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Ferris & Milnes at West End LIVE 2019 (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Ferris & Milnes at West End LIVE 2019 (Photo: Pamela Raith)

An extract from Martin Milnes’ memoir, now out as an audiobook

Kitty Underwood

By Kitty Underwood First Published 3 June 2020, Last Updated 4 June 2020

Actor, writer and director Martin Milnes has recorded an audiobook of his memoir, Wild Card: How I Learned To Be A Friend, Have A Friend & Finally Love My Birthday , which is now available from Audible.

West End LIVE fans will recognise Martin as one half of musical duo Ferris & Milnes, who have been favourites on the stage over the years!

The audiobook is narrated (and, occasionally, sung!) by Martin Milnes, follows the recent paperback publication of Wild Card,  published by Zuleika and available from Amazon, major book retailers and independent bookshops.

Writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth said:

“Need cheering up during lockdown? Read Wild Card! You’re crying with laughter one moment, tears of emotion the next. And the themes could not be more timely.”

Actor Alistair McGowan said:

“Ways to keep happy during social distancing: read Martin Milnes’ Wild Card! It’s so diverting, highly original and helped me sail me through the first week of lockdown with kindness and inspiration and generosity.”

You can read an extract from his memoir below!

WILD CARD

By Martin Milnes

Having been turned down by every single drama school, Martin, age 19, has just completed his first job as a singer in the Thursford ‘Christmas Spectacular’. Now he’s finding his feet in the Musical Theatre world of 2006, looking for his next show. Along the way, he catches up with his friend Jean Bayless – the West End star who created the role of ‘Maria’ in the original West End production of ‘The Sound of Music’ in 1961.

‘Red Red Wiiiiiine!’ belted an out-of-tune singer, queuing in front of me. This was the first open audition I’d ever attended, and I was surrounded by a motley crew – slightly more X Factor than West End.

In answer to hit jukebox musicals Mamma Mia! (featuring the songs of ABBA) and Jersey Boys (featuring the songs of Frankie Valli), the Birmingham Repertory Theatre proudly announced its own jukebox spectacular: Promises and Lies, featuring the songs of reggae band UB40. As a publicity gimmick, the Rep advertised auditions in the local press for small roles. Star-struck Brummies arrived en masse.

I handed the casting director my headshot and CV.

‘Oh,’ she said, reading my latest credit. ‘You’ve just done Thursford! You must know Wyn!’

I did indeed – Wyn Hyland, Thursford’s assistant MD, had been a great supporter. I sang UB40’s ‘One in Ten’ – and was given a recall. In the meantime, the casting director rang Wyn, who kindly recommended me for the show. John Cushing always told his cast, ‘Thursford on your CV will get you any job in the world!’ Maybe he was right…

At my recall I was handed ‘sides’ – the theatrical term for pages of script – for a scene set in the dungeon of a dominatrix. I was reading for the role of the Adult Baby. Being familiar with Jerry Springer: The Opera I knew all about Adult Babies… and I remembered an interview in the book which Mary Rodgers had sent, advising actors to wholeheartedly throw themselves into cold readings, no matter how crazed the material. So, I just went for it – wailing, bawling and blubbering.

I was offered a contract to appear in Promises and Lies. I was the only person taken from the open audition; to my surprise, the show turned out to be quite a big deal. The cast included Olivier Award winners Clive Rowe (Guys and Dolls) and Paul Clarkson (The Hired Man) as well as David Burt, whom I’d idolised on cast albums of Les Mis and Jesus Christ Superstar.

*****

But the critics did not enjoy Promises and Lies: ‘After an evening in the theatre I felt like I’d been mugged.’ Another concluded, ‘There is zero to enjoy.’ The Daily Telegraph judged it, ‘A musical fit only for masochists… Promises and Lies must be the most remorselessly bleak pop-anthology musical ever staged.’

Even with a turkey that we knew would fold, the cast of twelve grew close. Clive Rowe – whom I’d long admired – was especially kind to me, and I attended rehearsals even when I wasn’t called, just to watch the actors at work. Because the source material was weak, the cast had to bring far more to the piece than was on the page. I learned a helluva lot.

I almost ended up taking over the role of the junkie rent boy after the young method actor in question fell ill having slept rough several nights along Birmingham Canal. Whilst relieved that he recovered, I did miss singing the rent boy’s upbeat number in the second act, just before he set off for hospital to have his arm amputated having developed a maggot-infested abscess. No musical is complete without a scene like that.

Again, I was the youngest in the cast, but my older colleagues found my quirkiness endearing.

What are you reading?’ asked the Adult Baby, looking at my book with surprise.

‘It’s the autobiography of Debbie Reynolds.’

Why,’ queried the junkie rent boy, ‘are you reading that?

‘Well, because I read it before, and it was really good.’

*****

After UB40 I managed to blag my way into an opera tour – Tosca and Il Trovatore. We rehearsed in Bradford where I was billeted in a shabby hotel, complete with drunken fistfights outside my bedroom door.

The leading man in Trovatore was a huge bald Russian tenor. Prior to each performance he approached me holding an old-fashioned black greasepaint stick.

Martin!’ he barked. ‘You colour me in!’ I used the stick like a crayon all over his scalp – which, from a distance, looked semi-passable until he started sweating profusely under the lights and the greasepaint streaked down his face.

The renowned musical director was brilliant but somewhat accident-prone. One night whilst vigorously conducting he stabbed the baton into his palm, causing it to snap and embed itself in his left hand. Continuing to conduct, he sprayed blood all over the first violins.

Another night, during the energetic aria ‘Di quella pira’, whilst giving an upbeat, the MD raised the baton so close to his face that it wedged itself vertically between his eye and his glasses – meaning that when he thrust his arm forward to give the next beat, the baton ripped off his spectacles. They went hurtling over the orchestra, high over the head of the Russian tenor downstage centre and landed at the feet of the Gentlemen’s Chorus. He conducted the last half hour of the opera completely blind.

For a drama school reject my career was flying – but my newfound colleagues and friends were still exclusively older. And when the shows closed, I was back on my own with my parents in Birmingham. But the glamour of suddenly becoming ‘a professional’ did carry a certain allure for a couple of girls from my former am-dram circuit, who now finally looked my way. I took one girl to see a show at a local theatre, but when conversation ran dry, I began to struggle… that is, until I spied a signed photograph on display in the theatre bar.

‘Ah!’ I cried. ‘Now, this is Olive Gilbert! She had multiple roles written for her by Ivor Novello in his Drury Lane musicals. And,’ I added cockily, ‘she played Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music with my friend Jean Bayless, the original Maria!’

*****

My personal development may have been out of proportion to my career progression, but I was thrilled to return to Thursford for Christmas 2006. This year I had my own solo moments, including as a schoolboy whose goldfish was stolen by devious Siamese cats. Additionally, the show featured inflatable fat ballerinas, singing sunflowers, and my all-time favourite Thursford segue: ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ into ‘The Hokey Cokey’.

One night the residents of a retirement home came to watch. During the interval, one of the carers drank a pint of wine, and by the middle of the second half was paralytic. During the ‘Act Two Processional’ (a serious sequence in which we sang in the aisles wearing cassocks) she leapt onto a baritone, flinging her arms around his neck and wrapping her legs around his waist.

Later, as the cast joined together in the finale line-up singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, streamer canons went off over the audience and the paralytic woman ran up on stage, joining in. One of the dancers, dressed in a Field Mouse skin costume, grabbed the woman and managed to waltz her off into the wings. The carer was last seen drunkenly weaving an old lady in a wheelchair through the car park back to their coach.

I picked up where I left off with old friends in the cast… and now that I seemed a little more assured within myself, they spoke candidly and without reserve. One of the gays commented that he missed having an ‘eighteen-inch waist, like Scarlett O’Hara’.

‘Oh!’ I cried. ‘Have you seen the Carol Burnett spoof where she comes down the stairs wearing the curtain rail and says, ‘I saw it in the window and just couldn’t resist it’?’

The room fell silent.

‘Are you sure you’re straight?’

Back home, between contracts, there was no escaping how isolated I felt without friends my own age. However, I knew it was only a matter of time – the perfect friend was out there, and someday he’d materialise. It was a hope to which I constantly clung… a hope which began to build in intensity.

There was nothing much to do in the Midlands except wait for London auditions. I used the time productively, broadening my knowledge and repertoire, making multiple trips into Birmingham Library. I’d study Sondheim shows with the librettos and vocal scores in front of me whilst listening along to recordings. This instilled a solid knowledge of the composer’s work… and I didn’t know it then, but this Sondheim expertise would eventually pay off big time.

There were other reasons to go into Birmingham too. Despite the generation gap, Jean and I had grown increasingly close, sharing in our special magical world of the theatre. Whilst others around us appreciated this world, only Jean and I fully understood what it really meant to dedicate our lives to our craft.

Amidst the madness of the jewellers, Jean transported me back to 1948 when she’d been ‘the youngest starlet in the West End’, working with Audrey Hepburn in the musical revues Sauce Tartare and Sauce Piquante.

‘Audrey was the most beautiful girl. She gave me my first pair of fishnets,’ said the lady who still nipped behind the counter serving customers. ‘She and her mother, the Baroness, lived in South Audley Street, which was very, very expensive, and I used to go up to her flat. Although it wasn’t grand, it was posh in comparison to the Tottenham council flat where I came from!’

Seeing my eyes widen into saucers, Jean then reminded me, ‘But none of that – none of that – made any difference whatsoever, because when you’re all together in a show, none of your backgrounds matter. The only thing that matters is your talent – your singing – whether you can do the job.’ Jean may have retired, but greasepaint and professionalism still ran through her veins.

‘We did a show called Christmas Party in the morning, followed that with two performances of Sauce Tartare, and then sang at Ciro’s nightclub. I danced with Walter Pidgeon there. He asked Audrey and me to join his table! We had pink tablecloths, candlelight, romance, a beautiful little band – and a wonderful, wonderful cabaret.’

‘So you did four shows a day?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes,’ she replied, unfazed. ‘By the time I got the twenty-nine bus from Trafalgar Square back to Tottenham, believe it or not, my father would be there, waiting for me, at two o’clock in the morning with his bicycle! I’d sit on the handlebar and he’d take me home. He had to be up again early, but it didn’t mean a thing to him – I was his daughter. I look back and think he did all of that!’

As oblivious customers browsed the shelves, Jean launched into further fascinating memories.

‘Audrey designed me an evening dress – my first ever – and it was made of green satin. I had this long red hair and we were going to the Albert Hall for some function – it must have been at New Year. We all got a £20 salary and she bought two coats with her £20 – two coats for £10 each, from Austin Reed. She bought a black and she bought a grey. And I bought a little plastic handbag. She did not approve and tried to teach me to have a little more taste. I’m afraid my money had to go a little further than coats!

‘She and I shared a dressing room. Marcel LeBon, the male star of the show, was a young Maurice Chevalier-type. He was in love with Audrey. I adored him, but he only ever said to me’ – and here Jean adopted a heavy French accent – ‘“Jean, I love you as a sister. But Aud-e-rey I love as a woman!”’

Before long, this first-hand link to the glorious Golden Age had become a normal part of my life. For the first time ever, I felt I had a friend who truly understood me. And what was more, Jean knew that I understood her.

A few months later I invited Jean to the small family celebrations held for my twenty-first birthday – but her husband David had been growing increasingly ill, and she was hesitant to leave his bedside.

‘Jean,’ he eventually asked her, ‘you remember your twenty-first, don’t you?’

‘Of course, I remember my twenty-first!’ she replied. ‘I was in Blackpool with Morecambe and Wise, and Harry Secombe, and Norman Evans…’

‘Precisely,’ said David. ‘You’ve remembered your twenty-first all your life. Go to Martin’s twenty-first so he can remember his all his life.’

Amongst the intimate handful of guests, my friend Jean surprised and captivated all. Everyone acknowledged the presence of a star – and, just for me, the star sang a silver soprano solo ‘Happy Birthday’.

Indeed – in no small part thanks to Jean – this was my first happy birthday.

A short time later, not long after the Johnsons’ golden wedding anniversary, Jean’s beloved David peacefully passed away. And I shall remember my twenty-first all my life.

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