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The Journal (Newcastle, England), December 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

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Byline: DAVID BANKS

IGOT myself dolled up in women's clothing again last night. Relax, dear reader, I'm no Eddie Izzard; I was groomed for comedy cross-dressing when I trod the boards as early as my first year at grammar school. Indeed, that ancient and elitist institution which your Left-ish columnist reluctantly admits to having enjoyed despite a notable lack of academic success was responsible for many an introduction to makebelieve transvestism, better known as amateur dramatics.

Not surprising, really. Along with caning, cold showers and cross country running, the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were the rewards for winning top prize in the 11-plus lottery system that led to the local grammar school.

And therein lay the problem: enlisting a chorus line of comely maidens at a boys-only school without press-ganging squeakyvoiced trebles and pre-pubescent altos was impossible. Thus was born the 'winter audition'.

In the far-off days before track suits, on the coldest, snowiest day of each year the tough-guy PE coach would join forces with the sissy music master to announce a double-length cross country for the entire junior year "except for those invited to attend the G&S audition".

Competition for a try-out was fierce but the music master already secretly knew the names of those he wanted; great was the relief of those 'volunteers' who clamoured to take part, greater the loathing of the pack as the shivering 'hounds' set out in vest and shorts to track their quarry across eight miles of snow-lashed tundra.

No willing athlete, I nursed my prized soprano voice through a succession of appearances as Little Buttercup and the piratical Ruth, trading down to the older contralto roles of Dame Carruthers and Lady Jane before turning baritone, astonishingly just before my sixteenth birthday with release from education looming.

My mum, bless her, always thought my stage appearances were wonderful, played as they were for maximum laughs. Dad was never so sure. "Bloody elephantine humour," he would mutter, squirming ever lower in his seat in the stalls.

The pachyderm he had in mind wouldn't have been Jumbo, either - it would more likely have been Nellie! …

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