But I think the best gig I ever got was when I used to entertain a fair few people (the rest would just get irritated) as the mascot for Stratford Upon Avon’s local radio station The Bear102FM (I would love to be able to direct you to a live feed, but they closed down years ago). This meant, unsurprisingly, dressing up as a large bear (a dancing version of which is the heraldic symbol of Warwickshire) and doing my bit for the ‘troops’ (shoppers, really, but it’s all part of the war effort, keeping up morale) by standing waving when the mayor cut the ribbon to a new discount shoe warehouse or burger chain.
Sometimes, when the mayor wasn’t available, for jumble sales and the like, which his office would consider ‘non newsworthy’ (even the Stratford Herald has its limits), I got to cut the ribbon myself. This was something I always dreaded- those big bear gloves are a nightmare for handling scissors with, but I think I dealt with it with quiet dignity (it was a non-speaking role). I opened Shoe City and some Londis-type store in Bidford-on-Avon, and no matter how cynical and jaded we may become, that’s still got to be a good moment for anyone.
Most of the time though, the bookings got me down. There was never anything useful for me to do. Once we had gone beyond the initial clamour, swift disappointment set in from the crowd because
a) the bear didn’t talk
b) he didn’t do much else either
It wasn’t my fault. As any insider will tell you, nine times out of ten a bad performance is down to a bad director. Either they give you too much direction, saying I want this this and this no you go stand over there look just do it because I said so that’s why, or they just leave it wide open. In this case, I felt there was a notable lack in this department.
Beyond getting the suit drycleaned, the station really didn’t give me much assistance. I tried listening to their programmes, thinking maybe I could get inside the character of the station and thus the bear that way. But the music bored me to tears, so I switched it off.
* * *
At gigs, people would remark that the bear didn’t look very happy as I shuffled glumly in a corner. What they failed to understand was that, in my own characterisation of the bear, I realised that pathos played a huge element in his existence. Being cruelly forced to parade around shopping estates for the benefit of a local radio station trying to gain kudos from its attachment to a new Jacksons Mini Market would be enough to upset anyone. And particularly a bear.
Ok, you’re a bear. I thought, trying to get into the part. What do you really want?
Honey sprang to mind. Trampling over picnics sprang to mind. Lady bears sprang to mind. Avoiding hunters sprang to mind (this is an example of the kind of processes one goes through mentally when establishing one’s role. Budding thesps take note!)
How unnatural an environment for a bear, then, patting children on the head at the end of an aisle of fish fingers.
In character, my big, bear heart was broken.
How could I wave?
* * *
One late afternoon, following a whole day of not smoking tobacco, in which I vowed I would be free of the evil curse of Nick O’Teen, I got the call for a gig at the Studley Car Boot Fair Annual Guy Fawkes Fireworks Night (Parking £1.50). One of the other bears had dropped out and they needed someone reliable and they needed someone fast.
It would be my first bear roadshow. In fact, I think it was the radio station’s first roadshow too. It was a biggie, but I answered their call. The call of the wild.
* * *
But at the gig, my mind wandered feverishly. Like some smackless junkie, I was withdrawing from the nicotine, and it hurt.
I felt my whole bear mask slip.
Not my actual bear mask, of course, which was securely attached, but my inner bear ‘mask’ (if you like), through which I articulated the gargantuan primordial savagery and sadness of the bear, as well as the commercial interests of the radio station. If some mums and dads were happy too then, well fine.
Behind the trailer, the DJs were all smoking cigarettes and talking about the kinds of things radio DJs talk about. I looked over at them, desperately craving a hit of nicotine before I went on stage.
I was so wrapped up in needing tobacco, that it clamoured out any thinking in my brain. I wasn’t aware that, on stage, they were announcing me.
“It’s the bear!” cried the DJ on the stage, three maybe four times.
Eventually, people started tutting.
I got it back together.
“Where do you think he could be?” I heard the DJ announce over the PA.
Consummate professional, I thought, focussing. Obviously knows a thing or two about improv.
“Let’s give him a count down. 5 – 4 -3 etc.”
This time, I made it. I climbed up and onto the trailer without falling over.
It was the worst performance of my life.
I had been thrown, you see. And once a serious actor. I mean a really really serious actor. Loses. That- that, connection to the essence (I suppose), then the whole thing falls flat.
It didn’t matter that I was in a full body bear suit. I was naked up there.
Terribly, terribly naked.
When it came to handing out the prize for the best Guy Fawkes, I gave it to the wrong kid. Apart from that, and although they were all chanting that they wanted the bear to show them his little dance, I just stood there, blinking out at a sea of people from Redditch who were getting fed up because the fireworks hadn’t started.
When I came off I immediately smoked three cigarettes, lighting each one off the butt of the last.
Why not print out and colour in this lovely picture of a bear taken from one of my favourite colouring-in books!?