For theatre... online, non-professional, amateur
Win a Wild Card!

Win a Wild Card!

Above: Martin Milnes, Actor, Writer and Theatre Director… and champion of amateur theatre.

Actor, Writer and Theatre Director, Martin Milnes, has published his memoir, Wild Card: How I Learned to Be a Friend, Have a Friend & Finally Love My Birthday (published by Zuleika), which is now available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon, major book retailers and independent bookshops.
An audiobook, narrated (and, occasionally, sung) by Martin himself, is available from Audible:

Martin Milnes was born in the wrong era or at least that’s how it seemed. As a child he wore jazz-shoes to his junior school disco, expecting eight-year-olds to Mambo like the dancers in West Side Story … but childhood and school days were no Broadway musical. Birthdays, stingingly empty, held a horrific reminder that he possessed no talent for friendship. Yet once Martin emerged onstage, the jeering turned to cheering; the lonely void was filled by Hollywood stars of yesteryear, worshipped from afar.

When Martin’s world shattered, the stars were there for him; and this time in person. The last surviving veterans of a glamorous era extended their guiding hands. Centenarian swimming partners, D-Day hero drinking chums, and propositions from naughty nonagenarians became everyday normality and the wisdom, understanding and truths which they passed on completely transformed Martin’s life, outlook and spirit. At last, with their help, the Wild Card learned how to be a friend and realised what a birthday truly represents. Not to mention, along the way, coming to terms with something which perhaps he should have recognised long ago …

Wild Card combines a personal story of self-discovery with untold revelations of Golden Hollywood and Broadway. Virginia Campbell recalls admonishing Cecil B DeMille in front of hundreds of extras, and dancing with Gene Kelly. 1940s star Peggy Cummins found Quentin Tarantino falling prostrate at her feet. Jean Bayless, the original West End ‘Maria’ in The Sound of Music, confides about fellow chorus-girl Audrey Hepburn and auditioning for Richard Rodgers. Meanwhile, Carry On legend, Fenella Fielding, retaliated to difficult co-stars with unusual weapons of vindication! In addition, Martin befriended veteran war heroes who saw action at Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and D-Day. Wing Commander Leonard Lambert even dated Marilyn Monroe!

As musical theatre duo Ferris & Milnes, Martin has played Theatre Royal Drury Lane, New York’s Lincoln Center, Ambassadors Theatre and at West End LIVE. During the COVID-19 crisis, Ferris & Milnes united Dame Vera Lynn with West End stars in the morale-boosting video We’ll Meet Again. Martin directed the first professional revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s final work The Grand Duke and collaborates regularly with The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust. Also a lecturer in Musical Theatre and Film History, Martin’s Instagram ‘Story A Day’ about Broadway and Hollywood birthdays, anniversaries and anecdotes can be followed: @martinmilnes.
Sardines caught up with Martin to find out more…

You write about your childhood years in amateur theatre. How important was that experience in the development of your professional career?

“Vital! Between the ages of five and eighteen I appeared in eighty-five amateur productions. From Gilbert & Sullivan and ‘traditional’ musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and The Music Man, right through to new amateur releases such as Evita and Ragtime. I looked up to older society members, absorbing stage craft, presence and technique; things only learned from years of practical experience. As I went straight into professional work (having been turned down by drama schools), amateur theatre was therefore my entire training. I couldn’t have been luckier, and I’m very thankful for everything I learned. It was my equivalent of old-style ‘Rep Theatre’, which many great actors of yesteryear credit with teaching them all they know.”

Have you found that others in the profession share your admiration for amateur theatre?

“Indeed, I have. In Wild Card I recall the night that I had to go on at half an hour’s notice playing the juvenile lead in a play which I’d directed. I played opposite Olivier Nominee Andrew C Wadsworth. The next day Andrew asked me ‘Did you grow up doing amateur theatre?’ When I told him that I had, he replied “I thought so. You know exactly how to energise the dialogue and apply stage craft. That’s something you only pick up in amateur theatre. Drama schools can’t teach it.”

Wild Card explores your journey of self-discovery. It seems that amateur theatre was a haven for you?

“I didn’t connect with my peers at school – they couldn’t understand my passion for theatre and Old Hollywood. It was the adult members of amateur societies who encouraged me to embrace my skills; several of them still kindly follow my progress. A wonderful lady gave me lots of her old vocal scores. When I began creating my own professional shows, those scores proved invaluable. I’ve also used them to give repertoire suggestions to my younger friends and students. This might be the first ever example of ‘Passing The Baton’, as I call it in Wild Card.”

We read about the young friends you mentor. Would you encourage those considering a theatrical career to get involved with amateur theatre first?

“That’s absolutely essential. I’m constantly surprised by how many students leave drama school having never actually performed in a proper theatre. With my amateur societies, I played in beautiful venues like the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton and Birmingham Hippodrome. I learned the basics, such as how to do a quick change in record time; how to project acoustically; and performing with hand-held mics, radio mics and head mics! How to cover up when something goes wrong; and rehearsal etiquette – the stamina and commitment required. Also, as a professional you must be able to handle people saying ‘no’. In amateur shows I auditioned for many parts which I didn’t get – so I came to terms, early on, with theatrical rejection. It stood me in excellent stead for my career; I could then deal with everything in a healthy way.”

Do you think your friendships with older people in amateur theatre influenced your later friendships with stars of stage and screen?

“Definitely. I realised early on that I was very much at ease around older people. I loved to hear them reminisce about long-ago productions of once ‘standard’ amateur repertoire – The Dancing Years, The Merry Widow, Kismet. And yet they moved with the times and stayed with their companies when modern musicals took over. This all very much pre-empted my friendships with the Hollywood and Broadway stars about whom I write in Wild Card. I learned and absorbed from these veterans just as I once had with amateur colleagues. And these stars, too, adapted with the times – Fenella Fielding kept working right up to her death at the age of ninety. And where did she learn her craft? Amateur theatre!”

An exclusive extract from Wild Card :

“It began in Woolworths in Sutton Coldfield, age four. I was allowed a new video as a ‘treat’. Browsing the shelves, I ignored the children’s films… but caught sight of something truly magical. On the cover of one particular VHS was a purple banner, adorned with the logo of a roaring lion: ‘MGM MUSICALS’. The photograph depicted a man dancing on a heathered hill with a beautiful brunette: Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon.

Don’t ask me why I wanted that video but, somehow, I knew I had to have it – so after persuading my surprised mother that I was in earnest, Brigadoon it was.

It was magnetising. Beautiful people sang and danced in an enchanted world; my young eyes had beheld nothing more beguiling than Kelly and Charisse roaming the highlands of Scotland. Forget children’s television and contemporary cartoons – this was what I wanted to see.

Pocket money was saved to buy Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Pirate, Easter Parade. I wanted to be just like Ann Miller performing Shaking the Blues Away.

At the age of seven, in Santa’s grotto, I was placed upon the knee of a man wearing a long white beard.

‘Ho, ho, ho! And what would you like for Christmas?’

‘I’d like a video called Show Boat.’

Martin in Patience with Walsall Gilbert & Sullivan Society (1993)

In the annual Cromer Pier Seaside Special I saw the last of the great British variety acts. And at Sheringham Little Theatre an old-fashioned rep company performed those old-fashioned comforting well-made plays: Charley’s Aunt, interchangeable Agatha Christie ‘whodunnits’ and Noël Coward drawing-room comedies. To me, this world seemed wonderful and natural… and I couldn’t understand why other children didn’t thrive on it too …

But finally, there was hope – a junior school disco! I couldn’t have been more excited. I’d seen so many ‘high school dances’ in movie musicals and therefore knew just what to expect. Everybody would sing and dance in unison, like the kids in the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films! I put on my jazz shoes in preparation for the wild high kicks which were bound to occur and couldn’t wait for everyone to start throwing themselves around the room doing Jerome Robbins choreography and yelling ‘Mambo!’ like I’d seen in West Side Story.

I left that night knowing the precise definition of the term ‘wallflower’. I’d spent my entire evening standing alone against the wall bars. No one had approached me, and the only familiar track played by the DJ had been a medley from Grease… a movie I couldn’t abide. It wasn’t a patch on Road to Morocco.

I’d just turned six when I made my stage debut in an amateur production of South Pacific. A few months later I was enlisted as a miniature dragoon guard in Patience – carrying a flagpole twice my height – by the local Gilbert and Sullivan society.

I’m afraid I was rather precocious – always running centre stage to sing my heart out with something from G&S or MGM. I must have been the sort of child that adults want to either kiss or kill. I developed a fan base of little old ladies who never missed a G&S show – they looked forward to my moments as a tiny midshipman, Lord High Drummer Boy or pint-sized pirate. There must have been plenty of others who found me nauseously irritating and probably worthy of a good throttle! But I couldn’t have been happier – the stage was where I was comfortable – where I belonged …
I had enough strength of character to stand up to any blockade in my professional path. But offstage I was fragile. I did not ‘belong’ anywhere at school, and there were plenty of people prepared to make sure that I realised it. But I didn’t have the strength to stand up and tell them to shove off – yet.

I was quirky, I was spotty, I was gawky, and – the worst of all crimes at school – different. It takes strength to be different. To survive, I decided to simply accept the fact that whilst I could dazzle the world from the stage, having real friends in real life offstage was probably just something that would never happen. Not to me. And for a very long time I believed that. Like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager I told myself ‘don’t let’s ask for the moon…’


We have three copies of Wild Card to give away to three lucky readers!
To be in with a chance of winning one, email your name and address to by midnight on Wednesday, 30th September 2020.