|There's No Place Like A Home|
16-21 October 2006
Swan Theatre, High Wycombe
Wed & Sat Mats: 2.30pm
Ray Alan, acclaimed on American television as “the world’s greatest ventriloquist” had his first taste of applause when he entered a talent show at his local Gaumont Cinema and at 13 was a call-boy at the Lewisham Hippodrome Theatre. He has worked constantly ever since!
As a teenager he entertained with a magic and impressions act, introducing ventriloquism into his act as a brief novelty, and touring all the leading variety theatres and even playing a never to be forgotten tour with the famous Laurel & Hardy!
But since those times, he has become synonymous with Lord Charles and the two made their television debut on the BBC’s Good Old Days, a show for which Ray holds a record number of appearances!
He has appeared on television and in cabaret all over the world, headlined his own summer shows and Christmas seasons and guested on all the major variety shows including Celebrity Squares, Give Us a Clue, Blankety Blank, Family Fortunes, The Bob Monkhouse Show, The Des O'Connor Show and 3-2-1.
|Early days: Ray Alan with Lord Charles|
Ray also devised, wrote and presented the Channel 4 documentaries A Gottle of Geer and Starmakers (the history of the variety agents), as well as other programmes on TV and radio and has also written a book on the secrets of the ventriloquial art, as well as a Lord Charles Wine Guide.
It seems that there is not much that he hasn't done, but at the moment he is currently on tour with Paul Elliot's comedy "There's No Place Like "A" Home", which can be seen at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, this month.
The play, which is currently on a UK tour, presents us with a familiar selection of well-loved old, hard-up eccentric actors and variety performers who are spending the twilight of their lives in a retirement home for old artistes. They are bored, they are broke, and the Home is being sold. Can they use their rusty' talents to pull off a perfect crime?
We caught up with the legendary ventriloquist, who told us what it was like performing without his familiar sidekick and how he first discovered he could talk without moving his lips!
Can you tell me a little bit about "There's No Place Like A Home"?
Ray: Yes - it's a comedy play that's set in a retirement home for old actors and entertainers who are just slightly over the top! They pretend that there's always a future for them, and that the phone will always ring and somebody's going to want them - and that's the basic premise. But it leads to a lot of fun and comedy and a lot of bitchiness between them as well! It's just so funny.
There are all these lovely characters in it. You've got Gordon Kaye (Allo, Allo), Tony Adams (Adam Chance in Crossroads) who's in it as a dramatic actor who still has to do everything in a dramatic actor fashion. Then there's Ken Morley (Reg Holdsworth, Coronation Street) who's the comedian that does the most terrible jokes and gets the biggest laughs in the show. The characters have all heard his jokes so often that they don't want to hear them anymore but he keeps coming out with them. We've got also got Peter Byrne who was in Dixon of Dock Green with Jack Warner who plays the policeman in this and he's wonderful.
|Ray Alan in There's No Place Like A Home|
Brian Cant is in it too, and he is also wonderful and again gets some of the biggest laughs in the show. He's a forgetful old actor who still thinks he's performing. He doesn't believe that he's not doing a show and is convinced that's he's got to go and do one and is always getting ready.
This all happens throughout the play and the audience are in on the joke right from the beginning. But I won't give away too much of the plot, just say that it's a very funny play! We've had a marvellous reaction from audiences so far, and we love to hear the laughter.
So you're not playing your future selves then?!
Ray: No - we're all different people. I'm James Johnson, who was a singer but nobody wants me to sing anymore. I begin to realise that and find an old ventriloquist's doll in a second hand junk shop and I think I might have a new career as a ventriloquist. But I am so terrible at it, that everybody cringes. But that's where the comedy comes, all of us are giving ourselves that illusion that maybe one day we'll be back on form again, and given another chance. In actual fact, everybody knows that we won't.
There's an irony then in that your character is thinking of starting a new career as a ventriloquist when you've had an enormously long career as a ventriloquist?!
Ray: Yes - that's right! It's part of the great fun, it's like Les Dawson who was a very good pianist but he always got great fun out of playing badly. It's great fun for me to play a bad ventriloquist because it's also a wonderful doll, you just wouldn't use it - it's priceless!
So, is this realistic? Do performers ever think "I'm going to retire"?
Ray: Well - there's an old saying in showbusiness that I learnt when I was very young - "You don't leave show business, it kicks you out when it's finished with you"!
But seriously, there ARE homes for performers. The Royal Variety Show raises money which goes towards a place called Brinsworth which has various people in it - such as Richard O'Sullivan, Charlie Drake and Alan Freeman. There are places where, if you're alone or not well, they will take you and look after you and specialise in performers, entertainers and actors.
This is a comedy version of these places with actors playing the characters who are the mainstay of these homes.
You're obviously still going strong - but when did you first discover that you had this talent for ventriloquism?
Ray: I used to do an act of magic and impressions of famous people doing tricks. When I was 16 I was doing a show at the Woolwich Empire in London and somebody, a stage hand or someone, had put a dirty old green tool box on my table of props which was put on the stage. When I got onto the stage I had the shock of seeing a great big green wooden tool box which was the biggest thing on the table!
I had to do something with it, but I didn't know what. Then I remembered that there was a ventriloquist who used to do voices from boxes so I did an impression of him. I did an imaginary character in the box giving away my tricks - and it worked!
I came off stage perspiring like mad and a variety agent knocked at my door. He said "I did like your act son, but you must get a better box!"
When I explained that it wasn't part of my act but an accident, he said I should do more of it because it's very good! I said that I wasn't a ventriloquist and he said "I think you'll find you could be and you should be"! Then when I was 19 he booked me with Jack warner at the Palace Theatre in Ramsgate and that was my first professional appearance as a ventriloquist.
So it was fate really?
Ray: Yes- originally I wanted to be a sort of tall Paul Daniels!
You've since become synonymous with Lord Charles - did you find him, or did he find you?
Ray: When theatre's were closing back in the late 1950s and I realised that the future was going to be television and cabaret I kept thinking that I've got to find a character that will be right for both. I went to a nightclub to see a cabaret entertainer to get some feel of the atmosphere of the place and I noticed a man at a ringside table who had a dinner suit on and a delightful young lady with him.
|Ray Alan in There's No Place Like A Home|
He was like a sugar daddy, patting her knee and pouring champagne and saying (adopts upper class type Lord Charles voice) "By Jove, you lovely little thing you. Have some more champers my dear". I thought what a lovely character that was, an upper class little Englishman, loves the ladies, and likes a drop of alcohol especially champers!
So the image of the character started to grow and eventually I found it. I knew what I wanted in my mind but I couldn't find a face. I looked through all the theatrical actors' books like Spotlight, then one day I was sitting there very frustrated at not being able to find one and I looked on the wall of my office in my home and there was a picture that Laurel and Hardy gave me when I left their show.
I looked at Stan Laurel's face and I thought "good god that's the face I want - just change the hair and put a monicle on it". So I played around with some photographs of Stan and found the face, went to the man [who made dolls] and showed him what I wanted and he made me Lord Charles. So his face is actually based on Stan Laurel!
You were in a show with Laurel and Hardy?!
Ray: Yes I was in 1954! They were doing their last tour and Harry Worth, who was then a ventriloquist, was in the show and had to pull out and I went in in his place. They were the most delightful men. They were lovely men.
It sounds like fate has followed through your whole career? Is it possible to name a highlight?
Ray: Not long ago I had a special evening at the 80th birthday dinner celebration for Lady Thatcher. I was asked if I would go and do ten minutes with Lord Charles, who would give an address at her dinner.
I wrote a special piece and it was lovely, she was on top form that night. Afterwards she asked to meet me and have a photograph taken with me and Lord Charles. She took my hand and said "Thank you so much, that was wonderful". I said "I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening" and she said "thanks to you I will!"
Then she turned to Lord Carrington who was sitting next to her and said, "could you move away a bit dear because we don't want you in the photograph - it's just myself, with Mr Alan and Lord Charles", and like a naughty school boy he just moved away! It was so funny, they still have that great respect for the lady.
|Ray Alan in There's No Place Like A Home|
I had a go at everybody that night in my act and of course I had a go at Tony Blair and John Prescott and also more people from the Conservatives so I was playing it backwards and forwards because Lord Charles has always been a political animal but he never really takes sides. He can't bear the sill ar*ses of politics!
So, what's next for you then?
Ray: I've got a lot of work to do with Lord Charles, when I finish this play. The RAF want me to do their Christmas Show in Cornwall and I shall be nipping about doing cabaret and other things. But it's Lord Charles they want, they don't really want Ray Alan at all!
Do you ever feel that you're upstaged by him then?
Ray: I'm delighted to say yes! It's just what I planned, I can sit back and say nothing and let him take the blame.
It must be an unusual relationship - do you feel naked when you haven't got him with you?
Ray: Oh no! I'm not one of these ventriloquists who think he's real! I know only too well the workings of the characters and the material that you have to create and come up with. People say to me, do you take Lord Charles here or there, but I'm like a carpenter who has his favourite chisel or whatever. I keep it sharp and I keep it clean and I keep it so that it works perfectly, but when I finish my work I put it back in the tool box and I don't take it out again until the next job.
He's just the tool for your craft then?
Ray: Yes - he's my chisel! I have to keep him very sharp!
Finally then, why should people come and see this play?
Ray: For those people who say there's never anything on really that's for us and that everything's blue, everything's crude and that comedy is all dirty or smutty - then this is the one to come and see!
This is a very, very good show. It's a grown-up show certainly, because children wouldn't understand it, and it has a concept of comedy, of variety, and of music - it's got everything in it and if you want a really good evening, come and see it.
A gentleman came the other night and he said to me "That's one of the best evenings I've ever had in the theatre. I came out feeling so happy". And that's what it's supposed to do - make you happy!