19th Post: THIRD HONG KONG – Drink and Retribution.

Wanchai District, Hong Kong Island

1996 January: Monday

What happened next, I shall never really know.

During four decades of performance, I never came anywhere near so disastrous a sequence of events as occurred over the next 24 hours. In retrospect, it seems that a bacchanalian insanity took over. It might have been the lack of food, or a rush of post-show adrenaline, or switching from lager to brandy, or some element of delayed jet lag, or just possibly an almost extinct streak of sod-it-all devilment? Maybe a mixture of them all? Suffice to say that, in medical terminology, I got rat-arsed.

Vague impressions of the night included a brightly lit lounge bar called ‘Joe Bananas’, two Australian bank officials singing Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’, a Chinese girl selling me a ‘genuine Rolex watch’ for £2, my own attempt to teach Irish dancing to a Taiwanese hedge fund manager, a considerable amount of singing including a calamitous version of Noddy Holder’s ‘Merry Christmas, Everybody’, and a brandy drinking contest with a Chinese Government travel agent – which, as he slid elegantly from his bar stool to the floor, he acknowledged I had won. I think?

Then came a total blank until I found myself at about 5am outside the door of the Repulse Bay flat, trying unsuccessfully to insert the key in the lock. The damn thing just would not work. Deciding to call it a day, I lay down on the landing, put my head on the doormat, and passed out.

Hong Kong – aerial view at night

One hour later, I was awoken by a tight-lipped host who suggested that it might be more appropriate to sleep inside the flat rather than outside. Mumbling apologies, I stumbled to bed and collapsed again. Another hour passed before I was woken once more. This time it was my hostess Pia:

“Mr Titley, I am sorry to wake you but I have just been listening to Hong Kong Radio. They announced that they are having a live interview with you in an hour.”

WHAT!! A cloudy flashback to a Fringe Club secretary saying something to this effect returned. Oh, hell’s bells and back again!! I was not in a condition to talk to the cat, let alone broadcast to Hong Kong.

Somehow, duty dragged me upright and reeling with an abominable hangover, I got dressed. There are two schools of thought on how to cope with such a situation. One is to not sleep – thereby you are drunk, but logically drunk. The other is to have an hour’s sleep – thereby you are not specifically drunk, but you are completely dislocated from logic. My opinion favours the former – unfortunately I had plumped for the latter.

Aberdeen Harbour, Hong Kong

Outside, the cool early morning air woke me enough to hail a taxi. Each bump in the road thudded directly into my brain – it was that bad. Too soon, the cab drew up at the radio station. Gigi, the neat little secretary who had spoken to me on the first day, was waiting outside. Her face dropped as she noted my undeniably ramshackle appearance and bloodshot gaze. I tried to make light conversation; a bit difficult when you’re slurring every second word, and can’t remember the first.

She led me up into the hushed foyer of the Hong Kong Radio Television studios – even in my condition I realised that this was a heavyweight station: rock and roll, it certainly wasn’t. A sound engineer eyed me dubiously and whispered to Gigi: “Jet lag?” She gave an embarrassed giggle. I intervened: “No, no, I’m jusht junk-lagged.” I thought this was rather witty under the circumstances. Gigi and the sound engineer did not.

I was taken through to the broadcasting room and placed in front of a microphone. A disembodied voice suddenly broke the silence – it was the DJ who was located in a different studio. After a slick introductory piece about Wilde, he gave me a faux chummy line: “Well, Neil, tell us about the show.”

Afterwards the engineer handed me a tape of the interview – out of sadistic revenge, I think? My reply had been roughly: “Er… I thought you might shay that. Well, it’sh sort of about….sort of Oshcar Wilde really. Then I shuppose it would be. He’sh a great comedian really.. .a great nineteenth shentury comedian, that Oshcar Wilde. His real line was comedy, you shee…yeah, Wilde was a comedian really….”

And so it went on from bad to worse. Occasionally the interview veered towards the comprehensible, but mostly it was manic repetition. My brain would start a fresh line of approach, then I would forget what the hell I had started on about. Now and again, the DJ tried to steer me back into something intelligible but the track was soon lost. Finally it ended.

Well, at least I didn’t totally blow it but, as an interviewee, they’d have got more sense out of the Repulse Bay dragon.

A strained silence greeted me as I bade farewell and slunk out into the city – a cog that had certainly slipped the chain.

Repulse Bay, terrace bar. HK

By 10am I was back in Repulse Bay – and here things took an even worse turn. Defying common sense, I bought some more cans of lager and sat on the beach to watch the view.  

By noon, I tossed away the last lager can and returned to the flat. I began to apologise profusely to Pia. Her attitude surprised me – she had lost her shyness and had really lightened up. She tittered:

“A friend of mine has phoned me. She said you sounded so strange on the radio. It made me laugh so much because I knew you were completely drunk!”

Oh well, somebody was happy. I retreated to the bedroom and fell asleep about 1pm…..

Deep Water Bay, HK

I awoke and glanced out of the window. Dusk was settling in and the lights around the bay looked rather pretty. Feeling a little better than I had done, I looked lazily at the clock. It was 6 40pm. For a few seconds I didn’t take it in – then it hit me. I was due on stage eight miles away in twenty minutes time. My heart started to judder.

Leaping out of bed, I rammed on my clothes and ran into the flat. There was no one there – and no one to ring the theatre. And I didn’t know where they kept the bloody phone. I hurtled out of the flat and reached the lift – somehow I just had to travel eight miles in 15 minutes. Down 27 storeys – every second counted. Reaching the main entrance, I yelled at the doorman: “Taxi”. He said something in Chinese. I rushed on past: “Forget it!” As I headed to the road, my left boot came off – in the rush I’d forgotten to tie it. No time to stop – just straight on to the main road. Car horns blared as I dodged in front of a taxi. It was available, thank God, and I sank on to the back seat. “Central as fast as you can go!” He glided off smoothly.

I twitched in a frenzy of adrenaline. Christ – and I thought the radio interview was a disaster. This was ten times worse! I stared out of the cab window and muttered: “Mea culpa, mea culpa.” The taxi-driver gave me an odd look. It was not often that they had passengers muttering to themselves in Latin. He asked if I wanted to take the Peak Road. I nodded vigorously – my nerves couldn’t have withstood a traffic jam in the Aberdeen Tunnel.

We swung round the hairpins and cliff drops of the Peak, sights that would normally have left me rigid with vertigo. Now I was urging him: “Faster! Faster!” Looking worried, he shook his head: “No. No faster! No faster!!”

As we reached the summit of the Peak, I could see the lights of Central Hong Kong below. Five to seven. Jee-sus! There was a sell-out audience waiting to see me on stage in five – FIVE – minutes. NEVER had this EVER happened to me before – it was the ultimate actor’s nightmare. But it was REAL!

We sped down the hill into the evening traffic. Luckily the guy seemed to know where he was going. I sat mentally urging us forwards by pure will power. The taxi halted for a traffic light. Shit! It was fully dark now – we were somewhere in Central. Five past seven. That was it! No way out. Plus I had to change and make up. God’s teeth!

Suddenly, unexpectedly, I saw the Fringe Club at the end of the street. But – another traffic light. Was it quicker to run or wait for green? With the car door half open, the lights changed and the taxi skidded up outside the Club. I threw a $100HK note at the driver and leaped out.

A long queue of people stretched down the theatre stairs and then out along the street. Unceremoniously, I brushed my way through and started up the stairs, stubbing my shoe-less left foot in the process. Behind me, I heard a fruity English voice: “Some of us object to queue jumpers, you know”.

I dashed on and into the darkened theatre. A group of stage staff stood in silence. I was too hurried even to apologise. Breathlessly hissing: “Set the stage – fast”, I ran to the dressing room, and plunged into a flurry of costume and random jabs of make up. Born Yuan put his head round the door: “We’ll have to cancel the chat show afterwards, otherwise we’ll run on into the next show.” Catherine followed him: “We’ll have to let them in now. It’s a quarter past seven.”

By 7 20pm, I was standing in the wings, thoroughly shaken, still with a hangover, and totally unprepared. Forty minutes ago I had been fast asleep eight miles away! ‘Cavaleria Rusticana’ sounded out from the speakers and I strolled out on stage…..

Aerial view, Hong Kong

……….and, incredibly, the show went well. I was far too fast admittedly, but it was hard and focussed. As the performance proceeded I took control of the audience, the laughs began to flow, and I managed to slow down enough to make the jail sequence work. Reaching the end, I slung out the last line with massive relief: “When the Last Trumpet sounds, let us pretend we do not hear it”. After the trials of the night, that line seemed somehow appropriate. There were two curtain calls.

However, if I’d rescued the day on-stage, the reaction off-stage was not so accommodating. Nothing was said, but the atmosphere froze. I apologised to everyone within range, but the responses ranged from off-hand to chilly. The only support came from a jazz harpist from New York called Daphne Hellman. She laughed:

“Well, I thought it was great. It’s good to keep an audience waiting – they respect you more. Wasn’t it Oscar who said punctuality is the thief of time?”

Bless her, but I couldn’t help feeling that it showed the gulf between time-keeping in the theatre world and time-keeping in the jazz world.

One other voice was raised in my defence. A girl from the audience came up and said:

“I really enjoyed that. Your make up was wonderful. Even your eyes were red.”

I arrived back at Repulse Bay at 11pm. As I walked across the foyer, the doorman called me over and, beaming, presented me with my left boot. Pia was alone in the flat, as Paul had left on a business trip. She said that her friend had called again, this time with news of the show debacle. She giggled: “I think life will be very dull when you leave.”

At midnight, I went to bed. What a frightful 24 hours. Since yesterday, I had: 1) got utterly legless in Wanchai, 2) been found asleep on the doorstep by my host, 3) scandalised a leading Chinese Festival official, 4) broadcast a demented radio interview to the population of Hong Kong, 5) arrived twenty minutes late for my own performance, and 6) had to abandon half the show – the Q and A bit – entirely. Bloody hell.

Chinese junk, Hong Kong Harbour


Next Week Oct 17 – Feminism Hong Kong style

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