Gary Raymond shares his childhood hell on the stage at the Bristol Hippodrome.
When I was a child, my sister, who has always worked with disadvantaged children of some sort or another, used to organise an annual trip for such children to a pantomime, quite often at the Bristol Hippodrome. Several of her family members (of which I was and still am one) were encouraged to tag along. The year that many a serial killer might have identified as the ‘seed of all my woes’ I was 7, or maybe 8 (I don’t know – but I was young). It was Cannon and Ball kicking over the statues in Dick Whittington (shall we say – who can remember, and why would you try?), at the venerable Bristolian vaudevillian Valhalla. (If you have never come across Cannon and Ball before, they were an enormously successful comedy duo of the 1980s, most easily described as the missing link between Laurel and Hardy and the Chuckle Brothers).
It was a raucous atmosphere in there. In my sepia fog memory, I remember the stalls to be more resembling of a saloon brawl than a theatre. If you have never been to a pantomime, this is the closest you’ll get to empathy – there is a jumble of chaos all about the place where the audience is – a cacophony of unstructured interference, catcalling, amateur gymnastics and quite a bit going on in absolute ignorance of the performers on stage. You have to bear in mind when visualising the scene that children are, on the whole, violent sociopaths who are only kept in line with strict and exhausting 24 hour care. Well, at the pantomime, they are unleashed. (Apart from one little princess who just wants to sit there and listen, dreaming of one day seeing herself up on that stage…)
As is the case with all pantomimes, the time came for the actors on stage to invite some of that chaos up to join them, and to participate, in this instance, in some game taking place on a farm (does Dick Whittington have something to do with a farm? – the modern pantomime is a ludicrous mishmash of ancient tropes, pop-culture references, double entendre and low-end celebrity, so a ‘farm scene’ is not so far-fetched).
In a unique display of pro-activity I volunteered (or maybe my sister volunteered me – either way, this marked the beginning and the end of me putting my hand up for anything ever again), and I was ushered up on to the stage by a Hippodrome worker who had the look in her eye that must have been similar to the one found in the song leader of a chain gang.
I was up there with another six kids (we’ll say it was six), and this is the bit I remember so clearly – the audience – vast and unknowable, an army at the gates stretching out into the darkness, a symbol of Beckettian futility, and they were all quiet and seated and looking up from the tidal darkness to us poor bastards and (I suspect) the little princess who could see her name in lights. It helped that I was on stage with Cannon and Ball, two of my childhood heroes. Bobby Ball reached up and put his hands on my shoulders in a warm and encouraging manner (a little heightest joke for you there, at the expense of the comically small Bobby Ball).
Which mask would I like? Laughter. I was at the end of the line, and only the pig face remained. We stood as in a police line-up, and I looked down our regiment at the other kids – a cockerel, a dog, a sheep, a horse etc. All that was left was the pig. The cleanest of animals, I remember reading somewhere, and it was likely to be my most surprising playground fact at the time – I was the intellectual giant of my patch, as you can imagine. Well, I took the pig’s mask and it flopped over my skull like the bag given to the condemned at a hanging. I remember looking down at my feet through the eye holes. I lifted my head but the hot stage lights seemed to burn in on me. My head sunk, my chin planted on my breast bone. Years later I would think of this moment when I watched Michael Myers butcher his sister, John Carpenter’s camerawork putting the audience behind the eye holes of the ghostly Shatner mask in the prologue to the first Halloween movie.
Cannon or Ball, I became aware, was making his way down the line, eliciting animal impressions from the kids in the line-up. Years later, when watching Bin Laden hunt-movie Zero Dark Thirty, I thought of this moment when CIA operatives tortured a row of suspected Al Qaida agents. I heard a questionable moo, an enthusiastic cock-a-doodle-doo, and an excruciatingly well-received neigh from the princess. My turn came. I have no recollection of nerves – I was isolated in that mask, after all; the audience was little more than Schrödinger abstraction on the outside of the rubber walls. The again, I may have been pissing my pants in fear. At the eye holes I saw the microphone pass to somewhere I assumed to be my mouth.
“And what noise does a pig make?” said Cannon or Ball.
I thought about this for a brief moment, and no doubt dug something up from the Just So Stories, or Roald Dahl, or Dick King Smith or whoever, and I said, with mid-range confidence, through a saggy execution bag of a pig’s mask, “Oink.”
There was silence. Then laughter.
“Oink?” said Cannon or Ball with comedic incredulity. “They don’t go oink.”
Had I had just a few more years on me, and the vocabulary that would have brought with it, I would have replied “They fucking well do.” But I was 7 (or 8), and so I said, very politely, with my eye holes pointing to my shoes, “They do go oink.”
“Noooooo,” said Cannon or Ball, not quite believing his luck as he gurned to the gallery. “They go…” and he began the most inhuman snorting display, in my ear, that any person above 4 foot would have taken as an invitation to grab him by the throat and push him off the stage. I was, sadly, under 4 foot at that age. About three inches shorter than Bobby Ball.
The laughter outside of my rubber prison was that heard when the naughtiest inmate of the asylum smothers themselves in shit for the entertainment of the unfortunate masses.
And then it quietened down.
Cannon or Ball said to me, “Won’t you try a… [inhuman unspellable snorting sound here]?”
“Oink,” I said.
And I would do it again if he were here now. Because pigs do go oink.
Gary Raymond’s debut novel, For Those Who Come After, is available online or in all good bookstores.
Original illustration by Dean Lewis