Wednesday, October 20, 2010

18. I want to be an actress

We left the nice house in Cheam and moved to Ruislip where we shared a house with Uncle Bill, Father’s other brother, his wife, Mary, and their two children, David and Pamela, who had been bombed out of their flat in London. Here, I had another of life’s weird experiences. I had to share a bedroom with father, mother and Maureen. Late one night I was woken by a strange noise coming from my parents’ bed, a sort of gasping and sighing, and then silence. I could not understand what was happening, but mother did not seem to be crying and so she must be alright. Most fourteen year olds today would have known exactly what was going on, but I just kept very quiet, and was a bit scared. Then we moved to a rather nice flat, also in Ruislip, where I had my own room again.

There was no mention of my going to another school and so I started working, as a very inept office girl, for the Grand Union Canal Company, which had moved out of London to Offices at the Ruislip Lido. I wanted to learn typing, but the girls in the typing pool would not let me near their machines and, when I finally did have my own typewriter, I understood why. The typewriters then were heavy manual things and if the keys were jammed, or bent, they would not work properly; typists in those days were really skilled, fast and accurate. I earned fifteen shillings a week. Five shillings went to my mother for my keep, five shillings for bus fares and five shillings for pocket money. The first thing I saved up for was a navy blue dress with white polka dots on it that was displayed in a local shop window. It cost fifteen shillings.

I don’t know if I was sacked or if I got a better paid job, but after a while I worked in the same aircraft factory as my father and we traveled to work together. Every morning when we arrived at the underground station, I would stand in the queue at the tobacconist kiosk to get a ration of five woodbines for father. It was a very cold, dark and foggy winter, there were no smokeless zones then. We went to work in the dark and traveled home in the dark. Torches were allowed in the streets, if one could get batteries, and in the thick fog people would walk in front of cars shining torches so that drivers could see the way.

My desire to be an actress was still strong and I read in a newspaper that a movie company was looking for a new face to star in a movie to be called “Thursday’s Child”. I went to London for an interview and the casting director, who was most enthusiastic about casting me, phoned for the director to come up from Elstree to see me right away. The director, the casting director and the agent all agreed that I was not old enough to play the lead but could be either the lead’s sister, or her best friend according to whoever they chose for the lead, colouring etc. I was so excited I could hardly get on with my job. At sixteen I was going to be a film star. I heard nothing for a few weeks and then read that Sally Ann Howes (daughter of Bobby Howes) had been chosen for the lead. I immediately phoned the agent and asked him which part I would be playing. After an ominous pause he said they were already in production and that they had forgotten about me. Well, that’s show business for you, but the disappointment was almost unbearable.

I bought a copy of “The Stage” newspaper which contained advertisements for theatrical agencies, vacancies, auditions and forthcoming shows. I walked into the office of a theatrical agent, I think his name was Marlow, and hanging on the wall behind his desk was a huge picture of my grandfather’s troupe! After I had identified them all, Mr. Marlow told me that his father had managed the troupe for years and, on the strength of that, got me a small part in an all girl play about models in a dress shop; the name escapes me, but it was booked for the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green. I had only a couple of lines to say, one of which, on being teased that I would black my boyfriend’s boots for him, was “I’d black anything for Dickey!” which was supposed to raise a laugh. My mother came to see the play but was unable to hear my lines because I spoke too quietly. Although Mr. Marlow pinched my bottom back stage he did not offer me any further work. The most memorable thing about that experience - not having my bottom pinched, but being in the play - was that after the show, Richard Attenborough and his then fiancée, Sylvia, came back stage and he kissed me, along with all the other girls. They were all ex ‘RADA, DARLING’, and after “Dickey Darling” had left , there was some discussion about how much he had improved and settled down since becoming engaged. The fact that they are still together proves that they were certainly suited. We had to supply our own clothes for the show and, once again, my sister, Jane, came to my rescue, lending me two pairs of cami-knickers that she had made by hand, and a beautiful blue taffeta evening dress, with a sort of bustle at the back. I cannot remember who had given it to her but it was supposed to have worn in a show by Evelyn Laye.

The chances I took answering advertisements in the Stage really amaze me now. One supposed agent wanted to audition me at some studio. I met him in a deserted “studio” where he looked me over and told me that my left shoulder sloped; it still does. Then he asked me to return in a few days time and to bring with me a selection of chiffon scarves! Return I did not!

Another advertisement announced that The Richmond Theatre was auditioning actresses for their new Repertory Company. In the interview waiting room sat several aspiring young actresses and RADA students, seriously reading Shakespeare and silently rehearsing audition pieces. My hands were empty; I was quite unprepared and inexperienced and so I was surprised and delighted when I was chosen. A contract was prepared and I was engaged as a member of the repertory company to start on, or about, 16th August, note the “or about” bit. The pay was thirty two shillings a week, just a little more that the train fare to and from Ruislip to Richmond.

At the time, father, mother and Maureen were staying in a pub where father was to be trained as a manager by the present landlord; it was a trade father should have stayed well away from. So I was left in the flat to fend for myself. What joy! Every day was filled with excitement. I was to be the assistant to the stage manager, although I knew absolutely nothing about stage managing; in fact I had never even been backstage before. The distinctive smell of the front of house and the auditorium is nothing compared to the mixture of smells backstage. Dust and must mixed with the smell of size, canvas, paint, wood and mouse droppings. Drafts coming from everywhere, ropes lying around waiting to trip one up and tables full of props which must never be touched or disturbed, except by the assistant to the stage manager. The dressing rooms smelled of old carpet, grease paint and sweat encrusted costumes. Brightly lit mirrors screwed to flaking painted walls over long shelves served as dressing tables, on which the actors placed their makeup, wigs and special props. I had a plenty to learn.

Actors are not like ordinary folk. Ordinary folk have no desire to learn lines, strut around a stage pretending to be someone else, to be out of work more often than in it, to face rejection, disappointment and despair. But, to walk out onto a stage and into the footlights; to project one's energy into the audience and feel their energy coming back, recharging ones batteries; knowing that you hold their attention in the palm of your hand is an indescribable feeling. And, as the curtain comes down, the applause and the praise makes one feel like a child, so happy to have pleased everyone. In other creative art forms the artist can judge for himself whether or not the work is good, but on stage the artist cannot see himself and must rely on other people’s opinions. The greatest compliment I ever received came from a producer whose opinion I respected, albeit he was an amateur, was “The stage lights up when you make your entrance!” WOW!!

During my few weeks at the Richmond they staged “Lilac Time”, a musical in which Richard Tauber had once starred, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “The Wind and the Rain” and one other I forget. I ran after the actors and loved them all, except for the old Irish actress Maire O’Neil who would call me and ask me to “Fetch me a drink, me darling”, which meant a gin and tonic from the pub next door. She never paid me and as I was surviving on fried tomatoes on toast and Worcester apples I really could not afford to pay for the old soak’s drinks. The pub next door was called “The Web” and the stage hands spent a great deal of time in there. During one performance of "The Wind and The Rain", a scene ended with the actor packing his suit case. I was busy sorting out the props for the next performance, when suddenly the actor, who had been alone on the stage packing his suitcase and, as it turned out, unpacking and repacking it, dashed off the stage and hissed at me “Pull down the bloody curtain!” I had not noticed that the stage manager had gone next door for a pint and left me alone and in charge. I pulled down the heavy curtain with difficulty and was not charmed when I was the one reprimanded for the missed cue.

During “Arsenic and Old Lace” one of the old ladies walked down the stairway carrying a candle in a candle holder, which was lit by a battery-powered little bulb as lighted wax candles were considered too dangerous. Well, the flex must have come loose because the candle fell out of its holder and the old lady walked down the stairs with the flaming candle swinging on the flex below the holder, which caused laughter during what was supposed to be a dramatic piece! Again I was reprimanded for not checking the equipment. Of course there are thousands of such stories in the theatre, but to me it was all very exciting and I was learning so much.

“Lilac Time” was a rather tatty show. With all able bodied young men called up and most young women directed to war work, the cast was somewhat on the old side and the supposedly “lovely young girls” were rather fat and elderly to say the least. I think the chap who took the Richard Tauber part had been exempted because of his bow legs.

After “The Wind and the Rain”, I was told to return all the props to the suppliers. These were a wind machine - a very large thin sheet of metal that was bent backwards and forwards; the rain machine - a large gravel-filled drum that made a raining sound when turned with a handle and a large number of books, wigs and other props. The only way to transport them was by taxi, so I called one, loaded the stuff in, gave the driver the first address and I sat back nervously watching the meter ticking over. The boss had not given me any money; I did not have much in my purse; I had to get back to the theatre after the deliveries and then back home to Ruislip, and there was no money there! The meter reached my limit and I had to tell the driver to stop. The taxi was unloaded and the stuff put in a bombed out doorway somewhere near Leicester Square, and there I stood, me and the stuff. What to do? Nothing, if not resourceful, I walked and carried as much as I could to each supplier a piece at as time, all over London, the wind machine being the most difficult. I returned to the theatre and asked the manager for the taxi fare and was more than a little put out when he reprimanded me for taking a taxi in the first place! How the heck was I supposed to move the stuff?

The next show advertised was a circus which actually included an elephant, and I wondered if the “boards” would support that much weight. It was now September and there was no sign of the repertory company starting, so I asked the manager when this would begin as my contract stated 16th August. “Ah, you did not read it correctly. The contract says on OR ABOUT” he said. Cleaning up after actors and buying gin for old lushes was bad enough, but I drew the line at cleaning up after elephants, so I left. And as I needed to eat and support myself, that was the end of my foray into the world of professional actors. But, oh the excitement of calling “Beginners please!” and the anxiety with which we looked through a slit in the curtains to see if there was a good audience. The sound of the curtain going up! In later years I put my acting talents to good use in various amateur dramatic societies, but the excitement was never quite the same.

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