Once the phone had cracked open my dreams this morning, it was the smell of fresh bacon that kept me awake. That’s not to say I didn’t want to bury my nose deeper into my pillow, but I could not stop myself drooling over the smell of fried porker rising from the kitchen. My loyalties were split. My pillow damp. My dreams still tangible. I knew I could return to them if only the noise and smell would recede. I could be back in the lesser reality where I’d been wearing a loincloth and wresting a cobra in some faraway place where men with the Madeley surname are normally christened Conan. In the greater reality of everyday life, however, those same men enjoy ripping into bacon, their dentures be damned! This was the only reassurance I had. Dreams or reality: I knew I’d be doing something manly.
I was still chewing on the hard gristle of this dilemma when the bedroom door opened and Judy set the floorboards loose with her heavy tread.
‘It’s somebody called Tarbuck for you,’ she said, pulling back the duvet and exposing my naked flanks to the sunlight.
I shrivelled like Christopher Lee naked on a sunbed. On second thoughts, scrub that bit about Christopher Lee naked on a sunbed. It’s an image with which we’d be unwise to start the week. I suggest you replace it with a picture of uncurled mimosa under drops of spring rain. It has the advantage of added freshness and significantly less droop.
‘Tell them I’ll call them back,’ I muttered as I rolled over and sought dragons to smite.
Judy just took my hand and wrapped it around the handset.
‘Talk to the man,’ she hissed. She sounded quite cobra-like and was lucky I didn’t swing a keen edged blade at her head. Decisive action tends to be the way of all men called Conan or Madeley.
‘Speak mortal,’ I said, and by this you might guess that I was still a bit befuddled by sleep.
‘Hello? Richard?’ said a voice. ‘It’s Jimmy.’
‘Jimmy?’ I repeated. My mind grabbed the two names I’d been handed and shoved them manfully together. I was surprised by the result. ‘Jimmy Tarbuck?’
‘The very same. Now listen here, my old mucker. Those of us still up here in lovely Liverpool miss you and Judy enormously. We still drink to your health at the Dog and Duck near the Albert Dock, and your picture still hangs on the wall of the snug.’
‘Does it really?’
‘It does,’ he replied. ‘Though, to be honest, Richard, your mugshot got a bit shabby since Stan Boardman bought himself a new set of darts. He never misses now. But listen… We were talking about giving you and your good lady wife a very special opportunity on this fine day in January.’
I rolled over onto my back. I find it’s the best place to take advantage of very special opportunities on fine days in January. It’s also the best position from which to pick fluff from your navel. ‘And what opportunity would that be?’ I said as I flicked a small bail of cotton from between my fingertips.
‘A chance to do some good,’ said Tarby. ‘Listen, I can’t talk about it on the phone. Hush-hush and all that but we’re on our way to London and we could easily drop in to see you.’
‘Sure, sure,’ I said and my hand also moved south to put a parting in my hair down there to match the one upstairs. ‘You know you’re always welcome, Jimmy.’
Judy wasn’t so sure when I mentioned it to her over breakfast. ‘I thought I recognised that voice,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why I didn’t think gap-toothed Scouse comedian.’
‘That’s probably because you’ve forgotten your roots, my girl,’ I replied. ‘You also wanted to move away from the north. You never liked it in Liverpool, whereas I still wear my love for the city on my sleeve.’
‘That’s not actually true, is it, Richard?’ she scolded. ‘You were the one who said that London would be better for our careers. You were also the one who scuttled Fred Talbot in our back garden because you said he’d defile the Thames.’
‘As well you know, Judy, that’s not been proved. But I was right about London being good for our careers. And I’m right about this too. Men like Tarbuck know a thing or two about bank balances. If he’s got an opportunity for us, I expect we’ll double our fortune in weeks.’
She looked at me and shook her head. ‘Well if we’re going to have guests, I suggest you do up your fly or comb your hair.’
I did both, numerous times, during the anxious wait before the taxi arrived at half past one. The three figures that piled out the back were all familiar in one way or another. The rotund guy in a blazer was known to us all as Tarbuck, though behind him was a thinner man in a suit that didn’t quite fit.
‘Look who that is behind Tarby,’ said Judy, peering through a gap in the curtains.
I looked again. ‘Dear lord!’ I gasped, recognising the jacket thick with shimmering sequins. ‘Is it Doddy? And if I’m not mistaken, isn’t that Cilla behind them?’
Judy let out a squeal of delight. ‘Oh, it is!’ she said and rushed to the front door to greet the three most famous Liverpudlians who aren’t called Ringo or suffer an allergy to wooden shanks.
‘Surprise, surprise,’ screamed Cilla as soon as she saw me in the hall.
‘Hello Cilla,’ I said and bent low to kiss her cheek. ‘I hope you’re well.’
‘Course I am, chuck,’ she replied but became distracted by a commotion coming from upstairs.
‘Save my manuscripts before you save yourselves!’ cried Stephen Fry, suddenly appearing on the landing. His face was white with fright, though he flushed slightly as soon as he saw five of the nation’s top celebrities staring up at him. ‘Somebody did shout fire, didn’t they?’ he asked.
‘Calm yourself, Stephen. It’s just Cilla,’ I said as Liverpool’s favourite daughter began to wipe her lipstick from my cheek. I couldn’t blame him for his reaction. Fleeing to fire escapes is how most people react when experiencing a visit from Cilla without adequate warning.
‘Ah,’ said Stephen, giving a dark look towards the woman he’s still not forgiven for her behaviour at our last Christmas party. ‘Well, if you want me,’ he said, retreating a step, ‘I’ll be in my room teaching myself Urdu.’
I had to smile at the poor man’s cameo in this tale. Urdu indeed!
‘Hello Dick,’ said Jimmy Tarbuck, suddenly with his arm around my shoulder. ‘You’re looking fitter than a Korean’s whippet. You know Ken, don’t you?’
‘I think we’ve met a few times,’ I replied, shaking the King of the Diddymen by his tickling stick.
‘And it is a quite splendiferous moment to be meeting you, Sir Dick,’ said Doddy. ‘Very exciting. Very exciting indeed. In fact, it makes me want to shove a bag of flour down my pants and say “how’s this for self raising?” By George! Do you know how tickled I am? I’m so tickled that my chuckle muscle’s got lodged behind my joke junction. That’s half a titter above my mirth mound.’
‘I won’t ask about that,’ I replied as Judy began to lead us all into the main room. She and Cilla immediately broke away, leaving me to talk with the two funniest men in Liverpool.
‘So,’ I said, ‘can you finally tell me about this opportunity you’re so excited about?’
Tarbuck grinned, the gap in his teeth such a happy reminder of the harbour gates at Albert Dock.
‘Do you like ventriloquism, Richard?’ he asked.
‘Who doesn’t?’ I said in reply. And, indeed: who doesn’t?
‘Who indeed,’ smiled Doddy who waved his feather duster in delight. ‘How lucky we are! How lucky we are, ladies and gentlemen! I always say a good ventriloquist is like a good wife. You don’t see the best ones moving their lips.’
I gave Ken a questioning on your behalf before I thought to take the conversation into a twenty first century free of comic misogynism.
‘But this is so strange that you ask me about this,’ I said. ‘Only last night I watched a film set in the world of ventriloquism. It was called “Dead Silence” and was about old ventriloquist came back from the dead to haunt her killers with her reanimated puppets.’
‘Well, this has got nothing to do with reanimated corpses entertaining us with magic,’ said Jimmy. ‘We’re here to meet Paul Daniels.’
‘Not Paul Daniels, famous assistant to the lovely Debbie McGee?’
‘The very same. He’s organising the Variety Club’s 2008 appeal.’
‘Charity?’ I said, my hopes taking a slump.
‘Ah, but this year it’s not just charity for the children,’ said Doddy. ‘Heavens no! This year we’re helping one of our own. Keith Harris needs our help.’
‘It isn’t easy being green,’ I muttered, giving a shiver.
For those of you not in the know, Keith Harris would be the UK’s most respected ventriloquist had he not allied himself with the world’s most irritating puppet. His career is based around the pitiful sight of a small green bird, of indistinct gender and breed, who wears a large nappy and talks in an irritating voice.
‘That’s right,’ said Jimmy. ‘We’ve asked Keith to lead this year’s campaign and we were hoping to give him career a bit of a boost while we’re at it.’
‘And that,’ added Ken, ‘is the reason we have come south. We want you and Mrs. Madeley to have Keith on your show next week.’
‘I doubt if we could do that,’ I said. ‘Channel 4 audiences are quite sophisticated. Besides, we’re running the Richard&Judy Puppies in Woollens competition.’
‘Are you sure about that?’ asked Tarby.
It didn’t take me a moment to reconsider. If I’d learned any lesson from ‘Dead Silence’, it was that ventriloquists are a breed of men and women who take offence at the slightest thing and are more than capable of launching a killing spree from beyond the grave. ‘Hypothetically speaking,’ I replied, ‘do you think Keith Harris would ever come back and haunt the people who’ve mocked Orville over the years?’
‘I’m sure that he would,’ said Jimmy. ‘He’s suffered a lifetime of abuse from audiences, which is why we want to set things right. I’m sure there’s not a ventriloquist alive that would be as justified if he sought out his bloody revenge on his tormentors.’
‘Then count us in,’ I said. ‘Like I’ve always said, Judy and I are proud to call ourselves two of the biggest Keith Harris and Orville fans in the country.’
‘How tittyfalarious!’ cried Dodd. ‘I’m over the moon with nincombobulation. I’m like the blind midget in the lady’s sauna. It’s not how I look like but how I feel…’
‘Smashing,’ said Jimmy.
‘You’ve what?’ asked Judy in the kitchen ten minutes later.
I explained about my fears of being haunted by the ghost of Orville.
‘It’s perfect,’ I said. ‘Who better to judge dogs in woollens than a man whose made his career with a green duck in a nappy? And it saves me the trouble of writing to all the viewers who complain that I chose the wrong dog.’
‘You’ve lost it this time,’ said Judy. ‘I thought you’d hit bottom when you stopped wearing underpants. But this…’
‘Surprise! Surprise!’ said Cilla, barging her way into the kitchen. ‘Everything alright, chucks?’
I put on my best smile and carried two coffees into the front room. Things, I knew, would indeed be alright…