Whither the Arts?

 

 

 

 

TV studio, arts programme.

 

Presenter

Later on in ‘Whither the Arts?’ we’ll be visiting the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, and taking a look at their Sculpture 84 exhibition, the centre-piece of which is the controversial twenty-foot ironing board made entirely from Driving Test rejection certificates.  But first, the much publicised musical Bessie!, which opens at last in the West End this week, and Deb Kershaw has been in on the rehearsals, and has sent us this report.

 

 


Film.  Rehearsal room.  People are hanging about.  Deb is interviewing the director, the exceedingly pompous fifty-year-old Sir Dave Dixon.

 

Deb

Could you just tell us a little bit about Bessie!, Sir Dave?  It’s a biographical musical.

 

Dave

Yes, it tells the story of Bessie, Bessie Bunter, who was an amazing lady…

 

Deb

Sorry, I thought Bessie Bunter was a fictional character.

 

Dave

No, Bessie was a real person, very much so, a real person, she led an incredible life, actually…

 

Deb

What about Billy Bunter, was he real?

 

Dave

But oh yes.  Though it seems unlikely that he wore those check trousers we – er see – er – in the illustrations.

 

Deb

Did you commission the musical, or …?

 

Dave

I was sent a play about Bessie Bunter, whom I’ve always been fascinated by, and the very same day I bumped into the American composer, Hamley Marvisch, who said he had a few tunes left over from his last flop, and did I have a show he could dump them in?  So two days and a bottle of Scotch later, we’d finished Bessie!  A Day to write the show and a day to think of the exclamation mark.

 

Deb

Has it altered much from the original play?

 

Dave

We’ve opened it up a little.  The play was very much Bessie Bunter’s schooldays, the fat girl with the little round glasses.  We’ve played around with it, we’ve brought in the Spanish Civil War, the McCarthy witch hunts, there’s a nice duet, great dance routine in Sainsbury’s with the whole company on shopping trolleys …

 

Deb

But Bessie’s still fat, presumably?

 

Dave

Well, it’s mentioned.  We’ve made it a mental fatness rather than a physical thing.  We can’t really have a great fat lump walloping across the stage for two hours.

 

Deb

Is the writer amenable to all these changes?

 

Dave

Yes, he was fine, most happy …

 

Deb

Is he here today?

 

Dave

No, he’s had some sort of accident.  I think he fell of Chelsea Bridge with some bricks in his pocket, but we’re coping …

 

 


Rehearsal room.  Thirty-five-year-old serious actress, Carla, stands by pianist in rehearsal clothes.  She is very serious, constantly coughing or clearing her throat.

 

Carla

No, I shan’t sing out today, Dennis.  I really am going to have to be awfully careful.

 

Deb

Sorry to interrupt, Carla.

 

Carla

No, don’t worry, Deb.

 

Deb

Now, you’re playing the main rôle, Bessie?

 

Carla

Bessie, yes – great challenge.

 

Deb

Is it a difficult rôle?

 

Carla

Bessie Bunter was actually an incredibly complex person, I’ve been steeping myself in the literature, and Bessie is so like me, so many similarities, it’s quite spooky.

 

Deb

What have you been reading?

 

Carla

Bessie Bunter Goes to the Circus: now, I went to the circus – that’s rather a remarkable coincidence.  I’ve just read Bessie Bunter Goes Caravanning: now, I have an aunt who has a caravan, so I’ve been down and had a look at it.  (Coughs.)  Excuse me, I’ve got pneumonia.

 

Deb

Beryl Reid always says she starts with the shoes; if the shoes are right, the character’s right.  Is that your method?

 

Carla

I start with the bra.  If the bra fits, everything falls into place.

 

Deb

What’s the song you’re rehearsing?

 

Carla

This comes after Bessie has a secret romance with Anthony Eden, played marvellously by Derek Griffiths, and she’s knows it’s only a matter of time before he goes back to the – was it the Conservative government?  Anyway, it should be very effective, I’m wearing beige, and she knows she isn’t going to see him again, and mustn’t for his sake – it’s called ‘One Day’.

 

 

She sings

 

 

One day,
A feeling-sorry-that-you’ve-gone day,
I will maybe write a note,
Send it to float
            Right to your door.
I won’t sign it.
I’ll just deliver it and go
And no-one but you will know
            Who I wrote it for.

One day,
A feeling-slightly-put-upon day.
I will maybe send a rose
That no-one knows
            From whom it came.
I won’t sign it.
I’ll just leave it in the hall,
Maybe blow a kiss that’s all,
            I won’t leave my name.

One day,
A wishing-I’d-become-a-don day,
I will maybe try and grab
A London cab
            To your bungalow.
I won’t see you.
I won’t even ring the bell.
I will simply wish you well,
            Then I’ll turn and go.

 

 


The stage is covered in exhausted dancers.  Rows and banging are going on, the piano is covered in eighty-seven coffee cups, Carla is sobbing in the stalls, with pals trying to comfort her.  Sir Dave sits in the front stalls, affable and relaxed as before, with Deb.

 

Deb (Voice Over)

The show opens tonight, there have been many changes, the original cast has been fired, and the show drastically rewritten.

 

Deb

You’ve gone back to the original concept, Sir Dave?

 

Dave

This was vital, I feel.  I mean, Bessie Bunter is a fat schoolgirl – that’s the show in a nutshell.  It’s about being fat, being at school – it’s very exciting.

 

Deb

So you’ve cast a fat actress?

 

Dave

The fatness is crucial.  I’ve been researching into this pretty thoroughly, over breakfast.  Do you know that over 89 per cent of people in this country are overweight?  Now, that’s a lot of tickets.  The number we’re about to see, if they ever get their (bleep) fingers out, is the Act One finale.  (Shouts.)  When you’re ready, for Christ’s sake, thank you!

 

 

The company prepares for the song.

 

 

And it’s really all about finding yourself, saying take it or leave it, this is me.  Because I believe all humans have a value and a right to be respected.  (He turns round to Carla.)  Get the (bleep) out of here, Carla, will you?  I don’t really want snot all over the plush, love.  OK Dennis!

 

 

Bessie walks on-stage dressed as per the Frank Richards books.  During the number she rips off her wig, glasses, and gymslip to reveal blonde hair and skin-tight dress.  She is backed by a chorus line.

 

Bessie (sings)

One day I was Bessie Bunter.

Who was she?

She was just a punter.

She was nobody.

Then suddenly
            One hot night
Had a brainwave
            Like a spotlight.
Wave goodbye to Bessie.
Say hello to me!

Me!
I'm going to be free.
I'm gonna do all those things I've never done before.
Open the door!
Let's even the score.
I'm looking for life to go and kick it in the crutch,
Just a touch,
To make it clear
That Bess is here
With her one-woman junta.
Please watch out for Bessie Bunter.

Me!
Who else could it be?
I'm gonna bleach my hair,
Wear clothes that show my tits
At the Ritz.
I'm Bessie the Blitz.
I'm gonna make Dolly Parton look like Meryl Streep.
I mean cheap.
I mean bad,
Drive men mad
To make this girl surrender.
Will they get to my pudenda?

Don't answer that; dance!

 

 

The company dances.

 

 

Yes!
Here's looking at Bess!
Here's looking at thirteen stone of sex.
Who can it be?
Well it's me!
Come and see.
Look at me!
You'll agree
It's all me!

 

 

At the end of the number she completely drops out of character.

 

 

They’re going to have to change this floor, I’m sorry …

 

 

 

 

Cast

 

Bessie

 

Victoria Wood

Presenter

 

Duncan Preston

Deb Kershaw

 

Celia Imrie

Carla

 

Deborah Grant

Sir Dave Dixon

 

Patrick Barlow

Dennis (pianist)

David Firman

 

 

First shown on Victoria Wood—As Seen on TV, on BBC2 in January 1985.

 

© Victoria Wood


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