Wilde about music hall
Wilde about variety
Adding some variety to Oscar Wilde
Roy Hudd tells us how his love of music hall led him to star in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance
Roy Hudd has more stories than the 1001 Nights. Even when he’s not on stage, the veteran comedian and actor is the consummate entertainer and raconteur, leaping from anecdote to anecdote with the grace and panache of an oratorical gymnast. His natural wit is perfect for starring in an Oscar Wilde play, which is lucky as that’s exactly what he’s doing in A Woman of No Importance.
“I was actually interested because of Wilde’s jokes,” he tells me as he rifles through a case packed with papers, song lyrics and music. “Whenever I did Quote… Unquote on the radio, I always guessed the quote was from Wilde and 9 times out of 10 I was right!” he laughs “But the sweetener with this show was they wanted me to do three songs. And they said ‘You can pick the songs you want to do’, so that’s what I’ve done.”
When the Classic Spring production played in the West End in 2017, the first in the new theatre company’s year of Wilde productions, Anne Reid serenaded audiences with a trio of ditties. As it tours the UK following its success in the capital, Hudd has that honour.
When not singing, he plays Archdeacon Daubeny in Wilde’s upper-class comedy about a society house party and a woman with a long-buried secret that needs to be addressed. “It’s old Oscar beating the drum for women of his period,” Hudd explains. “They were all treated like rubbish, so he made them the heroines.”
The songs, performed during scene changes like a holy party pieces at the posh shindig, offer Hudd the opportunity to indulge his love of music hall and variety. He needs very little encouragement to do so, diving into a rendition of his new discovery, entitled The Vicar and I Will Be There, with glee.
Music hall is where it all started for Hudd. Or rather Concert Party. As a kid growing up in Croydon, he needed an activity to keep him out of trouble. “One day the front page of the Daily Mirror had a headline: The Roughest School in England. It was a picture of my mates!” Hudd laughs.
So off to a boys club he went, where he signed up to learn about Concert Party, a style of variety show. “My Gran, who brought me up, always talked about going to see it. She brought me up on an old age pension, but always, whatever happened, took me to the Croydon Empire every week on a Tuesday night because she loved variety.”
If Tom Cooper, the retired variety performer who taught the boys about performing, hadn’t asked Hudd ‘Are you as funny as you look?’, his life, and British entertainment history could have been very different.
Instead, Hudd found himself performing in sketches and parodies, taking part in charity concerts and, on one occasion, earning praise from The Goon Show co-founder Michael Bentine, “which gave me a bit of a spark!”
Fast forward through National Service, sitting next to Winston Churchill at a performance of The Mousetrap and starring in shows compered by a then unknown Benny Hill, and Hudd ends up working as a Butlins Red Coat. But even then this is no ordinary Butlins; Hudd’s team includes the men who would go on to become household names as Cliff Richard and Dave Allen!
“You didn’t even have to be any good,” he laughs, though clearly with that collection of talent, they were. “All you had to do was have a nice smile and cheer everybody up. If you ever did make it, you knew how to behave because if you were a Red Coat you were treated like a star. Everybody knew you.”
If Cooper’s spotting of comic potential was the first turning point in Hudd’s life and career, the second came courtesy of his agent. Without it, Hudd might not be performing in A Woman of No Importance at all. It was he who pushed Hudd towards acting, sending him to audition for a Shakespearean production at Richmond Theatre. As Hudd would be earning less than he did for his variety work, he took some convincing, but the agent was particularly prescient: “He said ‘I’m telling you here and now that variety will be over in 4 or 5 years, so you’ve got to extend yourself and learn to act.’”
Given the length of Hudd’s career and the way he effortlessly collects meetings with other performers, it’s not surprising that he’s starred with a few of the A Woman of No Importance cast before. “I’ve just worked with Isla Blair, we did Casualty together, which was great fun. And Emma [Amos], we worked at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park together, doing a musical called The Fantasticks… Now, that was down to Bernard Bresslaw…”
You could sit and listen to Hudd forever and never get bored. Story follows story follows story and, I suspect, if the stories dried up, his humour and sense of joy would be enough to keep any audience happy for a few extra hours.
“I enjoy doing it very much,” he says, succinctly, of performing in A Woman of No Importance, before, almost inevitably, kicking on: “I did one of the early Call The Midwifes. I played an old soldier who died at the end of the episode. After that, I died in every job I got on television. This role is particularly lovely because I’m alive at the end of it!”
Liza Goddard: “Everyone deserves to see these plays”
Liza Goddard: “A force to tour”
A Woman of much Importance
Actor Liza Goddard tells us about starring in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance and looks back on her incredible career.
“It’s a bit like a Poirot,” explain Liza Goddard. “You’ve got a big country house party bringing everyone together in one place… but there’s no murder! There is a bit of a mystery and a lot of comedy, though.”
The veteran performer is excitedly telling me about A Woman of No Importance, the Oscar Wilde production she’s currently starring in, which, she beams, completes her Wilde collection. She’s previously played both Cecily and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband and both Mrs Erlynne and Lady Agatha in Lady Windermere’s Fan
A Woman of No Importance is, Goddard says, “Like all his plays, actually quite deep. I think people have the idea, a bit like with Alan Ayckbourn, that they’re just comedies, but there’s much more to them.
“A Woman of No Importance observes women and what happened in that society to a woman if she had a child out of wedlock. She would be reviled and the man would get off scot free… which actually happens a lot today, doesn’t it?”
Goddard plays Lady Hunstanton, the hostess in Wilde’s party-set play. “She’s a terrible gossip,” laughs Goddard, “and a bit doolally as well.”
While I would stop well short of placing any such labels on Goddard, the actor is more than happy to have a natter, is full of stories about former colleagues and doesn’t mind poking a bit of fun in her own direction.
She giggles her way through a recollection of starring opposite Coral Brown in Lady Windermere’s Fan when it was filmed for the BBC in 1972. Brown, she says, refused to wear a red costume designed by the great Cecil Beaton because “‘Dogs will think I’m a fire hydrant and piss on me!’ She was fabulous!”
As we chat about taking the Classic Spring production around the country, Goddard chuckles, “I’m no longer a tour de force, more a force to tour.” Over the last couple of decades, she’s worked extensively in touring theatre, starring in, she says, “some fantastic shows that I wouldn’t have been asked to play at the National or in the West End.”
“I think [touring theatre]’s vital,” she exclaims, adding that everyone “deserves to see these plays.”
Goddard is now in her sixth decade in the entertainment industry. Since starting in the 60s, she has built an impressive career that includes children’s TV hits Skippy The Bush Kangaroo and Woof!, much-loved 80s charades panel show Give Us A Clue and pioneering drama focusing on the lives of a trio of women, Take Three Girls, the BBC’s first drama filmed in colour.
She is, though, very grounded about her own success: “I’ve never been one of those great big earners. I always just tried to make a living. It’s always been a case of finish one job and then wait to be offered another one. None of it’s planned, I’ve just been very fortunate. I’m still working and still loving it.”
But if you ask her to name a career highlight, it isn’t the screen appearances for which she is best known that leap to mind, it is her projects with playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, who she has worked with repeatedly. His name is one she refers to again and again. “Working for him is, for me, the best theatre experience, because it’s so enveloping. It’s a complete ensemble. He is such a great man that you all just want to do your best for him.”
A Woman of No Importance is actually Goddard’s first job since January. After the death of her husband and hip replacement surgery last year, once the panto season had finished she devoted 2019 to clearing and trying to sell her Norfolk home. But she can’t wait to get back in front of a live audience: “There’s such excitement to [theatre]; the marvelous communication between you and the audience. It’s the only time that one performance will ever be seen.”
What can audiences expect from the one performance of A Woman of No Importance they see? “They’ll come to see the wit – which is sadly lacking from a lot of modern plays – but they’ll also get beautiful set and costumes, interesting characters, lots of laughs and a few really heartrending moments. It’s just a damn good story.”
VENUE SPECIFIC ANSWERS
I played the Yvonne Arnaud so many times when I lived in Farnham. In those days you were so lucky because you could do telly and then you could go and rehearse for two weeks and play for two weeks at the Yvonne Arnaud, so you could always fill in for four weeks between telly jobs. And you’d play parts in the theatre you’d never play on telly.