Danny Baker : Cradle to Stage
Gala Theatre, Durham – March 8. 2017
Danny Baker is a force of nature. He appears to be able to breathe through his skin because he seems to be able to talk without the appearance of drawing breath. It’s not quite at Ken Dodd levels of endurance, but he’s a talker, is Dan.
He strides on stage at 7.30, after a pleasingly eclectic mix of tunes warming up the audience (which includes such Bakeresque gems as Max Bygraves’ version of Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be. It’s all in keeping with the mood of the evening, and a theme that will crop up again later. He’s wearing a rather fetching red and black cowboy shirt, black turned up jeans and bright red shows. Formal attire it ain’t. But he looks hale and hearty for a man nudging 60. And, as ever, he’s in a playful mood.
The show is in three parts: the first is ostensibly about his childhood, the second about the entertainment industry, and the third and final part is to be given over to audience questions. all this is due to last around 90 minutes. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
Dan deals in nostalgia. But not rose-tinted, romanticised nostalgia. The original Greek root of that word contains the suffix -algia, which is a reference to pain: it’s the pain of remembering. Nostalgia is not always cosy. It involves the realisation first, that the past wasn’t always pretty, and second, that it’s a place you can’t go back to. So his memories are funny, touching, sometimes quite gritty, especially when he talks about the childhood mutilations of his friends (it’s almost like a running gag). He talks about rejecting the idea of “escaping” from a working-class upbringing to the suburbs and the middle class. But he (and I, though I’m a bit younger) were in the working class at a time when life was good: better housing, education, and jobs that paid well and gave people money to spend. Why would you want to escape from that? Lots of what he said resonated with me for that reason. Even though I went the academic route, I’ve never really aspired to escape being working class. I’m proud of where I come from and what my roots are, even if the move has been almost inevitable for me, because of the jobs I’ve done. It’s a hook to hang his first mention of his Uncle Godfrey, to whom he returns later.
It’s when he starts to talk about the people surrounding him during his childhood, that he reminds me of lots of my extended family too. His father plays a central role in all of this, of course, as anyone who’s read either of the two volumes of memoir he’s written (so far) can confirm. Lots of the stories have him at their heart, and it’s clear that now ‘the old man’ is gone, he misses him. But, like Spud, he’s not sentimental about that. That lack of sentiment is a refreshing thing nowadays, and something that he also returns to at the end.
It’s clear there’s a structure of sorts planned, mostly hanging around old photos, but like Billy Connolly, he wanders away from it frequently, riffing, before finally rejoining the flow. He claims not to be a comedian, but he certainly knows how to hold an audience as well as most stand-ups (and he’s worked with some beauts, folks). And we love it.
After the interval, he bounds back out and begins to talk about the “showbiz” phase of his career. So, there are stories about how he was in Led Zeppelin for 35 minutes (true!), how he first met Kenneth Williams; the complexity of Spike Milligan; how Tommy Cooper had the curse of being the funniest man in the world, as well as how having the most Gentile name possible made him Mel Brooks’ friend. He rightly claims in all these stories to be the beneficiary of some astoundingly good luck, or dumb luck as he calls it. But it’s telling how often the truly talented make the best of the luck that they get, and Dan has done that.
The final part is given to questions, of which the last one is one planted early on in the show: the story of his Uncle Godfrey’s funeral. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it manages to beautifully capture a mood and a way of living. He has us roaring with laughter, and better yet, every bit is true because, as he says, the big difference between real life and fiction, is that real life doesn’t have to make sense. It’s utterly glorious.
By the time he finishes, Danny has been talking for around two and a half hours. He could have talked for that long again, and I’d still have been rapt. He really is a master raconteur. And he’s a bridge between the old school of people like Williams, Copper, Morecambe & Wise, the musicians of the 70s and after, and performers now, such as Peter Kay. I’m glad he’s putting pen to paper, because, as he says, what he’s talking about is social history; he’s a font of brilliant stories, and they deserve to be told and to have an audience.