If, like me, you’re of a certain age, the greeting “Listen very carefully…I shall say this only once” will strike a particular chord with you. Who didn’t watch, and love, Allo Allo! during the 1980s and early 1990s?
The show made household names out of its cast members – none more so than Vicki Michelle, René Artois’s amorous and frequently over-ardent girlfriend. “Oh…René!” is another catch phrase that has stayed with us all. This year, Vicki Michelle celebrates 50 years in show business and tonight she chose to celebrate at Pizza Express Live, in a special interview conducted by her daughter Louise. “It’s the first time I’ve done this”, Vicki remarked cheerfully, as she prepared to look back on a career that has spanned film, theatre and television.
Going back to the very beginning: and it transpires that Vicki’s mother – “who I miss every day” – attended LAMDA, and starred in ‘The Glass Mountain’ and a film with Terry Thomas, but gave up her career to bring up her four daughters, two of whom were here tonight to support their sister.
As for Vicki, she originally wanted to be a ballet dancer, but following an accident aged 14 had to relinquish her dreams of a career in dance. After ‘O’ levels and a secretarial course, she entered the Aida Foster Stage School, whose alumnae include Elaine Paige and Barbara Windsor.
Vickie found herself immediately in demand, winning roles in ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘Softly Softly’: “I had one line…”Go on then: put the boot in!” A clip flashed up on screen and we all cheered her feisty, Cockney character.
Next came ‘The Professionals’, in which Vicki played Brody’s girlfriend (“That was great fun: exciting and iconic”) followed by ‘The Untouchables’, in which she played John Junkin’s girlfriend. Vicki won a part in ‘Minder’, which she enjoyed, “…although Denis Waterman was a lad! A real boy’s boy”.
A foray into film followed: “I’ll never forget ‘Queen Kong’”. This was a send-up of ‘King Kong’ and co-stars included Robin Asquith and Rula Lenska. Keeping it in the family, Vicki’s mother and sister, Susie, played extras. Sadly the film’s director hated the end product so much that he banned it from being shown for 25 years.
More successful was a film with ‘The Likely Lads’: “It’s shown every Christmas and it’s the only thing people remember me for!” We watched a clip and you’d never know it but Vicki was suffering from a violent bout of food poisoning when her scenes were filmed, having gone out for a curry the night before with the cast.
Her 50-year career has seen Vicki work with an enviable roster of co-stars: Ava Gardner, Sir John Gielgud, Janet Suzman, Joan Collins, Leonard Rossiter, Bob Hoskins, Richard Beckinsale and John Hurt among them. And then there was the magnetic Anthony Quinn, with whom Vicki starred in ‘The Greek Tycoon’: “I loved him”.
Part of being an actor, of course, is dealing with rejection – and Vicki was refreshingly honest about the parts she didn’t get. For ‘Sexy Beast’, she got down to the last two for Ray Winstone’s wife, but was pipped to the post by Amanda Redman, “…although Ray did tell me I was brilliant!” Her efforts weren’t wasted, though, as she scored a role in another film with Winstone and Danny Dyer.
More recently, Vicki acted with Hugh Bonneville in ‘Silent Hours’ (“I lost my head!”) and with Louise, in ‘Rise of the Foot Soldier III’.
I suspect, though, that it’s comedy for which Vicki Michelle will remain best remembered: Allo Allo!, of course, which we’ll come to in a moment, but Vicki’s big break came in ‘The Dick Emery Show’: “Dick was really nice, except that he turned up at rehearsal top to toe in leather – we were all greatly amused, but he didn’t see the funny side.” One of her more unforgettable moments came in a series with Ken Dodd: “My favourite moment was the French love scene on Skegness beach: it was seen by Ronnie Barker, who hired her for the classic Two Ronnies’ sketch ‘The Phantom Raspberry Blower’.
Les Dawson was “one of my favourite comedians to work with. Through him, I got to work with Bella Emberg. And Les was an absolute joy; he took time out for people and was a fantastic person”.
Vicki was also lucky enough to work with Cannon & Ball and Kenny Everett, making a Christmas special with the latter “…that I’ll never forget”. In fact, she sustained mild concussion during filming – and had to seek medical treatment.
Equally memorable was ‘Noel’s House Party’: having been ‘Gotcha’d’ in an incident where her brand new suit was ruined, Vicki was the first recipient to exact revenge on Noel, aided by his producer.
Theatre has been a recurring theme in Vicki’s life and she admitted it was the medium all the Allo Allo! actors were banking on when the TV series came to an end. She couldn’t have asked for a better introduction, acting opposite Dudley Moore in ‘Play It Again, Sam’ in Cambridge and then at the Gielgud Theatre. “Everyone fancied Dudley”, Vicki reminisced. “He was lovely – and talented”.
She’s performed in lots of Ray Cooney plays, often alongside Mark Curry (yes, he who appeared at Bonnie Langford’s Richmond show and who was also here tonight, sitting just in front of me) and with Leslie Grantham, in ‘Dracula’, during which audience participation was actively encouraged (the mind boggles). But her longest tour by far was with ‘Don’t Dress for Dinner’, which ran from 1993 to 2005 and which was loved by audiences up and down the country. We watched some clips tonight and it was such a slick and clever production.
Reality TV wasn’t around when Vicki broke into the big time with Allo Allo!, but today it dominates our TV schedules. Vicki has participated in ‘Celebrity Masterchef’ and in ‘Costa Del Celebrity’, which she loved – but her most memorable moments came in ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!’, which she described as “…a lot of fun”. Admitting she was “daunted”, Vicki at first wasn’t sure she should do it and was petrified by the thought of the creepy crawlies. However: “…the dunny, and not being able to wear any make-up, were worse.” But: “I loved the cast. The show was scary at first, but you become braver. You have to succeed at the Trials for other people. It’s much harder than it looks on the telly: even to get to a Trial, you have to walk a mile in the blazing heat”.
Her ambition now, Vicki told us, is “To keep working”. She’s doing panto at York this year and describes herself as “…pleased to still work: it’s tough out there. The pay’s even worse than it used to be”.
An evening with Vicki Michelle wouldn’t be complete without discussing Allo Allo!, which turns 35 this year. Vicki was happy to indulge us – and, thrillingly, was joined by some of her co-stars in doing so. She got the role of Yvette Carte-Blanche when auditioning, unsuccessfully, for another Jeremy Lloyd show – and the pilot aired in December 1982 (the series eventually ended in 1992, having lasted longer, Vicki remarked dryly, than the war in which it was set).
It was a dream cast. David Croft, who “…knew how to direct comedy and where to get the laughs”, had worked with Gorden Kaye before and knew he was right for Rene Artois. In turn, Kaye recommended Carmen Silvera to play his long-suffering (but hilarious) wife Edith. Originally, the producers wanted an actress who could sing, but after Silvera admitted she couldn’t hold a note, they decided to turn that to the show’s advantage and Edith’s “performances” in the Artois café became comedy gold.
Allo Allo! holds nothing but happy memories for Vicki: “When I read the pilot script, I thought it was hysterical. And timeless”. The audience agreed; the show ended up being sold to over 80 countries. “We were like a family”, Vicki mused, “helped by the fact that we toured the whole of the UK together and lived together, becoming very close”.
Gorden Kaye, she told us, was a brilliant actor: “I learned so much from him”. Commenting, laughingly, that Kaye made “the most unlikely sex symbol”, she emphasised that he made the “perfect” René.
Despite having experienced success that most actors can only dream of, Vicki concluded this enthralling – and at times very moving – chat by sharing that she considers her greatest achievements to have been (i) her daughter, Louise, and (ii) her charity work, for which she was awarded an MBE from the Queen. Modest, warm and laugh-out-loud funny: that is the impression of Vicki Michelle that I took away with me. A fantastic lady – and a fantastic night out.