Clive, Colin & Olive are the only Snow White dwarves worth caring about, Michael Pillow is the best broadcaster about train journeys, my head looks like a giant sugar cube, scrambled eggs and toffee will keep you going till 100 and Piers Morgan is the best James Bond ever. According to Mum, these facts are all true and everything else is fanciful thinking on my behalf. She’ll often berate me for ‘getting above myself with the intellect’ and corrects me by giving me ‘proper’ stories to relate … and when you think about it, they all make sense – Mum sense. A load of old Mumsense and I love it.
We’ve all had those moments when someone says something hysterical in front of a crowd and when that person is completely unaware of what they’ve said it makes us laugh even more, even though we know we shouldn’t – but it’s fun isn’t it? It’s panto season coming up and Tony and I are the panto band again – this year it’s Bluebeard, not Snow White, but Mum won’t be convinced that there won’t be dwarves in it. She won’t be able to come and see it this year and that’s probably just as well. The last theatre experience I took her to was to see Tommy Steele in Scrooge and we had seats at the back of the gallery – always a sensible place for Mum as she can’t resist joining in and causing a few shhhhhh’s and menacing looks over the shoulder for those too scared to do a shhhhhh. Back of the gallery? Yes, good thinking as she was so far away from the stage, she couldn’t possibly shout out to the performers . Wrong. Shout she did. Loudly, waving arms, mentioning me in every sentence. “Whoooo-ooooo Tommy Steele ! My daughter here wants to marry you” and a little later “Whhooo-ooooo Tommy Steele ! Do you have a dog? My daughter wants a puppy.” Where did THAT come from? Neither of these heckles were true of course and even though I’ve told myself a million times that people will only be reacting to Mum’s antics and not associating me with the mayhem, I was wrong. They did and told ME to shut up and stop encouraging my Mum. Tommy Steele did eventually respond with a “Hello up in the Gods – I’m the star of this show”. It didn’t stop her and how we weren’t ejected I’ll never know. Scrooge was similar to panto with its jokes and crafty asides to the audience, so we managed to stay till the end. She went to the loo after the curtain call and then I lost her. She’d gone. Nowhere to be seen. It was about twenty minutes until one of the ushers asked me if I was THE Sonia? Oh dear, here we go, straight back to childhood horrors of being rounded up by policemen as Mum was unexpectedly taken into care. “Yes – is everything ok?” Yes, Mum says that she’ll only be 10 minutes or so as she’s hoping to get to see Tommy after the show. Luckily (for me) she’d not got past Stage Door and came back into the main foyer on the arm of a very camp, red-faced young usher who kept patting her arm. She’d loved every minute of Scrooge of course and said she’d felt part of the show. I think I shrunk at least 2 inches by compressing my spine and trying to be invisible.
When my brother was born, Mum had severe post-natal depression which was, as far as I can ascertain, undiagnosed and written off as eccentricity. She’s never liked her red hair and when my brother arrived with his gorgeous shock of ginger hair she associated him with herself and didn’t connect. She was a ballerina who’d been asked to dance with Nuryev, so she couldn’t possibly look after a new baby. She broke toes going up on pointe in the hospital ward and cut the hem of her hospital gown to look more like a tutu. I’d heard the stories from Dad and Pop as they were always brought up as funny anecdotes, but underneath I knew that things weren’t right with her at the time and although they were funny antics they were, as I started to realise as I got older, the result of severe mental health problems. The gap between my parents was 13 years – she was the older one – so it had its challenges as a marriage in the 60s when that age gap was more unusual than now. She was always very astute though in her own way and in between her muddled thinking and outrageous behaviour, there lurked a philosopher and deep thinker. I can remember going to the ballet and asking Mum who all the dancer characters were. I must have been talking out loud as there was lots of shhhhhhh’s dotted throughout this memory. “Sonia darling, what you have to remember in ballet is that dancing has to be very clear on who is a man and who is a woman otherwise people get confused. That’s why the men have their willies on show and the ladies wear short skirts. These were the actual words she said. Yes, willies on show. I was confused and asked her afterwards if it was ok for men to show their willies on stage? Yes she said, as long as they are in a ballet. I wasn’t convinced but went along with it. I asked her later if it HAD to be men and women getting married, or could men marry men and women marry women. Only in America she told me. Ah, only in America, ok that made sense to my 5-year old brain. Soon afterwards I remember meeting one of Dad’s friends at a concert he was playing in and this man had a funny voice. I asked him why he had a funny voice and he told me he was American. Ah – are you sleeping with a man? I asked. Dad spat out his Guinness and his colleague walked away after smiling at me in that I’m-smiling-but-I’m-not-happy way. Mum had told me that men marry men in America, so surely that made sense? Why were grown-ups so confusing?
Mum told me yesterday that the care home has a box of James Bond films and she’s going to watch the Piers Morgan one. Try telling her that it’s Pierce Brosnan … she berated me again with a friendly chide … Pierce? What kind of a man’s name is that? OK Mum, which film is it? Tomorrow Never Dies? The World is Not Enough? Die Another Day? “Oh do be quiet Sonia darling, you’re so depressing at times you know”. We’re having a couple of excerpts of the James Bond theme in panto – when the baddies gets chased by the goodies, so I’ll be thinking of Mum and her box sets at the next rehearsal, fantasising about Tommy Steele in the main role maybe, wondering if any of the flash, bangs or wallops will happen in the right places. It’s going to be fun – oh yes it is.
As for scrambled eggs and toffee … Mum woofed down a whole jar of Potter’s malt extract and cod liver oil when the carers weren’t looking and had the inevitable digestive ‘alterations’ to her normal routine and she’s on a protest … only accepting scrambled eggs or toffees to eat … to teach her carers a lesson. A lesson in what, I’m not sure, but with every day we speak I continue to learn from this extraordinary woman. Dum diddle-um dum, dum-dum-dum-dum, Dum diddle-um dum, dum-dum-dum-dum, Daaaaa Dum, Da dum dum .
Mum used to watch the television with sunglasses on because she confused the brightness button for the volume control. “I’m not enjoying this show, but I’m watching because you used to work with these boys”. Which boys, Mum? “These boys, these two, you know”. Any clues? “The suity booty boys” Errrr … who might she be watching I wondered? “They give people money”. Can you describe them, Mum? What do they look like? “Oh you know, Sonia darling, you’ve worked with them … CHAS AND DEN! Tell them to turn the light off.” Now there’s a tribute act if ever I’ve heard one. Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis in braces and flat caps singing “Gertcha” or in their case “Gertchacashflowsorted aaaht !” Mum told me not to be so silly and respect the people I’d worked with – after all, they’d helped to pay for my Donald Duck obsession. There are bits of this conversation from a couple of years ago that make sense, in their own way. It’s one of my favourite Mum mix-ups, the small parts contributing to the beauty of the whole.
Television and Mum has always been a tricky combo. As a very small child my father insisted that we didn’t have a telly as it would stifle our creativity and turn us into lazy kids. This meant, of course, that we had lots of lazy kid friends whose houses we used to find any excuse to go to. The haven of Nan and Pop’s flat always had the telly on quietly in the background until one of the big entertainment shows was on and the volume went up. It was there that I learned to love Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, Chas and Dave and anyone who threw their talent out for the world to enjoy. Mum would only stop talking over everything when Val Doonican came on as she liked his rocking chair and always wanted one. We did buy one, but I remember rocking so hard that it nearly tipped over and once rocked over Mum’s new shoe – with her foot in it – so it went out to the rag and bone man. There’s a point to all this as the rag and bone man used to fancy Mum and once gave her a tortoise which she called Dave after Chas & Dave. She couldn’t call it Chas as that was Dad’s name and that would have been too confusing. So Dave it was – slow old Dave, escaping at every opportunity and digging himself into the mud when Summer started to wane.
Our flat was actually small, but I remember it being huge. Dad would have been practicing his violin in the main bed-sitting room while my brother and I would be in our room at the back, quietly pretending to be superstars in case Dad heard us; and that might have meant having to confess to watching these entertainers on someone else’s telly. So imagine my joy many years later at Radio 2 when Frances Line, our wonderful channel Controller, asked me to meet Chas & Dave’s manager to discuss a special programme featuring the boys. I thought … “think BIG Sonia, think BRAVE like Mum does.” So I suggested to Frances that we should do something huge, book in a proper band to back Chas & Dave, invite superstar guests on and record in a huge cabaret venue in North London. Worrying that she’d tell me go away and stop being silly, she said “Great idea – off you go”. So I did and 6 specials later Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock became firm friends. And through them I met my lovely husband Tony – it’s great when life aligns isn’t it? So Mum’s always known that Chas & Dave have always felt part of the family, even though she was never given any actual dates or details just in case she decided to pay them a visit.
I was about 7 when I first really understood that Mum had mental health issues. The full extent of her illness had been kept from me for years and all credit to my selfless step mother Donna who took on two young children and an unstable, unpredictable ex-wife when she married the love of her life, my Dad Charles (or Chas as often referred to by his folks; my Nan and Pop). My brother and I were once waiting for her to pick us up for one of our regular Sunday visit days out, but she didn’t appear for a while. So we ventured into the Golders Green Station cafe to wait as it was cold. About an hour later the cafe owner came up and said, cautiously … “Are you Sonia & David?” Yes we said, wondering why we were suddenly being addressed by our names. “Are you waiting for your Mum?” Yes … we were. At full blast he then leant out of the cafe window and yelled at two policemen outside … “They’re in here!” We were then escorted out by two young male coppers who refused to tell us anything until we got to the station. Terrified, puzzled and suddenly realising that we really couldn’t go to the station with them or “how would Mum know where to meet us?”, we were told that our family knew what was going on and that we shouldn’t worry. Huh ! Grown-ups … even the official ones spoken nonsense and we decided that we couldn’t even trust the police. We sat in a cold, bare room until a lovely lady came in, followed by a very anxious Dad and Donna. Mum had apparently been taken into care to protect herself and a couple of people she’d accosted and had eventually told the authorities that her children were running around at Golders Green. The search party had been up and down the High Street, missing children alert, the works. I found all this out years later, but at the time I just retreated into my safe little world to sing songs and remember lyrics of the great standards. Mum was trouble and she’s made the police arrest us. We knew she wasn’t like other Mums, but she always did lovely things in her own way, despite being the MOST embarrassing mum on the planet. It was all so confusing.
We saw her the following weekend and as usual she crouched down and held her arms out as we ran towards her. And we probably went to the zoo where she always managed to get us into bits of the zoo that other kids never got to see. Through sheer exuberance, charm and never taking no for an answer.
Mum – have you tried turning the brightness down on your telly? And the volume up? You might enjoy it more. “No thank you, I’m fine. They’ve just given a girl £50,000 – amazing. Did they ever give you money?” She was obviously convinced that two of the Dragons were Chas & Dave in disguise. When Tony and I told Chas & Dave that we were going to get married, they dedicated their hit “I Wish I Could Write A Love Song” to us when on stage at the Albert Hall. Mum would have loved that, but she would probably have heckled them with “stop singing in that silly voice” or “Tell my daughter to get more sleep”. And if that scared, young policeman had been in the audience I’d have asked the boys to dedicate the Sideboard Song to him … “ I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care if he comes round here, I’ve got my beer in the sideboard here, let mother sort it out if he comes round here”. She always did in her own way and I try to continue doing it when she needs it (sorting out, not beer – she’s not allowed).