Write what you know: Part 2
Are you sexy when you’re scared?
Or do you soil your underwear?
If you do, you’re ill prepared.
Do your eyes dilate
When you see there’s no escape?
Yes, there’s no escape from the horror of Norwich...
So sang the Rock Minstrel, a local eccentric student busker from Kingston University, at the premiere performance of Screamarama: The Horror of Norwich. Taking place (as most early versions of comedy shows did then) above a pub, the show took inspiration from Monty Python’s Holy Grail by having a sort of questing narrative that basically glued lots of sketches together to form a semi-coherent story set in a distinct world.
We’d chosen to hire out the room above The Cricketers as it had a rather dark tatty red paint job, which leant itself to the handmade gothic roughness I imagined the Screamarama to have. With no budget to speak of we decorated the stage in orange and black balloons and cheap Halloween bunting and invited anyone we knew who we thought might have fun. Not much exists of this first show except some beer-blurred memories of it going down well and a promo video we made, where I ambitiously described us as "The Mighty Boosh meets Hammer Horror – Morecambe & Wise in Waiting for Godot – a spooky, sexy and hilarious show!"
Written by Mark and I, Screamarama followed two actors as they auditioned for, worked at, then got stuck at ‘Norfolk’s answer to the London Dungeon’. Mark played a character called Tony Popkin, whose stage name was Tony Popkins on the basis that ‘a plural would be more impressive’ on his CV. Tony was new to paid drama, nervous and not used to the loudness and oddness of auditions.
Based on my own experiences of trying to make it in London, I played Thogden Atwatte (pronounced Artwar) – an arrogant know-it-all luvvie who claimed to know the ropes but always got tied up in knots. We went through a lot of character names in the writing period, starting out as Alex and Martin, then for a while we were going to be Charlie and Theobald, before finally settling on Tony and Thogden when we realised that we didn’t need ‘normal’ names, because (a) no-one thinks actors are normal and (b) the whole world we were writing was bizarre enough to need strong names.
Our line-up was completed by Helen Barton, an actress I’d met at Harrods, when we both working as Christmas elves. She completely stole the show as Elvira Lynn, the hostess and owner of Norwich’s Top (only) Scare Attraction. Despite not being from the East, Helen somehow played Elvira with a stronger Norfolk accent than I’d ever heard when I lived there. Sporting an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction wig, a cane and full goth ensemble she greeted the audience as if they were auditioning, which warmed up the crowd brilliantly. She also brought the house down as the bald, sex-obsessed Gollumeena – a weird and wonderful character who lived in the depths of the waxwork exhibition for reasons not readily explained. Gollumeena and her ‘smile with all of your mouth’ catchphrase was another character who had initially featured as a deranged perfume demonstrator and later a worrying game show contestant in Aroused and Confused and had been a crowd favourite. I’d got so fond of the character I brought her across to Screamarama where she fitted right in.
Inspired by the inclusion of songs in the The Mighty Boosh (can you tell I was very into them at this point?) I wanted Screamarama to have something similar, a slightly bohemian busker singing ditties that would cover the costume changes. Luckily, I knew the Rock Minstrel so I wrote lyrics and he made up some tunes on his ukulele. The songs allowed us to tell various stories we didn’t have the time or budget to include in the show, and helped with the world-building, as well as being a good place to ‘park’ ideas I wanted to do something with in the future.
One song was about the Norfolk Born Killers – a notorious East Anglian brother and sister serial killing team who had escaped from prison and were none too pleased with their theatrical portrayal at Screamarama. In the Chamber at Tussauds, alongside the live attraction, were waxworks in cages of infamous murderers. In the darkened cabin fever atmosphere of the low-lit scare floor, a rumour started that the real Dennis Nilsen had been spotted walking through our spooky workplace – out on day release from prison. Ridiculous though this was, the story kept escalating (we were all a little insane I think by that point). His mannequin was right next to the place I would leap out at tourists, so his face was constantly in my mind's eye. At the end of the shift, when the tourists had left and the lights came on, we googled to see if Mr Nilsen looked anything like the man we’d seen... and terrified ourselves with the idea that it did. And thus was born the idea of a killer visiting their own waxwork and wreaking terrible revenge on the actor portraying them.
Next time, we take the show to London, closer to the real thing. Would Madame Tussauds sue us for making fun of their most well-known exhibit? Would my desire to produce a musical version involve a rap with Michael Winner? And would the catchphrase ‘Spooky Doodle Do’ ever catch on? One of those answers might not shock you.