Back in England I was on tour one time with Marti Caine, one of the most popular comics of her generation. Alas, now telling gags at the great microphone in the sky. She was tall and slim, gawky and funny. When she spoke it was a gentle northern drawl, smokey velvet.
Her humor was mildly self-deprecating, but behind it was the steel will that folk mostly conceal when they’ve risen entirely by their own efforts, and then seized that precious moment when preparation meets television exposure to millions, and leads on to fortune.
In Marti’s case it meant a blue Rolls Royce.
She was beautifully generous both on stage and off. Once I saw her hand over about a couple of thousand quids’ worth of scarcely worn designer clothing to a single mother with a teenage daughter, who was in our cast. She did it gracefully, insisting they were doing her a favor by freeing up closet space.
I was a twenty-something actor who’d stumbled into a commercial tour of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s funniest plays, ‘Season’s Greetings’ – that’s the one about a family reunion at Christmas where everything goes horribly, horribly wrong.
The late, great Bill Frazer was in the cast too. A magically funny veteran, built like a Walrus, he could bark a line, and it was like a direct command to the audience – “Laugh! Laugh some more … now give me a round of applause.”
The show toured up and down the length of England, and Marti let me ride in the Roller with her. She told me stories about the “Workies” – the Working Mens’ Clubs where she’d learnt her craft… “Once I told a joke that offended a table at the front. It was pint pots down, folded arms, and I saw the disapproval ripple across the hall. Someone called out, ‘Right lass, I think we’ve had enough.’ But I stayed out there and I told every joke I knew. To complete silence.”
“How did that feel?” I asked.
“I felt skinned” she said.
We were coming down the M1 motorway, heading back to London for the week-end after the Saturday night show in Hull. Somewhere after midnight, somewhere between Sheffield and Coventry, we went into a service station. The place was bleakly lit, empty except for a lone night attendant behind the counter, ready to dispense over-crispy bacon and rubberized eggs that had sat too long under warming lamps.
“Now I’ll let you into a secret,” Marti said, as we went in. “I am Queen of the Universe, and I come from the planet Television. Sometimes they recognize me. If they do, there’s only one thing to do. Look them straight in the eye, and say, ‘Do you sell knicker elastic?’”
Sure enough, as we collected some chemical beverage, laughingly called coffee, the lone guy sputtered, “It’s … it is, isn’t it … you are …?”
Marti turned to me, “You see?” her face the picture of what it’s like to be Queen of the Universe, and have to deal with this recognition from time to time.
“Do you sell knicker elastic?” said the Queen of the Universe.
It seemed to do the trick. The guy stuttered and spluttered, then he saw the funny side of the question and began laughing. The laughing grew and took hold of him, it shook his frame. Finally he managed to say, “…Er … no.”
The Queen followed it up. “Would you consider selling it in the future?” she asked mildly.
The guy was a mess.