I ve delighted in using the phrase 'big girl's blouse' for years without realising it was made famous by Hylda Baker, Lancashire lass extraordinaire, star of variety, TV and film. This was just one of the revelations made during this engrossing and darkly hilarious one-woman show, She Knows You Know!.
The first act finds Jean Fergusson (best known as Marina from TV s Last of the Summer Wine) in her uncanny embodiment of Baker, cheerfully leering, wriggling and prowling around her dressing room at the Blackpool Grand. Giving off to a gallery of unseen characters, the picture begins to emerge of a fiercely complex woman. Born Plodder Lane, Bolton, on the road with her comedian father since the age of 10, Baker rose from playing sold-out shows in Woolworth's to fame and fortune. But her pugnacious character left her increasingly isolated. Already we see her fighting the demons which were to overwhelm her - obsessive fears, mental illness, loneliness and death.
The key to the success of the show is the stomping scenes in the second act where Hylda leaves the demons in her dressing room and demonstrates her enormous talent in rumbustious flight on the Blackpool boards. I ve always thought of music hall comedy as about as funny as a plate of tripe, but I found this genuinely hilarious. Her comic genius spun from a now-distant world of pigeon breeding, pickling, tandems and the aforesaid tripe, but above all it stripped away pretensions to show that underneath we're all just 'folk'. This was evident in her fabulous trademark malapropisms as she dragged Hollywood idols 'Rudolph Vaselino' and 'Greta Garbage' down to solid Lancashire earth. Fergusson's portrayal suggests Baker was as much a soul sister to tragic Hollywood stars like Garbo as a soil sister to Gracie Fields.
Interspersed with the vaudeville excerpts are scenes which chart Hylda's decline. These are more moving than depressing as Fergusson shows nuggets of the comedienne s humour even in her darkest hours, as she fears 'Alker Seltzer's disease'.
She Knows You Know! is an astonishing tour de force or, as Hylda would have said, a tour de France. Fergusson gives a performance of great verve and warmth which breathes life into Hylda's genius whilst exploring the tragic life behind it. My companion suggested if Hylda were alive now she d be a Spice Girl - 'Pickled Spice'. No competition. She'd out-pickle the Spice Girls any day.