At a party the other week I was introduced to a recent graduate of a well-known musical theatre school. You know the type: bright eyed, desperately ambitious and somehow able to give you their full resume and hat size within thirty seconds of "hello". And then the inevitable question comes: "so what are you doing at the moment?" I hate this question because what they really mean to say is "are you worth talking to and can you help me with my career?" My favourite response to this is "I sell fire extinguishers". To which they pause, look blank for a moment… then say, "That's awesome. Facebook me", and walk away in search of Simon Callow. To be fair, given a choice between Simon Callow and a fire extinguisher salesman I’d do the same. Meeting one of your heroes can be a real thrill and whenever I get the chance I live in hope they’ll give me some great anecdote or nugget of advice I can impress my friends with, something like: “I see you’re admiring my bow tie. Pierce Bronson taught me how to do that,” or “Yes, Barbara Streisand recommended this particular avocado peeler”. Sadly it doesn’t usually happen like that. Many years ago I was thrilled to meet the great Tony Bennett; the conversation went like this: “Hello Mr. Bennett, may I have your autograph?”, “Yes”.
Once, after a performance of Mack and Mable I bumped into Jerry Herman, “Congratulations!” I said, “Thank you, ” he said, “goodbye”; and I once introduced myself to George Martin in Abbey Road studios who completely ignored me. Just last year, immediately after doing a concert in Los Angeles I walked off stage to be introduced to the great arranger Johnny Mandel, “It’s a thrill to meet you Mr. Mandel!” I gushed, “Oh,” he said, “and what do you do?”
I suppose that’s better than what happened to the UK’s number one Elton John tribute act, who after months of letter writing and begging, managed to set up a meeting with the man himself. He was told to wait in the wings during a sound check and to introduce himself to Elton John as he left the stage. Eventually the moment arrived, and gathering all his nerve our man seized the moment, “Hello Elton, this is a big moment for me. I make my living impersonating you and it’s such a genuine thrill and honor to meet you, sir,” to which the great man said, “f**k off”, and left.
I did have a bit more luck recently. A few weeks ago I asked John Prescott what advice he could give me on life in general after his years in Government, he said, “Be yourself, play to your strengths and always admit it when you’ve made a mistake”, (I wonder if he told his old boss that) and when trying to connect with an audience, Des O’Connor told me simply, “be like them”. Wise words.
The best career advice though must be credited to Chief Sitting Bull in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’: “Keep bow tight, keep arrow sharp and never put money in show business”. Now that’s advice worth taking, even for a fire extinguisher salesman.