Mrs Shufflewick – the First of the Few

Rex Jamieson (Mrs Shufflewick) talks to David Seligman, Martin Corbett and Suki J. Pitcher

After settling ourselves comfortably, with all essentials to hand (tape, cigarettes and whisky), David opened the show.

DAVID: What made you go on the stage?

SHUFF: Nobody made me. As a matter of fact, I went into the air force when I was nineteen, I was conscripted. I was in the air force for about 18 months and then we had a Gang Show come to our station, Ralph Reader’s mob, and I was on the backstage staff, and one of these fellas said “Why don’t you apply to the Air Ministry for a posting to the Gang Show – saves you carrying a gun about all bleeding day.” And that’s what I did. I went up and had an audition, and I was taken on.

I wasn’t doing drag then, I was doing a vicar act, a comedy parson. I was in that for about 2 years, and then I was demobbed and I thought “Well, this is marvellous, this life, getting pissed all the time, not having to work, or get up in the morning”, and I went into show business when I came out.

GAY NEWS: What was your first professional job?

SHUFF: OOOH, I can’t remember now! It was variety. I starved for about eight years. Then I got a TV audition which I was very lucky with, so I went into a show with Ralph and we did about three months – every fortnight on television. I worked with Norman Evans in another TV show, then I went to Moss Empires, Stoll Theatres, which of course aren’t any more now, I was on that circuit for about 10 years; so it’s gone on…

GN: You were touring a lot round the country?

SHUFF: All the time. Every bloody week of the year. I had to go on my knees to get a week off. I had this contract which was 42 weeks of the year guaranteed money, but they saw bloody well I worked 52! I did summer seasons at Blackpool, I did one at Margate, and one at Great Yarmouth. I’ve been Shufflewick for 24 years now.

GN: What started her off?

SHUFF: Well, as a matter of fact, not many people know this, I haven’t told everyone – I had an aunt who was exactly like Mrs Shufflewick. She used to walk like that, a great character, and that’s where I got the idea from to do it.

GN: Were you in fact the first drag act to appear on TV?

SHUFF: I think I must have been, if not the first, one of the first. I don’t remember anyone else who was doing it at the time.

GN: Danny la Rue hadn’t been heard of…

SHUFF: No, he was still in the chorus.

GN: When Shuff really got going, did she develop a lot, with reactions from other people? She can’t be exactly like your aunt.

SHUFF: No, of course not. You’ve got to broaden it a great deal, but I knew what I wanted out of it. I should say the aunt business was a sort of stepping-off ground. It evolved itself after that.

GN: You work a lot with your audience, don’t you? You get a lot back from them.

SHUFF: Especially in radio, more than television. I find it much easier to work in a radio studio where there’s an audience than in a TV studio. I think a television audience is sort of ready-made – they’ll laugh at anything, whereas in a radio thing you’ve got to bloody work to get laughs.

GN: What radio series did you do?

SHUFF: Oh, I did Midday Music Hall, London Lights, an awful lot of Music Halls when they used to be on a Saturday night, and Variety Bandbox, Variety Playhouse, all of those.

GN: I can remember a couple of times when I was a kid – I might have been about 5 or 6…

SHUFF: Thank you!

GN: …at the Met, Edgeware Road. I remember seeing Max Miller.

SHUFF: Yes! We did the Last Night at the Met. Max was on that bill.

GN: Do you regret the passing of Music Halls?

SHUFF: I do, very much.

GN: I think the Old Time Music Hall is very popular on TV.

SHUFF: I’m not mad about Old Time Music Hall as such. No, the Old Time Music Hall they put on nowadays is a sort of cock-up of the Victorian Music Hall – I mean, if they put on shows as we knew it, with people like Max Miller and modem people…

GN: I think, now, music hall is split up – any night at the Black Cap, that’s Music Hall.

SHUFF: Well, it is the modern equivalent, really.

GN: Do you find that you get the same atmosphere in the Black Cap as you did when you were in the theatre?

SHUFF: Oh, yes, definitely.

GN: Have you ever worked on the club circuit in the north, which is supposed to be the replacement of Music Hall?

SHUFF: (in a Shufflewick voice) Oooh, yes. I’ve done that – I’ve done that.

GN: And it’s hard work?

SHUFF: It is up there. You get places like Sheffield, Doncaster, and up that way – you’ve really got to get your knickers in a twist to get a laugh up there. I think they’re more, what’s the word, critical than down here. You get them down here – once they’ve got a couple of pints down them they’ll take anything – but up there…

GN: You must have had some good times up there?

SHUFF: I have… there was this landlady I had once, she took me up to the room, there was no paper on one wall, just the bare brick, and a light in the middle of the room with no shade on it. I said “Do you think I could have a shade for the lamp please?” She said What?” I said “The lamp – it’s very bright, could I have a shade?” “We don’t have them!” she said.

Then, in the morning I came down to breakfast, and there was my bacon and eggs on the table, moving. Moving on the plate – floating in fat! I sat down, and she stood in front of the fire like this (Shuff demonstrates a formidable stance, fag in mouth and eyes screwed up). She said “Did yer hear us laffing last night?” “No.” I said, “I was tired, I went straight off to sleep.” “Laffing fit to bust we were.” “Oh really?” “Our bitch is on heat, you see, and we had the dog in to her – right on that table where you’re sitting now!”

Oh, I’ve always had good times up there! I’ve never had anything untoward happen to me, I don’t think.

GN: Do you get any local humour into your act up there?

SHUFF: No. Never. That’s fatal, to do that. Because they know jolly well you’re not northern, if you start doing that they get a bit – antagonistic about it.

GN: Your act’s become very popular nationally and in the London pubs especially, in the last few years, and you see more drag shows in the pubs all the time. Why do you think it’s suddenly become popular?

SHUFF: I couldn’t tell you, because I think – well, really I shouldn’t say this – but I think it’s going to play itself out. There’s quite a lot of good acts going around, but on the other hand there’s a lot of bad acts who are going to mess it up.

GN: Do you include the people who do mime in that group?

SHUFF: Yes. Miming acts, to my mind, they’re not clever. I may be prejudiced, but if you mime to someone else’s work, to me that’s not clever at all.

GN: When you’re miming, you can’t ever get audience feed-back.

SHUFF: Well, you can’t stop! You’ve got to plod on. I’ve never done it, but I should imagine that’s it.

GN: Do you think that since Danny la Rue and TV, drag has become more ‘respectable’?

SHUFF: As I said, it has become accepted – as long as someone doesn’t fuck it up, and I think they will.

GN: When you first started, were you considered very daring because you went on stage in drag? What reaction did you get in the very beginning?

SHUFF: Not really daring, because in those days it wasn’t called drag, people were ‘dame comedians’ – people like George Lacey, he was marvellous. In those days, they did dames in pantomime, and if anyone did anything in drag on the music halls they called it ‘dame comedian’, you see. It wasn’t camp at all – I mean, some of these ones you see now, they’re outrageous aren’t they? They would never have put up with that on the halls.

GN: Because they’d have called them ‘queer’?

SHUFF: Then, you see, it was a man dressed as a woman, and that was it. They didn’t do all this pretty-pretty bit. Half of them now, you can’t tell if they’re men or women or what, can you? Have you seen Perry St Claire? I’m not saying anything, because I think he’s very good. Lovely voice, very good figure, and he’s a good artiste, but he wouldn’t have gone down in the old days. And of course, he’s got what I call a ‘pro’s’ sense of humour, but the ordinary peasants don’t know what he’s talking about.

GN: What do you thing about people who run pubs which put on shows? Do you think they are like the people who used to run the theatres?

SHUFF: No, not at all. They’re doing it for money, if they didn’t make the money they make and get the houses they get in there, they’d throw it out tomorrow night.

GN: And put on whatever would get the money.

SHUFF: Yes – a discotheque or something.

GN: So the people who put on the shows are making a lot of money out of it?

SHUFF: Well, you’ve only got to walk in the Black Cap any night, haven’t you, to see that.

GN: They have a lot of good people there; Jean Fredericks –

SHUFF: On Thursdays.

GN: But Jean doesn’t do a lot of comedy –

SHUFF: Well, he tries to tell stories.

GN: When you’re not writing or performing, what do you like doing? What are your interests outside show business?

SHUFF: Don’t think I’ve got any. Oooh, 1 like the cinema, I go there an awful lot.

GN: What do you think about the trend of cinema today?

SHUFF: Well. I think there’s far too much sex and violence and all that. I’m sorry to sound like a Mary Whitehouse, but you don’t seem to get any comedies, or very few, these days. I like to go and see a film and have a damn good laugh. I’m talking about when I was very young when there used to be those sophisticated Hollywood films, comedies — with people like Adolphe Menjou – and they were lovely, you could enjoy yourself. But nowadays it’s all sex and shooting and striking, and…

GN: And even the comedies aren’t always funny now. I think the Carry-On films are funny, but the others seem to be rather poor copies.

SHUFF: Those Carry-On films are funny, and they’re such old gags, aren’t they –

GN: But that’s part of the fun isn’t it, and all the people in them know the gags –

SHUFF: And everyone that’s watching knows them as well!

GN: What do you think Mary Whitehouse’s reaction would be if she came into the Black Cap and saw your act?

SHUFF: (thoughtfully) I don’t know … quite honestly.

GN: But you’d think of something to say to her –

SHUFF: Mark Fleming would! That’s his scene, isn’t it, sending people up –

GN: But it’s not yours?

SHUFF: No. I just tell jokes – if they laugh, they laugh, if they don’t they don’t, that’s it. I don’t want to make any lasting friendships, or any enemies.

GN: Do you find you get a regular audience, people who are always standing near the front?

SHUFF: You get a few. That always upsets me because – it rather frightens me if you see the same people every time you’re on. I think they must know what I’m going to say. I’ve got about five acts that I do, I know these people who come in every time, they know the gags backwards – they still laugh, but I’d rather have people that haven’t seen me before.

GN: You’ve made a record, haven’t you?

SHUFF: For Decca, but I don’t think you can get it now, it’s out of print or whatever they call it. We did it at the Waterman’s Arms, when Dan Farson had it. We did a show at the Comedy Theatre, which folded after three weeks. It was called ‘Nights at the Comedy’ which was a good idea – Dan got a couple of backers, and a very good producer, but it didn’t run.

GN: What do you think of the theatre – do you go at all?

SHUFF: What is there to see? … The last one I went to see was ‘Move Over Mrs Markham’, with Cicely Courtneidge. I hadn’t been for such a long time, and I thought it was rather stilted. I suppose being used to variety, when you go and see a straight play it seems a bit slow.

GN: Do you get many tourists coming to see you?

SHUFF: You get an awful lot of people from Denmark and Sweden down at the Black Cap.

GN: Do they enjoy the show?

SHUFF: Well, they laugh, so I suppose they must do – I don’t know if they know what you’re talking about.

GN: Shuff, you come from London originally. Have you got a show business background?

SHUFF: No, not at all. I think my father was a waiter — I don’t know what he was waiting for … and mother was a whore, in Southend.

GN: Were you very stage-struck as a child?

SHUFF: No, as I say, before I went into the Gang Show, and that was only to get out of doing drill and all that. I’d no ambitions about going into show-biz at all. It was only that I thought it was a good way of not getting up in the morning.

GN: Have you any family?

SHUFF: No, none at all.

GN: Married?

SHUFF: I have been. When I was twenty-four. It lasted for three years – then I went back to fellas again.

GN: When you were doing variety, with Moss Empires and so on, you must have appeared with a lot of people we’ve all heard of?

SHUFF: I did. I was very amazed, because all these people that I’d always heard of, and looked up to, and admired from afar – when you actually meet them, they’re quite ordinary and down-to-earth, and much nicer than a lot of these bumped up little bastards you meet in this day and age. They helped me a lot – I mean, in as much as being charming and nice to me, you know. Any sort of help I wanted in the way of asking how to time gags or anything like that, or scripts and that, they couldn’t have been more helpful.

GN: You were at the Windmill for a while?

SHUFF: I was there for about three years – five shows a day.

GN: It’s amazing the number of comedians who’ve come from the Air Force —

SHUFF: Yes, like Reg Dixon – Reg Dixon was in the Gang Show at the time, and Dick Emery, he was in the Gang Show.

GN: Doing the same sort of thing he does now?

SHUFF: No, he wasn’t doing drag then. I saw him the other night on the television doing that thing “Oooh, you are awful”, but when I knew him in the Gang Show, he used to do some butch things then. He’s very clever, he’s another very nice person.

GN: Have you got any burning ambitions?

SHUFF: Ambition? To meet a rich, lonely millionaire! No, I’ve no ambitions at all.

GN: What do you really dislike?

SHUFF: Empty glasses! Don’t think I dislike I anything really.

GN: What about critics? Did that show at the Comedy fold because of bad reviews from the critics?

SHUFF: No it folded because of lack of money, Daniel Farson wasn’t exactly – oh, dear – Dan was very happy-go-lucky, you know, not terribly business-wise.

GN: Was he more of a performer himself?

SHUFF: Dan? What could he do? Oh, he was a brilliant interviewer, when he was on top of his form, he really was. Then he used to get pissed every night and that was that.

GN: What do you think of organisations like the GLF? People get very uptight sometimes when they demonstrate outside pubs or try to…

SHUFF: Who’s GLF?

GN: Gay Liberation Front.

SHUFF: Well, I think, if I may say so, it’s the wrong thing to do, because I don’t think you get people to join you if you do things like that. I might be wrong – I’ve only seen it once, that was outside the Black Cap about three months ago. They were going to do a thing at Kentish Town, and they came up outside the Black Cap with leaflets and all that. I think there must be a better way to do it.

GN: To communicate with people?

SHUFF: Yes.

GN: I think perhaps the Campaign for Homosexual Equality may be doing that. They’re more, for want of a better word, conventional.

SHUFF: You’re bound to get a lot of people who aren’t going to have anything to do with GLF at all, because they don’t understand it, and they are the people who are going to run you into the ground. I mean, if their job’s going to depend on it, they’re not going to scream the place down, are they?

GN: But it’s sad that they hide what they are.

SHUFF: Of course, but that’s the point of the whole thing, isn’t it?

GN (Suki): Of course, a lot of people don’t like drag –

GN (Martin): A lot of them do like drag, but they won’t admit it in GLF, because they’re afraid of getting screamed at –

SHUFF: That’s another point. You see, there’s a lot of fellas who would dearly love to go with a chicken, but they won’t in case the people next door or up the street and all that…

GN: But how do the people next door get to know there’s nothing wrong?

SHUFF: I don’t know – they do think it’s wrong, though, don’t they? I mean, no-one bothers about a fella picking up a woman and going off, but they pick up a young boy or something, ooh, that’s terrible.

GN: One thing, that’s so awful about being gay, is that gay people always seem to be much lonelier than other people. If you go to some of the gay pubs you see an awful lot of people standing around, not talking to people. Do you think that’s something particular to the gay world, or do you find it’s like that in all pubs?

SHUFF: I suppose it applies to ordinary people as well, I mean you get fellas who are probably terribly lonely and frightened to go up to a woman in a pub and have a chat, and vice versa.

GN: Show business is supposed to be very friendly –

SHUFF: Oh, yes it is – until you want to borrow some money! I’ve always found show business very friendly in every way.

GN: You said earlier that you thought perhaps drag as a popular form of entertainment might pass on – what do you think might take its place?

SHUFF: I couldn’t tell you that, if you gave me a thousand pounds. I still think you’ll have the top ones — plus self, of course – no, what I’m trying to say is that the bad acts will go to the bottom of the barrel.

GN: What’s the real skill of drag then – communicating with your audience?

SHUFF: Yes. I suppose I could do my act dressed as a man really – if it came to the point, suppose drag was suddenly banned, I think I could still go on and retain an audience

GN: So what does being Mrs Shufflewick add to it?

SHUFF: It makes it more comical, but I suppose I could dress up like a funny fella; if we got one of these silly bastards in the government saying “We’ll have no more gentlemen dressing up as ladies”, I would get myself a funny suit, a pair of glasses and a funny face, and still do the same gags.

GN: Do you enjoy dragging up?

SHUFF: No.

GN: Do you get a lot of pleasure out of appearing on a stage and talking to an audience?

SHUFF: When I go well, I do – but there’s no pleasure when I die a death.

GN: What do you say then? You don’t say “I’ll give it up tomorrow”, do you?

SHUFF: No.

GN: I remember one Sunday evening, it was early and the place was nearly empty. There were two people in the audience with whom you had a fifteen minute conversation.

SHUFF: I did?

GN: Yes, and it was hilarious, it was the funniest thing, because these people were answering you back, and sending you up in all sorts of ways.

SHUFF: I don’t remember that, but if you’ve had the background of music hall – I don’t want to sound big-headed or anything – over the years, then you can cope with things like that. I’ve worked some… I remember years ago, when I first started, I worked places like Middlesborough, and –

GN: Scunthorpe?

SHUFF: I’ve done Scunthorpe! I did Wigan, I did the Coventry Theatre for six weeks with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, and it was marvellous. I was only, you know, the wines and spirits, I was the second turn on, but they were a marvellous audience, and then I was booked at Wigan Hippodrome, for the week following, and I was top of the bill. I got to Wigan, and they’d got “Mrs Shuttlewick”, with two ‘t’s … I went through from Monday to Saturday, twice nightly, without a titter. Not one laugh – they didn’t know what the bloody hell I was talking about, this was before television, and being a Londoner, they didn’t know what I was talking about. So I have, er, gone through the mill.

GN: They were still polite enough to sit there?

SHUFF: They couldn’t do much else –

GN: They wanted to get their money’s worth!

SHUFF: Oh, I had a horrible week. I was practically putting my head in the oven.

GN: But I’m sure you’ve had some good weeks as well –

SHUFF: Ooh, I’ve had some marvellous weeks.

GN: Is there any town you particularly enjoy?

SHUFF: I think London mostly. There’s so much to do, you can go to museums, you can go to Regents Park or Hyde Park, there’s so many theatres and cinemas, you’re never at a loss to know what to do.

GN: Have you appeared outside this country?

SHUFF: Only with the Gang Show when we used to go over to Africa and Egypt and Cyprus, and all round there. That was playing the Air Force camps. I really enjoyed the Gang Shows, you see it was my first thing in show business, so I couldn’t have not enjoyed it.

GN: You all work together in the Gang Show, don’t you, you do your own act, then you were in all the joint numbers –

SHUFF: Oh, there’s all the sketches and things as well, but you don’t get that in variety.

GN: You do a double act with Mark Fleming, don’t you?

SHUFF: Every Sunday. I like working with Mark. There’s not many people I could work with, I must say that. Not because I didn’t like them, because you’ve got to have the same sort of mental thing. You see, I can get up with Mark, and without any rehearsal we can do a quarter of an hour of comedy, just playing off the cuff, backwards and forwards to each other. Like someone playing tennis – I couldn’t do that with everybody.

GN: Have you any dreams of becoming a straight actor –

SHUFF: Noo…!

GN: A lot of people like Frankie Howerd have tried Shakespeare –

SHUFF: I did a season of straight plays, ooh, hundreds of years ago, at the Harrow Coliseum, do you remember that? Remember when that chap used to have it, Alfred Denville, his son was the head chap there? I was in a show in Blackpool, and I had a message, or a telegram or something, to go and see Alfred Denville, so 1 went to see him and he said (actor-laddie voice) “Ah, I’d like you to appeah in my plaihs”, and I said “I’m not an actor”, and he said “I’ve heard about you, that your timing is good” and all this balls. So suddenly a script, about forty thousand pages, arrived – I think we did ‘Smilin’ Thru’ to start with, and then I did about four different plays, and I hated every minute of it. A straight play – there was no comedy in it.

GN: There’s something particularly rewarding about it, isn’t there, about making people laugh?

SHUFF: There is, if you can make them laugh. I did Greenwich Theatre – take this down! – the year before last. Marvellous place, no microphones, a round stage, no curtains or anything, and I said to him, can I have a microphone please, and he said “You won’t need a microphone” and I said I can’t shout, and he said “You’ve no need to shout, just talk in your normal voice.” — and he was right! The acoustics are so marvellous there, you’ve only got to whisper and they can hear you in the back of the gallery.

GN: What kind of people do you think come to the pubs – the same people who would have gone to the music halls?

SHUFF: I suppose you could say that.

GN: Do you think TV will remain the dominant thing, or will people get fed up with it?

SHUFF: I think they’re fed up with it now, quite honestly.

GN: You don’t like it, I mean, you don’t have a set?

SHUFF: Well, let’s face it, what do you see these days? The occasional thing worth looking at, the only thing I like watching are the old films. These modern things, they’re ridiculous, these bloody documentaries, they’re so boring – and it’s very much a closed shop, in variety – the same people on all the time, Max Bygraves and people like that, you know.

GN: What do you think about radio?

SHUFF: I think radio’s gone to cock quite honestly – you either get records, or sports results, all things like that. You very rarely get a decent play on, or decent variety – well, there’s no variety –

GN: And yet if they brought it back, people would like it.

SHUFF: I should imagine they would.

GN: What do you think about the radio comedy series, things like The Navy Lark, and Does The Team Think?

SHUFF: Well, they’ve been going for so long now that they’ve got the same gags all the time.

GN: Are there any really new gags, though?

SHUFF: Well, there aren’t really, you’ve got to tart up the old ones.

GN: I think it’s Ted Ray who always says there are only three jokes, on which all other jokes are based —

SHUFF: Actually, there’s only seven! Seven basic themes, and all the rest are sort of cobbled round them.

GN: Can you define the seven?

SHUFF: Ooh, yes, well, I don’t know if I can after all this whisky – you’ve got husband and wife jokes, you’ve got the queer-boy jokes, you’ve got the man in the street jokes, and things like that, and they’re all connotations of each other.

I had a lovely – did I tell you this gag? There’s this Irishman in a bar, he’s got this bit of paper with all these numbers and figures and things on, and this Englishman is stood next to him. He says “You look very studious” and he says “Aaah, well, Oi’ll tell yer what, Oi’m goin’ ter be the foirst Oirishman to go ter the sun. The fockin’ Americans have been to the moon, and the fockin’ Russians are goin’ to Mars, Oi’m goin’ to the sun.”

So the English fella said “Well, you’re a bit daft, ’cos you’ll be burnt to a cinder the moment you get there”, and he said “Aah, Oi’ve thought o’ that – Oi’m goin’ at night.” COLLAPSE OF WHOLE PARTY OVER THE SCOTCH GLASSES!

SHUFF: Have you finished now?

GN: Tell us what you think of Gay News.

SHUFF: It’s worth doing, but I’m afraid, very much afraid that you won’t be recognised. People, they’re frightened to accept it. I wish to God they would… I could be wrong. At least they can’t do anything to you police-wise can they?

GN: They can, all our small ads are illegal. According to the Attorney General, a gay ad is exactly the same as a prostitute’s ad.

SHUFF: What about all those cards in the shop windows? In the West End?

GN: What about all the computer dating, and all the hetero ads?

SHUFF: Don’t they do them for that?

GN: No, and they’re very obvious. I mean, they’re looking for cock, or cunt.

SHUFF: I’ve seen some of those in Archer Street, you know, you’ve got ‘Lady wishes to meet gentleman with leather gear’ and all that balls, well there’s only one answer to that, and they don’t get done. I think you’re very brave to run the contact ads – I really mean that.

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