Not so long ago if you saw someone apparently talking to himself in the street you thought ‘Oh, poor fellow: he’s schizophrenic, and talking to the voices that torment him.’ Nowadays however he’s likely to be using a ‘Hands free’ (hands in fact usually firmly imprisoned in pockets) mobile phone, and one thinks instead ‘Oh, poor fellow: he’s utterly boring and talentless, but desperately wants people to think he’s more important than they are, so he insolently affects to ignore the fact that he’s in a public place.’
As I live a sheltered life I haven’t yet got used to seeing these ghastly devices and their ghastlier users. They remind me of something we used years ago in the theatre: the radio mike. Specially useful for shows in which an actor had to move about a lot, perhaps dance, while singing a song, the radio mike had a tiny microphone, to be clipped to a collar or lapel, connected to a transmitter the size of an old clunky mobile phone which would be tucked somewhere out of sight in the actor’s costume. Radio mikes were expensive delicate devices needing careful adjustment, so they were usually looked after by a stage technician and only fitted to the actor just before she went on.
That happened to be my job on a show at the New Theatre Oxford, whose auditorium is so vast even Chaliapin or Caruso would have had difficulty projecting his voice to the upper galleries. On the first night I was waiting in the darkened wings with the radio mike, ready to fit it to Joyce Blair. (Sister of the more famous Lionel). I had worked with her before, but when she came up to me dressed only in fishnet tights and a leotard I hesitated: how was I to manage the embarrassingly intimate job of ‘fitting’ the transmitter into such an exiguous costume? ‘Just put it in my hand Simon,’ she whispered throatily, ‘And I’ll see to the rest.’ Then, after a professionally timed pause, ‘I bet that’s the best offer you’ve had all evening.’