B.O.G was a rather unfortunate acronym for a group of 'strolling
entertainers' known collectively as Be Our Guest.
The remit of the group was to travel around various old folks' homes,
hospitals, care centres etc. and put on a show for people that were
otherwise unable (or in some cases, not allowed) to get out and
I don't recall exactly how I got roped into it - I have a feeling
it was through the work I'd done with an amateur dramatics group,
namely playing in the small pit orchestra - but I managed to persuade
a few of my musician friends to sign up as well, and together we
formed a small 'dixieland' band.
The group itself was composed of a curiously eclectic bunch.
The two women who ran it were, I was convinced in my somewhat naive
teenage years, rather fond of each other - and one or both of them
seemed to have a penchant for dressing up as a man whenever the
opportunity presented itself.
The rest of the group comprised a varying number of people who performed
assorted acts - and all to the accompaniment of a piano, played
by a woman who couldn't have been less than 90 years old if she
was a day and known to us only as 'Fingers'. If I had to pick one
word to describe her I think it would be 'curmudgeonly', and yet
it always seemed to me that she had more than a remnant of a twinkle
in her eyes.
My first job on joining the group was to put together a suitable
repertoire. My father came to my aid and took me 'up west' to Soho
to find a shop called Brons. It was always an adventure going to
Brons - not just for the shop itself but for the thrill of walking
through the back streets of Soho. Peering into the shop windows
was an education in itself. One shop had a huge range of sausages
and salamis that dangled temptingly in the window. Another shop
had a similar display - only they weren't sausages, and they were
rather less tempting, for me anyway.
I suppose if I had to sum up the heady mix of glamour, showbusiness,
seediness, cusine and curiosity that comprised the area I don't
think I could do much better than comparing it to a stretch pink
Cadillac, with a lobster on the back seat - wearing a bra.
Brons itself was cramped, but packed to the gills with sheet music
and arrangements. A great deal of the stock was old though, and
consisted of just about every 'Jimmy Lally' arrangement going. If
you're none too familiar with Jimmy Lally then I can tell you that
it was the brand name for a series of band arrangements that were
very popular with function bands round about the turn of the 50's.
The beauty of the arrangements was that they were simple, and the
catalogue vast - but by the same token they were also bloody awful.
You could take a soft, romantic ballad - such as 'The nearness of
you' - and turn it into an almost funereal dirge with a Lally arrangement
(and we did, regularly), but they were cheap and readily available
and tended to scale down well if you didn't have the luxury of a
What I needed for this venture was a collection of old 'cheery-up'
songs, and rather ironically it turned out that the most popular
tunes in this category came from the WWII period. Nothing was more
guaranteed to raise a smile than songs like 'Pack up your troubles
in your old kit bag' and 'Hang out the washing on the Siegfried
Funny really, you'd have thought that as the old folks sat there
in the last few years of their lives the very last thing they'd
want to be reminded of was a dirty great war.
But, the public gets what the public wants - so wartime dixieland
It always left me wondering what I'm going to listen to in my dotage.
Assuming I make it to a ripe old age, and assuming someone feels
inclined to stuff me into an old folks' home, I think it's going
to rather odd listening to an entertainer trying to play singalong
hits from my era. Can't really see me singing along to classics
of my childhood like 'Eton Rifles' and 'Down in the tube station
at midnight'. I'd give it a go though.
My father reckoned that image was important, and rather than just
stand on stage with a half-dozen rusty wire music stands he suggested
that we drape some glitzy fabric over the stands, and perhaps tuck
it in a tad at the middle to give it a bit of shape. It was simple
but effective idea, but it turned out to have a rather unexpected
We'd been using the stands for some time when someone showed us
a photo taken of us on a gig.
There we all were, standing on the stage blowing our little hearts
out behind our decorated music stands. Regrettably, all you could
see of us were our heads. That in itself wasn't so bad - what WAS
bad was that the heads appearing over the floor-length shiny fabric
made it look like we were all wearing cocktail dresses! Even worse,
the trombonist tended to have his stand set quite high, so the fabric
hung a good eight inches or so off the floor - and there at the
bottom of the 'dress' was a pair of hobnail boots.
It was common to find that the show changed from one performance
to the next as members came and went.
I must have had my head half screwed on as I'd managed to avoid
agreeing to the band turning up for weekly rehearsals. I probably
told them we were happier rehearsing by ourselves rather than sitting
around in a church hall waiting for other people to run through
This meant that we'd miss the introduction of new acts, but at least
it gave us something interesting to watch on the evening of a performance.
It did, however, throw up one amusing incident.
We were playing a large hall with a good sized stage, and even had
the luxury of a couple of changing rooms behind the stage.
For reasons which I never fully established, the group wasn't really
a 'beer and crisps' setup - rather, we tended to find tea and sandwiches
provided for 'refreshments' - and so we duly commandeered a changing
room and set about scoffing the sarnies before our trombonist (he
of the hobnail boots) made a late entrance.
When he eventually arrived he made straight for the changing room,
but picked the wrong one.
All we heard was a sort of strangled shriek...a cross between an
'aggh' and an 'eeek'.
Of course, we piled out en masse - just as he piled in shouting
"There's a geezer in there wearing a dress!!".
It turned out that the newest recruit to the ensemble was a drag
I like to think he was a drag act in the very traditional sense
- i.e. he was quite a burly, grizzly even, chap and not at all the
type you'd imagine donning a dress in his spare time.
Naturally we were all curious, so we rather rudely gatecrashed his
dressing room and pestered him with all sorts of stupid questions.
Turns out that he worked as a security guard - and when the bone
player asked him, quite reasonably I thought, what he'd do if anyone
tried to rob him, he said, in a slightly camp voice "I'd give
'em the money ducky, and run like buggery".
There's clearly a kind of magic about showbusiness, because up close
he looked like Betty Grable's dog chewing a wasp - but on stage,
under the glow of a couple of weakly tinted spotlamps he actually
looked OK...provided you were 90 odd, and had dodgy eyesight, and
sat at the back of the hall.
Old 'Fingers' used to make us laugh. A great many of the gigs were
played to the elderly, in some cases geriatrics even - and yet it
always seemed to us that she was older than anyone we ever entertained.
I remember standing next to her outside a geriatric ward in a hospital,
waiting for our turn to go on. She stood up on tip-toe and peered
through the glass porthole window in the door. Most of the audience
were in beds, moved into the day room for the show. Some were in
large reclining chairs - but none stood, or sat in plain chairs.
Hardly any of them were moving. She had a look round, and then said
"Look at 'em, lazy bleeders".
I think Fingers' dour outlook was due in part to the awful pianos
she had to wrestle with. Unlike the rest of the troupe, who brought
their own kit with them or didn't need any, she was at the mercy
of whatever passed for a piano at the venue. It wasn't uncommon
to see her diving into the interior of a piano armed only with a
screwdriver and a pair of pliers - after which she would often shout
out something like "We'll have to go up a tone - I got no D".
Sometimes the pianos gave up on her mid-way through the show.
On one such occasion I was standing right beside the piano when
it expired with a sickening crunching sound. A quick examination
found several fag packets (all empty, she told me later - I knew
she'd check) had been dumped in the interior and some had worked
their way down into the action, there to lodge amongst the various
rods and levers.
It was clear that there would be some delay while Fingers attempted
a repair - and it was as this was being announced that I noticed
an old lady fairly belting down the hall in her wheelchair. She
reached the front, practically did a handbrake turn as she came
to a halt, and promptly broke into what was obviously her party
piece. I say 'obviously' because no sooner had she reached the front
of the hall than I heard an old lady in the audience say "Oh
God, here she goes again".
Her party piece was what I call a 'drone poem'. I guess there's
a proper 'folkie' term for it, but in essence it consists of a solo
voice half singing, half reciting a lengthy poem - and at the end
of each verse there's a sort of tonic-note 'Nyaaaaaaaaaaaaa'.
Like all the best examples of the genre, this one consisted of plenty
of references to Lords, Masters, Maidens and flowers who variously
bequeathed, beget, betrayed and (I'm almost certain) be-bop-a-lula'd
their way through the odyssey.
To be fair, it was pretty entertaining...for the first five minutes
The second five minutes paled somewhat (Nyaaaaaaaaaaa).
The third five minutes was frankly irritating, and also it was becoming
evident that she was making it up as she went along because the
lyrics were become ever more incomprehensible with each verse (Nyaaaaaaaaaaa).
I began to see why the lady in the audience had groaned - and indeed,
most of them had started talking amongst themselves. There was even
a small group in the corner who were singing "The gang that
sang heart of my heart" in a vaguely defiant sort of fashion.
All of this was punctuated by an occasional "Bugger!"
and "Arse!" from the direction of the now half dismantled
The staff at the venue didn't seem to be able to stop the woman
from chanting. They seemed rather timid really - probably volunteers,
trying desperately not to offend anyone - and it was quite fascinating
to watch them trying to get a word in edgeways between the end of
each verse and the start of the next. They'd get halfway through
a pitiable appeal and then find themselves brutally cut off with
a rasping 'Nyaaaaaaaaa'.
The situation was brought to a swift end by a gentleman in a blue
lab coat who, judging by his square-set jaw and steely gaze, looked
like one of the senior staff. He'd clearly dealt with this sort
of thing before, because he marched up to the chanteuse, grabbed
the wheelchair by its handles and whisked it out of the hall - none
of which stopped the woman from her now unintelligible chanting.
There was one last poignant 'Nyaaaaaaaa' that faded away as the
wheelchair headed off down the corridor, and then an almost audible
sigh of relief from the audience.
But my fondest memory of my time with B.O.G comes from a show we
did at a mental institution.
It was often difficult to play some of these gigs - a great many
of the audience were either very old or really rather ill (at the
gig in the geriatric hospital they wheeled at least two patients
out...and they didn't bring them back). As with any showbiz venture,
accidents were bound to happen, and sometimes it was hard to know
whether to laugh or maintain a respectful demeanour. Sometimes though
you just had no choice.
We'd had a bit of a briefing by a staff nurse - the patients that
were allowed to see the show were 'quite safe' (that bit worried
me a little), but we had to be careful not to react badly to anything
'unexpected'. We weren't too sure what this meant - but we found
out soon enough when one of the patients somehow managed to grab
the trombonist's instrument while we were at the bar in the main
hall grabbing a swifty before the show.
It was quite an unnerving sight to see a rather large chap, clearly
not terribly in control of his faculties, wielding half a grand's
worth of brass instrument. The trombonist intervened in a flash
- and only just in time - the chap had grabbed the bone by the slides
and looked as though he was about to pull them apart.
I guess that's what the nurse meant by unexpected.
I noticed too that quite a few of the patients were wearing crash
We pondered as to why this might be, and the best we could come
up with was that they weren't that good at remembering to open doors.
As it turned out, we were wrong.
We'd been given the opening slot in the show, and as it wasn't an
'oldies' crowd we'd decided to eschew the singalong stuff in favour
of a set of rousing dixieland numbers - the first of which was to
be "Bye-Bye Blackbird". The lights dimmed, we took up
our positions on stage with me in front for the solo spot, the curtains
rolled back, the spots broke into life and we kicked off with gusto.
We'd barely got a few bars in when one of the helmeted punters
took a dive. He simply pitched forward in his seat...and didn't
There was a distinct 'Bonk' as the crash helmet hit the deck.
I was completely taken aback - and then another punter took a dive,
and another, and yet another.
I watched in astonishment as punters fell this way and that, left
and right, back and front - and each fall came with a loud 'Bonk'.
We could all see what was going on, and by now the guys in the
band were cracking up - notes were dying on their arse all around
as the trumpet and bone players made sounds like a cow farting into
I was desperately trying to carry on playing whilst trying not to
laugh, and I was juuuust about holding it all together- and then
the drummer shouts "F*** me, he's killin' 'em!"
A few seconds later and he's the only bugger still playing.
I found out later that these punters suffered from a form of epilepsy
- when they get excited, they take a tumble. The nurse reckoned
they were enjoying themselves!