Standing up for British traditions such as the famous afternoon tea, catering for her overseas visitors with a close eye on the budget spent and teaching them irregular English verb forms in form of funny songs. For nearly four decades, Brighton’s leading landlady Mrs Hoover has entertained audiences across the UK and even overseas with her hilarious show.
Now, she is ready to shut the door and say farewell to her audiences with a final show. With the end of Mrs Hoover getting closer, it’s time to shine a light on the man who has been in her shoes passing the Hoover on stage for so many years.
In real life, Mrs Hoover, aka Martyn Ford, is a teacher at the English Language Centre in Brighton. Having passed a university degree in English, Martyn first wasn’t sure what to do with his life. After having worked as a civil servant, a warehouseman and as a factory worker making pies and sausage rolls in his early twenties, he finally decided to become a teacher to “carry a light into dark places”, as he jokes.
Martyn has spent a large part of his forty years of teaching explaining irregular verb forms and the correct pronunciation of words to foreign students. It’s thanks to their stories about their life in host families that he came up with the idea of creating the character of Mrs Hoover because, back in the early eighties, host mothers by far weren’t what they are now!
“Back in those days, fish fingers, frozen peas and instant mashed potato were standard boarding house fare and the caricature of a severe, rather nosy landlady rationing the amount of toilet paper was not so remote from the reality. Later on, the term ‘hostmother’ came into use, perhaps to shake off the old battle-axe image. ‘Hostmother’ sounds warmer, cosier, more caring and hospitable somehow”, Martyn describes the image of a host mother that has influenced the character of Mrs Hoover.
The first occasion to dress up as a landlady and go on stage came in form of a last minute Christmas show for the students at a language school he used to work for at that time. “I recall it was a sort of dare. A colleague said, ‘Why don’t you do your landlady turn?’, referring to an even earlier incarnation of the character at another school in the area. That prototype didn’t have a name and all I remember is that the sketch was set on a bus and involved a chain of sausages – but Mrs Hoover as such first appeared that Christmas, 34 years ago.When I saw one of the students in the audience laughing, slapping her thigh, and saying, ‘It’s so true!’, I realised I was onto something”, he remembers the birth of the character.
Oxford, Cambridge, London, Torquay, but also foreign countries such as Poland, Germany, or Greece, Martyn, or had we better say, Joyce Hoover, has come a long way since the first performance. Having seen so many different audiences in all these years, Martyn can well say that he has had good as well as bad experiences.
“I remember playing to a large hall full of young Japanese with very low-level English and no knowledge of the cultural stereotypes of Britishness that are the basis of my jokes. I think I got two laughs, and one of them was for the vacuum cleaner. But then I also had really good moments on stage like performing to a packed house of English Language teachers from all over the world at The Ship Hotel in Brighton a few years ago. I think performers learn most from their failures, just like teachers learn most from unsuccessful lessons. Though in the case of performing, sometimes what you learn is ‘Don’t ever play to that kind of audience again!’
After so many years of putting on wig, make-up and glasses and walking across the stage with the ever-present Hoover, the teacher/performer has developed a close bond with the character that he sometimes envies for her brazen, outspoken, sometimes even tactless personality. However, Martyn can’t help feeling a little “ambivalent” about her.
“Sometimes, I resent her interference in my life and I’m embarrassed by some of her more ‘politically incorrect’ views; but if I haven’t done a show for a while I miss her and wonder what she’s up to. Then I look forward to meeting her again”, Martyn admits.
Other than their different views on what is politically correct or incorrect, Martyn and Mrs Hoover strongly differ in their opinions when it comes to the noble task of every landlady/ host mother. While the Hoover lady has almost made it to perfection in what one might call cost-conscious catering for paying guests, Martyn could never imagine becoming a host himself.
“I’m embarrassed to admit it but I would hate to share my living space with lodgers. Mrs Hoover, on the other hand, loves it and is proud of being able to squeeze up to 21 students from 16 different countries into her little terraced house in the peak season”, he says with a little laughter referring to his show.
Being some sort of living incarnation of British hospitality and traditions, such as the famous afternoon tea, Joyce Hoover has got strong opinions on British identity, culture, and etiquette and the importance of learning so-called ‘proper’ English. The emphasis on the latter clearly results from Martyn’s teaching background, but the fact that he has chosen to focus on topics such as identity or culture isn’t a coincidence either.
“National and cultural identity are so fascinating. But as political and social forces, they can be scary too of course. I can’t remember a time when there was so much debate about what it means to be British. Naturally, the EU referendum has brought these differences into sharper focus. I think Mrs Hoover is a throwback to a time of simpler certainties about identity, to the post-war Britain I grew up in”, the teacher explains his personal involvement with the topics.
Bird baths in the back garden, chintz chair covers, brown sauce on a steak and kidney pie, orderly queues… that’s what Englishness is for Mrs Hoover. Martyn acknowledges that all this might seem like a “nostalgic vision totally out of step with the norms and values of England in 2017”, but at the same time, he wonders whether it really is nothing but nostalgia.
Britishness and cultural identity are subjects Martyn is really interested in. When he isn’t teaching or performing as Mrs Hoover, he writes and illustrates for his How To Be British series of humorous books and postcards he has brought to life with the help of Peter Legon.
Mrs Joyce Hoover’s How to be British: An Impractical Guide to the Country, Language and People and Mrs Joyce Hoover’s How Do You Do are the written accounts of the famous landlady’s tips for foreign visitors to the island. The author/illustrator even intends to ghostwrite her autobiography after her final show at The Old Market at the end of this month.
Whether it’s really gonna be his last ever show as Mrs Hoover, Martyn likes to leave his audience in doubt. “That’s what she says, and I can’t do the show without her. She says she’s getting too forgetful now and won’t remember what she has to say. But I can’t imagine her ever being lost for words. Her memory is going a bit, it’s true and, as she says, ‘Talking to foreign students in broken English for 40 years has scrambled my brain…’ But then she might well forget that this was supposed to be her finale!” is his mysterious answer.
He isn’t sure about whether he will miss Mrs Hoover either. All he is certain about are his last words to his audience: “Are you sure you haven’t left anything upstairs?”
Martyn’s (probably) last show, Mrs Hoover’s Fond Farewell, will be at 8 pm on Wednesday, July 26, at The Old Market.