Yesterday, I had tea with Charmian Hughes at the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh.
It is twenty years since she last performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.
“Last time I was here,” she told me, “I got a review on an airline magazine that someone saw six months later; I’ve never seen it myself.”
The show was called Greyfriars Bobby Speaks to the World.
“I had my dog Arthur with me on stage,” she explained. “He was quite old and he just sat there. It started with the theme music from Lawrence of Arabia and I pushed him on and he had a camel hump bag on his back. In the show, he was called Catharsis: Dog of Love and Healing. I hung the whole show round that. Every so often he was supposed to channel the thoughts of Greyfriars Bobby.
“It was a 50-seater and, in the first two weeks, maybe 7 or 8 people would come in each day. Then, after that, I had 50 people in every night. I have no idea why. But I also got children in because I had mis-directed with the title. I had lots of irate parents trying to get their children in because they had thought it was a children’s show.”
Charmian is back this year with her show The Ten Charmandments in which she allegedly gives her audience the benefit of her own esoteric wisdom… and it also includes an erotic dance, of which more later.
“I’ve had to wait all this time – twenty years – to get away from my children,” she told me.
“When I go to perform at the Glastonbury Festival, I take my children and my husband David but, even though they are meant to be self-reliant, I spend my whole time looking after them. Or watching them go off to have fun while I go off to work.
“This year was the first year my younger daughter – 14 – could hang out on her own with my husband holding the fort. David can’t come up because the dog – this is another dog – has already been in kennels because we went on holiday just before I came up here and he is a bit emotional. He has been very difficult, but now he is in his own space where he feels he doesn’t need to react to other dogs with violence. He’s very calm and peaceful. But, to keep him that way, David can never go out while I’m away; we have to nurture his emotional needs. The dog’s, not David’s.
“I am enjoying being up here on my own it because I’m doing a lot of walking, I haven’t had many late nights and haven’t drunk lots. I’ve been eating really well at Henderson’s every day: a fantastic vegetarian restaurant. I used to go there years ago when I was at St Andrew’s University and visited friends in Edinburgh.
“But how do I get coverage in the press?” she asked me.
“Claim Scottish heritage,” I told her. “Or find any Scottish link of any kind. St Andrew’s is a good start – or do a bizarre publicity stunt that may get you nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award,” I advised her, solely so I could then mention it in this blog and give it a plug.
“Cunning Stunts are what brought me into showbiz,” Charmian said in reply. She did. She really did. Truly.
“I worked in an advertising agency,” she said, “as a copywriter and I was very depressed because I had thought I was in a creative job and it turned out I wasn’t. All the other people said: Ooh! You’re so wacky! because I wore tartan trousers.
“I used to put all my creative energy into writing things that ended up as: Oh, come and be a nurse in Saudi Arabia. You don’t have to pay tax. Whereas I had tried to write: Come and heal the sick! because I had thought it would be more interesting… The uniform is all-encompassing.
“I was about 26 and thought, at that age, my life was over. It was so depressing. What have I become? I have done nothing! I am not a Nobel Prize winning writer.
“I was driving my car and, on the radio, they were talking about an international theatre festival and there was a group called Cunning Stunts doing women’s theatre workshops. So I went along and I spent the first evening having to pretend I was a rock, which I had never done before; I was a good rock; it was lovely.
“So I did their course, then I did clowning at City Lit where Pierre Hollins was teaching and I suddenly found I was rather good at drawing attention to myself. Pierre was a clown then and did street shows. He had a teaching exercise where you just had to make everybody look at you rather than the other person on the stage. People tried all sorts of clever tricks but actually being as still as possible but being stupid drew their attention.
“Lots of them went off to join Gerry Cottle’s Circus but I gave up my job and did a bit of children’s theatre.
“Then I met this old man, aged about 70, called Eugene Boller who was a Hungarian acrobat and he taught acrobatics to lots and lots of students in the front room of his huge house in Brixton which had loads and loads of junk because he was a hoarder and it stank of cabbage all the time. He had electricity in his home, but no heating. People said, Oh you have to be really good to go to him! and I could just about do a cartwheel.
“I met him at a tea party where I was sitting alone feeling sorry for myself and he invited me along because he said he could teach anyone and I stayed for about 20 years and I never managed to do anything.
“It was a very small room and these very athletic students used to queue round the room to go in this harness where he flipped you over.
“I had a lot of resentment from the other people because they didn’t know why he was letting me be there. He would dismiss some really good people, saying, I don’t want you in my class any more; I don’t like your attitude but with me he’d go Hahahahaha…. The other students would ask me:
“So you’re doing a stage show are you? What do you do in it?
“I used to be quite good at roly-polys. Everyone else was doing back-flips; I was doing remedial moves. Eugene said he had me there because I made him laugh. He told me that a fat girl doing ballet will get everyone watching.
“He said watching me do a cartwheel was more entertaining than watching the athletic ones go backflip-backfliip-backflip.
“I started going to him in my 30s, then I had the children, then he invited me back when I was about 42, then he got very very old in about 1992 and he said, Oh, I’ve had this… I dunno… stuff… I think it’s called cancer… but, ah, stuff and nonsense, stuff and nonsense… and, once he had it, he had to go to the toilet for a long time and people told him You should go to the doctor and he said Oh no, I just take my olive oil.
“He had a massive bowel tumour and he was about 90 years old by then. With lots of people of that age, they don’t bother to operate. But they did operate on him and he was teaching again six weeks later.
“Later on, when he was dying, we all used to go up to his bedroom, where he now had a small gas fire, and just sit around talking to him. One of his great pupils, Annie Griffin, came along and he asked her: What have you been doing?
“Oh, she said, well, I’ve written a TV series called The Book Club. and I wrote and directed a film called Festival about the Edinburgh Fringe…
“Enough of that stuff, he said. Show me your handstand! Show me your handstand!
“When he died, he got an obituary in the Guardian.
“He had a tortoise called Jimmy, who he had found in a rubbish skip and who I was meant to look after when Eugene died but his weird niece took Jimmy away and sold him. We had a fight about that.”
And that is why, if you go to see The Ten Charmandments at the current Edinburgh Fringe – as you certainly should – Charmian Hughes does an erotic dance.
It is very funny.