AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEX MUNRO - SEPTEMBER 22ND, 1974.
The sea off the pier is a surly grey and the sleepless gulls swing crying against the towers of the Grand Hotel. The mountains, the sky, the promenade are grey and wet as Alex Munro stands outside the Pier Pavilion, calling people to ‘Startime’. “Seats available tonight - seats available. Lucky programme. Seats available inside.”
“Seats available, lucky programme tonight. Ah – good evening ladies. Have you been to the show before? Well, come inside: there’s no reason why you shouldn’t suffer like all the rest.”
Alex Munro wears a bow-tie, a white shirt-front and flowing white handkerchief; on the side of his head he wears a small trilby hat. He has little legs and dancing feet, and tips his hat when he speaks, or waltzes sidelong across the lighted stair, clapping his hands together.
He lifts his voice above the bumping of the Ghost Train next door.
“Seats available inside. Good evening ladies. Good evening to you, Sir.” “Where were you from, now?”
He claps his hands. “Leicester!”
The man, who carried a raincoat clutched his elbow and murmured confidentially, “Home of the RAF.”
“Good evening ladies, Good evening, Madam, take your time now. Give us your hand. There’s no more steps after this. Seats available inside.”
Pushed among the strolling crowd comes a figure in a wheelchair, which stops in front of the Pavilion, beside the sea wall. He trips down towards it, through the strolling, different crowd. In the wheelchair sits a clergyman in a beret and slippers, so old he seems to weep as if terribly touched; and in this way, somehow, the clergyman contrives to smile.
“We’re going down to see the boat come in.” his daughter said.
“Good luck to you Reverend, anyway. It was grand when you came in and saw the show.”
“He liked the chocolates you gave him, anyway.”
“Thank you Sir Alex,” the white lips trembled.
“Sir Alex? Why do you call me that Reverend?”
The lips moved again with the ghost of a joke.
“It’s your title.”
Llandudno and the summer season were created as one. The town sprang fully-terraced from the Great Orme rock, the pier followed quickly, in 1876, incorporating the Grand Hotel’s teutonic fancies. All flourished by ministering to the great age of lower-class gentility – this was the resort chosen by Denry Machin for the wooing of Ruth Earp as ‘more stylish than Rhyl or Blackpool, and not dearer’. It thronged, in its heyday, with arch and aspiring promenaders, for the diversion of whom large theatres and concert-halls were erected along the North Wales coast.
That season is prolonged, for the gentility of Llandudno is miraculously prolonged. Its lofty boarding-houses offer a fastidious welcome, debating between themselves whether it is more prestigious to display in the parlour-window a card which says ‘Vacancies’ or a card which says ‘No Vacancies’. By an ancient ordinance, the long promenade flowing to the pier is kept free of all importuning or trading; from everything save intelligence of high water and the thrice-daily performance of ‘Professor Codman’s Wooden Headed Follies’. At night, the proletarian glow of Colwyn Bay may shine to the east around the Little Orme. Here a simpler communion prevails, between people seated under civic trees, people seated in deck chairs high and low, and the auditorium of the sea, from which a stiff wind blows.
In cutaway coat and silver tie, he trips beside the wet headland along the slippery boards of the pier. The great white gulls descent upon the rail and remain there, arrogant yet abstracted, as he passes by.
He lifts his trilby. He bows.
“Good morning ladies. Now have you been to see the show yet?” “Yes. Yes.” “And did you enjoy it?” “Yes. Very nice.” “Well, come again. I need the money.” “Oh well,” the ladies laughed, “we’ll give you three-halfpence.”
Alex Munro presents his ‘Startime’ in the Pier Pavilion from May to October, each night of the week excepting Sunday. Each afternoon excepting Saturday he presents another show in Happy Valley, an open-air theatre on the slopes of the Great Orme. His face, its trilby aslant, is to be seen all over town; it shines from handbill and hoarding; it hangs by coloured string in chip shops and gift-shops; it decorates the rear panels of the showman’s own mini-bus strategically parked on the road above the Grand Hotel. It promises ‘George Cormack and Irene Sharp, Scotland’s International Singing Stars’, ‘Benny Garcia, Television’s Dynamic Entertainer', ‘Billy Crockett, the Mad Musician from London’s Albert Hall’. It vouchsafes ‘melodious melodies, glamorous girls, clean comedy’ but, above all, the abundant personality of the man who is both star and licensee.
“I’m the last of what you call the old-time real showmen – there’s not many left like me. Do you want a piece of fudge? It’s just some fudge a lady handed up to me the other night; just a bit of fudge she’d made herself. She’s been in to the show two or three times. Because I present a family show. A real family show – no blue jokes; I don’t allow a ‘hell’ or a ‘damn’. And oh, they love it! Oh, they love it no end! Oh, they love it to death!”
John Morava (centre) and the Pier Orchestra in the 1950s.
This (1974) is his last season in Llandudno after 38 years of morning and evening concerts.
This (1974) is his last season in Llandudno after 38 years of morning and evening concerts.
He has his competitors, nonetheless. There is still a repertory company in Llandudno, at the Grand on Mostyn Broadway, presenting it’s sequence of thrillers and comedies and comedy thrillers in a theatre founded by Irving. Until this summer there was a pier-orchestra, led by the elegant John Morava. At the other end of the promenade there is the Arcadia, a music-hall built in expectation of a second pier that never came. The arcadia presents a variety show of the same type as Alex, on the same nights of the week throughout the same protracted season. This rival show is called, not ‘Startime’ but ‘Showtime’.
‘Startime’ and ‘Showtime’ do not go in for big names. Their purpose, rather, is to appeal to people’s fondness, on holiday as everywhere, for regularity and routine. Each show advertises three changes of programme. Since the guest houses traditionally book from Saturday to Saturday – an arrangement suited to nobody but the guest houses – it is possible, during one week in Llandudno, to attend three different versions of ‘Startime’, or of ‘Showtime’. On Sundays, when the town is dry, there are orchestral concerts and occasional outbreaks of hymn-singing. Only Saturdays are curiously deserted and dull.
“I’m not a young man, but I can still stand on my hands.” He stood on his hands there and then, and his keys and lighter fell out of his waistcoat. His hat remained, however, on the side of his head.
“I used to be a professional acrobat. I was what they called top man. My brother and me, we were the Horsburgh Brothers; perch-acts they used to call ‘em. I’d be doing a handstand on top of the ladder on the other man’s shoulders. Oh it was a class act. We walked on in evening-dress with the orchestra playing ‘dee-dee o’clock in the morning’, and we played in front of Hitler in Germany. ‘Scottish Phlegmatics’ they called us there. Now, see, i’m really safe as top man. They’re not going to let me fall ‘cause if I damage mysel’, the whole act’s gone; but if I think they’re going to let me fall, I’m going to be cheery up there."
“I’ve been married, you know, a few times. Ssh!” he guffawed, looking at his young wife Marie in the box-office. “Ssh!, she’s looking; she knows what we’re saying.” He clapped his hands. “Five!"
“I do everything myself, you know, here, right down to the sweeping. If I want a packet of nails I’ve got to buy it myself’ because the Council don’t do anything here you know.” (His rival, the Arcadia, is Council-owned.) “I was up a ladder round here the other day and someone calls to me ‘Alex, you shouldn’t be up there’. I think to myself, ‘that’s right, I shouldn’t, i’m an old man.’ Then I thought, ‘well why shouldn’t I? If you haven’t got the confidence in yourself, where are you?’ This is a 2500-seater you know. Before I came here with a show, it died the death. It used to be a picture-house.”
He looked into his theatre. A small light burned in the orchestra pit. The stall seats, in their semi-circular expanse, were quiet, and the balcony seats piled up to the reassurance of the topmost exits. Under the dress-circle hangs a yellow screen. Behind the screen are further seats: as many unseen as exhibited, the linked iron and plush ascending, step by step, to a forgotten back row rounded like a stern of a ship. There are seats even beyond this, hidden through a wall of curtain; in alcoves and posterns and select little boxes, in threes and fives and twos and eights and fours, there are ‘seats available’.
The partnership between Alex Munro and Billy Crockett the Mad Musician has continued intermittently for 20 years since they met on the same bill at the Empire, Oldham. Alex summoned Billy this summer from Durban, where he was appearing in an ice-show.
The Mad Musician in private is small and circular and gentle. His dressing-room at the Pier Pavilion is filled with the music-props from his act: a miniature saxophone, some tiny harmonicas which he plays on his finger-ends, his makeup in cigar-boxes, sleighbells of varying pitches, and the bagpipes used, at the conclusion of his performance, to bow up a balloon.
He carries his life all in one suitcase. “I buy everything as I go along. Then I never have to wake up and think ‘what am I going to wear today?’ because i’ve only got two suits to choose from.”
Billy has no wife now. His daughter is married, and he wants to buy a piece of ground near Edinburgh for her to start a riding-school. “That’s the only trouble – you get so bored in these places where you happen to be. I’ve often read the paper my fish and chips are wrapped in,” Billy said, “or i’ll take the newspaper out of the drawers in the bedroom and read that.”
Alex holds court in the Stage Door café next to the Pavilion, where the sugar comes in a metal pudding basin and the girl behind the tea urns has purple wounds on her eye and cheek, having been set on and beaten by girls from Liverpool.
Billy is there, and Eddie Read the banjo-man and Benny Garcia, ‘Television’s Dynamic Entertainer’. Benny wears a blazer and plastic raincoat, and somewhat morosely, scans the Radio Times and TV Times for news from the front line of his profession. “I’d love to sleep late,” he said, “but I have to be up for nine where i’m staying or I miss breakfast.”
“They’re all getting good money,” Alex said as if these members of his company were not present. “Billy Crockett: class act, you know,” he murmured. “And it’s 22 weeks’ work” He guffawed. “Long as they can go without eating.”
“He pays you in electricity,” Billy Crockett said “The wages give you a shock.”
Eddie Read noted this down in the book where he notes down jokes that he hears.
“No, I pay them what they want,” Alex said. “I don’t try beat any of them down. Benny did I try beat you down?”
“Only a fiver,” Benny said; then he relented: “No.”
“And I won’t allow any blue jokes,” Alex said. “I won’t allow a ‘hell’ or ‘damn’. I can be in real trouble, mind you, when people come up on stage out of the audience, I tell them ‘No blue jokes now, this is a family show’’, then they go up to mike and they start, ‘I was sitting in the lavatory the other day…’ Oh my God!” He covered his eyes at the thought of these scatological time-bombs.
“And I do a thing with three men out of the audience and a gag with a basin, bowl and jug – I can be in real trouble there as well. Some of them make the most horrible overtures, you know, with that jug.”
A woman sitting at the next table turned to him and said “You must have been up in Happy Valley for about 15 years now, haven’t you? Before they used to have The Great Waldini up there.”
“That’s right. His name was Walley Bishop, the Great Waldini. I was following a legend. For the first three years I came they said to me ‘Scotchman go home’.”
“It must be 15 years,” the woman said, “because our Christine had a prize off him – she was eight then, she’s 23 now – she sang and our Philip played a musical instrument and they both got a prize.”
“Have you seen the show yet?”
“Yes – thoroughly enjoyed it. I cried for you last year,” the woman said, “when we heard about your Janet. You’d told us she was going to be in a film and we looked out for it. I cried for you when I heard. Tragedy, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Alex said.
When Sal Thomas announced her intention of leaving The Alexandra, the pub where she was barmaid, in order to start a café, her employer refused to give her, her cards, so certain was the employer she would soon be back. In Llandudno, as along all the edges of the sea, people are always trying to start cafes. The failures stand numerous in every coastal town, as lonely and dank as mines after the gold-rush, though crowded still with customers who are the last to be informed of the disaster.
Sal Thomas started with the Floral Café, at the far end of the promenade in Craig-y-Don. Nowadays the Floral does scampi with its chips and has a little wooden bar with coloured bulbs in which, to serve the eccentric whim of Sal’s customers, can be obtained wine and Merrydown and mead and sometimes tequila.
A couple of streets away is the Grand Theatre. They say the Grand was built by Irving; and certainly Irving would be upset now to see the coldness of its galleries and vestibules, the incipient disintegration of its ravishing oval ceiling. Though the Grand backs right against the prosperous Arcadia, somehow, from the town, and its elegant verandahs look out on a piece of waste ground where sailing dinghies lie.
Each night after the play, in which they have to wear their own clothes, the Grand company go along to Sal’s. From Sal they receive the large gins which restore spirit and the baskets of chips which strengthen the resolve. Later, Sal puts the bolts on the café door and looks at photographs of other repertory actors she has boarded, with her two big, curly dogs, newly bathed, under her legs.
“That was Cathy Greenwood. She used to stand in her slip and wash panties in the kitchen while my mother was sat there, buttering bread. That was a boy called Michael Taylor. He used to go into the bathroom every morning, open the little window and shout ‘up periscope!’ ‘Divine morning’, he used to say, ‘what have you got for breakfast Sal darling?’ And nobody could make his bed as well as he could, as if it hadn’t been slept in for a week, and his pyjamas all folded beautifully along the crease."
“I always had the ambition to travel,” Sal said. “I couldn’t do, but I sometimes think that all the interesting people I dreamed of meeting have come here to see me.”
Her husband returned from his nightly bingo game and hung up his coat in the passage. Sal courteously inquired if he had won. He replied that he had.
The North Wales summer varies to the point of playfulness. It can be raining along the shore yet clear at the top of the Orme; while it keeps fine on the promenade, a deluge may fall upon the deck-chairs of the Happy Valley. It is not uncommon for Alex to move his show down to the Pier Pavilion, and then up into the open-air again, in the course of a single matinee. But this afternoon it seems as if it ought to keep fine. The sky is like a blue quilt with old grey clothes thrown over it. Slowly, in the little turf amphitheatre, the pink-and-white deck chairs are covered by people with raincoats covering their knees. The cable-cars pass quietly overhead to the top of the Orme. On the hill outside the wire perimeter, a second, non-paying crowd has also gathered.
Alex has a special and private love for Happy Valley, In 15 years he has lavished time and attention on it, increasing the lawn around the stone terraces, whitening the stones along the flowerbed, planting the purple flowers with the name which is uncertain. From the stage painted like the deck of a ship he can see the place where the plants grow irregularly despite their daily watering; he can see the slim, new plants which the water has encouraged. He feels that, perhaps the spirit of The Great Waldini has been exorcised. When he is dead, people will say ‘Alex Munro did that’, looking at the grass, the whitened stones, the purple flowers, the name of which he cannot recall.
He places a box against the microphone for the use of competitors in the Junior Talent Contest who now stand, in irregular sizes, behind him. While the Junior Talent Contest is in progress, he jumps from the stage to ascertain that all is well with his wife Marie in the box-office. He dispatches two teenage assistants with collecting-boxes to ‘bottle’: to extract donations from the unofficial audience on the hill. Returning to the stage, he pretends, on a drum roll to fall on his nose. He picks himself up to direct some late arrivals into the mass of deck-chairs that are not yet occupied.
The Junior Talent Contest is still, somewhat inexorably, proceeding. A boy steps up on the box and delivers into the microphone a Tarzan yell of surprising brevity and force. Now there is a girl who does acrobatics. There is always a girl who does acrobatics. The professional acrobat is stirred. He snatches off his dinner-coat. He lies, in shirtsleeves and trilby, on the stage; she does a handstand on his arms.
“It’s wonderful to see Alex on the stage again,” said Mr Owen of the Advertiser. “We thought he was a goner last year, you know, after Janet died. He was unconscious for two days.”
He and Marie live in rather a large house in a rather select part of Llandudno. Billy Crockett has a flatlet in the next street. “Billy came round Sunday night,” Marie said. “He brought his own television with him so that he wouldn’t interfere with our programme. He said he didn’t want to be any trouble to us, so he brought his own tea-bag with him.”
In the lounge hangs a portrait of a girl with a strangely familiar face. Anna-Marie, their daughter, smiled and looked at her shoes. “That’s Janet,” she murmured.
When the evening show in the Pavilion is over, the lights go on and the performers come down from the stage. The drum-kit can be looked at, and the music-sheets on the 1931 Hammond organ. The artists and audience stand in groups along the stage as if they are discussing some topic of quiet mutual interest.
Alex stands in the foyer, at the bottom of the stairs, whither his last exit from the stage has taken him. Just as he greeted them when they came in, he says goodbye to them as they go out. They walk, arm-in-arm towards the darkened promenade. A thrill of silver light has been caught in a spectacle-frame. And a man has taken his wife’s fingers and stroked them with his own.
He shakes the last hand and scribbles the last autograph. He draws the heavy wooden door across the front of the Pier Pavilion and bolts it. “This is my last job tonight.” He goes into the empty auditorium. Behind the screen there are more seats and behind those, still more seats. He checks between the rows for the cigarette spark which could destroy all 2500 seats. “This is my last job tonight.”
In the dressing-room, with the Chelsea pensioner coat on the wall and the sea air coming in through the extractor, he splashes his face at the sink and dries it. He exchanges his evening trousers for another pair of evening trousers and his shiny patent shoes for some shoes which do not shine. He puts his trilby back on his head, fitting it perkily at the side.
His daughter was the film star Janet Munro. She started her career in Alex’s shows, sweeping up, singing and tearing tickets. She went to Hollywood and became a star for Walt Disney. She grew famous and fashionably-married; it was of her fame and fashionable marriage that, two years ago, she died. Her loss explains many small things in him. It explains his abhorrent of sleeping-pills; his refusal of all drink but apple-juice; the photo-albums at which, even now, he can scarcely bring himself to look. Five weeks before she died, she had come back to Llandudno and was sweeping up after the show.
Outside, the pier is all in lights, in braids and strings and archways of light trembling on the rainy sea. The lights along the promenade are out. He picks up some glasses and bottles left on the sea wall and carries them back to the Pavilion steps. “This is my last job tonight”.
“I’ve never believed in all that Bible stuff- ‘it’s more blessed to give than receive’, i’ve always thought that was a fallacy. But i’ve come to find out lately that it’s true. It is more blessed to give than receive.”
“Don’t you think it’s a shame that, when i’m gone there’ll be no one left doing my type of show? A simple man with a simple show. And oh, they love it. Oh, they love it no end. Oh, they love it to death.”
“Seats available - seats available inside.” “Seats available now. Lucky Programme.”
Alex and Billy under the next dark evening sky are calling the people to ‘Showtime’.
“Seats available. Good evening ladies. Have you been to the show yet? Well come inside: there’s no reason why you shouldn’t suffer like all the rest.”
“Seats available. Give me your hand, dear. Take your time now.”
“I’ve thought I was going to be late,” the lady said.
“No, you’re alright. Plenty of time yet,” Billy said.
“And anyway, you knew we wouldn’t start without you.”
(c) THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE
All photos remain the copyright of their respective owners.