Poet Pam Ayres is returning to the city where opportunity first knocked for her, writes Roz Laws.
Poet Pam Ayres is recalling two trips to Birmingham with very different outcomes.
One pivotal date started her career, when she successfully auditioned for Opportunity Knocks. But the other, more recent one, left her fuming.
Pam came to the NEC to see Bob Dylan, but it wasn’t a success.
“I spent the whole evening watching the wrong bloke!” she cries.
“He was up the back in the shadows, wearing a trilby. He was an unrecognisable geezer, mumbling away. I didn’t think that could possibly be him, so I was watching someone at the front of the stage.
“It cost a bomb, too, and I was outraged at the price of programmes. My husband bought the tickets as a birthday treat but I wasn’t enamoured with the evening. It had the feel of a rip-off.
“I adored Dylan when I was 17, but I don’t love him any more.”
It is to be hoped that audiences enjoy Pam’s show more when she plays Birmingham herself. She’s bringing her humorous poetry to the Town Hall on Sunday.
It’s a return to the city where it all started in 1975, when she auditioned for Opportunity Knocks, the show which would change her life.
“As a country girl, I was very alarmed at having to go to Birmingham,” remembers the 64-year-old, who lives on a smallholding in the Cotswolds with her husband and manager Dudley, 10 cows, nine sheep, chickens and dogs.
“I can’t remember the name of the hotel, but the audition took place downstairs in a dingy old ballroom that smelled of damp and fear. I wore a highly fashionable red tartan smock and recited I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth.
“We had three minutes to perform to three judges. I didn’t expect them to laugh, so I was really pleased when they did. The lady with the stopwatch was enjoying it so much she forgot to turn it on.
“They said ‘You’re certainly on the show. You are somebody doing something different’.
‘‘It was the moment on which my life turned.”
Pam went on to win the TV talent contest, despite her father telling her she didn’t have a “snowball’s chance in hell”.
It launched a career which has lasted 36 years, despite criticism from the establishment which looked down upon her work.
“There’s always a feeling that what I do isn’t proper poetry, but I have never said it was,” says Pam, who has just released her autobiography and a new DVD, called Word Perfect.
“I’ve been to lots of poetry readings where people put glasses on and stand at a lectern. That’s fine, but not what I want to do. I want to engage with the audience. I learn it all by heart so I can look at people. Poems are meant to be read out loud, they are flat and lifeless in a book.
“My goal is to make people laugh. It’s so nice to see people falling about laughing, with mascara running down their faces. I can’t think of a more satisfying job.
“I take my job very seriously, though. I know my poems look very simple and light-hearted, but I work very hard at getting them right.
“And I never want to do the same show twice. I have this fear of repeating myself to an audience – I would find it so depressing if people go home saying ‘I’ve heard it all before’. So I keep a record of what I say at every venue.”
Pam has also just published her autobiography, The Necessary Aptitude, an ironic title as “it’s what people kept telling me I didn’t have”.
“I’m not used to writing a great volume of words, 1,000 a day. I had a great sense of freedom though, not having to make it scan and rhyme.
“Now I’ve got the bug, I’ve got an idea for a novel. It would have a slightly eerie theme, with an underlying ghost story.”
Pam produces quite enough words of her own, so she’d like to make it clear that doesn’t want other people’s.
“People are forever sending me their poems, but I don’t want them,” she says, a little grumpily.
“I’ve been deluged with them, it’s a nightmare. Though if children send me theirs I will try to be encouraging.
“I get the occasional gift, too. Someone crafted me a plate with my face at the bottom, with my nose sticking up. It was a thing of ethereal beauty.”
That’s a description that some of her more ardent fans might use of Pam herself, though she would scoff at such an idea. I always think I look like Stonehenge these days,” she says.
“I try to keep the blubber off and eat sensibly, though. I don’t eat cake but my guilty pleasure are those roasted, salted almonds you get in posh bars.
“Yes, I’m a martyr to savoury nuts.”
Now doesn’t that sound like the first line to one of her poems?
* An Audience With Pam Ayres is at Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday, October 23. For tickets ring 0121 780 3333 or go to www.thsh.co.uk