Robert Duncan rolls along on the crest of a wave…

Slapstick-CruiseAnd now for something completely different. I agreed to go on a comedy cruise to Tenerife to do a series of workshops about cartooning. I got permission from head office and found myself on a train out of Oxford hurtling towards Southampton with the heaviest suitcase I had ever attempted to carry – full of copies of my new book Stuff and Nonsense, and cartoon kits for all my eager students to buy.

On board I was given a very nice cabin with good old fashioned portholes, and since I appeared to have to work for only four hours in the five days on board I thought I’d get ahead with my book of limericks about slimmers – Slimmericks. (More of that in a future blog. Suffice to say I didn’t get many done…)

First job was to meet up with the cruise director Simon and find out what was expected of me, apart from eating all their food and exploring the bar in depth. Turned out all the entertainers were there (if I can count myself in that category) and what a jolly bunch they were. There was Miki, Jon and Don who were comedians. There was Stan and Robbie who were truly brilliant Laurel and Hardy lookalikes, with a great talent for magic which obviously extended their repertoire enormously. (Stan changed his name to Stan, so committed was he to his profession.) There was Jonty and Ian, who were more like Morecambe and Wise than Morecambe and Wise were. And there was Steve Smith whose job it was to give a series of four talks about the history of comic songs, from Marie Lloyd to Benny Hill. Accompanying himself on the guitar, his wit and wisdom captivated us all, and every one of us made sure we were in the theatre for 10am so we didn’t miss a minute. There was also a wonderful duo I had the pleasure of flying home with, who did murder mystery dinners.

So the scene was set. We took off or whatever ships do, and headed overnight towards the dreaded Bay of Biscay. I joined my merry band for dinner before they took it in turns to present their own unique brand of act – Jon, a finalist in last year’s Britain’s Got Talent, did a brilliant 45 minute set without putting a foot wrong. Which was surprising, since the ship was beginning to rock a bit, and sick bags (unused) were available on every stair and every corner. Don, the older comedian (think Les Dawson, via the Comedians TV show of the seventies, and Ken Dodd, who Don supplied gags to) did 45 minutes and left us with the impression that he could have done another eight hours or so if asked to do so.

Trouble was the weather was getting worse, and the Croatian captain kept on asking us to be happy. Jon said our leader should come on stage and sing Don’t Worry be Happy. We could have done with it. By Tuesday the boat was being thrown about like a sponge in a bath or whatever the expression is, and it was getting difficult to walk, let alone draw. I had organised a flip chart for my workshops so I could show my eager students how to draw expressions, speed and what to leave out etc. The fact that I couldn’t even stand up, let alone draw fabulously, didn’t help. I ended up lowering the flip chart and working sitting down.

That night we all had a jolly few drinks while Miki did his sensational stand-up and were horrified by the news that one of the dining rooms had been affected by a freak wave, and people, chairs, people in chairs, chairs on people, bottles, glasses and waiters had gone flying, and the doctor was busy mending arms, fitting neck braces, and plastering generally. On came the captain’s voice “Be happy…”

The next day I was in cartoonist’s paradise – people were limping everywhere, staying in their cabins, or being injected in the bum by the desperately overworked doctor.

And still the swell continued. If you can call 20ft waves a swell. We weren’t allowed out on the grounds that lost passengers and men overboard could only add to the problems, so air conditioning was being breathed for the fourth day running. I survived on a diet of large and fabulous buffets, their delicious rose wine, and industrial quantities of motion sickness pills, that dried me out like an old crisp.

But every night I would be there, cheering on my hearty comrades, and wondering, as I always do, at the talent of these people who can get on stage, make people happy, and deliver.

On the Wednesday night we all took photographs – me with my new best friends Laurel and Hardy, and Jon and Miki – and then got the drinks in as the captain promised fair weather, sunbathing on the deck, and free rum punches for everyone. So his Be Happy motto was beginning to come true.

Thursday night. Big variety show where all the entertainers did a ten minute slot and then repaired to the bar after the inevitable photos. Hugs. Talks about disembarkation plans, chat about when everyone was working next.

Put on a Stan Laurel voice and say this. “Rob, how do you like my tattoo?” Me. “Laurel and Hardy! On your arm! Where did you get that done?” Stan, pointing to his arm. “Right here.” Love ‘em.

Old comedy song singer Steve and I shared a taxi on the way to the airport. We compared notes about such luminaries as Anthony Newley, Stanley Holloway and Tom Lehrer. I saw him again at Gatwick, probably preparing to bring a bit of total joy to his next audience somewhere.

Home to my darling wife and my boys. Lovely time. Lovely to be back. Back from silliness, over the top characters, sick bags. Time out of time…