Dick Wittington and other stories…

Dick Wittington and other stories…

From L to R, in the blue shirt, tanned and beaming, Frank Ifield. On the other side of my then girlfriend, Roy Hudd and last but not least Nat Jackley in the white hat. 

This photograph from 1972/3 at the Liverpool Empire is a rare photograph from a period when photography just wasn’t on my agenda. I’m going to use it as an excuse to tell some tales of encounters with some names from the past.

I had got the part of lead chorus member quite by chance. I was visiting my Agent in his office at the back of Charing Cross Station, to find him chatting with a fellow Agent, who was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t find any Actor’s who could sing, dance and act. I had never considered doing Panto and when he said that Frank Ifield was the star, I was not at all impressed. I remembered him from the 60’s with his unique style of mixing yodelling into his crooning pop. “I Remember You” was his biggest hit. There was a playful atmosphere in the office and I, rather shamefully, started to ‘camp it up’ a bit. My Agent had never seen me like this and his colleague announced that I was exactly who he was looking for… would I like the job? I had just finished my first job as a professional Director and I had got a place at Central School of Speech and Drama starting the following year, and I was on a roll. Why not add Panto to my CV? It was well paid and I loved Liverpool… “Yes please, I’d love to do it”. It was that easy. Often the best opportunities come in unexpected ways.

Despite having a Director who didn’t have an artistic bone in his body, rehearsals went well and the company bonded and worked hard. On the day of our Dress Rehearsal, there were some technical problems and I was supposed to start the show by walking on and starting the opening number. My entrance was delayed for technical reasons and when I managed to make my entrance, the director, who directed from the back of the stalls using a loud hailer [ Like the famous Hollywood director Cecil B de’Mill ], shouted at me and blamed me for the late entrance. When the same thing happened again for exactly the same reason, he called me out and told me I was sacked. I was aghast and tried to explain that it wasn’t my fault but he was a tyrant and refused to hear what I was saying. The whole company were in shock, standing in the wings. At this point, Frank Ifield came out onto the stage and said to the director, “If he goes, I go”. Wow. I hadn’t expected that. The Dress Rehearsal was cancelled and we were all sent home. The following morning, I went to the Theatre not knowing whether I had a job or not. Overnight, a new director had come up from London and I was reinstated as Lead Chorus member and the Dress Rehearsal went ahead without a hiccup. Frank Ifield was my hero. For a while he became a sort of friend, taking me and Anne [My girlfriend, with the Tankard in the photograph] and another dancer, to clubs around Liverpool in his Roll’s Royce Corniche. One of these visits was to see Bob Monkhouse who we met after his show.

Roy Hudd was great fun and was endlessly playing pranks on everybody during performances. The one I remember best was a prank on Frank Ifield whereby ‘Dick’ is supposed to find an item of clothing in a safe and retrieve it. Roy had secretly ‘enlarged’ the item of clothing so that when Frank [Dick], came to get it from the safe, it just went on forever. Yards and endless yards of it kept coming out of the safe. We, including Frank, were all doubled up laughing but somehow managed to carry on without the audience being the least bit aware of the real shenanigans going on, on stage.

What can I say about Nat Jackley? He used to be billed, in Music Hall days, as ‘The Original Rubber Necked Nat Jackley’. He was a piece of history. A physical comedian of extraordinary dexterity and physicality and a lovely man.  He was a stalwart of the Liverpool Empires Panto season and as a result, was invited by The Beatles, who had seen him as children, to join them on the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ bus.  I recently saw ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ on TV and realised that, apart from Nat Jackley, I had met two other members of the cast too. Derek Royle who was an actor that I remember from my childhood but I remember him as an adult as the dead body that John Cleese had to hide and keep moving about in Fawlty Towers. I was at Drama School with his daughter Carol and I remember being introduced to him after a show. The other cast member I had a brief encounter with, was Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. 

Even before I worked in Theatre, celebrity was something I’d already started to get used to. We lived in Epsom and one of the boys I went to school with was Andy Secombe, son of Harry [Later,we both went to Central School of Speech and Drama at the same time]. He sometimes came to pick up Andy from school and would join in whatever was going on in the playground, much to everyone’s delight. I also have a memory of going to his house in Cheam, to see his sister who was a producer about some work and being warned that ‘Uncle Spike’ was visiting and that we should avoid contact because he was having a bad day. I glimpsed him through a doorway but never actually met him. Uncle Spike was of course Spike Milligan. Some years later I was in a production of ‘Ubu Roi’ that had been adapted by him with Charlie Drake, another iconic comedian of the 60’s, in the lead but it was a disaster and bombed at the box office. Another actor/comedian in that production was Roy Barraclough who became famous as Les Dawson’s sidekick and later as Alec Gilroy in ‘Coronation Street’.   Understandably Spike Milligan disowned the production and never came to see it, choosing to remain in Australia. Many years later I was making a film with a friend of mine and had to step into the breach when the actor Danny Mitchell backed out. He was the son of Warren Mitchell, who was most famous as Alf Garnet in ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, which ran on TV for many years. Bizarrely, I met Warren Mitchell quite recently in Bath and we had a lovely chat about ‘the old day’s’ and I told him about my brief encounter with his son, who now lives and works in Australia. In retrospect it seems almost surreal that I met and worked with all these famous comedian’s from the 60’s, considering that the work I was most interested in, couldn’t have been more different. The theatre world can be like that when you are young and inexperienced and willing to take any work you are offered.  One of Epsom’s best known residents was Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed the Rolling Stones in their early days. Mick Jagger was often seen buying cigarettes in my friends family shop. And finally,in my first job after leaving school, as a Management Trainee at John Lewis’s in Oxford Street, I sold suitcases to The Bee Gee’s, Tommy Cooper and Fanny Cradock the TV chef and in the Oriental Carpet Department, John Mayall, the famous Blues guitarist, was a regular customer.

During the 3yrs before I went to Drama School, I worked with a few Actors who had had their moments in the spotlight. Tony Wright who was known as ‘Mr Beefcake’, had a substantial career in film during the 50’s and 60’s. Annette Andre who was best known in this country as the ‘Love’ interest in the TV series ‘Randall and Hopkirk [Desceased]. I sometimes took her two beautiful Afghan dogs for a walk. Hywel Bennett, who was best known for the TV series ‘Shelley’ but who in my mind will always be remembered for his film roles opposite Hayley Mills. She was my childhood crush and meeting her when I was in ‘The Ghost Train’ at The Old Vic a few years later was really special. The star of that show was Wilfred Bramble who was famous for his role as Steptoe in ‘Steptoe and Son’ which ran for many years on TV. Hywel was married to another icon of my youth, Cathy McGowan, who was a presenter on ‘Ready Steady Go’. During the rehearsal’s for the Pre West End show ‘Five Stars for a Good Girl’, that also had Christopher Cazenove in the cast, we used to go to a pub in Victoria for lunch. One day, as we sat chatting, a rather mysterious man, who seemed to use the pub as his office and alway’s had a bottle of Champagne on ice on his table, asked one of his sidekicks to invite Hywel over for a drink. We were all intrigued by this man but when Hywel returned, he was very tight lipped about their conversation and it only emerged over time that this man was in fact a senior member of the Mafia. All the rest of us were able to understand from this encounter, was that for the rest of that tour, Hywel seemed to be rattled by this meeting and when we arrived in a new town, he would have one of his ‘Men’ there to meet Hywel. I can only speculate on what happened after the tour but the whole episode left us all feeling sorry for Hywel. It was all slightly chilling. I should point out that for all these productions, I was a humble ASM[Assistant Stage Manager].

Despite my humble position in the pecking order during this period, I had three encounters with Hollywood Stars. One bizarre the other two fleeting. I did auditions for two shows,one starring Deborah Kerr and the other Lauren Bacall. Usually when Actors audition for small roles, they don’t audition with the actual stars but with lesser cast members. On these two occasions I was actually introduced to both these iconic Actresses. Sadly though, I didn’t get the parts. The third encounter was so surreal that to this day I wonder if it really happened…but it did. I was working at The Mermaid Theatre, again as an ASM. It was my second job in theatre and I was 21yrs old and very naive. The Stage Manager of the ‘Lights Up’ company, Mervin, asked me if I was up for an adventure on our next free Sunday. Of course I said yes. The following Sunday we met up at The Mermaid and got into a taxi. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going or what we were going to do but the taxi took us to a seriously plush apartment block in Chelsea. All he would say was that we were going to have tea with someone. I had been instructed to dress smartly for the occasion and told that this could be important for me. So we went into the apartments and up in the lift and rang on the bell to one of the flats. A middle aged woman came to the door and ushered us in and directed us to a very elaborate living room and invited us to make ourselves comfortable. There was another woman there of a similar vintage who engaged us in polite conversation about the show we were working on. We were not formally introduced.  She was American. I don’t know at what point the penny dropped for me but this elegant but in my view rather frumpy, middle aged woman, was Ava Gardner. It soon transpired that we were there to ‘help’. Mervin and I soon found ourselves serving tea in between slightly stilted conversations. I was quite relieved when we left a couple of hours later. Mervin insisted that it was potentially a good contact for me but I wasn’t that naive. What seemed to be going on, was that I was being assessed as a possible partner for accompanying her to events…and possibly more. There was a second invitation a few weeks later, this time just for me but I asked Mervin to make my excuses and explain that I was busy touring and couldn’t make it. You may think I was bonkers for rejecting this further contact but I wasn’t particularly star struck and rather crucially, I didn’t feel attracted to her. She was probably in her early 50’s at the time, about the same age as my Mother and it just felt wrong. I hope I’m not doing her a misservice describing this encounter, she was perfectly charming but what on earth would we have talked about.  It was the whole idea of being a ‘companion’ that really turned me off. When I see her in films now, I can see how beautiful she was in her prime and just wish I’d met her then.

Another somewhat baffling encounter I had during this period was with Leslie Phillips. My Agent was very excited to have got me an audition with him, playing his son in a West End show. This wasn’t the sort of theatre I wanted to do. By this time I was living in Battersea with a very creative household, one of whom was my old friend Andy Ward. He was beginning to make a name for himself as the drummer with the Prog Rock band Camel [see the story attached to Andy’s portrait] and my sensibilities where more Rock’n’Roll than Theatre. Leslie Phillips wasn’t exactly cool but I wanted to please two audiences other than my friends. My Agent and my Parents. So I duly arrived at the theatre and did the audition. It went well and when I got home I rang my Agent who was very excited and said that Leslie Phillips wanted to see me again. The job was virtually mine. I returned to the theatre the next day and this time he just wanted to chat in his dressing room. We got on really well and then he asked me what I felt about Stage Management. It seemed a fairly innocuous question but I was aware that I was being tested. Up to this point we had just discussed the role of his son and how he saw that role and indicated in every other way that it was my role for the taking. I assumed he was looking for someone who was ambitious and focused on an acting career, so I replied that I would be glad to leave Stage Management behind and develop my acting skills. We carried on talking for a while and then I left. He hadn’t said anymore about the part but the implication was that I was definitely in the running for the part and all indications were that I’d got it. Again, I rang my Agent who,this time was distraught. “What did you say” he asked. I re-ran the conversation I’d had with Leslie Phillips and my Agent said that he’d called him after my departure from the theatre and said that he wasn’t sure I had the right attitude. Apparently, his question about Stage Management, was a test to see how much I loved the theatre and how prepared I was to do whatever it took to progress therein. He had no intention of offering me a Stage Management role but was just testing my enthusiasm for theatre generally. The role went to someone else. To say I was furious doesn’t say the half of it…so was my Agent. How could I possibly have known that at that stage the job was mine and that all I had to do was say whatever Mr Phillips wanted to hear. On such small details the world can change in a second.

That experience made me realise that I was now in a world where those with power or control could play with you like a puppet and whip the carpet from under your feet on a whim. I avoided those situations for the rest of my career by not doing  auditions if I could possibly avoid it and by working with like minded people on self generated projects. How different my life might have been if it had gone the other way.

Whilst at Drama School, there were a number of future celebrities around. In my year, very few went on to become well known except Roberta[Robbie] Taylor and Peter Guiness, who later became married. Robbie was in ‘Eastenders’ for a while and Pete was in ‘Casualty’ amongst other things. Robbie has appeared in a few ‘Reality’ programmes since. Lyndsey Duncan was in the year above me and is an actress I have great respect for, and someone who most people will know was Kevin Whately.  Another household name I remember with great affection was, a very young, Fern Britton. She was on the ‘Tech’ course and in my 3rd year, she worked on a production of Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’, in which I played Uncle Sam. Pete Guiness and I had a scene together in which we both struggled to keep a straight face. The director was not best pleased with us and we all wondered how we were going to get through our first night without giggling at this crucial moment. Before the curtain went up, Fern gave me a scratchy garment to wear under my costume, in the hope it would distract me from giggling…it worked. Janet Ellis [Mother of Sophie Ellis Bexter] was in the year below me and seemed rather shy at college but went on to be in ‘Blue Peter’. Sadly they sacked her when she became pregnant, out of wedlock. It isn’t easy being in the spotlight. But she seems to have done well since.

The person I remember most though was Carrie Fisher. She was in the year below me and was a strange young woman around college. Alway’s shrouded like a Greek widow and not very communicative. She carried the weight of Hollywood Royalty on her shoulders and it seemed like it was a burden too much. In her second year, she was off filming ‘Star Wars’ and became an occasional visitor at college. Normally, this wouldn’t have been allowed at college but I imagine the Principal, George Hall, didn’t have much choice. Carrie had different rules to the rest of us. On a couple of occasions, she came round to my flat with a mutual friend to ‘hang out’.  Mark Hamill was with her and I remember her telling us about how her Godfather, Cary Grant, had introduced her to LSD. It seemed an unlikely story but it is now well known that he was very interested in the relatively new science of psychology and the recent discovery of LSD as a tool for psychological work in the US. It’s also interesting that she never mentioned the film she and Mark were making…nobody thought it was going to amount to anything! Her early death last year was a real shock and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will miss her frequent appearances on British chat shows. She was a one-off. 

After Drama School, I had many celebrity encounters but two particularly extraordinary encounters stand out, which you can read about via my Roundhouse photographs in the UK drop down menue and ‘London’, and also via Andy’s photographs in the ‘Friends and Family’ category. I won’t spoil them by telling you who they were here. You’ll have to go to those stories via the above mentioned  photo’s…sorry to be a tease but they are really worth seeking out.

After Drama School I worked with a very different agenda compared to the work I had done before. I decided that I wanted to treat Theatre as an art form and see if I could find a way of marrying my Rock’n’Roll sensibility with Theatre. I felt that the theatre world was very hidebound and predictable and that every show should be an experience the like of which they had never seen before and to that end I had some success but financially, as for so many actor’s, life in the theatre was not sustainable. The most successful attempt I had with that marriage of Rock’n’Roll and Theatre was a show called ‘Future Shock’ which I will write a separate story about. It’s an extraordinary tale of ‘so near but so far’, and a warning to those who seek fame and celebrity.   After 17yrs in this rather unreal world I decided to move on to pastures new.