By the summer of 1999, I’d been working for The Big Bus Company as a London tour guide on their open-top buses for four years. The Big Bus specialised in the very best tours around the capital and still does today.
As might be expected summer time is the busiest period of the year in sightseeing and time-off a rare beast. Somehow, however, I had managed to get myself a few days off. It was a hot weekend in early July so I decided to escape the stifling city heat and drive down to Devon.
On the Saturday, after a relaxed evening at a Babbacombe restaurant I slipped off the kerbstone landing in a broken heap in the gutter.
The pain was agonising and I didn’t need the doctor at the nearby Torbay Hospital to confirm what I already knew - I had broken my ankle.
Back in London, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to tour guide for a while. This presented me with a problem. What was I going to do with all that spare time?
Robert Goodman, my friend and colleague at Big Bus (and the man who had trained me as a guide) suggested that I should write about something I knew about. One thing I did know inside-out was being a London tour guide. After all I had been doing it five days a week for the previous four years. I rested my plastered leg up on a stool, switched on my PC and started tapping away. Before long I had a first draft of a comedy stage play called Topless.
I constructed the play as an actual tour of London. The stage set would be an open-top deck of a sightseeing bus and the tour guide would be Sandie, a bubbly thirty-something, with problems.
I decided to make her story a domestic tale, something that everyone could identify with. And why not make it simple? She would be madly in love with her husband Duncan, a photo-lab technician, who does the dirty on her by having an affair with his female assistant.
And we get to hear all about it because nearly everything on Sandie’s tour of London seems to remind her of something to do with her straying husband.
My intention was to make the play light and fun when the tour begins and then make it slowly slide into a dark, sinister ending with Sandie revealing how she may or may not have murdered her husband as revenge for his philandering. The latter being revealed as her bus drove past the atmospheric Tower of London.
It was like Shirley Valentine meets On the Buses. Only with a Hitchcock edge.
The play written, my next job was to find a director to bring it to life. Martin Bailey was also a tour guide for the Big Bus Company but he had trained as an actor and was keen to get into the directing side of the business. I sent him a copy of Topless to read.
Twenty-four hours later he called me up to tell me he wanted to direct it.
Over the next few weeks, we started making plans for an early autumn production. We began looking for a suitable venue. We must have checked out every fringe theatre in London but we couldn’t afford even the cheapest rent. It was hopeless.
Despondent, one afternoon Martin and I met up in a bar off Shaftesbury Avenue and over a few beers decided to axe the whole idea. Maybe it was just beyond our capabilities and budget.
It was then that Martin suggested “Why don’t we do it on the bus itself? Perform the play for real so that when Sandie points out Piccadilly Circus on your right, there it is for real on your right.”
It was total virtual reality and a brilliant idea.
The next day Robert Goodman got us a meeting with Richard and Eleanor Maybury, the owners of The Big Bus Company, and we pitched the ‘play on a bus’ idea. Always receptive to any new thinking they were immediately enthusiastic and an opening night was penciled in for early September. We would run the show six nights a week. They would supply the bus and a driver every night and all Martin and I had to do was produce the play on the top-deck!
We put an advertisement in The Stage and held auditions on the upper deck of an open-top bus down at the Big Bus depot in Earlsfield, south-west London.
Actress after actress came up the stairwell, plugged in the microphone and gave an audition piece. There were plenty of good ‘Sandies’ that rainy afternoon but the outstanding one was Rachael Carter.
Rachael was an exceptionally talented performer who came originally from Blackpool. She had a superb sense of comedy timing and a lovely twinkle in her eye. Just what we were looking for.
We offered her the part of Sandie and she accepted it.
Rehearsals got underway and as it was too expensive to do them on a real tour bus driving around London, Martin would drive a hire car along the route with Rachael pointing out the sights from the passenger seat. Sometimes I sat behind her with a script and acted as prompter. It was probably the first time an entire play had been rehearsed in a Hertz rental saloon!
Richard and Eleanor Maybury, true to their word, started scheduling a theatre bus to leave from beside The Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly every night at 7.30.
Their brother Desmond had a special open-top Big Bus painted with a huge poster of Topless on its side. This was a stroke of genius and typical of Des. All day long whilst the bus was running around London picking up tourists for Big Bus sightseeing tours, it was giving our little play massive publicity. And as TV news crews are always filming in the streets of London (how many times have you seen a reporter standing in front of The Houses of Parliament?) we were getting the name of the play on national TV many times a day.
Brendan Murphy, a Sales Controller at Big Bus turned out to be a fantastic artist and came up with a stunning poster for us. It was great to see it displayed all over London.
Interest from the press was high too. Our publicity girl Sara Tauxe did a great job getting us on the BBC news and countless foreign TV programmes who couldn’t believe that these mad English people were performing a play on a bus.
The first night came up and was a resounding success. Rachael Carter’s performance was a triumph managing to pull off the bubbly side to Sandie’s character equally as well as her darker side.
The end of the play where she explains how she would commit the perfect murder, in the shadow of The Tower of London, worked a treat. Just like I had always hoped it would.
I loved seeing Topless go out night after night packed with theatregoers who were willing to try a different kind of theatrical event.
One night I ‘rode the show’ as we called it and when the play had finished got into conversation with a middle-aged American and his wife from Texas.
Out of curiosity I asked him what he had thought of the evening. He replied “Really enjoyed it but that tour guide should really concentrate on the sightseeing. All she went on about was her damn husband Duncan! Who cares about him? We wanted to see the sights. Someone should have a word with her and tell her to leave her problems at home.”
It turned out that he and his wife had really believed that they were on a genuine sightseeing tour. They had no idea that it had been a play when they bought their tickets!
A higher compliment would have been impossible to get.