ROUND ABOUT this time of year, little groups of people will be getting
intense, anarchic, or side-splittingly amusing in church halls. It's not the
Scouts, obviously, but latter-day troubadours rehearsing their shows for the
I took a couple of shows there myself, and performed in the Netherbow
theatre in the Royal Mile. Call me "Mr Sentimental", but I dropped in there
recently, 25 years on, to walk the stage again. Only I didn't, because it is
being ripped to pieces by strong men in hard hats and big boots. It's
redevelopment, progress, and a reminder that I cannot go back in time.
I did get some radio and TV work out of the shows, but probably my big
chance had already come and gone. At university, I had gone along to the rooms
of a student called Richard Curtis, to audition for a show he was doing with a
friend of his, Rowan Atkinson.
I wasn't what he was looking for, which was a shame. But then, who is to say
I would have been happy with endless creative outlets, mass adulation,
effortless sex appeal, and barrow-loads of money?
Charlie Chaplin had all those
by the age of 30. His gnawing ambition and gift for visual comedy made him
the most famous man in the world, long before the age at which Jesus went
public. This Cockney sparrow stepped off the London stage, and into the new
silent movies sweeping the United States. The Little Tramp, the character he
created, was naughty, bright, subversive, and sought attention - not unlike
But if his great gift was comedy, his great passion was justice for the
downtrodden and the marginalised - a passion that led to his eviction from the
United States as an undesirable, while the Statue of Liberty wasn't looking.
As he reflected on his life from wealthy exile in Switzerland, it was he who
declared himself second-rate, feeling he had never truly married his genius
with his passion. He had cheered people up, but he had also wanted his comedy
to change the world.
The more profound search in his life was for a love that would embrace and
accept him for who he was. After many awkward relationships with women, some
under age, his search came to an end with
Oona, who shared his exile and his dying, and was probably his best
Meanwhile, for today's troubadours, nervously shouting rude words in church
halls while avoiding the nursery's large sandpit, I pass on the advice given to
the young Chaplin as he was just starting out: "There are two rules for comics:
know who you are, and remember where you came from."