A Canadian Christmas in London, 1979

I asked Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, if she had any memories of Christmases past. She sent me this about a time when she was an exotic dancer and comedy performer.


Anna Smith in 1979

Anna Smith in London in 1979

The second time I went to England, on the QE2 liner, was in mid-November 1979. Traveling on the QE2 was cheaper than the plane fare. Ian McKellen was on the ship and he gave a little lecture about acting. He had a Q&A afterwards, but I didn’t ask him anything.

When I arrived, I had £30 pounds in cash and the address of the Nell Gwyn club in Soho, where I stayed for seven years. I worked at the Nell Gwyn/Gargoyle Club and ended up living in a house on Royal College Street in Camden full of actors and strippers and comics and an ape expert (Peter Elliott) but they all went to their parents’ houses for Christmas so I was left alone for my first Christmas in London.

It was unusually snowy that year and I got very ill from running around Soho taking my clothes off in different clubs.

So I relaxed in bed. I don’t recall quite which bed, but likely it was the ape man’s, since he probably was the only one who could afford a television.

He used to lie in bed and get woken up by calls from his agent for auditions or odd jobs like teaching Romanian child acrobats to imitate chimpanzees. One time his agent called and asked if he wanted to go to Canada, to work on a film called Quest for Fire. He was an actor and ape expert… Still is. Any British movie about apes for the last forty years, he’s been in or consulted on it.

The first time I met him, he had just returned from Birmingham with a huge white bandage on one of his fingers. A female chimpanzee had tried to rape him.

Ian Hinchliffe in the 1980s

Comedy legend Ian Hinchliffe ate glass but was not an acrobat

I think he was from an acrobat family…. Do they have many of those in Yorkshire?  Who knows?

But Yorkshire produced Ian Hinchliffe who was no acrobat, though he did perform tricks with broken glass.

Anyway, Peter Elliott, the ape expert, was a Desmond Morris fanatic; he advised me to read The Naked Ape and was not mean to me about being an ignorant Canadian.

One lady who lived in that house was very aloof about me and she was always pointing out how inferior people from the Colonies were. One time we were both heading into central London at the same time. I don’t know where she was off to but I was on my way to work and a bit late. It was very snowy and when I saw our bus rushing towards us I flagged it as if it was a taxi, even though we were not at a bus stop. She looked appalled and said sternly: “This is London – We don’t flag the bus here!”

But the bus stopped right in front of us and we both got onto it.

Really, I never have had any problems flagging a bus. One time I did it during a sandstorm in Sydney. Because of the storm I was the only passenger, so the driver took me all the way home. I think he had just finished his shift.

As for that lady who was so mean and had not appreciated that I had flagged the bus for her so, when she went out of town, I slept with her boyfriend who did not seem to think I was inferior at all.

Anyhow, I had an interesting Christmas alone in that tall four story townhouse. in Royal College Street.

I did not have much food, but I enjoyed watching television because there were so many talk shows, though I did not know who any of the guests were or have any idea what they were talking about. It was all very interesting because I was trying to figure out stuff like Why is Esther Rantzen so important to British people?

Tony Green, aka Sir Gideon Vein, c 1983/1884

Tony Green, aka Sir Gideon Vein, in a London graveyard c1984

I phoned my mother in Vancouver to tell her I was fine in London making friends with lots of fantastic strippers and nice men who were ape impersonators or who wrote poetry about their glasses (John Hegley) with friends who pretended they were dead (Tony Green) and who wrote songs about stomping on their cats (Tony De Meur). Also there was a very nice gay actor who had sex with a woman once because he was very professional and said he wanted to know what it felt like in case it ever came up at an audition.

We were all very responsible and only one of the men had ever got a woman pregnant (a comedian who is now a big Name).

I did not mention to my mother the man from British Telecom who somehow had ended up at our parties, because he was a bit older and I did not want her to worry.

Anna Smith impersonates an Englishwoman in London in 1984. She borrowed the cat

Anna Smith impersonates an Englishwoman in London in 1984… She had to borrow the cat

“Thank God you’re alright,” my mother had told me. “I was so worried when I didn’t hear from you for a month.”

Then she told me she had phoned Scotland Yard to ask them to look for me. Scotland Yard told my mother that hundreds of girls disappear in London every day so not to call them for another six months.

I stayed for seven years in London.

I had to keep leaving to go dance in Belgium because of UK visa restrictions.

I was constantly in trouble over my work permit in Belgium and eventually I had up go to a Belgian doctor in London’s Harley Street to get my vaccines updated and a certificate saying I was mentally fit to strip in Belgium.

Once in Brussels, we had to sign elaborate contracts in quadruplicate in French and Flemish which had hundreds of items including that if we were performing trapeze or with wild animals we were responsible for obtaining our own insurance.

1 Comment

Filed under Christmas, London, Nostalgia

One response to “A Canadian Christmas in London, 1979

  1. Owen Morgan

    I was 10 in the Christmas of ’79- I remember getting a huge stack of presents which included the ‘Mouse Trap’ game (then new on the market). Was disappointed that there was no snow, but I do remember it being sunny and very cold. We’d just adopted our new dog Jackson, he was still a puppy- lived on till he was 17, one of my greatest and most treasured friends, I still grieve for him 16 years on.
    We spent the New Year at my paternal grandparent’s place in the Cynon Valley- I recall on New Year’s Eve that ‘The Good Old Days’ was on TV just before midnight, just before Big Ben chimed the actress Penelope Keith led a toast ‘not just to a new year, but to a new decade’, and all the chorus line of men on the show dressed up in Edwardian boaters taking off the hats and cheering. Still have that old telly, a Murphy, huge thing- doesn’t work any more but still extant. I knew little about the state of the world, only that Maggie Thatcher was our new PM and about the Iranian Hostage Crisis- still less about the atom bomb and the dangerous developments that were to unfold in the first half of the ‘new decade’….

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