The show must go on.. and on... and on...

Dillie Keane on 27 years of Fascinating Aïda

Many years ago, we were doing a radio interview for Fascinating Aïda’s run at the Edinburgh Festival.  ‘So how long do you think you’ll be doing this, girls?’ asked the DJ.  ‘Will you go on and on like the Tremeloes?’

‘Goodness me, no!’ said my colleague Adèle, in her sniffiest voice.  ‘I don’t think we’d look very dignified cavorting around like this in our forties.’

Oh, how those words have come back to haunt us!  Not only did we cavort through much of our forties, we continue cavorting through the latter end of our fifties.   And in spite of the fact that I have tried to kill off the group twice now, I have a nasty suspicion that we’ll cavort on until, and even past, a pensionable age.

It’s 27 years since Fascinating Aïda first geared up to go on Capital Radio as a last-minute replacement for some long-forgotten pop band.  (My best friend was one of the presenters and had heard us sing in my front room.  There’s nothing like nepotism for getting you your first gig.) 

The other guests were comic writer and broadcasting star Frank Muir, Will Gaines, the black godfather of tap, and I can’t remember the others.  We sang our newly penned comic masterpiece, The Herpes Tango.  Mr Muir and guests looked pained and offended.  Three friends listened and rang to say said we’d done quite well.  A few months later, we’d rented a white van and were schlepping up and down the country in pursuit of fame, fortune, and an audience.

So what’s changed?  Everything and nothing, really.  I now have a white van of my own, and I suppose this means we’ve gone up in the world, but not much.  We know most of the theatres we play these days;  they’re old friends waiting for us at the end of roads we know even better.  And we are very very very well-travelled.  In the beginning, the journey from London to Birmingham seemed enormous, requiring at least two breaks of half an hour each.  Nowadays, Adèle and I could drive from London to Montenegro and back without flinching. 

We travel lighter these days – in the early days, we took kettles, teapots, a microwave (in the 90s), and lunchboxes filled with sandwiches for the journey.  Food was always a problem – it was before the rise of the service station with their mini-M&S’s and Waitroses, and Little Chef was about all there was.  

Marilyn Cutts, our soprano in those days, would rather eat her own innards than a fry, and remained snoozing on her mattress in the van while Adèle and I happily noshed at the American breakfast; 2 eggs, 2 rashers, and 2 hash browns.  Yum. 

We never failed to add an entry in the ubiquitous comments book. ‘Marvelous as ever,’’ we wrote.  ‘As always, Gaston had our favourite corner table prepared for us, and our dining experience was truly memorable.  A Michelin star next year, surely?’  Well, it made us laugh.  

The more I think about it, the more I realise how much has changed.  As I write this, I’m sitting in the van while Adèle is driving us to Inverness.  I couldn’t have done that in 1983 – no laptops.  She reminds me that we broke down all the time – I hate to tempt fate, but our current white chariot seems pretty tough. And breakdown services are only a phone call away – no mobiles in those days meant we couldn’t even let people know if our big end had blown up.  The M25 wasn’t finished and the M6 Toll didn’t even exist.

The show has changed too.  Yes, it’s still three women and a piano, but that’s more by default than design.  Four years ago, our beloved pianist, Russell Churney, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. 14 months later, he died, leaving a huge gap that we have declined to fill. 

So we’re back down to three again – Adèle Anderson, who has been in the group so long that she is mortar in the brickwork, and Liza Pulman, who joined us six years ago at very short notice after we’d been let down by a soprano who shall remain nameless.  It was extremely fortuitous; Liza is better than we could possibly have hoped, she laughs at our jokes, she likes the job and she’s great fun to tour with. 

And the songs are better, I think – I hope.  We’re harder on ourselves as writers.  We rewrite constantly, updating the show to make it feel fresh.  The songs have to earn their place, and the minute they feel old, they get ditched. 

This may be a very long-extended Silver Jubilee show, but no one comes out of the show saying that the material feels stale. On the contrary, they buoy us up by telling us how up-to-date the show is.

No, I don’t think we’ll ever reach our Golden Jubilee like the Barron Knights who are celebrating 50 this year.  I don't think octogenarians can give cavorting any real wellie.  But we may well see 30 years, and after that, who knows?  While we can, we’ll damn well keep cavorting. 

  • Fascinating Aida are appearing at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on March 27 and 28, and touring throughout the UK see www.fascinatingaida.co.uk for details.

Published: 17 Mar 2010

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