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Michael Coveney: Babs joins in bash for Toni Palmer

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The actress and dancer Toni Palmer, not to be confused with the filmmaker Tony Palmer (or the crummy biscuit double act, Huntley and Palmer), is 80 years young today, but jumped the gun with a lovely party last night on her home patch of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Toni's second husband was the late Ken Hill, who kept the Joan Littlewood flag flying for about 15 years under the artistic directorship of Philip Hedley, writing such shows as the original Phantom of the Opera, Costa Packet, The Invisible Man and Zorro.

But Toni herself goes right back to the Littlewood heyday, when she shared a dressing room for two years with Barbara Windsor in Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be; and of course Babs was on hand last night to join in an impromptu This Is Your Life hosted by a jovially chaotic, and very funny, Desmond Barrit, whom Toni worked with during a brief but colourful stint at the RSC.

Windsor and Palmer were West End show girls, appearing at Danny La Rue's nightclub in Hanover Square alongside Ronnie Corbett, also on hand last night, and other dear departed Littlewood stalwarts such as Yootha Joyce and Vicor Spinetti.

Never a conventional beauty, but with the most amazing legs, Palmer recalled how the Palladium impresario Val Parnell removed her from the front row of the chorus line because she had "a face like a slapped arse." Charming! He put her in the back row. But as Toni gleefully declared: she's never heard of any of the other girls since. She was too busy telling Babs not to be a "silly cow" in her love life.

Roy Hudd climbed onto the stage to remind us, hilariously, of Toni's vocal powers, and Sylvester McCoy - hotfoot from filming The Hobbit in New Zealand - wondered how on earth she put up with him and his pair of fornicating rabbits in pantomime. It was all Brian Murphy's fault, anyway, that he'd gone into showbusiness, he said, pointing out the man who had landed him with his first assignment in the Ken Campbell Road Show.

Brian Murphy was indeed in the theatre, along with other legendary Littlewood associates such as Murray Melvin, Peter Rankin, Valerie Walsh, Clovissa Newcombe, Larry Dann, Geoffrey Freshwater and John Wallbank. The Stratford East choir - anyone can join - sang gloriously, as did the indomitable Peter Straker, and there were touching tributes from Toni's nieces.

Food was  fish and chips - with optional saveloys and mushy peas - served outside in a parked van, so that an ordely queue, forming on the left hand side of the stalls could snake outside the back door, collect the open cardboard cartons lined with newspaper, and snake back in the rear right door: brilliant arrangement (and it didn't even rain)!

But then three people told me separately that fish and chips were a theatrical superstition, and that you were never supposed to consume them in the house. That didn't stop them tucking in, though...and the roll call of unexpected guests went on: Linda Marlowe (who did a Midsomer Murders with Toni), Ian Talbot (who directed The Invisible Man at the Menier), Anthony Alderson, head honcho of the Pleasance in Edinburgh and London, with his delightful family, ex-Hazell star Nicholas Ball and RSC member Sarah Berger, who bought a bottle of pink fizz from the bar, after Toni's champagne ran out, on medical grounds... only bubbles were good for her, the doctor has decreed. 

It all amounted to the best show I've seen in that theatre for some time and also brought home to me how splendid a thing it is to arrange such a "do" in your twilight years and not leave all the fun to your friends at your funeral.

In her red party frock and splendid haircut, Toni rolled back the years and made us scream with laughter and joy in the theatre she loved best of all, and with her mates who mean so much to her. Good on yer, gal, and here's to the next ten years... hold that bath chair.


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