While the supposedly trend-setting Edinburgh Fringe gets more-and-more Puritan, edging ever closer to insisting that all female performers wear burkas… and this year – in a new move – censoring words like C*ck and Pr*ck from their listings because “our Programme is read by families”, London yesterday paraded up to a thousand real-life cocks, tits and ladies’ pudenda unimagined by the Fringe around the main streets of a sunny capital city thronged with children, tourists, persons of a nervous disposition and, in Piccadilly, three nuns.
It was the annual Naked Bike Ride.
I first met actor Peter Stanford at a Mensa meeting in a basement in Holborn, London. He was working as Henry VIII at Hampton Court and the Tower of London at the time, but had just dipped his toe into comedy – He had rushed on-stage at a comedy club in Kingston, done five minutes on why he hated Agatha Christie and rushed off again without saying hello, goodbye or telling the audience what his name was.
Yesterday afternoon, I met him again in central London, just behind Buckingham Palace, at the Wellington Arch, where Piccadilly meets Park Lane and Hyde Park Corner. Peter was naked and was wearing a crown; he was carrying a small canvas bag which had printed on it The Three Pintos.
“Why are you wearing a crown?” I asked.
“Because I’m Henry the Eighth,” he replied.
“Next week,” he told me, “I should be performing at the National Theatre in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, but they’ve cancelled it again, so it’s going to be September now. I’m going to be Lord Hatamkhan in a play by the wildly famous Azerbaijani playwright Mizra Fatali Akhundov – it’s his bicentenary.
“I did a play written by the current Deputy Minister of Azerbaijan. He booked a whole theatre for his bodyguards and people, just in case there was a coup or someone threw a bomb at him.
“Apparantly I’m reading Dickens to an Azerbaijani audience in a couple of weeks. I saw my name advertised and contacted the director who said he was going to tell me soon.
“As an actor in Britain, I’m mostly type-cast as doctors these days. I was an evil doctor in March and I had these genuine metal obstetric forceps and I strangled our heroine with them. That was in an opera.”
“And how long have you been doing the Naked Bike Ride?” I asked.
“I think it’s my fifth or sixth year. Just for fun. No reason. You shouldn’t have reasons for these things.”
“How did you hear about it?” I asked.
“Somebody said Why aren’t you doing it? So I did the next year. And, of course, I have been naked on Page Three of the Sun and also ‘Image of the Day’ in the Guardian.”
“Of course you have,” I said. “You have? Page Three?”
“It was a mass naked event by Spencer Tunick,” Peter explained.
“How many of you were there?”
“I think about 1,500. It was in Newcastle. During the Mensa Weekend in Newcastle. The one day I was in Newcastle, so I thought These things are meant.”
“And the Guardian?”
“It was the ‘Image of the Day’ – they have a double-page spread. They had a picture of the Naked Bike Ride but I’m right in the front. I thought People who read the Guardian are very good at re-cycling so, on re-cycling day, I crawled round all the bins in my neighbourhood and got ten copies.”
At this point, a naked man with a Prince Philip mask walked past us, dressed only in bow tie and white cuffs.
“You don’t mind being naked?” I asked Peter.
“There’s a great difference,” he explained, “between one person on their own being naked among lots of clothed people and 1,500 people being naked.”
“What if it rains?” I asked.
“You get wet,” Peter replied.
“Human skin is waterproof,” a passer-by chipped in.
“Exhibitionism?” I suggested.
“Mmmm… possibly,” Peter admitted. “All us actors are naked on stage, you know,” he laughed.
“Have you done nudity on stage?”
“This could be your calling card.”
“You get more money if you’re naked on stage,” Peter told me. “There are special Equity rates.”
“You have nude roles planned in the near future?” I asked.
“No,” said Peter. “I’m doing the Dickens bicentenary at the Poetry Cafe and I’ve got a one-man show as James Robertson Justice. I’m still fixing that because the hip young dudes who do comedy have never heard of him and the old folk who liked him don’t go to comedy clubs.”
“You look like him.” I said. “You should think about staging it at the Edinburgh Fringe next year, if the Fringe haven’t banned acting by then. People think James Robertson Justice is Scottish and anything Scots gets bums-on-seats. My mother met him when she was in the RAF during the War. She didn’t like him. He acted like a star and didn’t pay his bills.”
“Yes,” said Peter, “the more I find out about him, the less I like him.”
“Why are you holding a bag which says The Three Pintos?” I asked.
“It’s an opera by Weber,” Peter said, “but someone told me that apparently, somewhere in South America, ‘pinto’ is slang for ‘small genitals’. I’ve asked all the South Americans I know, but none of them could confirm it.”
“You are under-selling yourself,” I said.