LOOKING BACK: ‘The Bird Girl of Eastbourne’

'What's My Line?' with Eamon Andrews
'What's My Line?' with Eamon Andrews

This week and next week Looking Back will feature extracts from Eastbourne writer Elizabeth Wright’s book Who’s a Chatty Boy then?

“I was the owner of Elizabeth’s Pet Shop, located opposite Christ Church in Seaside, from 1954 to 1992. We kept many different popular pets from goldfish, hamsters, kittens and rabbits to budgies, canaries and parrots.

The pet shop

The pet shop

Throughout the 38 years of trading many of our family pets appeared in the media, and I was dubbed ‘The Bird Girl of Eastbourne’.

Over the years some of our trained parrots, budgies, mynah birds and cockatoos have won numerous awards for their talking ability at the annual National Exhibition of Cage Birds.

In 1959 I was invited to take part in one of the most popular TV programmes of the day, What’s My Line?’ hosted by Eamonn Andrews. Here a team of celebrities from that era, Lady Isobel Barnett, Gilbert Harding, Louise Collins and Cyril Fletcher had to work out my job by asking just ten questions.

We had plumped for Bird Manicurist, as a trimmer of avian beaks and claws was part of the business. Although the astute Lady Barnett got close with lady blacksmith, I beat the panel and gained the highly valued ‘What’s My Line’ Diploma.

Whilst this live programme was being transmitted, my mother was temporarily tucked away in a room under the stage looking after a tame white cockatoo and one of our best talking parrots, because their noisy squawking could have been heard and given the game away.

Here a team of scene shifters were huddled together playing cards. “Welcome to Monte Carlo,” said one cheekily.

As I waited my turn behind the scenes, Yul Brynner, that week’s celebrity, came and sat beside me. For this part of the programme the panel members were blindfolded and had to guess who this famous person was, made more challenging by him disguising his voice.

Afterwards, people said, “Why didn’t you get his autograph?” I could only say I was rooted to my chair with such awe because this fabulously handsome film star was so close to me.

After my diploma had been handed over, the two birds were brought out and placed on the long desk in front of us. Let into its top were small, projecting microphones. Lulu, the talkative Amazon green parrot, tripped over one of these metal rods, growled and started to scrunch it to pieces, much to the horror of the sound 

Cocky, the white cockatoo, decided that Eamonn Andrews looked like a friend and proceeded to climb up his arm, sit on his shoulder and nibble his ear. Ever the professional, although he confessed afterwards he didn’t like birds, Eamonn, aware the show was drawing to a close, persuaded Cocky to step on his hand and the closing highlight was a close up of the bird being held aloft, flapping his wings and raising his large crest. Payment from the BBC was £1.17s 4d for the rail fare to the selection interview and £3.3s 0d for the appearance.