Achieving our ambitions, our dreams is rather like catching a butterfly in a net. It is elusive, attractive, tricky, but if we persevere we will catch it and accomplish what we want.
I was lucky…from the age of eight I knew what I wanted. My first stage appearance was aged four playing a fly caught in a spider’s web. I loved the attention, I was a show off and enjoyed the audience attention and applause. Once I knew that there was the possibility of a career garnering this heady feeling for the rest of my life, I was hooked. My mother was horrified…some of her immediate family had been in the theatre, my maternal grandparents and one of her brothers, my Uncle Fred. She knew how difficult and heartbreaking the business was. Uncle Fred had been a Stage Manager and and the endless touring, the toil of the “get ins and get outs” of the various theatres literally killed him in the end. After another miserable time on the road, staying in yet another freezing(no heat) boarding house, he caught pneumonia, which transmuted into tuberculosis, from which he eventually died. My grandfather was a very talented stage designer…… once invited to work in Hollywood to work for Disney ….he turned them down…liked his London life too much…he worked for one of London’s leading theatres, The St Martin’s Theatre and was a lot responsible for the success of the play “The Ghost Train“…he built the train, the set and designed the special effects…hence the Disney offer.
“In its first run in London, for its climactic moment elaborate special-effects utilizing visual and audio devices were used to create the sensation of a train passing close by on the stage at high speed, including garden-rollers running over wooden laths, thunder sheets, etc. Reviewing the premiere in The Manchester Guardian, Ivor Brown wrote, “the gentleman in charge of ‘Noises off’ becomes at times the protagonist, … he can make a noise so like a train that he might impose on the station master of a terminus; meanwhile, he can throw in a hurricane, as it were, with the other hand.” Grandfather was responsible for the train and the special effects!!!
I caught my butterfly, followed my dream and went to RADA (drama School), got very lucky, picking up an agent at one of our end of term (semester) showcases and was on my way. My new agent Elisabeth Robinson was just starting her business and built the careers of her small stable of actors single handedly. I will never forget her and always be grateful for her belief in me and her energy and devotion to us all. And I will never forget those early happy, heady days of falling into one wonderful part after the other and I did have some terrific roles.
My big break was playing Lorna in the BBC’s Television drama “Lorna Doone“, taken from RD Blackmoore’s romantic nineteenth century book… a great love story full of action, romance, outlaws set in the wilds of Devon ……Exmoor and the Doone Valley. Here’s a little memory: Lorna is described as beautiful with long very black hair. I had light brown hair, so a black wig was duly made for me. We were doing a few days filming on location prior to going into the studios to tape the rest of the show……the way it was done in those days. The 16mm film would be cut into the taped studio work. I was on set on the moors in Exmoor and put on the wig for the first time….I looked like a witch, certainly NOT a bewitching beauty. The black wig did not match my skin tones and the hair line was hard and fake. “I cant wear this I said, I will scare away the audience, not to mention my attractive leading man Bill Travers. What to do, we were in the wilds of Devon, with not a wigmaker in sight. “Ok” say I “lets blacken the front of my hair (all we had was black shoe polish) and cover the rest with a scarf. Then we can get a proper half wig, temporarily dye the front of my hair for the studio work and I will will have my natural hairline…look much better.
Well my friends that worked. Improvisation and a bit of ingenuity, problem solved…it is ever thus in our business. More about that an another blog!!