Around This Time of Year...
Tuesday, 8 December 2015
Every writer I know has a go at a ghost story. This is one of mine from a couple of years ago...
The whole production crew was in on it, of course. Most of the guests too: they went along with it, at least. People do, when they've something to sell. One series: it was pretty long, 12 weeks, for a debut artiste. That was all I got, though, enough to be a pink question in Trivial Pursuit. We'd started rehearsals in Broad Street in July, it was the hottest summer for years. The papers were full of the Israelis' Entebbe adventure and a gap-toothed Rumanian girl collecting gold medals. I started hearing voices. Not at night – not often either.
It was the first day of rehearsals. The first day at the Studios. The floor manager grabbed my arm, I snatched it away.
'Steady,' he said.
I glared at him.
'Um, has the table got to be just there?'
'Well, yes, if the cameras have got to be there.'
'The gaffer wants to run a cable across -'
'The gaffer can stuff the cable up his arse, sonny.'
He walked away, muttering 'worse than Howerd,' but it wasn't quite under his breath.
Anyway, one of my headaches came on and the studio lights started strobing. There was a voice, it wasn't a whisper exactly. But I couldn't hear it clearly. It sounded like it might have been the nonsense you shout in your sleep, words, all syntactical and everything, but not making sense. I've explained that badly; it was between heard and not-heard. At least then. The next thing I knew, Marsha from make-up was fanning me with a pancake-smeared towel. I caught sight of a flash of vermilion over her shoulder, somewhere out in the audience seating.
Then, for a while, nothing, nothing at all. No headaches either, but that might have been the occasional night with Marsha in her flat in Aston. Weekends I returned to Hampstead, Victoria and the kids. By the end of July, the format of the show was more-or-less fixed. Marsha was talking more and screaming less, forever telling me about her sister in New York who was too frightened to go out. Some pistol-packin' lunatic called Son of Sam had everybody looking under their beds or in the back seats of their own cars.
Towards the end of July I spoke to Paul the executive producer; in his office.
'What is it this time, Jake?' Paul said.
'Oh it's nothing, nothing at all really,' I said. He actually rolled his eyes, the old poof.
'What is it?' He sighed.
'Marsha, make-up. She's... well her aura. It's upsetting.'
Paul snorted. 'Bored already, are you.'
She was gone the next day, though.
On the 1st of August, one of the kliegs fell and the Floor Manager broke his pelvis. The blame would have landed at his own door, anyway, so he was replaced. Then we broke up the crew until October, when we were to come back for the pilot. ATV had signed off on the first six anyway, and everyone was sure they'd take the option on a further six. Besides, I had a summer season in Blackpool that I couldn't get out of; Jacqui, the studio runner, sent David something called Buckaroo for his third birthday. It arrived late and I 'phoned Victoria from Danny La Rue's dressing room. I hung up when she started swearing.
Birmingham was grey, damp with autumn drizzle. I left the taxi on the corner and walked down Broad Street to the studios. I was looking forward to the pilot, for which we were rehearsing that afternoon. A couple of minions were to sit in for the two guests. We were going out live: Saturday nights, 7 p.m. For the real thing we were having the girl from that musical version of Cinderella; the man from Doctor Kildare was playing Prince Charming. There wasn't much reality in films either, it seemed. Saturday night's other guest was someone from Private Eye, not Cook, of course. Guys and Dolls were already at the studio; the musicians had to rehearse, although the group themselves would be lip-synching on the night.
The rehearsal went well. At first. The researcher sitting in for the Eye guy had really gone to town, spouting a heated denial when I accused him of being E.J.Thribb. The show was to go like so:
intro; topical jokes from me, or at least the writers, list of the great and good guests on the show; first interview, the actress. Trailer re- my act: cue gloomy lighting, dry ice and lots of crap about the other side. Then interview two with the girl from the costume musical. Then my act itself, the first show was just a bit of table-knocking. Anyway, everything went fine until my act. The headache came right at the end. I couldn't look at the lights, didn't remember introducing the group. The voice was the same and not the same. It repeated similar not quite audible words, but whether there were five or fifteen, I couldn't tell. It was over by the time the song had finished. The director up in the gallery merely giving the wind-up signal as I gave the 'same time, same channel' spiel to close the show. That strident red caught my eye again and I saw an empty seat in the second row. I thought it might be a dress. My wife had been one of the few who could carry that colour off. Her sister couldn't. Victoria looked washed out in anything remotely red.
We had a party at the hotel nearby, bad luck to party after a rehearsal, some say. Perhaps they're right. I fancied a crack at the Forsyth girl, but she blew me off. I tried one of the others but she was only interested in the blond creep from Brighton. At least the drink was free, until the producers left. I left the hotel with two of the joke-writers. We went to a pub near the Bull Ring. They weren't funny at all.
Saturday night was fine. I was sick five minutes before but the assistant floor manager took the bucket away sharpish. The actress had a nice Irish accent I'd never heard in the clips from the film. I'd been told not to ask if she'd been dubbed. Her laugh was a little cracked when I asked if she'd like to join Guys and Dolls for their number at the end. I laid it on thick for my act later on, got an annoying tickle in the throat from the dry ice, but it was OK. The guy from Private Eye was pie-eyed. He spoke ver-y, ver-y carefully. And he wasn't funny either. Chuntering on about the National Party. I thought I kept my end up well. The act went reasonably, a couple of plants in the studio-audience asked about dead relatives. The woman tried really hard, doubtless the job was going to get her that equity card. The tears still looked fake to me. I introduced the group, but don't remember the song at all. One of the almost whispered words was 'fake', and I thought I saw a slim woman in a red dress slip out of her seat. The headache passed as the music faded, I did the outro and was sick as soon as the camera light went out.
The reviews were terrible, but it didn't matter. We made the front pages of some of the Sundays. The founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association was interviewed by every paper, the broadsheets too. I got a call in my hotel room from the producer's secretary, telling me how pleased he was and that he'd like a script conference on Monday. It was a hectic week, I was interviewed by ITN for the tea-time news and had a pleasant afternoon after a stint on Pebble Mill at One. No-one asked the $64,000 question. Was it real? No-one wanted to know.
The next Saturday's show was more of the same, except for my act. I'd designed a huge lettered wheel for show number two. A-Z plus 'yes' and 'no'. Of course, it was fixed. I'd wanted something like a Ouija board, but the producers said no. I agreed, since you couldn't be too careful. The trick was to get someone from the audience, not a confederate this time, to give the wheel a few spins. Nothing got spelled out and yes and no did not come up. Then I tried some schtick with that week's actor. Some guy from a soap opera about farming. Cinderella from the week before's husband, actually. Nice chap.
Finally, the stooge came on to the floor. The thing is, I couldn't remember the act and I can't now. I just heard the voice: 'Jake the Fake, Jake the Fake' over and over again. When it stopped, the stooge really did look shaken. The woman in the red dress was right at the back of the audience seating. It was just too dark to see her well. She might have waved. I did the 'thanks for being a great sport' business and turned to the audience. It was quiet for a TV eternity, seconds, that is. Then the applause came like a cloudburst. Brotherhood of Man urged us all to save all our kisses for them. I thought about saving a few for the blonde.
Everything went really crazy then. I did Parky, of course, and anyone else who booked me. What I didn't do was my act. That could only be seen on the show, on Saturday nights. The memory loss I put down to nerves. It wasn't like Jake Devant to have nerves, but I'd never dreamed of making it this big. I missed Ginny's 5th birthday the next week. Victoria called for the usual swearing bout.
'You bastard,' she was hissing more than the line.
'Come on, what's your problem? It's not as if your their mother, is it?'
'That's not the point!'
'I held the phone slightly away from my ear.
'Anyway I pay you, don't I?'
'Not that much!' Her voice was still loud.
'You are their Aunt, Vick.' I hung up.
She was just feeling guilty. I wasn't, her sister had never found out, as far as I knew.
The first hatchet job came from the Telegraph: all very stuffy and correct – alleged irregularities concerning The Jake Devant Show. An opinion piece the same day complained that the licence payer had a right not to be taken for a dupe. I laughed out loud at that, since my show was on ITV. It was quiet for a couple of shows, until the woman had the breakdown live on TV. All I could remember was 'Jake the Fake on the Make' over and over during the wheel act. I assumed it had gone just like rehearsal. On the Monday I met Solly, the producer's brother:
'Jake, Jake, don't worry. I paid her a visit in the hospital.'
'No problem, then?' I couldn't believe he'd called me into the office for this.
'Well, I wouldn't say that, exactly.'
He looked up and to the left, uncomfortable about something.
'What would you say then?' I asked.
'That there's no need to pay, Jake. She doesn't need money,' he said, fingering a scratch on his cheek.
I stopped sleeping. One of the cameraman kept me in amphetamines. Rehearsals were OK, now; just the headaches and flashing lights. The voice was there every time I did the act on the show. Did I say the voice was more distinct by then? Less of a rasping whisper. On the last ever show, we had Elton and the guy from Marathon Man. Brotherhood of Man returned for another go, but you couldn't have everything. When the strobe lights stilled - and the voice stopped saying 'Jake the Fake, on the Make, I'll be with you while you wake' - there was complete silence: the sound of no hands clapping. Yet another stooge was on the floor, shoulders heaving. The knife sticking out of him was moving too.
I caught sight of a slim figure I recognised moving through the studio-audience, she waved, I heard her whisper:
'I'll be with you, while you wake.'
Maybe my wife had found out after all.
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