You could feel the warmth of the audience for Cissie and Ada as soon as Eric Potts and I walked onto The Lowry theatre stage. As the lights came up on these two ‘nymphets of the north’ the packed crowd burst into a welcome round of applause, which was accompanied by audible sighs of pleasure. The Salford audience had within seconds taken them once more to their hearts with genuine affection. Cissie and Ada, the wonderful creations of comedians Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough, after a long, hard theatre tour, had finally come home.
It may seem strange in today’s world of comedy, with its smug Oxbridge mockery or its alpha male snarling, to use words such as ‘affection’ and ‘warmth’ but that is what I think makes the Cissie and Ada characters still popular several decades after the death of Les Dawson. It’s a lesson in comedy that many modern comedians could learn from. Oddly enough, I learnt it from an Old Master on one of my first trips to the Edinburgh Fringe back in the 1980s. ‘Alternative Comedy’, arguably the beginning of the modern tradition, was starting to take hold. The generation of Tarby, Yarwood, and even Forsyth were mocked and dismissed as ‘Old School’. Yet there was one man who appreciated all comic styles, the legendary BBC producer Dennis Main Wilson. This guy had produced shows such as THE GOONS, TILL DEATH US DO PART and HANCOCK’S HALF HOUR. I defy anyone to place any of those comedies into an ‘Alternative’ or ‘Old School’ category. Likewise he had worked for many years with Frankie Howerd, hardly a comedian to fit into a tightly defined box (“Oohhh! Don’t titter! You filthy lot!”) Dennis though had essentially been put out to grass by the BBC. He had been told to go away to Edinburgh and find new talent. Dennis came back recommending Rik Mayall. “But no one”, he said, “took any notice of me”. Anyway, Dennis and I were doing a radio show together. After the broadcast and exactly one minute to eleven he looked at the clock and said, “Shall we find a bar?” Not difficult in Edinburgh. So off we went.
With a whisky in his hand Dennis was soon in fine anecdotal mood – “Frankie, you know, was very gay. And a very sad man. He lived by himself with a dog – and the dog hated him.” After we chatted for a while, meaning me mainly listening, Dennis Main Wilson said to me, “Steve,” he said, “do you know the secret of comedy?” Now this is a question you don’t try to answer when you’re pretty much straight out of college with a CV shorter than a one-way bus ticket home. So, instead of saying anything I made some gesture or other and deferred to his better judgement. I did think he might say something technical about comedy, maybe talk about the reversal with the unexpected outcome or the importance of conflagrated incongruities. Or even how a joke is constructed, the ‘Rule of Three’. But no. Denis answered his own question with just one word: “Love.” He then paused and added, “You see, Steve, you have to love them. It’s that simple.”
Well, after many months on the road playing Cissie in CISSIE AND ADA I had finally come to understand that secret of comedy by living it night after night. And it was never more true than that glorious evening we had at the end of the tour at The Lowry in the autumn of 2013.
The offer to play ‘Cissie’/Roy Barraclough had actually come through on New Year’s Eve 2012. I had two worries before I read the script. The first was that the play would simply be a loose collection of the Cissie and Ada sketches. Brilliant as they were I couldn’t see them sustaining an entire evening. The Law of Diminishing Returns applies as much to comedy as it does Maltesers and all those Florentine Botticellis. The second worry I had was that the play might turn out to be a sort hatchet job on Les Dawson, in the way previous plays and television films have concentrated on, and often over-emphasised, the ‘darker side’ of the lives of comics such as Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Tommy Cooper, Sid James and Frankie Howerd. I had worked with Les Dawson in 1989 at a dinner where I was the speaker. I suspect he know some of my jokes but he laughed loudly anyway. He struck me as a great guy, genuinely funny and friendly in the way you want your favourite uncle to be. Even from this brief meeting I was hoping the play would be fair to him.
I needn’t have worried. In dealing with how to present a play around Cissie and Ada the writer, Graham Warrener, using the original sketches written by Terry Ravenscroft, had cleverly found ways of including many of the classic routines into the play and had done so in a way that was often dramatic and very theatrical. For example, in the show, we see Les and Roy doing a first sight read of a script in their dressing room. We see them as actors laughing at their favourite lines and also pointing out weak ones. Graham had Les and Roy doing final rehearsals of a script in the TV studio, a scene that also had various angry interruptions from the writer and the off-stage voice of the TV director from the television gallery or control room. There was a section too with Les and Roy improvising a script as they get changed from their undies into the full Cissie and Ada outfits. Most inventive of all was a version of a Cissie and Ada routine as performed by Terry, the writer, and Sandra, the dresser. This was turned into comedy gold dust by Steven Arnold and Tasha Magigi and was a sure fire winner every night.
What Graham Warrener had essentially done in CISSIE AND ADA was create a back-stage story mainly set in the dressing room area of the BBC Studios that not only gave us the sketches in an interesting a varied way but also told the story of how Cisse and Ada came about. In doing so the play gave us too a little of Les Dawson’s own history and at the same time showed the way Les and Roy and the whole team related and worked together. There was a ‘darker side’ to some degree as the time period covered were the months following the cancer diagnosis of Les’s first wife Meg and so the Les we see in the play is clearly under strain. Yet although the play showed Les drinking quite heavily and arguing with the writer it also portrayed how everyone showed camaraderie and pulled together in the face of adversity. Several comments on the show from actor friends and comedians was how good it was to see ‘the business’ portrayed in that light for once.
Beyond the cultural and personal history though, the play had a universal theme: the fear of failure. Forget the tears of the clown, what lies behind the comedian’s mask is the constant fear that they will fail. Comedians even call it ‘dying the death’, because, and this is a little fanciful I know, a little bit of you as a performer does die when you play to silence. We comedians are Tinkerbells not of noisy children clapping but of raucous laughter. Les Dawson’s second fear was that one day he may have to return to the northern clubs to earn a living. Dying the death there would instill fear in the bravest of the brave. In the 1970s I performed on the northern clubs and it was indeed a tough experience (see images below). Yes, there were good nights when they loved you but it was hard work even then. And Les Dawson did it night after night for years before finding success. It is almost impossible to explain to those who have never experienced audience laughter, or indeed its absence, the importance it plays in our lives. It is our life blood. And when it is absent and we don’t get laughs, the failure is there for all to see.
There was a scene in the play where Terry Ravenscroft, the writer, and Roy Barraclough chat privately about Les’s constant questioning of the scripts. Roy says, “I’m an actor. You give me a script and I’ve got something to say. You give a comic a script and it’s ‘Why is this funny?’” Terry says, “But he’s Les Dawson. Surely he doesn’t have all those insecurities?” Roy replies, “They all do,” adding “deep down he’s the same as every other comic: terrified of failure.” I met Roy Barraclough once and even in that brief meeting I could see he was an intelligent and perceptive observer. So, each night when I delivered those lines about failure I could hear his voice saying them. Maybe you think there are comedians who are immune to this fear. Think again.
‘Dame Edna Everage’ is as confident and as self regarding as any comic character ever invented but not so its creator Barry Humphries. I performed with Barry Humphries on a TV special a few years ago. He was kind enough to say he admired my work and I told him my favourite character of his was ‘Sandy Stone’. He liked that. We then had a fascinating conversation about women’s dress sizes. However, the TV show we were doing wasn’t going well. It was a mish-mash chat and sketch show special about impressionists called A NIGHT OF A THOUSAND FACES. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. Dame Edna’s interviews with the Big Name Stars weren’t really working (one Big Name Star I over-heard in the make-up room was begging to be removed from the show). The sketch/interview Dame Edna and Lady Thatcher had with the politician Mo Mowlam became a complete disaster because, unknown to either of us or the production team, Mo Mowlam was heavily medicated at the time and went completely off script and pretty much kyboshed the whole thing. Backstage Dame Edna Everage ran up to me in the full garb but the only thing I saw was fear in Barry’s eyes as he grabbed me by the arm and very much as Barry Humphries said in an almost pleading despair, “Steve, can we edit this!?!” From that moment I have never seen any comedian I have met or worked with since in quite the same light. No matter how successful or rich or weighed down with awards I know behind the mask lies fear. My thought about the CISSIE AND ADA play was that if we were able to show this very raw fear of failure for the comedian, especially one as universally admired as Les Dawson, and show it in a dramatic way then we might not only have a nostalgia fest of comic heaving bosoms but also an interesting and thoughtful evening in the theatre.
The rehearsal period was very tight. Too tight. Two weeks plus a few days of technical rehearsals before the opening night was never going to be really enough. The contract stipulated that all lines had to be learnt by the first day of rehearsal. Good idea when you’re doing a Samuel Beckett or a Harold Pinter, whose estates rarely let you even change a coma. Learnt lines means you are ‘off the book’, as actors say, and ‘putting the show on its feet’, on day one. But, learnt lines is a bloody stupid idea with a new play. CISSIE AND ADA was a new play that was quite good and had more than just potential but it clearly still needed a lot of script work to make it come off. In this situation learnt lines on day one carries a problem. Marilyn Monroe once said she couldn’t learn a new phone number because that would mean she would have to forget someone else’s. Oh, lovely Marilyn, if only it were that simple! My experience of learning and unlearning lines is that the process has a tendency to become all jumbled up like a badly made marble cake. You have two or more plays in your head at the same time and you’re never sure exactly what is going to come out of your mouth next. With constant rewrites and changes making it more of a workshop than a rehearsal room, with a sharp pencil and rubber never far away. William S. Burroughs chopped text around for fun but even if it didn’t make sense at least there was just the one novel by the end. Well, by the end of our first week of rehearsal we did have a final version of sorts, even if several other versions were still swimming around in our heads.
It is painful for the writer to see speeches and sometimes even whole scenes not working when the actors finally get them on their feet. It is also difficult for the director to see precious rehearsal time disappearing like sand through fingers trying to put the script right. As for the actor, he or she knows that if it’s not working dramatically as a script their job is going to be nigh on impossible no matter how good they are. That is when fear and doubt don’t just creep in but take up a visible and permanent residence. As it happened we had an excellent team who, without too much ego, dealt with the situation in a very practical and professional manner. Once the writer, Graham Warrener, could see what was working (or more importantly not working) instead of hanging around the rehearsal room, arguing about which line should or not be saved, left the director and us the actors to work that out for ourselves. It was felt Graham was better employed working at home on those long scenes which didn’t just need a tweak or tighten but a complete rewrite. A confession. Although we had been asked to learn all our lines before the rehearsals started there were several scenes I never bothered learning as even on a first read I could see they weren’t going to survive. They didn’t.
The director JJ Almond, though quite young, has had a fair amount of experience with new work. On this occasion, with CISSIE AND ADA, he was working with actors who themselves were comedy writers, namely Eric Potts and myself (Eric has written numerous pantos and has an encyclopedic knowledge of gags and one-liners). Our director JJ was also fortunate in casting Steven Arnold (Ashley Peacock in CORONATION STREET) as the writer Terry Ravenscroft as Steven, who, with many years experience in a TV soap, had developed an instinctive feel for scenes that weren’t properly emotionally developed or consistent. Tasha Magigi playing Sandra, the dresser, was equally savvy when it came to new writing and script editing.
Each of the actors had issues and problems with the play, but none of them was insurmountable. Eric, playing Les Dawson, was keen to put in as many laughs as possible, knowing that ultimately that was what audiences would be coming for. Eric coined the phrase ‘nostalgia fest’ and much to its benefit steered the play in that direction. Steven Arnold was having difficulty finding where the emotional ups and downs were coming from in his character. Actors like to follow a through line. This is rarely straight but when it does change you need to know where that change has come from. Steven was perfectly capable of acting moments of anger that were quickly followed by friendly banter, the difficulty came in finding in the script where those changes of direction came from as they weren’t always in the script as it was written. Tasha Magigi had the problem of dealing with long speeches concerning racial abuse and sexual harassment which seemed to belong in a very different type of play, the sort of social realist drama you’d expect to see on the Royal Court stage.
To be fair to Graham, he had been set a very difficult task. Graham had been asked to take his original script and develop it in two very different directions. The play was set to open at the Broadway Barking and, later in the year, have a short run at the Blackpool Grand. For Blackpool what was wanted was that nostalgia fest of heaving bosoms but for the Barking, with a very different demographic, the request came to include social and racial issues. The play ended up frankly pulling in two very different directions. The full title of the play was CISSIE AND ADA: AN HYSTERICAL RECTOMY. I think there was never really any doubt how it would end up. Blackpool won.
My main thought about the play even on first reading was one aspect that could not be addressed by adding jokes or getting out a sharp pencil and rubber. At the end of the week’s rehearsal I eventually said what had been on my mind: “This play has no action.” There was then a look from the director and the other members of the cast that seemed to say, “Go on… explain yourself…”
When you are talking about ‘action’ in a play you’re not talking about what a character is doing but more why a character is doing it. Action comes from the need, the aim, the desire of a character. Put simply it’s the want that drives the play. In grammatical terms every play has a verb. Find out what the character wants and the action is what the character does to get it. Sometimes this involved a plan or ‘quest’ or ‘mission’ or call it what you will. The problem was CISSIE AND ADA had no action in that sense. In CISSIE AND ADA the situation was that Les Dawson was behaving uncharacteristically aggressively towards Terry, the writer, and Sandra, the dresser, and, to some degree, even his long-time friend Roy Barraclough. Les was also drinking too much. It could have been possible to write the play in such a way that each character, though perhaps it would be best done by Roy, would have had the action ‘to find out why Les is behaving like he is.’ Roy could have tried various ruses to this end. He could have found ways to involve Terry and even Sandra in this plan. Dramatic conflict could then be created because Les would have to resist or brush aside any attempts to get him to reveal the answer. You would have had to have seen Les early on in the play, alone, where his emotional state would have been seen by the audience but not yet understood by the other characters. You would have to have established too it was Roy’s intention (his action) to find out what was causing Les’s uncharacteristically aggressive behavior. To be fair, there was an element of this already in the play but it was very diluted and hardly perceptible for whole sections. At the end of Act One the truth that is eventually revealed is that Meg, his wife, is seriously ill with cancer. The act ends with Les, unable to continue working, taking off his Ada wig and leaving the TV studio. In storytelling terms this is the only real revelation of the play and although it gave the end of Act One a dramatic close it meant that the whole of Act Two had no action, nor any real tension.
Now if you’re thinking all this may sound like notes for an ‘O’ Level Drama course rather than useful thoughts on a play about two fictional northern ladies performed by men in frocks you’d be right. But the point is that if there is no or little action or plan of action the actor has very little to act. The play certainly had conflict in that Les wanted to put extra lines into the scripts and make changes to suit himself, and the writer was resistant to those changes, so, to be fair, the play did have an action of sorts, but it was my belief that this wasn’t quite enough to sustain a whole drama. There was also a sort of subplot with Sandra the dresser wanting someone to help her with sexual harassment issues at the BBC but that sub-plot was soon cut after the initial run at Barking. So, what to do?
In some ways nothing needed to be done because after that first week of the rehearsal process when I said, “This play has no action” I added, “but ultimately I don’t think it matters because it’s not that kind of play.” Essentially CISSIE AND ADA was what I would call a tone or mood piece. It captured brilliantly Les Dawson the man, his passions, his history, his up-bringing and it did so in an interesting and engaging way. The play also gave a sense of how he worked with those around him, his friendship with Roy Barraclough and some of the anxieties his working method caused. Plus it was the story of Cissie and Ada, who they were and where they came from and how those two ladies were created. Eric Potts was right, ultimately that is what the audience would want, and that is what they would be paying to see. Grafting or forcing on a none too subtle action at this stage to the play’s structure would probably not have helped.
There was though still the problem that I, as Roy, had no clear action to act. Instead, I saw it as my job to show Roy as the observer of his friend Les, asking to himself, as it were, through glances, gestures and looks why and what was it that was making Les behave in that particular manner. In essence, I made Roy a reflective character and what I was reflecting through my physical action and body language was the changing mood of Les throughout the play. There is an old adage that acting isn’t about acting but re-acting. If this is taken too literally you can end up with Roger Moore eyebrows acting. I prefer Spencer Tracy’s approach to acting. He was once asked the secret of acting and he replied, “Never stop thinking.” Of all the advice I’ve ever read on acting for me that simple rule is still the best. Never Stop Thinking. It’s a great note. I felt that if audiences could see in my face and hear in my tone of voice what I was thinking as I observed and reacted to Les’s behaviour, and if I could make that at the same time both nuanced and credible then I would have I would have done my job, at least as far as creating the character of Roy was concerned. That though was only half the role: there was also Cissie to get too.
The comedy of Cissie and Ada isn’t that difficult to analyse or pin down. The sketches are nearly always set in a situation where two northern ladies would naturally be found, preferably sitting down. This could be a perhaps a doctor’s waiting room or deckchairs on a beach or at home at Christmas. As people, Cissie was slightly more refined. You could imagine that Cissie and Ada had known each other from school days and Cissie had come from a slightly better off family. You can imagine too that Cissie had married just that bit better than Ada and so had moved up in the world but from loyalty had kept Ada as a friend and confident. Apart from these social differences their characters also came from the language they used. There would be, for example, wonderful northern phrases for certain medical conditions too delicate to speak of too openly. For example, when Ada claims not yet to have gone though the change Cissie says, “I thought those batteries had died out years ago” or when Bert, Ada’s husband, is said to have rediscovered his sex drive Cissie says, “Oh, that’s flared up again”, as if it were a boil or a rash. There are also, of course, lots of mentions of ‘knickers’ and ‘corsets’, plus various northern phrases and expressions such as “I’m filling up” for getting emotional or “A nicer body never broke the day’s bread” for describing a good sort of woman or the more ribald “Oh Ada, you’ve got a mind like a culvert”. Most of the actual verbal jokes are Malapropisms of sorts. Mrs. Malaprop in THE RIVALS substituted a similar sounding wrong word for the right. Ada would say something like “She’s impregnable again” instead of “She’s pregnant again”. There are variations on the Malapropism too where Cissie says the right word, often one that requires a bit of education, but Ada wrongly picks up on it having a different meaning. Cissie would say, “My Leonard will be well catered for on his own. No matter what his gastronomic desires, we have it in the freezer” and Ada would reply “Well I knew you were having your bathroom done, but don’t the baskets leave marks on your bottom.” Their most famous exchange is based on this type of misunderstanding where Cissie says “Tell me something, Ada, on your wedding night were you ‘virgo intacta’?” and Ada looks at her and says, “No, just bed and breakfast.”. And where there is a Malapropism proper, Terry Ravenscroft doesn’t just leave it there, he turns it back on itself and gets a second laugh. Ada, for example says, “Before our Miriam’s X-ray they gave her a Bavarian meal”. Cissie corrects her and says, “You mean ‘Barium’” and Ada tops that with a further misunderstanding and replies “No, she kept her bra and knickers on”. But as Terry Ravenscroft liked to remind Les in the play these jokes aren’t gags as such but exchanges that emerge naturally from the characters.
There is also comedy to be had from Cissie and Ada’s respective husbands, Leonard and Bert. There is a scene set in a prison as Ada waits to see her Bert during visiting hours and Cissie has joined her for moral support. Cissie invariably refers to her husband rather proudly as ‘My Leonard’. In comparison poor Bert always comes off second best. Naturally their sex lives play a big part in the sketches. Ada is typically very forthright. “Mind over matter? That’s like out Bert with our sex life. If he’s in the mind, my feelings don’t matter. He comes home from that pub at chucking out time and there’s no stopping him. It’s like trying to hang on to a beer barrel with legs.” As ever, the richness of the language mediates the coarseness of the image. “Every night’s the same with him. You want to see my side of the bed. There’s no nap left on my flannelette sheets.” These I think almost poetic images create a wonderful picture in the mind that is at once highly sexual but at the same time mundane and domestic. That though is simply reflecting the natural richness of northern language in the same way Billy Connolly might use a Scottish expression to create a similar effect in his act.
Much is written and said of the language of Cissie and Ada but it would be a mistake to forget their physicality as well. But here is a warning for the actor for the mannerisms, the mouthed whispers, the heaving of bosoms must all be true. Any hint that one is putting on an act or being funny and the magic is lost. Of course there is an exaggeration but the adjustment of the bosom must never become just a cheap laugh. The bra itch has to be real. The same too with the silent over emphasis with the mouth when talking about certain types of matters. In the play Les talks about ‘Mee-mawing’ and the cotton trade. “The noise of the looms,” he explains to Terry, “was that loud that they used to lip-read, so they could chat at work. Away from the mill, in the comparative peace of the Manchester streets, they’d use it when they wanted to talk about something delicate, say if one of them has trouble with her…” and then half-mouthing ‘waterworks’. Fundamentally though what makes Cissie and Ada work is that they are real and we love them.
Luckily, like Les and Roy, I was brought up with such northern women. My grandmother was ‘Ada’ and even came out with her own classic Malapropisms every day, “You know, Stephen, when it comes to ghosts I’ve always been very septical”. She also had slightly posher friend exactly like Cissie who would sit and listen to my grandmother describe her life and with the same half embarrassed smile Roy used as Cissie when Ada had said something a little too direct or uncouth. My own grandmother had her own way of speaking unique to her in that her daughter, my aunt, who lived with her, was slightly deaf and so through habit my grandmother often raised her voice unnecessarily loud even in very private settings. I remember vividly going to register a death with her and in the waiting room at the Registrar were various people clearly upset yet, without realizing it, she raised her voice so loud everyone could hear every word as she discussed in detail some very private family mishap. In my own performance as Cissie I borrowed as much from all the women I grew up with as from Roy and Les’s actual performances.
When preparing to create a real person such as Roy Barraclough on stage the actor has various options. As I was learning the lines before we started rehearsal I made the decision not to even watch too much of Roy or even how Les and Roy did the Cissie and Ada sketches. Roy had said in the past that his own characterisation for Cissie “was drawn from an aunt of mine who always thought she was slightly above the rest of the family, Auntie Annie. You know, she would always have a sherry. And the rest of the family always took the piss out of her.” I thought to make them both real they had to be original to me rather than just be a copy of a copy. I treated the sketches as if they were new and tried to find my own way of making them work and Eric Potts as Les/Ada had more or less done the same. Of course I knew the sketches well anyway as I grew up with them but one of the big mistakes people make about actors such as myself who do character voices is that we copy them. What we actually try and do is try to capture the essence and manner. That said, I did notice Roy Barraclough had a tendency to slightly extend his ‘igh’ sound which resulted in making saying ‘nigh-rt’ almost as if it had two syllables. On the whole though I avoided too much of a vocal impression as I felt that ultimately that wouldn’t really help the play. As I say to actors when asked how to do a voice, “It’s far more important to capture attitude. Capture attitude and the voice will follow”. I was pleased though when Steven Arnold, who had worked with Roy Barraclough for many years on CORONATION STREET, kindly observed of my Roy, “You’ve got him, Steve, you’ve got him”.
As the tour progressed across the country we found new aspects of the play to enjoy. We developed a small running gag that Roy liked puns, which in some ways mirrored the more genteel and educated Cissie. Of course they were places where the play worked better than others. Pretty much everywhere in the north of England loved it and though audiences in Swindon and Horsham certainly enjoyed it, there wasn’t quite the warm recognition laughter we got from those who knew their own versions of Cissie and Ada. And I think that has been the key to Cissie and Ada from the beginning: they are comic creations but they are, for those of us who come from the north, comic creations who are as real as the two ladies who live across the road at number forty-two, with the green windowsill and that mat on the floor they got from a holiday in Filey.
It is over forty years ago now that Cissie and Ada first hit the television screens on SEZ LES. It is over twenty years since the death of Les Dawson himself. Would people come and see those two nymphets of the north without Les or Roy playing them? The answer was yes, we played to packed crowds who loved the show. Which led to me to think when I came back to my digs each night and saw late night comedy on Channel Four and the like, ‘Which of your comic creations would be revived as stage drama in the 2050s?’ Well, my advice to young comedians would be remember the words of Dennis Main Wilson. He would have known the answer. “Love, Stephen. It’s the ones you love.”
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