TWENTY minutes later Leopold Nesbo was sitting in the lounge bar of the Crown Hotel round the corner from the Royal Court Theatre. Opposite him was another man, carefully pouring a bottle of Guinness into a glass. He was sixty years old, rather overweight, with a pink, smooth face and thin strands of hair carefully combed across his balding head. Cyril Broom was the manager of the Jolly Good Company.
Cyril finished pouring the stout, took a sip then carefully wiped the thin white moustache of foam from his upper lip with a large white handkerchief.
He leaned forward over the small table.
“I’m worried, Nesbo. Things aren’t what they once were.”
“Cyril, things never were. It’s the nature of things,” Nesbo replied.
“But it’s getting harder to get people through the door. It’s an event now when we play to a full house.” Shaking his head sadly, he took a sip of stout. “These Picture Palaces are full. People want to see Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and now in America they have pictures with sound. Talkies, they’ve called them. Al Jolson in ‘The Jazz Singer’. All the rage. And it will come here, Nesbo. Bound to.”
“All right, we have some competition, but we have a good show,” Nesbo assured him. “The best on the circuit.”
“Have we?” Cyril Broom lowered his voice. “What about Delia Desmond? She’s old fashioned. A soprano singing old, sentimental songs. Some companies are showing films during the show. There will be a couple of Charlie Chaplin shorts, for example.”
It was Nesbo’s turn to lean forward across the table. His voice was lower than Cyril’s and more intense, his eyes sharp, unblinking.
“Delia gives a touch of class to this company, Cyril, and provides a nice contrast to Sally Swift. Replace Delia Desmond with ten minutes of flickering film and I’ll disappear . . .” he snapped his fingers “. . . like that!”
Cyril waved his hand as if to brush the very thought of it away.
“No need for that. I was only speculating. I’m just looking at ways to improve the company. That’s my job, Nesbo.”
The door of the lounge bar opened and a big man came in. He waved to the two men sitting together and joined them.
He had the face of a boxer who’d lost more than he’d won. In fact, he’d started out many years ago doing exactly that in the boxing booth of a fairground. Then he found he had a talent for making people laugh, which was much less painful, and more rewarding, than being punched on the nose.
Nesbo always considered that being a stand-up comedian was the hardest act of all, and being a successful one required experience, timing and natural ability. He regarded Lennie Douglas as one of the best. Lennie was in his late fifties now, and still very good.
Lennie sat down.
“Here we are again in Wolverhampton. Cheers.” He took a swig of his beer, the pint glass looking small in his big hand.
“How are things with you, Lennie?” Cyril asked.
“I’m all right in myself, so to speak, but I do have a problem with the act.”
“What’s that, Len?” Cyril Broom was concerned. Lennie was top of the bill. He did two spots during the show as well as being its compre.
Lennie’s face crumpled into a frown.
“Well, I’ve noticed that over the last few weeks some of my best gags have fallen flat. I fire a good one out and there’s just a half response a ripple of laughs when there should be a gale.” He paused and took a sip of his beer.
Both Nesbo and Broom waited attentively. Lennie was an old trouper. He knew what he was talking about. He continued.
“Half the audience has heard the gag before. I’m being done by a cribber.”
A cribber, sometimes known as a scribbler, was someone who stole an artist’s material, quickly writing a few notes during the act then selling the material to a rival comedian. It was one of the most detested crimes in the theatre and had been around since Shakespeare’s time.
“I must admit,” Cyril said, “I’ve not noticed anybody in particular. But then again, I’ve not been looking.” He patted Lennie on the arm. “We’ll keep an eye open.”
“If there’s a cribber, we’ll catch the blighter,” Nesbo promised.
The door opened and a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman came in and waved.
“Hello, boys,” she said. “How are we?”
Enid sat down and removed her gloves. She’d come from the Royal Court.
“It’s good to get the weight off. They’re all fixed up, Cyril,” she called to her husband. “Lennie, you’ll be with me and Cyril at Mrs Wedburn’s, and I suppose you’ll be going to your usual, Nesbo?”
She sipped her port and lemon.
“I’ll tell you what, Nesbo, you can certainly pick ’em. Gorgeous, that new girl, Kate. I know someone who’ll have her nose put out of joint. Our little chanteuse, Miss Sally Swift.”