suspicious and proceeded to unscrew the lid - whereupon three spring-snakes jumped out. He really shit himself, and was not amused. Everybody who saw it happen, including his colleagues started to laugh. Luckily he then saw the funny side and hurried me on my way outside to a waiting vehicle that would transport me to the SS Canberra, where I was engaged to perform onboard ship.
It was a really hot and sticky afternoon and the intense heat was affecting my MS. In fact by the time I arrived on the ship, I could barely walk. Upon embarking, my first priority was to find my cabin and cool off in the air conditioning. Would you believe it, the air conditioning was broken! I organised a bucket of ice and just chewed the ice cubes until I cooled down.
I then received a message to meet the Cruise Director in his cabin. I arrived at his cabin and knocked on his door, and a very affected Scottish accent requested that I enter. He introduced me to the stage manager, an obnoxious little twat, who I had quite obviously pissed off due to the fact that I earlier expressed my desire for a 'lighting rehearsal'. How dare I interfere with his precious lighting design! The Cruise Director had my publicity brochure in his hand, and he read quotes from it in his very affected Scottish accent along with a very condescending tone: "The Royal Variety Performance, Las Vegas, your own TV series, frankly I have never heard of you." He then tossed my brochure to one side as though it was a piece of dirt, and looked at me for a response to his statement. I said: "Well frankly I have never heard of you either. But we have to work together for the next three weeks, so I think we should try and be civil to each other." He looked at me with a glare that said I should never have said what I said. Maybe I shouldn't have, because I had made two instant enemies, and they were going to make sure that the next three weeks were absolute hell for me.
The trouble with a lot of Cruise Directors and the entertainment staff is that they think they are far superior to professional artistes, and that we are invading their territory and stealing their glory. However, they are in charge of all the entertainment onboard ship and an awful lot of brown nosing takes place. I will always be pleasant to people if they are pleasant to me, but if I feel that someone really dislikes me, rather than trying to get them to like me, I dislike them even more. I know that this is a childish attitude, but it makes me feel good.
I was engaged to perform three shows on this, the last section of the World Cruise. The passengers were predominantly old, and had been onboard for the previous ten weeks. So, they had eaten every dish on the menu, seen a lot of visiting entertainers, and were going to be extremely hard to please.
Show One was awful. The audience didn't like me and the sound system was not helping my cause. The audience were having a problem hearing me; in fact there was an American guy who shouted in a very brash New York accent, "We can't hear you." I immediately responded: "We can hear you!" A clever reply, but not an apt one. It made me appear like a real smart arse. I then followed it with a gag that made my grave even deeper. I said, "Are you American? (knowing full well that he was). He replied, "I sure am." I said, "You always have had a problem hearing us British. We blew the bugle in 1939 and you never heard it until 1945!" Now the audience really hated me. I wound up my act very quickly and left the stage to the sound of my own footsteps. As they say in show business: I died a death!
Later that evening I was at the bar drowning my sorrows, when a very cocky member of staff - who had quite obviously been poisoned against me by the cruise director - came up to me and started patronising me and my act. For a short while I stood for his very snide remarks and cutting comments until he said, "If I were you!" I just snapped and said, "Well you're not me, so why don't you shut up and fuck off". Not a good thing to say, but I really wasn't in the mood for being Mr. Nice Guy. Don't you just hate it when people think they know what's best for you and they try and rearrange your life, but they can't even organise their own sad little existence? I turned away and went straight back to my cabin.
The next morning, I received a copy of a letter from the Cruise Director that had been sent to the captain from the American guy in the previous night's audience. He complained about my act, and how insulted he was made to feel, because of the joke I made about the war. I was informed to report to the Cruise Director's office immediately.
I must admit that I felt like a naughty little schoolboy who had to report to the headmaster. I went to his office and listened to what he had to say. I felt so deflated, and my next show felt as though I was auditioning for what I considered a bunch of amateurs - the cruise staff. It wasn't a good show; I just wasn't in the mood. I remember coming off stage and the Cruise Director was waiting in the wings watching the technicians packing away one of my illusions; he just looked at me and said, "So, that's how it's done!" I walked away and couldn't help whispering under my breath, "I'm getting paid a lot of money for this. You're the one that's being done!" Two shows down, one to go. I just wanted to get back home; I despised everything about the SS Canberra.
The following day the ship docked into Haifa in Israel and everybody was getting excited about going on a trip to Bethlehem. Not me! I couldn't give a shit about Bethlehem; in fact I stayed in my cabin all day rehearsing the act I was due to perform a couple of weeks later at the London Palladium on the Children's Royal Variety Performance.
We then arrived in Greece and I decided to go ashore and make some telephone calls. My first call was to my agent and I explained to him the problems I was encountering and said that I never wanted to do another cruise. I then tried to call my parents, but there was no answer. My parents being unobtainable was a blessing in disguise, because when I later returned home I learnt my Mum had suffered a minor stroke. Luckily, she made a nearly full recovery - but if I had found out that she had suffered the stroke when I tried to telephone, it would have given me the perfect excuse to fly home.
Upon returning to the ship I learnt that my old mate Kenny Lynch was due to arrive shortly, to perform a show. I was excited that someone I could relate to was coming on board. What wasn't so good was that Jimmy Tarbuck was coming with him. I wish he liked me; I used to have so much respect for him as a performer. I don't think he would admit to not liking me, as it would make him look insecure. Maybe I'm imagining it, I don't know.
I hooked up with Kenny Lynch and filled him in on all the gossip whilst we had dinner together in the restaurant. As the ship set sail, the captain made his announcement. However the captain had a speech impediment and couldn't pronounce his 'Rs'. Therefore Greece became 'Gweece' and Canberra became 'Canbewwa'. I know I shouldn't have laughed but I did, and so did Kenny and the rest of the people on and around our table. It was wicked, but very funny, in an immature way. This was the first time, in the last couple of weeks that I had felt human.
That night the cruise staff were presenting a show that paid tribute to some of the legends of modern music. I decided to pay a visit. As I entered the showroom, the Cruise Director was paying his tribute to Freddie Mercury. I'm not kidding, he was more like Freddie Flintstone. He was dressed in a costume that he thought made him look fantastic. It didn't, he looked like a sack of shit, tied up in the middle! He was down on one knee singing his little heart out; it was diabolical, but the audience all knew him, they loved it. I left the room and went to bed.
My final show was just as bad as the other two, but I didn't care because the next morning we were due to arrive in Southampton and I was desperate to get home! I arrived back and called my Mum - it was then I learned the bad news of her having a mild stroke. I was now feeling at an all time low, fed up with trying to be strong. The stress of everything was getting to me, I could feel my MS getting worse and I had got the Children's Royal Variety Show to prepare for in about ten days time. I wondered what to do. I decided to visit my neurologist in Guildford. He always seemed to get me out of a mess by giving me a short, sharp dose of steroids.
The next three days were spent on an intravenous drip having steroids pumped into my system. I didn't leave hospital fighting fit, but I felt much better than I did before I went in. By the time I recorded the Children's Royal Variety Show, I was feeling pretty good. Not 100%, but as near as damn it!
The show was fantastic for me, due to the fact that I performed a very baffling version of the classic illusion 'Sawing in Half' where I sliced myself into two pieces with a giant buzz saw. I didn't use any of the usual covering boxes - it was completely visual. The following day I hit the headlines in the national press, with The Daily Mail devoting a full page with photographs showing me in two halves and the headlines read: 'Magic man amazes the Royal Party.' It was amazing that only a few days before, I had felt like the worse performer in the world, and now I felt like the best. That's show business!
My agent at the time, Tony Claymen, called me that afternoon to say that he had received an inquiry for me to perform on the QE2 the following week. I couldn't believe that he even mentioned a bloody cruise. After all I'd said about never wishing to perform on a cruise ship again. Of course, I told him that there was no chance of me doing it!
He said, "You are available" "No!" I replied.
"It's only for a few days," he said "It's still No!"
"You will travel First Class from Southampton to Barcelona" "What part of the word 'NO' don't you understand?" "They only want one 30 minute show" "Tony, for fuck sake stop asking me. No, No, No!" "The fee is six thousand pounds" "What time shall I be on board?" We both laughed and agreed that you should never say never.
I had a great show on the QE2 and the all of the staff were extremely nice people, so I take back what I said about all cruise directors and their staff.
"Somebody said smile, it can't get any worse! So I smiled, and guess what? It got worse!"
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