Most of what follows is from an afterword that I wrote to accompany a short story titled Modus Operandi; I got the story from a childhood memory, and writing it triggered a few more of them.
My childhood home was a terraced house in Monton, just outside Manchester. Each street was a row of brick houses, each with a garden behind it and a ten-foot cobbled alleyway behind that. According to my memory the gardens were huge, but I’ve been back for a recent look and they weren’t. My dad built a garage on ours (the comedy subject of my first film, hand-drawn on polythene strips and projected on the wall by a torch in a shoebox. . . find that one if you can, Kevin Brownlow). The garage eliminated a good two-thirds of the garden.
Every back garden had a washing line. Someone began stealing women’s underwear from them. The police were called, backyard security was stepped up, the thief grew bolder. . . one neighbour grew most affronted when her enormous bloomers gave rise to a return visit. My mother couldn’t stop laughing when she repeated how said neighbour had told her, grim-faced and displeased, D’you know, he came again the next day and threw them back!
There was no shortage of theories. Some even suspected our next-door neighbour, an entertainer who worked the holiday camps in summer and kept the house as his winter base. The grounds for suspicion? They were show folk, no other reason. He and his wife lived on the lower floor and let the upstairs rooms to a xylophone player named Frank.
I don’t suppose it helped that he was unable to take the whole situation too seriously. When the phone rang he’d snatch it up and, without even waiting to identify the caller, say loudly and brightly, “Is that the knicker-snatcher?”
I thought that was hilarious. But then again I was only a kid and so, I now realise, was he. He had a hamster that he named Abie. He built Abie a hamster paradise out of interlinked tubes and cages. The design was more ambitious than it was well-engineered; Abie got out and disappeared forever under the floorboards. His owner poked sunflower seeds down through the cracks so the hamster wouldn’t starve. This was around the same time that he bought a complete Punch and Judy rig – booth, puppets, whistle, routines, everything but the dog – from another performer who was either retiring from the business or had gone broke. He’d invite me around to test-run the show. My job was to shout in all the right places.
Joni Mitchell was right. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
I don’t believe that the case of the missing underwear was ever solved, but our washing line was one of the targets and we did get a visit from the CID. That was the first time I ever heard the term Modus Operandi. I’d drawn a crayon map of the gardens to explain my theory of how the thieves got access (climbing onto the dustbin and then over the garden fence… brilliant stuff, I tell you), and I showed it to the officer. But I didn’t have all the underwear stowed in a case under my bed. That was a twist I added to turn life into narrative, when refashioning the memories for Maxim Jakubowski’s New Crimes collection.
Our neighbour took his comedy routine onto Opportunity Knocks one week in October 1966 and won the show, and a season or so later he and his wife and their new baby moved on. I’ve been able to glean a few more details from the net: he continued to make his living as an entertainments director and later as a children’s entertainer before retiring and devoting himself to charity work following the death of his son Karl at the age of forty. His name is Teddy Alexander and I believe that performers like him are the backbone of all showbusiness.
I promise to write some more on the CBS/Bruckheimer/Eleventh Hour deal as soon as I can. So much of it’s in the air and my role in it, if any, is yet to be defined. But it’s the biggest deal of its kind in American TV this decade, according to the people I’m working with. It’s weird for me because I’d already let the show go, and this news came out of nowhere. More than anything, I’m curious to see how it’ll develop in the hands of the very people whose methods I studied in order to create it.