EARLY BEGINNINGS AND OTHER THOUGHTS
3rd October 2009
My first job was as understudy and Assistant Stage Manager in the London production of ‘Toys in the Attic’, directed by the extraordinary and rather frightening John Dexter. Among its stars were Wendy Hiller, Diana Wynyard and Coral Browne, all huge stars then and I learned a lot from them. John had a bit of a soft spot for me and said he cast me because I was the only actress he could hear, auditioning in the large Piccadilly Theatre. He later cast me in ‘The Kitchen’, also with many well known names. He could be sarcastic and quite cruel, but he knew exactly what he was doing and in my book that really is everything, sometimes we have work through the eccentricities of people’s personalities, if they are delivering the goods. Many people will disagree with me, but this is an unforgiving industry and one simply has to be quite tough to survive. The three lady stars managed very nicely with John!
During rehearsals I got my first film job….three days on ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ starring Richard Todd. John D generously agreed to let me off to do it. Coral’s immediate words were “You’re not going off to film with an *ss like that, are you darling?” and promptly put me on a diet. I had to report to her every day, what I had eaten. But I lost the weight! Wendy Hiller gave me weight losing exercises and supervised my stretching and Diana Wynyard gave me a bottle of her favourite perfume: Mitsouko. Such was the generosity of these three great stars.
I went off to make my film and at the end of the third day, went up to Richard Todd to say ‘goodbye’. He looked a little puzzled and said “I don’t think you’re finished yet, we haven’t finished the scene and you’re established”. Whatever that meant. Instant panic, what I was I to do? My lovely theatre job seemed in danger of disappearing. I would be fired, John would be furious. Such was my ignorance and naiveté. Well that was it, I was going and promptly was warned by the first assistant director of the perils of walking of a film set, law suits, blacklisting. My barely started career was crumbling before my horrified eyes. Of course I stayed on the film, I had to and of course John and the three ladies were fine about it, “Oh well that’s filming for you”, “Don’t worry, you’ll be back soon”. How grateful was I and my first major lesson about film was learned.
I never did go on in ‘Toys in the Attic’, the actress wisely was never off, knowing there was a young tiger in the wings waiting to gobble her up! But I did enjoy it so much, even being yelled at by the wonderful Ian Bannen for cooking him rice every night, which was so dry, that he could barely speak through it…….one of my duties as ASM: I didn’t cook in those days.
Years later I encountered a similar but much more serious situation. I had filmed part of a commercial for Yardley’s and was due to go to New York to do the second half. No date given, but I was technically on first call to them. I was filming the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ and the call came to go to New York. What was I to do? Frankly my agent did not help much, I was not a big enough star and their priorities lay with Universal Studios not Jane Merrow. If I did not go to New York, I could be sued, if I walked off ‘Six Million Dollar Man’, I certainly would be fired and sued by Universal.
I swallowed my terror and stayed with Universal. Needless to say I got a very frightening letter from the commercial producers, precursor to a law suit. Fortunately I had a good friend in Steve Kenis, the agent, who is a trained lawyer and he helped me write a suitably groveling letter to the Producers for Yardley, which apparently mollified them and saved my career, the job and all my financial assets. It was alarming to say the least. Thank you Steve!
Some major actors I know, who have been through similar trials are unfazed by such events, knowing their talent will see them through in the end. And they are right, but you have to be VERY big, earning LOTS of money and be VERY talented. And it is not a guarantee.
I can’t resist stating the obvious! When Tony Blair left office, people said knowingly, well, his big ambition is to be President of Europe. The machinations of politics grind slowly and surely, but this is one prediction likely to come true. Oh the ambition, the deviousness or is it cleverness? Shakespeare would know.
More soon dear friends,