I hope the whole subject of storytelling and conversation emerges with relatively clarity from our activity with Joey and Dexter, so I won’t keep banging on about it. You can fill in the gaps and keep the thesis in the mind, I’m sure. This is a tale of a racing driver, a parrot, and Frank Windsor’s badly bitten ear. It’s a tale which shows how improvisation in PR will always ensure that tomorrow’s fish and chip paper can be exploited to make more fish and chip paper for the day after tomorrow and more fish and chip paper for the day after that.
This was straightforward show business PR (a campaign to promote Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre) rather than show business being used as a vehicle to promote product. If there’s one thing guaranteed to make the UK media go gaga (apart, of course, from whoever’s tits or fanny fell out whilst they were getting out of a cab at ritzy club) it’s anything to do with animals. I know – as you do – that the media loves a skateboarding goldfish, a football playing ferret, an alcoholic cat, a snake in a skirt, or a window-cleaning hamster. Whatever. Treasure Island comes ready-packaged with its own animal star in the shape of Captain Flint, Long John Silver’s “Pieces of Eight”-shouting parrot. I persuaded the producers to allow me to stage a stunt. There was competition in the West End. Frank Bruno was playing Aladdin in a big shiny panto. It needed a stunt, and I alighted on Flint as the vehicle for PR’ing the show. I decided to recycle a successful idea.
In a previous life I staged a crocodile audition for a new Charles Strauss musical. Nothing wrong with recycling when something really really works, and he knew that this would really really work. The Mermaid Theatre’s production was going to use a genuine parrot, rather than a piece of stuffed felt with a beak. I decided to hold open public auditions for the part. “We’re desperate to find Captain Flint! Please help! Pop along with your parrot and he could soon be a west end superstar! With a superstar salary to boot!” The press release was dispatched, the media responded exactly as expected and excitedly informed readers of the when, the where, the why and the how with, of course, extensive references to The Mermaid and Treasure Island throughout.
Since all pet owners are besotted with their furry or feathery friends, and captivated by what they perceive to be their pet’s unique, amazing and adorable talents and qualities, this simple request was virtually guaranteed to pull in a crowd of A-list oddities. At the appointed hour, under the watchful eyes of assorted TV crews and print-media camera-folk, the A-list oddities congregated at the Mermaid (against a backdrop of Treasure Island posters for full brand-awareness brownie points). So that was story two. Of course, there had never been any intention of appointing any common or garden pretty Polly to the part: the casting had long ago been signed and sealed by the Mermaid with some hard-bitten professional from a performing animal agency in Norfolk.
In due course, to keep the story rolling, we announced the identity of the successful candidate. Sadly, for the enthusiastic parrot owners who’d flocked to the auditions, none of them had secured the hoped-for prize. Never mind – they’d had their fifteen minutes of fame. And no, it wasn’t the professional parrot either. We were saving that for later. The parrot selected for the part, after weighty consideration by the director, was Humbert, a particularly beautiful specimen owned by one James Hunt. James Hunt was a then very famous World Champion Formula 1 driver and (genuinely) Humbert was his parrot. I had great memory for Fine trivia. I managed through a mate to get an audience with Hunt in his Wimbledon home. Over a game of pool I persuaded Mr. Hunt to get involved in this piece of tomfoolery. The fee, of £550 was to be paid in bird seed. I now had our THIRD story for the price of one as the papers rushed to print pictures of the dashing star of British motor-racing with his feathered friend. I don’t think I’d fully worked out at this point how to extricate myself from this situation: one way or another, Humbert would have to be removed and replaced by our (pre-agreed) professional, and however it was to happen, it had to make a fair bit of media noise.
We set to the task of improvising some not-quite-too-far-fetched media-friendly guff to get ourselves off the hook. In time-honoured fashion, this involved sitting around with our feet on a board-room table, staring into space and chewing over some vaguely on-topic crap about panto, parrots, theatres, and Frank Windsor. Inspiration emerged, as inspiration usually did when we subjected ourselves to the rigours of this arduous creative process. It turned out that Humbert, with his acute and astonishing powers of mimicry, had started swearing on stage. He’d picked up some particularly robust language from the stage crew, which he vented at random during rehearsals. Worse still, gripped by some major luvvie tantrum, Humbert had bitten Frank Windsor’s ear.
The story was duly released, and Frank Windsor was fully briefed on the tragic injuries he’d suffered thanks to Humbert’s violent tendencies. Frank happily headed off to a number of chat shows with an Elastoplast prominently attached to his ear-lobe. Amidst much rueful head-shaking at his co-star’s misdemeanours, he elicited the sympathies of the nation. Oh. And finally (as they preface all the best animal stories) there was still the vexed issue of who was to play the parrot. It was the usual, last-minute cliff-hanger. Could the producers save the show? Well of course they could. Step forward the professional parrot from Norfolk. Anyone in the media with any kind of critical faculty might have stopped to wonder why on earth the producers hadn’t thought of consulting an animal agency in the first place. But what’s the point of letting a few obvious facts or practical considerations get in the way of a good story?
As a post-script, whilst I was writing this, out of simple curiosity I googled “parrot bit Frank Windsor’s ear”. Top of the list was a story from the Weekly World News of February 6th, 1990. Under the headline “Big Mouthed Parrot Blows His Chance to Be a Star” I read (with a growing sense of wonderment) that during the first PUBLIC performance of the show, Humbert had not only bitten Frank’s ear, he’d also shouted “shut up” during a particularly critical speech, and then followed through by shitting on the actor’s jacket. Ridiculous. That can’t be true. It’s all very well having this swearing, shitting and ear-biting happening in the heads of the show’s publicists, but there’s no chance it’d actually happen live. There wasn’t a hope in hell of getting the parrot to misbehave to order. So, I can only conclude that the tale took someone’s fancy and they simply decided to embroider it slightly for their own entertainment and for the amusement of the wider world.
It’s only fair to point out that Weekly World News is possibly not the most reliable source of accurate, high-quality investigative reporting on matters of global import. Other stories in that week’s edition include “Chain Smoker Kicks 30 Year Habit … then chokes to death on wad of nicotine gum!”, “Bulldog rips Mercedes to shreds – shocked owner watches in horror as hungry mutt eats new car for lunch”, and the frankly less-than-credible “Liberace was a stallion – not a sissy!” (“Fancy pants pianist Liberace may have looked like a sissy-boy, but behind closed doors