I’ve been thinking a lot lately about merchandise. Specifically, the swag that I have been developing to support my stage show, ‘Looking For Me Friend’. As some of you may know, ‘Looking For Me Friend’ is a musical homage to the late, great Victoria Wood – a stand-up comedienne, writer, musician and much more – who we lost back in 2016 to cancer. We also lost Alan Rickman, Prince and David Bowie in that same year, but for me the loss of Vic was by far the most significant.
I grew up watching Vic with my mum and sister, and since losing my mother (also to cancer) in February last year, the show has taken on greater meaning for me than I ever imagined. After decades of watching my plays and being confronted with various ‘Mother figures’ in my work – who may or may not have had anything in common with her -, this show celebrated us in a way I have never shared before. Of course, the irony is that this is the show Mum will never see.
A much younger me, David Bowie and my Mama
The project for my stage show began in November 2019, when myself and my director, Sarah-Louise Young and musical director, Michael Roulston – both also old friends of mine who share a love of Vic – first got in a room together, along with The Cabaret Cat, naturally. Over two years later, the coronavirus pandemic means that we have still only been able to perform the piece a dozen times, and always the 1-hour ‘festival-style’ version. And we’re luckier than some in theatreland right now!
The Cabaret Cat in rehearsals
So, with over twelve grand of my own money invested in the project to-date, I turned my attention to developing a brand of merch that would support the show and celebrate Victoria in equal measure. Back at the end of 2019, when deep in the R&D process of making the show, I was revisiting Victoria’s work in all its forms – from sketches to plays, songs to stand-up, and even full musicals and documentaries. Whilst trawling through all this material I began to make a list of every word or phrase – no matter where it came from – that Victoria used in her published work three times or more. In doing so, I began to build a kind of ‘Victionary’; a lexicon – if you will – of Victoria’s very own. A distillation of the language, catchphrases and non-secateurs that millions of us have grown to love and use in everyday life over the years.
Indeed, part of the content of my stage show explores how Victoria’s work in the 80s & 90s became a modern Polari for young gay people like myself and Michael, literally seeking out their ‘friends’ from the potential threats one was met with during commonplace social encounters back then. What I mean to say is, if you heard someone quote Vic, it was a pretty sure bet they’d ‘get’ you. Even if they weren’t gay. And that meant a lot back in the eighties if you were ‘different’.
Michael Roulston and I backstage at the first ever show
So, after hours and hours of research, I had my ‘Victionary’, and my initial plan was to create a design – kind of like those word bubbles that Facebook used throw up to see what you talked about most? – containing nothing but those pure words and phrases that got three or more nods. Not being known for my design skills, but feeling very clear on what I wanted to create, I sought out a collaborator – and who better than a chap I had recently found on TikTok, lip-synching to Vic’s sketches of ‘Kitty’ as originally portrayed by the fabulous Patricia Routledge!? As well as being a dab hand at this, Mr. Luke Benjamin just happens to be a graphic designer by trade, and was more than willing to get involved in my barmy project!
Me with Graphic Designer Luke Benjamin
Whilst we soon got to grips with the look and style of the thing, it became clear to me during the first couple of design drafts that there were some very famous quotes of Victoria’s which, though not used three times or more, were so iconic that we just could not leave them out. So, in went ‘Red Cabbage, How Much?’, ‘What Was It Muesli’ and ‘Nasty Blouse’ to name but three. Next, we realised that there are a huge amount of Wood fans who’s entry level to her work was the sitcom ‘dinnerladies’, and anything before that might be lost on them. So, we chucked in some mentions of toast and diving boards (don’t ask!) and rejigged things all over again.
Lots of tea, giggling and nine versions of the design later, and with a lot of feedback from both old friends and new ones made online in the various Facebook groups that celebrate Victoria, we finally came up with our ultimate design!
‘Ta-Da!’ as Petula Gordon might say.
So far, so good, but now I had to choose the initial product the design would feature on. I knew I wanted something fairly kitsch and but also mundane, cos frankly that’s what Vic has always focused on – ‘I see life from the chip pan level’ she once said in an interview. So, what better product than a tea towel that was light, easy to store and could be posted through a letterbox! Little did I know then, that the great woman herself had sanctioned tea towels as her preferred gift of choice in an article from twenty years earlier!
After choosing my product, I needed to find a supplier that could deliver 500 units to me in time for Christmas 2021 and it was already September! Well, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that a number of the suppliers which I dutifully researched and short-listed, were not able to deliver with such a short lead time because of – altogether now! – Brexit. Of course. Sigh.
Nevertheless, I did finally find someone who could help and soon 500 custard yellow and shocking pink tea towels were winging their way to me from a factory in Hertfordshire, and the orders were lining up. The public response was fast and loud, and we sold out the initial run in less than three weeks. A wonderful problem to have, but now the chase was on to find another supplier to – hopefully – get us some more in time for Crimbo! In late November, our prayers came good and Santa was delighted to be told he’d got all the Vic-fans covered for the festive period, as another 300 stock arrived.
Since the tea towel went on-sale, I have received the most tremendous response – not least from people who actually worked with Victoria. The celebrated choreographer Stephen Mear; Ria Jones, who toured the UK as Mrs Overall in the musical of Acorn Antiques; toast-loving Sue Devaney, from the other side of the ‘dinnerladies’ counter, and Rachel Gleaves who has not one but two iconic cameos in that same show – all of them have praised and even bought our humble little design in its inaugural tea towel form.
It’s been so wonderful to connect with other Vic fans, and to help promote my stage show whilst simultaneously re-filling the coffers of the project. My mailing list has increased by 25% just from merch customers wanting to hear about the next product we will come up with – the answer, by the way, is that we’ll be dropping around 25 new products on a print-on-demand basis via Printful in a matter of weeks!
And then, Grace Dent happened…
Now, food critic and journalist Grace Dent has not actually seen my show – just like the majority of people who have bought the tea towel – but a friend of hers had and bought her one as a gift. Imagine my surprise when she chose to drape it over her knees during a photoshoot for The Guardian’s ‘Feast’ magazine back in November! Sadly, the online version of the publication shows a different image, but that didn’t stop Dent’s kind gesture from setting my newly opened Etsy store on fire with orders. I know a few Etsy sellers, and they all speak of how long it take to get ones store going, so I’m taking it as a big win that we ended the year with 18 orders, 2 five-star reviews and 19 followers to the account. Thanks, Grace!
Finally, I’d like to give a big shout-out to my old pal Kath and her partner Andrew, who have kindly offered to trial my tea towels in their stunning gift shop, ‘Treehouse’ in Crouch End, North London. As well as being my old stomping ground during drama school, Victoria lived fairly locally to Crouch End herself and even shopped in ‘Treehouse’, meeting and chatting to Kath along the way.
Kath & Andrew of ‘Treehouse’
Hey look, I know we are only talking about a tea towel here, but after the challenges of the past few years – especially for those of us in the arts, and particularly live entertainment – I’m taking all this as a win and celebrating it hard.
Hopefully, by April we shall have Tote Bags and Greetings Cards in stock to take to gigs alongside the tea towel, and Printful will do the rest on-demand via my on-line store, thecabaretgeek.com/shop. Until then, please pray for the UK theatre scene, and do what you can to support independent creatives; and that doesn’t always mean money. Sharing or liking a social media post can make an enormous difference. Helping build someone’s mailing list will too.
Thanks for reading, and double thanks if you’ve seen the show or bought the tea towel; here’s to a brighter year ahead for us all. Maybe you know someone who’s kitchen needs a splash of pink and yellow to help that along..?