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  • Jamie McCarthy

Acting Life and Death in the Time of AIDS.

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

15th February 2020.

I was 'off me’ed' dancing in Strangeways (the Manchester gay club night, not the Manchester prison) and at one point I got chatting to Gerry on the dance floor. He said his long-time collaborator Mickey Poppins wasn’t able to act in his latest play ‘The Dickie Bird Waltz’ (written under the nom de plume Jenni Potter) and he was looking for someone to take the role that was written with Mickey in mind. I must have been off my head because I said (more likely shouted) that I could act and I’d have a go if he couldn’t find someone else. I continued to fling my arms and body around in my e-induced dance-frenzy and at the same time had a huge fit of laughing, Must have looked boss (as they’d say in Liverpool).

Much to my surprise Gerry took me up on it. A short while later, when we weren’t 'off our ‘eds' he asked me if I was really up for it and we talked rehearsal dates. I said yes. I don’t think I would have been so bold if it wasn’t for the fact that they needed someone sharpish and were a bit stuck for choices, I probably would have let nerves get the better of me.

We did a lot of the rehearsals at the YMCA on Mount Pleasant in Liverpool. Me, Jane Hogarth, Keith Lancaster and of course Brian King and Gerry. Brian was (I'd say still is) Gerry’s best friend, and what a couple of extraordinary, dazzling, gorgeous sisters they were. I fancied the pants off Brian ever since I'd seen him all covered in brick dust in Jeff Young’s play ‘Family Values’ at the Unity Theatre. I think he was the Grandad, a sort of embodiment of the city of Liverpool, all monumental, dusty and hot as hell. I was getting to play his boyfriend.

My first memories of the two of them were when they performed with Mickey (and perhaps others I can't recall) as the Beige Experience. I remember seeing them one weekday evening in a gay bar called Scruples and it blew a door open for me into a mind-blowingly funny, intelligent, camp, homo-gender fuckery that until then I had no idea could exist. I remember one sketch really vividly all about having sex with a guy who was all: ‘I’m gonna stick this big fat throbbing dick right up your tight arse’ and, I think it was Mickey, replying with something like: ’That’s your winkie and that’s my poo-poo hole. Are you going to put your winkie in my poo-poo hole? Go on, put your winkie in my poo-poo hole.’ And so on. I’ve probably remembered it wrong, but something like that - ripping the piss out of butch homo pretensions and doubling us all over in the process. My friend Johnno also reminded me of another sketch that night where Gerry and Brian were playing crabs hanging from the pubes of one of the then younger male members of the British royal family.

I was a bit intimidated by them all, not that they were in the least bit unfriendly or unkind to me, but just I felt so dull in comparison. Their whit and sharpness was so breathtaking it was hard not to be intimidated (as well as thrilled) by it.

In the Dickie Bird Waltz, as I said, I was playing Brian’s boyfriend. Brian’s character had AIDS and was dying. To complicate, or perhaps simplify things, Brian also had AIDS and it was still in the days when if you had AIDS you also had a big chance of dying. He’d had KS and his health was pretty up and down at times. Add into the mix that one of my closest friends Paul Cassidy had not so long ago died a couple of years after a shock Pneumonia scare brought about his diagnosis. Over those couple of years he slowly lost his sight from CMV and eventually got dementia. It’s a cliche I know to say that we lost the best of us, but those two were incredibly special human beings, both fearless in their own ways and both spirited Queen’s who knew how to hold court and how to hold their courtiers in wrapt attention. Maybe it's true, we did lose a lot of our finest. Perhaps those good ‘uns amongst us were more likely to have pushed through the boundaries of experience into places others wouldn’t risk. Loaded word that at the time ‘risk’ and yes, maybe sometimes their wonderful, life-affirming trailblazing did put them more 'at risk’.

The play dealt beautifully, movingly, caustically and hilariously with what it means to live and to die and to be connected to one another. I’ll never forget Jane Hogarth’s character bouncing off the sofa and around the stage yelling joyously ‘I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive’. I guess it was Gerry’s way of processing, in collaboration with Brian, the fact that Brian was going to die soon.

It was strange enough navigating rehearsing this play with Brian - a play that talked about all this stuff, knowing what we all knew. It was amazing too. It got stranger when, after the first set of performances we were re-rehearsing for a bit of a tour (Manchester and London I think) and Brain got ill. We ended up rehearsing in his hospital room in Fazakerly. I’d got to know that ward all too well when Paul was in there. To cap it all, it Brian’s room was the same one Paul had been in during his last period of hospitalisation. Looking back it seems incredible that our hearts and heads didn’t explode with the intensity of it all, but there was something about those days of loss all around, that brought with it a kind of coping. It was no use to our sick and dying friends to fall apart, so you had to keep going snd we had to keep going for one another. So, I'd sit there in that hospital room rehearsing with my stage boyfriend in a play dealing with his oncoming death while we all dealt with the oncoming death of the man acting him. And for me, in the hospital room where I ‘d recently dealt with the oncoming death of one of my dearest friends.

Brian died before we did the London gigs. We performed for a few nights at the Drill Hall and Gerry read Brian's part from a script. How he (and all of us) managed it is beyond me when I look back on it. We learned to cope. It didn’t do them any good for us to fall apart. I fell apart big-style a year or so later. Sometimes its a case of cope while you have to … fall apart when you can.

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