Time present and time past
It took me a while to find the right title for this blog before remembering TS Eliot. The Four Quartets is a favourite collection of poems. My father introduced it to us as children and I think it played a big part in his early life as a Christian. It’s highly complex like most of Eliot’s poetry but at the simple level, (that’s how I look at most things) the words have a great resonance about the human condition. I particularly like Burnt Norton, the first of the four Quartets of the title, and my title is its first line. If you don’t know Four Quartets it’s definitely worth checking it out. Only fifty or so pages and chock full of memorable images.
At Queen’s Park last week the first of my two ‘time past’ experiences. I had come to the end of the show, sweating and hot but energised as always by a big crowd and a good response which often happens in London – they seem more aware of the subtleties of my show in places where there is still a tradition of theatre – when emerging from the audience came a face from the past. It’s strange when people I know come up at the end of the show, especially if I wasn’t aware of them in the audience as I try to make eye contact with everyone during a show, but this was a real surprise as I hadn’t seen this face for over twenty years and it was a face I knew really well.
Tim Francis was six when I first met him over thirty years ago. He was one of the thousands, probably tens of thousands of children who sit, mouths open, in my front row. In those days I had just moved to North Wales from the West Highlands of Scotland and I lived in a house so I tended to look for shows locally. Tim lived in Conwy, the beautiful World Heritage castle town on the North Wales coast, and Conwy Festival was an annual event and highlight of my calendar. Tim was a small six. His whole family could have auditioned successfully for The Hobbit, and tiny Tim was. But he was also very keen. He kept popping up on my front row in different places, and was also very keen to learn how to do some of the things I do in the show. He quickly learned to juggle and was desperate for a unicycle. I met his mum and dad and we researched the smallest unicycle in the world (which we had to adapt to make it even smaller for Tim) and he was given it for Christmas. He was riding it on Boxing Day.
In the following season Tim would arrive at many of my shows, with his unicycle and a bag of props and sit enthralled in the front row. What else could I do? He came up in the finale of the show and did a turn. He was very popular, he had a wonderful winning way with the audience and he was good. By the end of the season he became my second apprentice (I will write about the other two at some point) and we worked him into the show. He stayed for many years. He was small enough to climb up onto the chair balance with me and to fit into illusion boxes that I built. He became a better juggler than me and was a great actor so we were able to develop a number of routines which became classics. I was also working with another performer at the time, Norman Haddock, who was a one man band so the show was very different from the one I do today. Tim joined the show and so began an era in my life I shall never forget. And I've had a few of those, as we all have!
At some of the events we worked with local community dance and acrobatic groups and that was how I first met Rachel who was the second person who emerged from the audience at my show the following week at Beamish Museum. In those days Rachel was the ‘Human Fly’. A fearless eight year old who climbed (without any safety harness) a scaffold construction I used to put up over the stage. With a group of friends they did a couple of acrobatic spots in the show. She is now 29 and runs the pub in Beamish. She showed me a photo (see below) which she had from those days. That’s her on Maxine’s shoulders on the rola bola while Tim and I juggle clubs around them. That’s the scaffold she used to climb! Norman is playing in the background.
‘Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter’
All the best from a road near you,