theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
When Dillie Keane decided she had to be an actress, it was impossible to convince her ‘straight Irish Catholic’ parents that she was doing the right thing. ‘They thought I’d go to the bad if I became an actress. They did everything to try and stop me really. But I wouldn’t be stopped.’
Co-founder and mastermind behind Fascinating Aida, the bitingly funny, all-girl cabaret group, Dillie studied music at university before getting into LAMDA. Most people think of her first as a cabaret artiste because of the phenomenal success of Fascinating Aida, still going strong since its first incarnation with friends Marilyn Cutts and Lizzie Richardson over twenty years ago.
The problem with this business is that if you’re an actor with more than one string to your bow and people hear about the other strings, they assume that you’ve decided to give the acting a miss. This is seldom true if that ‘other’ string is writing, or merely a different line of performing — as in acting ‘versus’ cabaret — and it gets forgotten by all except the actors that it’s foolhardy to rely on an income from acting alone.
‘I had a chat with Fidelis Morgan about that one,’ Dillie tells me. ‘After her first book was published, she met this casting director and the casting director said, “Oh, Fidelis, so sad.” “What is?” “It’s so sad you’re not acting.” “But—?” “Ah, but you’re an author now”. It’s crazy,’ adds Dillie.
Perhaps these erroneous assumptions are what prompt employers to turn to the sports presenter, the reality TV contestant, or the man who fixes their plumbing, for the roles being cast. ‘If you start out as a sort of a comic or an author or a weather girl or a news reporter, you can get any kind of acting job. If you start as an actor,’ says Dillie, ‘and then do something else, you can’t get any actor jobs ever again!’
Reality TV or not, she is a firm believer in training. ‘I think drama school is essential, I do, because it’s very hard work. If you can’t act at drama school, you certainly won’t hack the business. It’s a way of finding out a bit of how the business operates. I don’t think that every would-be actor is born with the ability to understand actually what they’re doing with their body at the same time as what they’re doing with their voice and their thinking. I think that’s why you go to drama school — it’s to knit those three strands together.’
It was Dillie’s musical bent that propelled her into the world of alternative comedy and cabaret even though she had trained at LAMDA and was getting acting work in the regions.
‘Twenty-four years ago, you’d go off to rep for months on end. And then you’d come back and everybody had forgotten you and you’d have to do that round of auditions. You couldn’t afford the train fare in those days and nobody had cars so whilst you were employed you could hardly ever look for any work to get you through the next phase. I had a raft of piano-playing jobs in various bars around London — restaurants and clubs and things like that. And I used to ring them up and say, “I’m back.” And they’d say, “Right, great, you can do Wednesday night this week”.’
She would play about five or six nights a week and loathe it. ‘I’m not a terribly good pianist and I hate that kind of piano bar work where nobody looks at you and nobody takes any notice even if you play something quite well.’
Noticing that a new bar was opening ‘a handy stagger’ down the road from her flat, she gave it a try. ‘I wandered in and said, “Oh, I see you’ve got a piano. When are you opening?” And they said, “We’re opening this week.” I said, “Are you looking for a pianist?” They said, “Yeah, we might, actually.” I said, “I’ve got Fridays free and I play”.’
‘They were such fun the people who owned it,’ Dillie continues. The couple, a Jamaican who had once been an actor and his heavily pregnant girlfriend, told her to come the following Friday and that if they liked it, she was in. She did and they did.
It was not long before she was asking them if her girlfriends could join her, explaining how bored she became singing the same repertoire every night on her own. ‘They said, “Great, fantastic. There’s no more money but everybody gets as much wine as they can drink”.’ She ‘bludgeoned’ Cutts and Richardson into coming down by saying she would only help with their singing auditions — ever the service required of piano-playing friends when you’re a performer — if they joined her in the bar. Realising they couldn’t just sing solos, Dillie sat down to write a couple of songs for a threesome and surprised herself.
‘I thought, ooh, I can do this, it’s rather good!’ she says. ‘Everybody used to come on Friday nights. It became this magnet and the place was absolutely heaving — on the pavement and everything. It was quite an extraordinary thing. And I got a couple of other girlfriends. If they could sing, they would come up or there was a girlfriend who played the trumpet. And it was really good fun. I wrote a couple of songs that seemed to go down well, that were quite amusing. I thought, there’s something in this. And that’s how it started.’
Then they all went off — Dillie to work in Dublin — before gathering again about a year later. ‘We loved singing together for the sheer pleasure of it, and there were all these clubs and places opening round London — Jongleurs and all that.’ It transpired, in the way of such things, that Marilyn Cutts knew someone who knew someone who knew Jongleurs founder Maria Kempinska. ‘We got an audition and they went: “Wow! We’re putting you on as headline”.’
As if that were not thrilling enough, Dillie was rung at the same time by BBC Radio 4’s Stop the Week; they wanted her to write a couple of songs for two programmes, wondering also if she had other musicians she worked with. She told them, of course, that she had ‘two girlfriends I sing with a bit’. And yet another friend rang the same day asking if she was free to replace a band that had cancelled on Capital Radio. ‘So we suddenly went from having three girls who sang a bit to having three incredibly official gigs all the same weekend. That was March 14th, twenty years ago.’
Now, the old stalwarts — Dillie, Marilyn Cutts and Adèle Anderson — have come together for what is being advertised as Fascinating Aida’s farewell tour. A celebration of their twenty years on the road, it’s One Last Flutter for the girls. It would be sad, mind you, if there were to be no other shows ten or twenty years hence. Why, I can see them now, fluttering round at Denville Hall (the actors’ residential and nursing home), still harvesting laughter with their satirical swipes at life and love, giving us 101 useful things to do with a pair of tights. Is this truly the end of the road?
‘I have no idea. It depends,’ says Dillie. ‘For two reasons I feel that I’ve come to the end of wanting to do any more cabaret. I did a show with Sandi Toksvig last year at Watford and wrote the songs for that and we were in it together. It was a joy just writing songs for a musical. I’ve spent the last twenty years learning how to write songs, and I now want to write musicals.’
The principal difficulty in sustaining Fascinating Aida is that it takes months of planning and writing to produce material for a tour, which gets in the way of other work. What is more, Dillie is finding cabaret songs very tough to write these days.
‘They kind of come out of nowhere and you have to add the idea right and oh, it’s just months of work. I’m supposed to be writing a musical version of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon. Literally a month after I had given my assent to doing it, with rehearsals for the Fascinating Aida tour starting in May, Ian Brown at West Yorkshire Playhouse rang up and said, “Yes, I’d like to do that workshop of the musical”. And I just went, “I can’t.” It’s a year and a bit to do a new [Aida] show. It’s a long time to take and I’m beginning to feel time marching. I’ve got so much writing time left in me and I’m using it up doing footling songs in cabaret. I now want to write something bigger.’ Fusing her wicked wit with that of Weldon for a musical She-Devil sounds like an excellent place to start.
And then, of course, there’s the acting. ‘I love acting — I don’t do enough of it,’ Dillie says. ‘I’d love to do Chekhov. I’ve done no Chekhov and no Shakespeare at all. Any part. I love Chekhov — he’s my favourite playwright. And I like the big Irish stuff; I’ve done quite a lot of big Irish stuff. My family are Irish and I suppose I am a fairly Irish sort of person. But I was brought up in Portsmouth.’
It was on tour in one of the more recent ‘big Irish’ plays, Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel in which she played Maggie, that Dillie had what she considers her most frightening time as a performer. There comes a point when Maggie has to scream: ‘She’s been making bread and she puts flour all over her face and it requires a huge emotional leap to do something that is so … from such a subterranean part of oneself. It terrified me every night.’ During rehearsals she kept asking if she could leave it until she was ‘more sure of the bits around it’. ‘And eventually, of course, the day comes when you have to do it. She launches into this wild dance and oh God oh God!’ exclaims Dillie.
Acting with Sandi Toksvig tested another kind of mettle. ‘Sandi,’ she says, ‘is possibly one of the funniest people on the planet. She’s just kind of remorselessly amusing. And I made what could have been a terrible mistake. We were talking about the show with Lawrence Till some months before, in the planning. She said, “I’m terrible on stage, hopeless. I do have to warn you, I’m a dreadful corpser.” And I said, “Well, you’ll be all right with me — I don’t corpse.” And I don’t. I learnt not to do it years ago. I gave myself some hard lessons.
‘Anyway, it was really, really difficult but I did keep very straight. She made Bonnie [Langford] corpse and making Bonnie corpse is really quite difficult. We had this bet once, £5, and anyway there was this moment where Sandi just started laughing and she couldn’t stop. The audience could see what was happening. And I stood there, and I stayed in character and eventually we came off and I said, “Five pounds.” And I was so thrilled with myself! And I was just about to burst and I didn’t. We upped it to £6 at one stage.’
No corpsing, then, though I wouldn’t mind betting on there being One Very Last Flutter at some time in the future.
Sarah Vernon © 2003
Originally published on R&V on 27-07-03
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