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Ricky Don’t Lose That Number – The Ricky Tomlinson Show @ Runcorn, Brindley
By Phil Thornton
Look, I know what you’re thinking; how did such a high brow cultural commentator like myself end up at a Ricky fucking Tomlinson performance? See, me ma and da had booked tickets with the missus’s ma and da but the missus’s ma had been rushed to hozzy and the missus offered our services as last minute replacements. Believe me, I did everything I could to get out of it but to no avail. So with a heavy heart, I took my seat at the Brindley where I’d also checked out comics of the caliber of John Bishop and China Crisis.
Note : John Bishop is a local lad, brother to the notoriously brutal lower league football legend, Eddie Bishop and is perhaps one of the finest ‘story tellers’ (as opposed to gag merchant) of his generation, not that that’ll get him on fucking Jonathan Ross. China Crisis on the other hand are a great old skool vaudeville act who sing, dance, juggle and eat live cockroaches.
So, the lights dim and there’s a stern warning on the PA that ‘no photos or film footage’ may be taken during the performance, it is strictly verboten, punishable by sharia law. Eyes will be plucked out, hands amputated. Ricky’s got his own cameraman see, who’s recording it all. Outside in the foyer his book’s on sale together with the official programme; it’s all taken as seriously as a Rolling Stones tour, except in this case we are to be entertained by a far greater talent; the fellar who played Bobby Grant no less!
That’s how I remember Ricky, as the eternally angry Every Dad, Bobby Grant in Brookside, back when Brooky was about as true to life as any soap opera had come. He was my aul fellar to a tee, an Old Skool Labour supporting unionist who nevertheless had less than enlightened views on almost everything. After Brooky, Ricky found regular work playing various versions of himself in other series and even films about underperforming England managers. Out of the cast of Brooky, he and screen-wife Sue Johnstone did better than anyone, because let’s face it, they were by far the best actors.
Yet it was as Jim Royle in Caroline Ahearne’s magnificent Royle Family that Ricky became elevated to some kind of national institution cum national treasure. An icon of sloth and idle coach potato idolatry, Jim’s catchphrase was the hilarious ‘My Arse!’ and this is how Ricky shuffles onto the stage, not as Ricky Tomlinson the character actor but as Jim Royle in trademark minty string vest, saggy arse jeans and a disheveled beard and slick-back combo. He gets us all to shout ‘My Arse!’ too. This is a joke I think, a bit of post-modern parody, a deconstructed unraveling of art and performance, poking fun at celebrity and the cheap iconography of the televisual age but no, there’s no punch line, no ‘thank fuck I’ve got that out of the way, now we can concentrate on the real stuff.’ No Ricky’s not being ‘in character’ he has become Jim Royle and it’s as Jim Royle that he begins what can only very loosely be described as his ‘act.’ Now I had no idea what to expect, having had no intention of attending and arriving just as the performance began. I naturally expected the ‘show’ to be the usual Tomlinson interview shtick; cobble together a few boring anecdotes, play a few tunes on his banjo and we could get the fuck out of there and get a few bevies in before closing time.
I wasn’t expecting what happened next. After Ricky/Jim/Bobby had shamelessly plugged his autobiography and boasted about how much he got weighed in for it (800 grand if you’re interested), bragged about all the famous people he knows, Norman Wisdom, Tom O’Connor (all the greats infact), slagged off Cilla Black for not wanting to be photographed with him back in Brooky days and accusing her of ‘forgetting her roots,’ he cemented his ‘socialist’ credentials by introducing some utter whopper called Tony Barton.
Going for a Maccys with Joey Barton would’ve been funnier than this Jurassic Park prick. He’s a little fat fellar in a bad suit from Hull who keeps hitching up his kecks and tells jokes that ‘the do-gooders’ don’t allow anymore; y’know jokes about Muslims, queers, Paddys etc. But that’s OK because he also makes fun of scousers and Yorkshiremen too so he’s an equal opportunities bigot. Ricky claims to have met this moron in Sydney and promised to bring him back to Britain to give him a break in ‘showbiz’ laydezngennelmen.’ He sings and does self-deprecating ‘sexy’ moves, he tells more ancient gags, he picks on a few more minorities. I felt like shouting ‘Is this one of your old NF mates Ricky?’ but I didn’t because I’m a shithouse and just gritted my teeth instead. And Tony was getting laughs. He had an audience who broadly shared his political correctness gone mad polemic. This was a Billy and Wally ‘Hold Yer Plums’ audience who called a spade a coon.
Mercifully, Tony’s only on for about half an hour which was about thirty minutes too long, then on comes Jim Royle again who tells a few more pathetic ‘anecdotes’ that I assumed would have a punch-line or at least a point, but no, he just kinda rambles on about what a great fellar he is and begs you to buy programmes and enter the caption competition of (ho ho) Ricky sat on a toilet in the middle of Hyde Park. The winner gets a ‘signed’ copy of his book! He’s not forgot his roots like Cilla eh?
Then the next act is introduced and - hold the front page of the Runcorn Weekly News – because Duncan ‘Chase Me’ Norvelle is back in town, and he’s just as ‘camp’ as ever if a tad greyer round the temples. Now, all I can remember about this sad excuse for homosexual equality was his catchphrase. He comes on singing the teddy bear’s picnic and reminds us of his queer pride shock tactics by selecting a big stocky lad on the front row to skip along the stage with him. It’s actually very funny and Norvelle goes down a storm. He obviously wants to be taken seriously as a Joe Longthorne-esque singer and overdoes the crooning bit and then almost ruins it with some tedious audience interaction; getting three fellars to sit on his knee to chat with him. However, despite the passé nature of his impressions; Paul Daniels, Michael Crawford etc, there’s no doubt that Duncan is a skilled performer and genuinely seems to be enjoying himself. He brings the house down. Not literally, it’s not China! Are there any Chinese in here tonight? Did you hear the one about the Scotsman, the Welshman and the gorilla?
The interval provides me with the perfect excuse to jib it but no, I’m assured there’s only half an hour of this shite left so return to my sight in time for diminutive comedienne, Pauline Daniels ploughing through her cabaret act for the zillionth time. She’s like Birkenhead’s answer to Barbra Streisand laddeezngennelmen, she sings, she tell jokes, she has chutzpah. Her act is geared to the women in the audience and she’s a polished performer who goes down a storm with women of a certain age ie over 50.
It’s all a bit Alan Partridge to be honest, with all the acts alluding to crummy telly roles they’ve had and the very fact that they’re very aware that they’re playing the fucking Brindley in fucking Runcorn on a fucking Thursday night only highlights the quiet desperation of the whole event..With Tony Barton it reminded me of John Thompson’s ‘cheeky monkey’ ventriloquist act on Partridge. With Norvelle it was monkey tennis time. Y’know what lads, the reason why you’re playing places like this isn’t because of the ‘do-gooders’, it’s because you’re fucking shite! Norvelle’s not shite actually but he’s also a comic out of time appealing to the kind of audience who found Larry Grayson hilarious. ‘Aren’t plums dear?’ he asks at one point. No, I tell what was dear, my fucking ticket, to watch the kind of garbage that would shame an average bill at the RNA. Amazingly this end of the pier kind of variety show is making a come-back, what with Britain’s Not Got Talent and the like. It’s like the 80s and 90s never happened and we’ve been transported back Life On Mars style to a time when Summertime Special and Live From the London Palladium were watched by millions.
Tomlinson has shamelessly milked his Jim Royle persona to such a degree that he should pay 75% of all ‘Royleties’ (see what I did there?) to Caroline Ahearne. He’s got brass fucking balls charging good dough to watch himself tell half a dozen lame jokes/self-regarding stories interspersed with a trio of Pontins acts. As the camera pointed at us and Tomlinson tells us we’ve been filmed for his forthcoming yuletide DVD , it suddenly dawned on me why each performer had wished us a happy Christmas. Now, I do remember laughing quite a lot of Norvelle but suddenly feared that my cred as an armchair Trot would be blown by edited clips of me guffawing not to Norvelle’s good natured queenery but to Tony Barton’s anti-muslim cracks. Do-gooders eh?
Ricky reminds us that he was sent down for leading a building workers strike in the 70s, he tells us he’s just a working class lad who got lucky, he tells us about his skin condition and his failed marriage. He comes across as a self-pitying and self-absorbed man, who whilst claiming to be some kind of prole martyr, nevertheless can’t resist telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s met millionaires and even ‘multi-milllionaires’ (wow!!), the kind of socialist who tells one appallingly sycophantic story about his chum ‘Sir’ Norman Wisdom receiving his knighthood at Buckingham Palace. There isn’t a punchline so don’t even ask. The kind of socialist who’d snap off his right arm for an OBE. He’s the kind of fellar who’d have photos of himself with Elvis or Sinatra on his wall or failing that Ken Dodd and Tom O’Connor.
As Sir Alan Of Partridge put it ‘Hold your sides, they might just split, here’s Joe Beezley and cheeky monkey!’
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