Dear members and friends
It is quite scary in a way. The curtain goes up and you are on the stage alone and feel a frisson of fear. Strangely, before someone has coughed, you can guess what the audience will be like as they are all different. Two what-you-think are identical performances on successive nights produce different reactions and you might wait in vain for the 1st laugh (if it is a comedy, of course.) on one of them. I sat on the stage in Boeing Boeing, supposedly reading Le Monde, as the curtains opened and much later in M Butterfly where I am alone in my prison cell. By then it is too late to shout for help and you just hope for support from your fellow actors and a decent prompt. I was quite a good prompt as I attended all the rehearsals and knew when an actor was making a dramatic pause or when he had forgotten the line and was desperate. In some productions someone was just given the book on the night and told to follow the lines; and that is hopeless. As I am short sighted I never gaze into the audience looking to see if there is anyone I know but look at a point above them. Once in Bracknell my friends said “Surely you must have seen us. We were sitting on the front row!” I think that was in Loot, by Joe Orton and when my friends got home to Farnham, they discovered their house had been burgled. They suggested to the Policeman that probably their goods were on their way to London; he replied “More likely Bracknell; that’s the hotbed of crime near here” They said that they had just been there to watch a play and he said that most probably they had passed their effects on the way home!
The prompt is so important. In Highbury Little Theatre in Sutton Coldfield I was in a two-hander called Green Julia; playing a student. OK, it was a long time ago! I caught ‘flu and we had to cancel the 1st night, on the Saturday, having missed the Dress Rehearsal on the Friday. I offered to do the play on the Saturday emerging from my sickbed – and boy was I sick – without a dress rehearsal earlier in the day, as my voice might cope with just one performance but my co-actor refused. A magic linctus worked over the weekend and we had the dress rehearsal on the Monday and opened on the Tuesday (Performances were usually Saturday then Tuesday to the next Saturday and we put on a new play every 7 weeks). There were 4 almost identical cues and responses in the 1st Act and on the 1st night I went from the 3rd cue to the 4th response and cut 7 pages of script. I coughed, left the other actor speaking, in the play, on the telephone and walked off to find the prompt in mid-panic. The lighting man told her where we were and I went back on stage and we finished the 1st Act. During the interval we decided to put the 7 pages back and found a place in the 2nd act where we could insert them, on the understanding that if one of us got lost we would give a code word and go back to Act 2. We did and put back 6 pages before my colleague’s nerve failed and gave the code. At the end of the performance, his mother said how much she enjoyed the play and I remarked that I thought we gave the prompt a hard time. She said “but neither of you were prompted!” You can fool some of the people some of the time if they are not familiar with the play.
I liked the story in the Times Diary last week which mentioned a rather inebriated Pete Postlethwaite walking off stage after a long speech in Stratford and saying “Well, I nailed that one!” One of the actors backstage agreed but pointed out the speech he had given was from Richard lll whereas the play they were in that night was Henry V. Again, I wonder who noticed in the audience!
In Alexandria, I went to see a performance of King Lear at the Victory (formerly Victoria) College. Lear was being played by the school’s English drama teacher of mature years. At one point in a speech his false teeth shot out, he caught them put them back in and continued as though nothing had happened. I think it was Noel Coward’s favourite actress, Gertrude Lawrence, who found a door stuck and so entered the stage through the wardrobe, and remembered to exit the same way.
In Hong Kong I was in an Alan Ackbourne at the Hong King Football Club when all the lights went out in the middle of the 1st Act. One of the actresses was saying, in the play as we continued in the dark, how the kitchen had been flooded and I ad-libbed “and fused all the lights”. We good a huge round of applause and were sent a bottle of champagne after the performance by the Football Club Director.
Noel Coward was asked the secret of acting and his response was “Remember the lines and don’t bump into the furniture”. Well, it is a little more than that. I like to try to get into the character and make it believable. However, at Highbury I played Cleante, the lawyer, in Tartuffe. My younger sister, Hilary, and her husband came to watch it and I asked her how she had enjoyed it and about my performance. She said “It was very good, you were very good, you are usually, but it’s always you up there, isn’t it?” I said that maybe that is something John Wayne and I had in common. At the end of Green Julia I break down and admit my life is a sham; I hadn’t got a girlfriend called Gloria and had made it up as I was ashamed at my failure to find one. Hilary and Mike again came to this one and afterwards I asked her what she thought. She said they had both loved it (it was a decent play even if 6 pages were interchangeable). I said “Was it me up there again?” and she said “No, it was somebody else tonight!” Could I have had greater praise?
Anyway, what follows is how it all started.
To be anybody but me
“Scrape and scratch and scrabble and scrooge. Scrooge and scrabble and scrape and scratch. Up we go, up we go. Pop!” Those were my first words in a proper play. I had done bit and pieces at junior school, including singing in “Soldier, soldier will you marry me” wearing a red crepe paper jacket made by my mother but this was a part with proper lines!
At Oldershaw Grammar School, the annual play was always selected by the senior maths master, Jimmy Ford, who spoke out of the corner of his mouth. He was a devout Catholic and so, over my 1st three years there, our plays had a religious theme. Androcles and the Lion, Tobias and the Angel and finally the quite dreadful Countess Cathleen. Here two Middle European villagers had sold their soul to the Devil but the sainted Countess had interceded, offered her soul in place of theirs, snuffed it and was so pure that she went directly to heaven without the need of an underground investigation. Mr Smith was succeeded by Joe Wolfman, my English teacher. We had done play readings in class during English lessons and he had liked my efforts. It seems I spoke quite well (A mother, in her Liverpool accent, had said to my mother “Doesn’t your Noel talk lovely. Where do you send him for elocution lessons?” Mother said I had never had one; I loved plays on the radio and I wanted to sound like the man on the BBC! Today, if I felt like that, heaven knows what accent I would speak as received pronunciation is regarded as “middle class”, the greatest insult you can inflict on anyone.)
On my way home from school, I was stopped by Mr Wolfman and asked why I hadn’t been for the audition for “Toad of Toad Hall” and said I didn’t think I would get a part; the school play actors were a rather superior lot which I thought would be difficult to join. He remarked I wouldn’t get one if I didn’t audition and instructed me to go to the next one. Breaking into the select group, I was “Mole”! In the end, I did quite well, despite my “best friend”, Ratty, not happy that I had got the part. At the Parents v Staff cricket match, where my sporty father scored the most runs, my eldest sister asked the headmaster’s daughter if she know me. “Oh” she said, “We all know Noel. Noel the Mole”. Lets face it, if you have made an impression no matter how unlikely, don’t knock it! Next year I was the title character in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector”. It was OK but I don’t think it was my finest performance. One of the cast remarked that I was the Star and my ”faithful retainer” in the play, Eric Stacey, said “No he isn’t. He is “Also starring” like the films. You have the Stars and then, as an afterthought “Also starring” and that is him.” In a way he was right and that has been my role in life, not quite hitting the high spot. The star was, in fact, Martin Jenkins , playing the Mayor, who later acted at the Old Vic and was a major BBC radio play producer.
I was persuaded to join Midland Bank Dramatic Society and started out as Prompt. I was quite a good prompt and this success lead me to play the husband in a murder mystery at the Crane Theatre in Liverpool. The father was played by the elderly Director, who was a little hard of hearing. At one venue (we did a try out at a gardening club) he was prompted, prompted again, prompted again and then a woman on the front row tried to prompt him having heard the prompt.
Useless at Sport, to my father’s despair, when the Midland Bank moved me to London, Manchester and Birmingham I joined the local Am Drams. They were great fun and for a few blissful minutes I could pretend to be somebody else and not have to be me. “Now, Noel, they used to be married so you can’t put them in the same play. The electrician is gay and is having an affair with the guy doing the lighting and nobody knows so don’t say anything. Don’t cast her in anything as she is dreadful and doesn’t know it”.
I was asked to go to Tehran as there had been a revolution, they had closed all the schools, and the married Group Representative had two daughters there and so needed to return to the UK. I have always maintained that they were looking for a disposable bachelor and I was top of the disposable list. I was introduced to Martin Williams, the Head of Chancery, and his wife Sue, a very talented artist. When Martin later became Governor of the Pitcairn Islands, as well as being the High Commissioner to New Zealand, Sue was commissioned to draw a series of birds for the stamps. Martin and a colleague helped rescue the film crew that featured in Ben Afflick’s “Argo”. He called home from the Embassy and said “Sue, we have extra for dinner tonight and will need beds”. Curiously, in the film, no mention was made of this apart from Mr Affleck saying “The Brits were no help”. Martin was livid.
He invited me to the play readings on Saturdays at the British Embassy and I loved them; great fun as well as being the only place in Tehran where you could get a Gin and Tonic. On one occasion I was playing the Richard Burton part in “Whose afraid of Virginia Wolf” and Barbara Coates, the wife of the Charge D’Affairs, was in the Elizabeth Taylor role. This helped when the next time I acted opposite an Ambassador’s wife it was with Lady Weir in Cairo.
In a previous Blog I mentioned my mentor, Bobby Mayne, in Midland Bank’s Atlantic Department. On one occasion he remarked to the department, “Expert, old boy, what’s an expert? You don’t have to believe all these so called experts on television. Take you, Rands. You could be an expert! You are walking over London Bridge one day and someone with a microphone stops you and asks you for your opinion on, say, the gold crisis. You give one of your usual fatuous answers and amazingly someone likes it. The next thing you are invited to go on some programme or other, another fatuous answer, then on another programme and you know nothing, old boy nothing!” Of course, he was right. In fact it wasn’t London Bridge but London Airport, Heathrow. In 1980 I was ordered to leave my office in Tehran by the London office and fly back. On my flight were most of the British Embassy staff, including Martin and Sue, who also had been instructed to leave. It was when the US hostages were still being held; two days after we left, the Americans, disastrously, tried to rescue them with their helicopters colliding in the desert. Amazingly my two suitcases were amongst the 1st three bags on the conveyor belt and as I trundled my trolley through the arrival gates a voice said “Which flight?” “Tehran”. Suddenly lights, camera, action and I’m being interviewed by ITN News at Ten. As I passed along it was Reuters next and then I was stopped by Christopher Morris of the BBC for the 1pm News. Fortunately, there was a land line failure as my nerves were beginning to shred. ITN came over quite well (my mother was congratulated on my performance!), I’d been very diplomatic about Iran as I wanted to go back. The next day I had become a minor celebrity in the office and even a senior manager congratulated me.
Then, the phone calls. Would I do on the Money Programme on BBC 2 to talk about the oil crisis. Management said “No”. Would I go on “The World tonight” on Radio 4 at 10pm; Midland Bank again said “No”. So that was the end of me being an expert. But it makes you think. As Bobby suggested, how do we know the experts on the Economy or anything else are experts? Just watch 3 experts giving their opinion on the Covid 19 virus. They never agree.
In Cairo I joined Cairo Players, becoming Chairman for 2 years. My 1st role was The Common Man in “Man for all Seasons”; lovely role as you have asides to the audience. I was told off by my visiting boss from London, after being congratulated on my performance by many people he met during his visit, as he said I could be known better as an actor and not the Midland
Bank Group Representative. (My last report, before moving to Bombay, said “If it wasn’t for Noel’s personal relationship with the Chairman of the Bank of Alexandria we would have lost the account, after a foul up in London” so maybe my acting wasn’t that much of a hindrance.)
My favourite play was “The Real Inspector Hound” by Tom Stoppard. I was “Birdboot” with the talented Simon Culliford as “Moon”. We are supposed to be two theatre critics sitting in a box at the side of the stage reviewing a play set in Muldoon Manor “one morning in early June”. It was great fun and I was told that I sounded like a cross between Robert Morley and Donald Sindon. However, the actress playing Lady Cynthia in the play was awful and at the dress she still needed the script. In fact the play went off quite well but I swore never to be in a play with the same Director. Well, the next play was “Twelfth Night” same Director and he wanted me to play Feste, the clown. I called Midland Bank in London and begged them to invite me to London the week the play was on so I couldn’t be in it and they agreed. I apologised to the Director who brought the play forward by a week so I would have no excuse. In fact I enjoyed being in the play which was an open air production set in the garden of the Commercial Counsellor. The final scene is Feste alone on the stage singing “Once and I was a little tiny boy with a hey, ho, the wind and the rain”. I sent it up, complaining about the rain, and the audience laughed. Every other production I have seen makes it mournful, but I am sure I was right. Wouldn’t Shakespeare have wanted to end the play with laughter?
One play I did was “Ring round the Moon” in which I played the identical twins. Lady Weir also was in the cast and so I was invited to a Reception after the 1st night at the Embassy. At the top of the stairs was the former Prime Minister, James Callaghan, who said “Which one are you now?” Anna, the second wife of Gavin Green, the patrician head of Cairo Barclays, and who was a rather superior Polish lady (who he called Stumpy) said to me “Quite frankly, Noel, I couldn’t tell the difference” so that made me feel really good. In Death Trap, I was married to Hilary Weir and at the end of the play she shoots me, and a senior member of the staff of the British Council stabs me in the bank; that was wonderful experience for becoming Secretary of the British Egyptian Society many years later! I wasn’t at the Embassy poolside party when two young men, whose names I had better not mention, persuaded Prince Andrew to push Hilary fully dressed into the pool; she wasn’t amused. Michael was my favourite Ambassador (and I met many on my travels) as, when you took senior banking visitors from London to meet him, always he gave a frank summary of political events. With others (Sir Robert Wade Geary in Delhi, for example) you had the impression that mentally they had learned cue cards and were reciting from them. I did play bridge with Michael and Hilary plus Stephanie Doss at the Embassy on just one occasion but wasn’t invited to play again; I think I sniggered at the wrong moment after they had argued, which really was unintentional. My loss.
At the end of over 4 years, I was asked to transfer to Southampton, which I agreed, but there was a last minute change and instead I went to Bombay, covering Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and all of India plus side trips to Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong where we had offices; about 80 flights a year. Although the Hampshire countryside is lovely I do think I got the better deal. Here my film career started but maybe that can wait for another time.
I do hope everyone is keeping safe and that they are not finding these Blogs too tedious. Growing in stature if not mentally, it is lovely to be able to sit in the garden but, boy, do I miss exercise. I just hope I find a pair of trousers that fits when I am allowed out again in blazer and tie.