Mat Ricardo: in praise of TV variety

Posted: Tue Feb 28 2012

Gentleman juggler Mat Ricardo relates how the glitzy world of TV variety shows inspired his new night

I have a strange relationship with TV. Don't get me wrong, I love it (well, I love the good bits - obviously, you'd have to put a gun to my head and my balls in a vice to make me watch anything involving the phrases 'Britain's Got…' or 'Factor', but that's okay. I'm not their intended audience). When I was growing up in the '70s and '80s, TV gave me all the inspiration I needed for the job I've done for all of my adult life.

One of my earliest memories is sitting cross-legged on the floor of my front room in north London with my parents, holding a warm glass of orange squash and watching 'Sesame Street'. I can remember exactly what was on the screen: blue monster and comedy genius Grover was working as a waiter and failing to serve a bald moustachioed customer. It was hilarious. It's still hilarious. There's a series of these sketches - always Grover, always the same customer - and I love them. Go look on YouTube and tell me if they're not the most tightly-scripted, unimprovable bits of comedy that I remember them to be: real vaudeville, but with fun fur. So it would seem that even when I'd just got done being a toddler, I liked New York wit with a dose of slapstick. Good start.

But it was when I was a little older that my education really started. In the '70s, there were variety shows on TV. Not shows that made performers compete for a prize or a phone vote but shows that gathered the best speciality and comedy acts from all over the world and threw them at my impressionable eyes. Today, these shows are generally seen as a byword for naff telly - a camp laugh at best - but to me, they were a window on a world of delight.

Every teatime on a Saturday night, Paul Daniels showed me the great jugglers Kris Kremo and Rob Murray, my hero George Carl, and the completely hatstand Hans Moretti, who shot crossbows at apples on his wife's ever-higher beehive hairdo. No fool, Mrs Moretti.

Bob Monkhouse's show brought not just the biggest comedy and variety stars from the USA - Sid Caesar, Bob Hope, and the underrated Kelly Monteith, along with the big names from British variety like Ray Alan & Lord Charles - but Bob's passion and well-documented obsessional knowledge of the medium made the interviews compelling, warm and unique. Variety acts started turning up whenever TV needed five minutes of fun. Jugglers appeared on 'Wogan', speciality acts got booked on Des O'Connor, the American ventriloquist Ronn Lucas even got his own ITV series. I watched, and videotaped, it all.

But the strange thing was, as fanatical as I was about watching these TV shows, I didn't want to be on TV. My fascination was with the acts, not the medium. Even as a young teenager, I knew TV shows were just a special gig for these guys - I wanted to know where they worked all the other nights of the week. I wanted to find out the places that booked variety acts regularly, and I wanted to go there and watch.

And then, as I started learning to juggle and developing a taste for performance, I realised that I didn't want to go to these places to watch. I wanted to go there to work.But still, I had no idea where these places were. No Google. No way to find out where Hans Moretti usually terrified audiences. No chance of being able to watch Kris Kremo's beautiful hat-juggling routine up close. When they were gone from my screen, I didn't know where they went to.

But then, in the '80s, I started seeing hilarious comedy juggling act The Two Marks on TV. They were from London. I was from London. I realised there must be somewhere here, where I lived, where I could go to start performing. Pretty soon I found it. Covent Garden. Street performing. There was my start.

Street performance was where I found my feet - my first love. It led to a life performing around the world, on streets, in theatres, on cruise ships, on the cabaret circuit. Last month, I finally started my own revue show. With 'Mat Ricardo's London Varieties', I'm hoping to share some of that sense of wonder my six-year-old self saw in those old TV variety shows. So that's why, in this month's show, I'll be interviewing 'Father Ted' co-writer Graham Linehan live on stage. Because TV comedy and light entertainment have an umbilical link to variety. Don't believe me? Well, one of The Two Marks was Mark Heap, who went on to star in 'Green Wing', 'Spaced' and the BBC sketch show 'Big Train', which was co-written and directed by - yes - Graham Linehan.

Last month, things came full circle when I was a guest on the Jonathan Ross Show (from 2:45). It was only a little segment but still, I was a variety performer on national TV, just like the people I grew up watching. Maybe of the four million eyeballs on the screen, one pair belonged to another shy teenager getting the first little inkling that this might be a job worth doing. Be nice to think so.