The new best friend I’ve never met

It seems that as more and more of us get vaccinated against Covid 19, finally, the world will start to open up again. It’s got me thinking about my personal relationships. Having been in lockdown for a year and only seeing family in my bubble and acquaintances from a distance I’m wondering if I’ll ever go back to normal, pre-pandemic, human interaction.

It’s not that I haven’t been interacting with people, it’s just it’s been done mostly using a computer and a microphone or a video camera.

But does it matter?  That’s a question I seriously had to ask myself this week.

It all started last year when I was presenting the late show on BBC Radio Wales.  At the time I was broadcasting from home and not seeing many people, not going anywhere and not doing anything of note to talk about. With 3 hours to fill every night…well after a few months even I was running out of stories about Elton John and the Cappuccino Girls.

I was trawling through twitter when I noticed that the Welsh entertainer Johnny Tudor had posted a lovely letter from the wife of Hollywood star Ernest Borgnine.  The letter said that she and Ernie had loved seeing Johnny perform on a cruise. 

It got me thinking, I bet Johnny had lots of great showbiz stories to tell so I invited him to be a weekly guest on the show.  These chats went on for months with no sign of the stories drying up.

Earlier this year we decided to start a podcast and so was born ‘The Mal and Johnny Show’.  Over the weeks we’ve had special guest shows with people like Ruth Madoc and Mike Doyle, we recorded a Gavin and Stacey special with Johnny telling stories from his time playing various characters in the show and this week we have recorded a 2 part special with the greatest Pantomime Dame of all time, 95 year old Wyn Calvin. (more of that later)

I love having special guests, but I also really like the chats Johnny and I have on our own.  Last week’s podcast was all about the golden days of Summer Season.  In the 1950’s and 60’s an entertainer had the whole year mapped out.  Panto from December until March, Variety and Night Clubs until the start of Summer Season.  Before you knew it, it was time for Panto once again…oh no it wasn’t…oh yes it was!

As I was sat at the dinner table talking to my bubble about the latest episode of the Mal and Johnny Show my daughter asked a strange question.  ‘Dad, have you ever met Johnny Tudor?’. This is someone who for the past year I have spoken to at least 5 times a week. We have shared stories about theatre and TV as well as our personal lives. If I’m honest Johnny has become one of my closest, lockdown friends. 

My initial answer was ‘yes, of course…’   Then I stopped and thought for a minute.  I’ve known about Johnny all my life.  I’d seen him on stage and TV and followed him on social media…but had I ever met him?

At the end of last week’s podcast, I asked Johnny the same question. It made him stop in his tracks as well.  He had the same initial response as I had had, but on reflection, apart from maybe meeting in the HTV or BBC canteens he couldn’t think of a time that we had worked together or even shared a coffee.  After we laughed about it he acknowledged that we had probably spent more time together than he had with his wife and that we were definitely ‘Butties forever’.

It made me think how adaptable human beings are, that we are able to build strong friendships and relationships even if we never actually meet in person.  Having said that Johnny and I plan to go out for dinner as soon as this is all over.  I wonder if he’ll like me, will it be awkward? 

I have a feeling that although the whole human interaction thing might seem strange at first, and we might need some practice and give ourselves some time to adapt, being truly human will probably come back to us all pretty quickly.

Wyn Calvin performing on Worker’s Playtime

This week Johnny and I recorded a special interview with Wyn Calvin. Wyn came from a Presbyterian Family in Narberth and when he decided to become an entertainer I’m certain the church’s loss was showbusiness’ gain.

Like so many of his generation Wyn started performing at the end of the war entertaining the troops in Europe as part of ENSA.  ENSA was set up in 1939 and stood for ‘Entertainments National Service Association’ although Wyn thought ‘Every Night Something Atrocious’ was much more apt.

Wyn took quite a lot of credit for ending the war pointing out that on the day he joined ENSA Hitler committed suicide.  Travelling across Europe in those closing days of the war meant they still had to wear military uniforms.  If they had been captured in civilian clothes they would have been treated as spies and shot.

After the war Wyn went into weekly repertory theatre. During the evenings they performed one play, during the daytime they rehearsed another. Radio was a big break for Wyn, and he told me he was such a regular guest on ‘Worker’s Playtime’ that he became known as the ‘Workers Plaything’. 

These were the days before television and millions of people tuned in to every show.  Wyn made some really interesting observations. Radio created big stars but before the introduction of TV the only way you could actually see these stars was in the theatre. This led to the golden days of twice nightly Variety.  That all changed with the introduction of television. 

Radio filled the theatres, television emptied them!

Wyn Calvin with his ‘son’ Boxer Frank Bruno

Wyn soon settled into the yearly entertainment cycle and started in pantomime playing male roles like the Baron or Humpty Dumpty.  As he came to the end of one season his producer said, ‘Wyn, next year I want to see you in skirts’.  Wyn protested and told the producer he didn’t feel the least bit feminine.  That, said the producer, was the reason he would make a terrific Dame.  Wyn went on to explain that for him the best dames were so transparent that even a 3 year old knew that it was ‘a bloke in skirts’.

Wyn has played mother to everyone from Frank Bruno to Mr T from the ‘A’ team.  If he needed any affirmation that he was the finest Dame of his generation, when Sir Ian McKellen finally accepted the invitation to play ‘Widow Twanky’ at the Old Vic, the person he called for advice was Wyn Calvin.

Wyn Calvin – King Rat

There have been so many memorable moments in Wyn’s career, but it was easy to see that one of his achievements that he was most proud of was being named King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats.  The Water Rats were established in 1889 as a fraternity and charitable organisation and previous King Rats have included Roy Hudd, Nicholas Parsons and Les Dawson.  In all that time there has only ever been one Welsh King Rat…Wyn Calvin.

I feel that the Welsh don’t always treat their heroes and heroines with the respect they deserve, maybe it’s the same everywhere, but whilst Johnny and I have the opportunity, we will do our best to share their stories with pride.

4 thoughts on “The new best friend I’ve never met”

  1. Wow yes what interesting ‘observations’ & questions to ponder!
    It’s fantastic to hear yoi talk & hear the stories/recollections of the business….and how it was……those great times….
    Fabulous Mal xx

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