As Boy with Beer is revived at The King’s Head Theatre nearly twenty-five years after its debut at The Man in the Moon Theatre, I’ve been on the media trail to drum up publicity for the production. Here’s a selection of Questions & Answers about the play, this latest production, and the writing process that first appeared on The Colourful Network website.
My Royalist mother must have been smiling down at me from her seat on the right-hand side of God, as the taxi arrived to pick me up to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Today would have been her seventy-third birthday, so I hope she’s still smiling down at me as I write this little missive.
The idiot Eastern European driver parks his car at a bus stop two hundred metres from my flat. So, I am forced to stride up to him suited and booted with dreadlocks flowing in the cold evening wind. He looks almost straight through me just as I reach the stationary Mercedes, and starts the engine to pull out into the street. I quickly knock on his window and manage to open the passenger door as he steps on the brakes.
“Are you the car for Buckingham Palace?”
“Hurry up and get in, man,” he shouts back at me, “I’m parked in a bus lane. It’s a fifty pound fine!”
“I didn’t tell anyone to ask you to park here. I told your controller exactly where my flat is.”
“I was looking at Beaufort Mansions,” he offers up as feeble excuse.
“That’s your problem, mate, that’s not where I live.”
“My problem?” he says with a snarl. “If I had known there was a problem parking, I would not have accepted this job.”
Well, naff-off then, I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t want to be late to meet Her Maj. So, I got in the car and uncharacteristically bit my tongue. “Just drive on, will you!” I said, in my most obnoxious tone.
He turned to look at me then, and slapped me in the face with a breath so foul that I immediately had to open the window. “Damn!” I said, but even the chill in the air couldn’t kill the stench.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” I replied. “I’ll need a cash-point on the way.”
Had he been a little friendlier, I might even have offered him one of the mints in my pocket. However, by the time we reached our destination to be guided through the main gates of Buckingham Palace by the security police, he had completely changed his attitude.
“Are you a little nervous about meeting the Queen?”
“I am a bit,” I reply, grudgingly.
“Don’t worry, my friend, you won’t be alone.”
‘My friend’ now, is it? I thought he must be gearing up to charge me that bit extra, now he thinks I have friends in high places. He was, and he did, £20 from Chelsea to Buckingham Palace just down the road, and I couldn’t even be bothered to argue with him.
“Will your driver be returning to fetch you afterwards?” said a policeman opening my door.
“No,” said I. “He can go.” And I smiled to myself at the absurdity of it.
We are welcomed into the palace and ushered up stairs and through halls into the Picture Gallery, a long top lit room about 50 metres deep, which serves as a corridor linking a series of smaller state rooms. I’m certainly among good company here.
There are people I’ve known and worked with in the past, plus some others I’ve only read about or seen on television. Newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald; Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri (making what seemed like a staged entry armed with an ornate Zulu walking cane); fashion designer Ozwald Boateng along with his following; the effervescent Linda Bellos, and many more recognisable faces whose names escape me.
While others are furiously networking, what strikes me most about this central area is not the imminent guest list but its gallery hung with classic works of art. There are paintings by Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, Vermeer, and other multi-million pound masterpieces by painters I’ve never even heard of before. Leading from here are the Throne Room and the Green Drawing Room in which I can just about glimpse paintings of various royal ancestors because we are not allowed too much wandering around just yet. It is in these very formal rooms – used only for ceremonial and official purposes – in which we will be entertained on Champagne and canopies for the rest of the evening.
We don’t know why but for some reason the room falls strangely quiet as guests starts to form a queue leading into one of the stately side rooms. I’m chatting to a former Miss Universe contestant, the ex-Miss Zimbabwe, when we too decide to get in line. In front of us is a blonde from the Foreign Office who suddenly starts to hyperventilate the minute we draw closer to what seems to be the focal point of everyone’s attention.
“Oh my God…Oh my God! It’s her. She’s there. You go first,“ she says.
From where I’m standing, I can see the Queen alongside the Duke of Edinburgh through a crack in the door ahead. “Calm down, woman,” I try to tell the Foreign Office blonde. “It’s only Her Maj. Ladies before gentlemen,” but my own heart was racing now, ten to the dozen.
“What do you say to the Queen?” she says.
“I couldn’t tell you, but I’ve heard you wait for the Queen to talk to you.”
“I thought they’d made a mistake when I got the gold-embossed invitation. I wanted to scan it and put it on my Facebook profile, but my friends would only accuse me of attention seeking.”
“I had the same thought,” I said, “but I’ve gone one better. I’m going to have mine framed in the bathroom opposite my throne. So when I’m sitting on the throne, I can remember back to when I met the Queen, who sits on the throne of England.”
The woman from the Foreign Office laughed out loud, but in the course of events, the Queen passed her by with a quick handshake, and then it was my turn.
From what seemed like a great distance away, which in fact was less than two metres, a man in a silly looking uniform announced, “Mister Paul Bo-a-che, ma’am.”
I had half expected him to pronounce my name incorrectly, and so as I walked towards the Queen and she extended her hand, I took it, and shook it, and said off the top of my head, “Your majesty, ma’am, I’m delighted to meet you.” As I did so, I bowed, and my dreadlocks swept forward. The Queen pulled back her head almost unconsciously and eyed me with a sideward glance. Then in that peculiar high-pitched Spitting Image tone inside my head, she said, “Oh – and what do you do here?”
That’s when I started to stutter. I’d understood each word the Queen had spoken, but I was having difficulty computing the question. “I was born here. I live here. I don’t work here, your majesty,” I wanted to say. “So what do you mean?” But in the end I simply answered, “I…I…I…I’m a writer, ma’am,” just like it said on my gold-embossed name-tag. “Oh, really,” the Queen replied, in the same deadpan tone in my head, and that then was my cue to move along. I was now standing before the Duke of Edinburgh.
“Good evening, Your Royal Highness,” I said.
“So what kind of things do you write?”
“I am originally a playwright but these days I’ll write just about anything I’m paid to do.”
“Do you have anything on at the moment?”
“Not at the moment, but I am currently writing my first novel.”
“Very good,” he says, and turns towards the ex-Miss Zimbabwe. “So do you write with him?”
“Oh – No!” she says. “I’m a model.”
“Right you are,” says the prince with a devilish smile.
The rest I didn’t hear because I was being directed back into The Gallery Room where we were now able to get up close and personal with all the paintings on display. It all happened so quickly anyway that I felt slightly giddy. Everything around me looked surreal, as if I had just fallen down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. Not a drop of alcohol had I touched so far, but now I needed a drink, if only to get things into perspective.
“What would you like, sir? A glass of Champagne or some freshly squeezed Sandringham orange juice?”
“You have your own orchards?”
“Yes, sir. Only the best for the Queen.”
“I’ll try a mix of both, may I?”
“Certainly. Thank you, sir.”
How the blued-blooded idle rich live, huh? You’d think that they would all be stuffy and boring, but I had just had a great conversation with one of the Ladies in Waiting who talked very eloquently about living in Washington DC and the poverty and racism she witnessed there. Then this very charming Edward Griffiths talked to me for a good long while about how they selected the guests for this evening’s event. They had come across me because of my sexual health promotion work around HIV/AIDS, Drum magazine, and my stint on BBC1 covering the newspaper reviews on a Saturday morning. Apparently, the Royal Household have a team of researchers who go out looking for distinguished people from all walks of life (arts, sports, music, science, and so on) to attend these types of functions. He himself had been a high-flyer in the hotel industry before being hand-picked to head the hospitalities team. I was impressed.
So there I am, minding my own business and checking out the paintings, when up walks Prince Michael of Kent; arguably, the most regal of the royals.
“It’s good to see a Rastafarian here this evening,” he says.
“I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Rastafarian.”
“I’m just a humble writer with a hairstyle that I like. I may have certain sympathies, and like Samson, my hair may symbolise my deeper roots and culture, but that’s as far as it goes, I’m afraid. In my eyes, even you could grow some dreadlocks.”
“Not with my hairline.”
“I never thought I’d still have hair at my age. But I’ve just been admiring these amazing paintings on your walls. It must be a great pleasure to wake up each morning and come down to see these in natural daylight.”
“You must be only about one of five people in this room who have taken any notice of the art.”
“I can’t think why.”
“Are you an artist?”
“Not in the sense that I paint or sketch, but I’m a great admirer of beauty in all of its forms.”
“My wife is a great admirer of art.”
“Is she here tonight?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, I’ve always thought her a very handsome woman.” Then just as I thought I’d said too much, I changed my tracks. “It’s funny, I’m currently writing a book based partly on my mother’s diaries, and it’s amazing just how much people of her generation knew about your family. I’m amazed because I know so little about the royal household.”
“How far have you got with your book?”
“Not as far as I’d like, but it’s coming along.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s going to be just great.”
“Can I put that as a quote from you on the back sleeve?”
“It’s nice talking to you,” he smiles. “Have a good evening.”
“And you, Prince Michael.”
He saunters off into the middle of the room where the Queen is surrounded by all and sundry, just as I decide that it’s about time for me to be heading home.
Years ago, I wrote a one-off TV drama on a fast track programme for budding UK writers, headed by Jane Tranter, then at Channel 5.
The story of an up-and-coming actor stalked by a crack smoking South London cabbie was loosely based on real events. Tranter described it as “dark, disturbing and violent.” And I thought, that sounds good to me. But she felt it was not something she could develop. In fact, it scared her half to death, she said. So much so, that she would “never go to Brixton again.” And that was that. My chances of a career as a budding screenwriter spent. In a later redraft, I changed the location to Notting Hill Gate–in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I lived. But I never sent the script out to anyone else.
What I remember most about the session is that we were a varied group of ten writers each selected from across the country, based on some degree of success writing for theatre. Their ideas for TV ranged from the return of a lesbian Boadicea charging naked through the streets of England to a crop of gangland shootouts across London’s East End, and the usual bog-standard sitcom concepts that barely drew a chuckle from me. Reading them one-by-one in the comfort of my home, none of it felt real to me at all. No authenticity of people, place or time. But whilst I could talk to them intelligently on any subject and offer my constructive criticism of their writing when asked, they all remained eerily silent in return when it came to any discussion of my work. It was a collective “silent treatment,” as if they didn’t want to help or contribute in any way to my success. I was puzzled at first. “Is that all you have to say?” I’d ask. But nothing. Silence.
Their faces remaining completely blank as if they’d just read something in English when they only read and understand French. It was the same experience years later, on an MA degree in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Being the only non-white student in the entire English department based in ethnically diverse New Cross, my peers listened intently as I discussed the merits of other people’s writing, but had few comments to offer up about my own or the work of any black authors. The same silent treatment had caused me drop out of a BA degree course in Theatrical Arts at University of Birmingham many years earlier. At least this time around, I actually managed to complete the master’s programme. It was really only six months, one day a week, thankfully. Any longer, and I might have got bored.
Can you relate to being on the end of the silent treatment from colleagues or friends? How did you handle it?