Speciality Acts. Photos & text David Secombe (2/3)

Stevie Starr, Finchley. © David Secombe 1990.

Stevie Starr swallows things; then he brings them back up again. He is a professional regurgitator.

In the picture above he is bringing up a fountain of sucrose powder – which , bizarrely, is coming up dry – one of a number of different items and substances which disappeared and then reappeared before our eyes: a lightbulb, a billiard ball, coins … Another routine involved swallowing soapy water, smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke-filled bubbles.  He refrained from performing his famous goldfish routine, a trick which had got him into some trouble with the RSPCA. Stevie pointed out to the animal welfare inspector who came to see his show that he drank six pints of water before he swallowed the fish, that he had never had one die on him and that, as their memory span was only eight seconds, by the time they were in his stomach they couldn’t remember how they got there.

Stevie’s story of how he came to acquire such a skill was touching, if perhaps calculated; he said that he was bullied at school and had to swallow his pocket money to stop it from being stolen; he then discovered that he could bring the change back at will.

I heard nothing of Stevie for many years – until last year, when he appeared as a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent. Stevie’s talent is specialist but genuine: in an earlier era, he might have become as well-known as the celebrating farting turn Le Petomane, but Stevie’s skill is perhaps too unnerving for contemporary taste. Seeing his routine close-up was a hugely memorable yet faintly worrying experience: I thought he was going to choke to death on that billiard ball.


… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012. 

Speciality Acts.Photos & text: David Secombe (1/3)

Larry Barnes, ‘The Viceroy of Versatility’, Finchley. © David Secombe 1990.

From the Obituary column of The Stage:

Larry Barnes

Published Monday 15 August 2011 at 17:42 by Richard Anthony Baker

Billed as the Viceroy of Versatility, Larry Barnes lived up to the promise. As one of the variety theatre’s last speciality acts, he was a magician, an escapologist, a balloon sculptor and most famously a paper tearer.

His father introduced him to music hall when he was still a boy and, after only a brief stint at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, he made his stage debut at the Adelphi in 1941/42 playing a pirate in Peter Pan with Barbara Mullen in the title role. After serving in the Second World War, he resumed his stage career and also worked as a stunt man in films, including The Colditz Story (1955).

After contracting arthritis following an accident on stage, he furthered his interest in magic and took part in the Tower’s annual music hall shows. He also recreated the escapology act of Houdini, releasing himself from a range of ancient handcuffs and a straitjacket in less than a minute. In addition, he built up a repertoire of songs that he combined with his conjuring and paper tearing. His most famous was If It Wasn’t For the ‘Ouses in Between, originally sung by the Cockney comedian, Gus Elen. Barnes’ gimmick was this – as he reached certain words in the song, such as ‘a ladder’, or ‘a tree’, or ‘a row of houses,’ he would produce his paper representation of them. “Wiv a ladder and some glasses, you could see to ‘Ackney Marshes, if it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.”

David Secombe writes:

These photos showing Larry Barnes demonstrating his version of Harry Houdini’s straitjacket routine were made at the home of Larry’s assistant (who was also a Justice of the Peace) in Finchley. The photos were commissioned for a Sunday Times Magazine feature on ‘Speciality Acts’, which were having something of a revival at the time – the term covered old-timers like Larry and the new breed of more outre ‘New Variety’ performers such as the ‘regurgitator’ Stevie Starr, another on my list of subjects. Larry arrived at his assistant’s later than billed, dressed in an extravagant outfit which spoke of the theatricality of an earlier era; unfortunately, his stylish presentation was the reason for his lateness, as he had been mugged on the Victoria Line by some football supporters who took exception to his appearance and stole his carpet-bag of props. The bag was thrown onto the platform at the next stop, but Larry had had to go to Brixton to retrieve them from lost property.

Amongst other things, the bag contained Larry’s prized handcuffs, allegedly the property of Houdini himself – although it has to be said that Larry was a bit vague on their provenance. But Larry’s tour-de-force was his straitjacket escape, which provided this photographer with a sequence of a dozen images which – by accident rather than design – look like some kind of collaboration between Edward Muybridge and Francis Bacon. The pictures only give a hint of the tremendous effort Larry put into this stunt, but I like to think that his expression in the final image gives an indication of the nature of his achievement. Quite literally, Larry shows us what it means to be free.

Larry Barnes, born Islington May 16, 1926; died Hackney, July 2, 2011.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.

Christmas on Greek Street.

© David Secombe 2010.

From Act Two of The Homecoming, Harold Pinter, 1965:

LENNY: […] I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t I take her with me up to Greek Street?


MAX: You mean put her on the game?


We’ll put her on the game. That’s a stroke of genius, that’s a marvellous idea. You mean she can earn the money herself – on her back?


MAX: Wonderful. The only thing is, it’ll have to be short hours. We don’t want her out of the house all night.

LENNY: I can limit the hours.

MAX: How many?

LENNY: Four hours a night.

MAX: (dubiously) Is that enough?

LENNY: She’ll bring in a good sum for four hours a night.

MAX: Well, you should know. After all, it’s true, the last thing we want to do is to wear the girl out. She’s going to have her obligations this end as well. Where you going to put her in Greek Street?

LENNY: It doesn’t have to be right in Greek Street, Dad. I’ve got a number of flats all around that area.

MAX: You have? Well, what about me? Why don’t you give me one?

LENNY:  You’re sexless.

… and a Merry Christmas to all our readers. 

(see also: Old and New Soho no.5)

Drinker’s London. Photos Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe. (3/5)

Brydges Place, WC2, 1982. Photo © Paul Barkshire.

Brydges Place – “the narrowest alley in London” – runs between St. Martin’s Lane and Bedfordbury. Paul Barkshire’s photograph shows the view towards St.Martin’s Lane, where the alley narrows with an authentically Victorian oppressiveness before it opens out into the bright lights next to the Coliseum. Ahead, the pub signs denote the back doors of The Marquis and The Harp, the latter being one of the  nicest remaining West End pubs; immediately behind where Paul placed his camera is 2 Brydges Place, a civilized drinking club which, like the Harp, is much favoured by actors and theatre people.

This Dickensian little alley – a relic of a time when London was interlaced with innumerable such passages, usually forbidding rather than charming – offers many possibilities for drinking, socialising and making odd connections in general. On a warm night, or just when the pubs are so rammed that they spill into the alley, one can strike up intriguing conversations with strangers. And the stars are more vivid when you can only see a narrow slit of sky (past the sodium yellow of the streetlights, of course).

It is also a good spot to make a fool of yourself. Your correspondent went to English National Opera at the Coliseum earlier this year, and after a couple of sharpeners at the Harp, used Brydges Place as a cut-through – forgetting how crowded it gets on a Saturday when there is a matinee at ENO. As I trundled towards St.Martin’s Lane, I noticed a very beautiful woman waiting for me to clear so she and her friend could enter the alley: I recognised her as being the celebrated actress Saffron Burrows. No sooner had I clocked her and her cheekbones than I heard her say to her companion:  “We’ll have to wait for this large man to get out before we can go down here”. A fraction of a second later, I stepped on a loose paving slab and my desert-booted foot dropped into filthy rainwater up to my ankle. Smooth, smooth, smooth. D.S.