This was written by David Wood (at the School 1954-1962) and used as the basis for his marvellous speech to Old Cicestrians at the 2016 Christmas Luncheon in Chichester.
“Chi and I …”
Memories of Chichester Festival Theatre by a local schoolboy who watched the laying of the foundation stone, then, over a period of fifty years, proudly became associated with the theatre as extra, actor, playwright and director.
On Sunday, April 28th, 2013, on the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Angus Jackson and I proudly accepted the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment and Family. We received it for “Goodnight Mister Tom”, a play based on the novel by Michelle Magorian, directed by Angus and adapted by me. It was commissioned by Chichester Festival Theatre, where it first played, before transferring to the West End.
In the audience, watching the ceremony, sat Dame Joan Plowright, widow of Sir Laurence Olivier, in honour of whom the annual theatre awards are named.
As I made my acceptance speech, I couldn’t help remembering that very nearly fifty years before, on June 24th, 1963, aged nineteen, I had made my first appearance at Chichester as an extra in Shaw’s “Saint Joan”, starring Joan Plowright. The Director of the Festival Theatre was her husband Sir Laurence Olivier.
The wheel appeared to have turned full circle. My affection for the Festival Theatre and my gratitude for half a century of occasional employment there, as actor, playwright and director, is expressed in these personal memories.
David Wood 2015
Chichester Festival Theatre
If I had to choose just one theatre as my favourite, Chichester would probably win. Set in the lush greenery of Oaklands Park, the no-frills hexagonal building houses a stylish auditorium with more than a thousand seats raked around three sides of an arena stage. Compared with a traditional proscenium arch theatre, it offers a closer and more intimate relationship between actors and audience, and, when it opened in 1962, was unique in Great Britain. For me, as a teenager, its arrival was incredibly exciting and inspirational. I often wonder whether, if fate hadn’t decreed that I was at school in Chichester, my life would have developed very differently. Although I had known from a very early age that theatre was the world I wanted to be part of, watching the Festival Theatre being built on my doorstep and very soon having the opportunity to actually work there somehow legitimised my ambitions and sent me confidently on my chosen path with focus and determination.
Attending Chichester High School for Boys had not been the original intention. My mother had always wanted me to go to a public school. My name was put down for St John’s, Leatherhead and I was sent, at the age of seven, to Homefield Preparatory School in Sutton, Surrey. We lived in Banstead, where I sang in the church choir and took piano lessons with Mr Dearle, the elderly organist. I suppose that singing in the choir, particularly at weddings, for which we were paid a princely half-crown a time, gave me my first whiff of performing. It also led to me playing the main role in a play about the catechism, played in the Village Hall. I remember feeling nervous in the wings, but thoroughly enjoying showing off in front of an audience. David, the Head Choirboy, was several years older than me and became an inspiration. Not only did he initiate me into the dubious pleasure of smoking – Mr Carter, the local newsagent, was very happy to sell us two Woodbines loose from the packet – but also played an Ugly Sister in the parish pantomime. Having been entranced by the matinee, particularly enjoying the giant comb and scissors by the Uglies used in the scene getting ready for the ball, I persuaded my father to take me back for the evening performance. It was sold out, but the man at the door let us stand at the back. I loved it even more. When I was ten I wrote my first plays and persuaded two choirboy friends to help me put them on in the back garden. They were puppet plays, heavily influenced by the puppets I watched regularly in my favourite television programme, Whirligig, which occupied the teatime slot on Saturday. Looking back, this programme was a major inspiration. It was introduced by the actor Humphrey Lestocq, with his sidekick, a marionette called Mr Turnip. There was a music section, featuring Steve Race at the piano, which encouraged my own music-making. And a ventriloquist called Francis Cowdrill worked with a dummy called Hank, a cowboy. I had been given a glove puppet version of Hank, and he featured in one of my plays. Even more influential was the section of the programme called Box of Tricks, presented by the magician Geoffrey Robinson. He, along with my Auntie Connie, who gave me a book called The Boys’ Book of Conjuring (a rather sexist title – clearly girls were not seen as serious magician material) introduced me to what became my most serious hobby. Mr Robinson would delve into his exciting box each week and discover a baffling trick, which he performed with a friendly yet mysterious charm. For an only child like me, magic was the perfect hobby. Learning the tricks and practising them on my own, I could then try them out on my friends. Soon I learned that there were such things as magic shops. My mother kindly took me to the Hamley’s magic department as a treat following a visit to a Harley Street specialist, who successfully treated my asthma. By the age of 12 I was performing at children’s parties, and continued through my teens. I realise now that this taught me how children en masse react. Audience participation became an integral part of many of my children’s plays.
By the time I was 11, we had moved to Bognor Regis and I was at another preparatory school, Etonhurst, and singing in another church choir, in Felpham. I persuaded a school friend, who was also in the choir, to form a double act with me. His name was Geoffrey Walker. We became the Woodalkers. We may even have spelt it ‘Woodorkas’. Our act consisted of a couple of songs like ‘Pickin’ a Chicken’ and ‘Who are We?’ followed by a bit of magic from me, finishing with a couple more songs including ‘Bless This House’. It must have been excruciating, but we were invited to perform at several local functions and private events in hotels, thanks to our local barber, Fred Foreman, who by night became a drummer and band leader. His wife, Gwen Dibley, played the piano. Geoff and I were paid ten shillings a show. Many years later I was interviewed by John Dunn on his Radio 2 afternoon show. I mentioned Fred, and was very touched to receive a letter from one of the carers now looking after him in a retirement home. Fred had heard me on the radio and sent his best wishes. What a kind gentleman he was, to have given us the chance to cut our performing teeth with his band.
My mother’s ambitions for me to go to public school were scuppered by the fact that the family coffers did not stretch to paying the fees. My father had embarked on a series of jobs that barely paid the mortgage and my mother started working in a local sub-post office to pay the household bills. I was too late to take the 11+ exam, but in West Sussex there was a 12+ exam, presumably to enable 11+ failures to have another chance. I managed to pass the exam and was sent to Midhurst Grammar School, which was unusual in that it offered boarding facilities. I had no wish to leave behind my magic shows at children’s parties and my occasional cabaret jobs, but my mother, believing, I think, that her parlous relationship with my father was leading to an unpleasant atmosphere in the house, insisted I go. In spite of the fact that I was never bullied, successfully directed a play, and, at the end of the first term, received a report saying how well I was settling in, I was extremely unhappy and, in a seminal moment locked in a lavatory, the only place that afforded any privacy, came to the conclusion that I was an individual human being who could determine his own destiny. I insisted on leaving. My mother must have realised how determined I was to leave. I regularly made illegal escapes from school to a nearby telephone box to ring home and constantly looked forward to the occasionally permitted Sunday visits from my parents or weekend trips home. My mother wrote to Mr Anderson, the Headmaster of Chichester High School, our local grammar school, who, to my great relief, allowed me to enter the second term of the year in the second form. It wasn’t immediately easy starting again, but the relief at being able to resume life at home outweighed any initial qualms. I made friends, worked reasonably hard, and continued my outside activities, singing in the church choir, entering summer seaside talent competitions and continuing to dream of a theatre career. A kindly music teacher, Mr Ayling, gave me enjoyable roles in small musical dramas. One was about Tom Sawyer, another was a nautical piece called “Once Aboard the Lugger”. My interest in magic continued, too. And, although drama as a school subject didn’t exist, the Chichester High School annual plays were much respected. They were produced and directed by William Wake, my French teacher, and Geoffrey Marwood, my chemistry teacher. Geoffrey later played an important role on the board of Chichester Festival Theatre. In 1958, aged fourteen, I played a small part in their production of “The Three Musketeers”. I was Planchet, the servant of Porthos, played by David Horlock, who later became an excellent director and ran several theatres. He even commissioned my children’s play “Nutcracker Sweet” for the Redgrave Theatre, Farnham. D’Arthagnan was played by Howard Brenton, also destined to work professionally in the theatre and to become a renowned playwright.
At about this time the headmaster, Mr. Anderson, called each of my classmates into his study to discuss our futures. Somewhat embarrassed, because I always felt I would be looked upon as slightly odd when revealing my ambitions, I told him I wanted to work in the theatre. To my relief and, looking back, admiration, Mr Anderson didn’t laugh. He said that maybe I should be given as many opportunities to take part in plays as I could before serious exams started. He told me about a residential drama course for young people organised by the West Sussex County Council. His daughter had attended the course the previous summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. It took place at Lodge Hill, a residential training centre near Pulborough.
As a result of this conversation I became the youngest participant – I was fourteen – on the 1958 summer course, which I look back on as, without question, the best week of my life! For the first time I met and worked and learnt alongside people with the same interest as me. We had movement classes, voice classes, rehearsed plays, helped make the scenery, and had a great social life too. The course was run by an inspirational teacher from Collyer’s School, Horsham, called Frank Whitbourn. That year, and for the next four years on the same course, he encouraged me and, if I needed convincing, confirmed my belief that the theatre was my life. In later years Frank remained my mentor. Until his death at the age of 94 he was the first person to read the first draft of every play I wrote. He came to see most of the plays I acted in or directed, and I remain eternally grateful to him.
Back in Chichester, the following year I was given the lead role in Moliere’s “Le Malade Imaginaire”, the school play. It was unusual for a fifth former to be given this responsibility, which I revelled in. David Horlock, by now in the Upper Sixth, never quite forgave me for playing the part he had wanted. I probably took it all too seriously. Argan, my elderly character, was on stage for most of the play. We gave several performances, and that week I could think of nothing but the play. School work was virtually abandoned. I also made the mistake of performing a late-night magic cabaret after one performance. The local Toc H had invited me to do it before I knew the school play dates. Next morning, exhausted, I asked my mother to ring the school and say that I was having the morning in bed. Unfortunately she told the Headmaster about my cabaret performance. He immediately ordered me to come to school straightaway and gave me a lecture about committing myself to this extra pressure. Wounded by his criticism, I arrived late in the classroom during an RE lesson with Mr Bassett. Melodramatically I half-collapsed at my desk complaining that my performance later that day would be compromised because I wouldn’t be fit to go on! The kind Mr Bassett sent me to the nurse, who told me to lie down in the improvised sick bay. I remember feeling that my point had been made. My art came first!
The senior stage manager of “Le Malade Imaginaire” was my English teacher, Norman Siviter, nicknamed Spiv. He was a man who displayed little emotion. Rumour had it that he had been held captive by the Japanese during the war and consequently couldn’t smile. One night, at the end of the first act, as I slumped in my chair, still in character, waiting for the curtains to close, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Spiv was probably simply giving me the signal that I could leave the stage while the scene was changed. But somehow the hand on my shoulder seemed to mean more than that. I sensed that he was congratulating me on my performance. Probably wishful thinking! But in the following years, Spiv became another important influence in my theatrical ambitions. I discovered that he directed plays for the local amateurs, the Chichester Players. It seemed that he was a theatre person manqué, someone who would have loved to do it professionally, had the war not got in the way. Quite apart from getting me through my English exams, he seemed to take an interest in my theatre activities, which developed not only through school plays, but with performances in amateur productions with the Bognor Regis Amateur Theatrical Society (B.R.A.T.S.) and the talent contests I entered in the summer in Bognor, where summer shows played throughout the holiday season. Sometimes I sang, sometimes did magic, once I played and sang a song I had written. I also performed with the Chichester Youth Drama Group, led by a splendid lady called Madeleine Chatters. We entered festivals and one year took the stage at Glyndebourne. The fact that Spiv took an interest meant a lot. Towards the end of my school career, I used to assist him in the school library. One day he asked me, ‘What do you want to do when you leave this dump?’ I replied that he knew perfectly well what I wanted to do – to go into the theatre. ‘Alright,’ he replied, ‘but don’t just try to become an actor, do some writing, do some directing, maybe put on plays, do a bit of everything!’ It was advice I never forgot. And, in later years, when I returned to Chichester to act or to direct one of my own plays at Chichester Festival Theatre, I think Spiv was, in his bluff, gruff way, quite proud. By then he was running the Friends of Chichester Festival Theatre and obviously loved being part of the professional set-up. He was probably even prouder of the fact that another of his students, Adrian Noble, became Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
During the summer drama course at Lodge Hill in 1960, we were given a talk by a Chichester optician called Leslie Evershed-Martin. He showed us a model of a brand new theatre. It was his dream to build it in Oaklands Park, Chichester. The previous year he had seen a television programme about the Stratford, Ontario theatre run by Tyrone Guthrie, a visionary theatre director who had created this unique thrust-stage theatre in Canada, perhaps because he believed it would be impossible to make such a venture happen in England. Mr Evershed-Martin told us of his attempts to raise money for the Chichester theatre and that he hoped it might open in 1962.
To me this news was quite extraordinary. Here was I, passionately interested in theatre, going to school in a beautiful, yet sleepy, city in West Sussex, when suddenly this incredibly exciting new prospect is about to arrive within a mile of my school. It seemed too good to be true.
But as the months went by, Mr Evershed-Martin’s dream started to take shape and feel as though it was destined to actually happen. Furthermore, to the locals’ astonishment, it was announced that Sir Laurence Olivier was to become the theatre director. This was truly amazing. One of the most respected actors of his generation, it seemed impossible that he would be coming to work in Chichester and, presumably, bring many of his famous colleagues too!
On May 12th, 1961, a group of us from school were allowed to walk to Oaklands Park to watch the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone. It was quite an occasion. I remember the theatre flag being hoisted in front of the platform where the dignitaries were seated. There were Morris dancers. John Neville, the celebrated actor, read an oration written by Christopher Fry specially for the occasion. We were invited to use our imaginations to imagine the theatre built on this bare plot, rather like Shakespeare asked us to imagine the Battle of Agincourt taking place on the simple stage within ‘a wooden O’. And Princess Alexandra graciously laid the foundation stone.
It was pretty remarkable that only fourteen months later, on July 5th 1962, the opening night of the Chichester Festival Theatre took place with a performance of “The chances”, the comedy by John Fletcher. I wasn’t there on the first night, but I did see “The chances”, and the other two productions of the season, “The Broken Heart” and “Uncle Vanya”. It is important to remember how unique the experience was for everyone, in that the auditorium shape and the thrust stage were so new and unconventional. The simple staging with an upper platform and staircases contrasted dramatically with the usual proscenium and elaborate scenery. Even the brilliant “Uncle Vanya” used a simple wooden back wall. The quality of the acting by a star cast, wearing stunning costumes made a huge impression, even though there was criticism of Olivier’s choice for the first two plays. “Uncle Vanya”, in comparison, was received with great acclaim. Many critics had doubted that the play could be successfully performed in such a space.
But it was a triumph for Olivier and quite sensational to see him accompanied by Michael Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Joan Greenwood, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Fay Compton, Andre Morell and Peter Woodthorpe. It remains one of the greatest productions I have ever seen.
Sadly I missed out on being a small part of the opening season. One day at school, Spiv had told me he might be able to fix me up with a job as an extra in “The Broken Heart”. They were looking for soldiers. He arranged for me to have an interview. This took place on the first floor of the shop by the Cross on the corner of South Street, where the Festival Theatre had temporary offices. At reception I met for the first time the delightfully eccentric Anne Goodger-Pink, who was involved with fundraising for the Festival Theatre. She directed me upstairs where I encountered Pieter Rogers. He was the first administrator of the theatre and arguably the campest man I had ever met, even though ‘camp’ was not, I fancy, a word I was familiar with. This gentle, polite man interviewed me and even asked me to remove my jacket to get an idea of my physique. Unfortunately this cannot have impressed him, and, in any case, he said I was a couple of inches too short to pass muster as a soldier.
The following year, however, soon after I had gained a place at Worcester College, Oxford, I was asked to be an extra in the second season – a soldier in Saint Joan and a policeman in “The Workhouse Donkey”. As a summer job before going to university, this proved to be a fantastic and eye-opening experience. I was one of five extras. Three of them I already knew. Michael Elphick later went on to considerable fame, particularly remembered as BOON in the television series. Mark Penfold, who also became a professional actor, had been in the year below me in my one term at Midhurst Grammar School. Robert Enos was at my school. Then there was Martin, the tallest extra, who was the son of actress Mai Zetterling. And me.
Our dressing room was a small hut behind the theatre, also used as a store for crates of beer bottles, and also the headquarters of the wig department. We had regular enjoyable conversations with Rosemary Harris, who had taken over from Joan Greenwood in Uncle Vanya, which had proved so successful in the first season that Olivier revived it. I was thrilled to meet Rosemary, having acted in several amateur productions with her niece, Jane Bangay.
Few people realised at this time that Olivier was using, in the nicest possible way, Chichester to prepare for his subsequent directorship of the National Theatre. Apart from the major stars he attracted to Chichester were younger actors who were to become the nucleus of his National company. Derek Jacobi, Robert Lang and Robert Stephens were playing relatively small roles at Chichester, but would become stars of the Old Vic and eventually the brand new complex on the South Bank. To be amongst this rich array of talent, as well as familiar faces from television, was the most exciting experience I could have wished for. Being an extra was a magical opportunity to see these people working, and to feel part of it all. Even our costume fittings felt special, supervised by the even-camper-than-Pieter-Rogers Ivan Alderman and his chief cutter Stephen Skaptason, who later both ran the National Theatre wardrobe.
As extras we were introduced into the productions in the final days of rehearsal. First, we were shown the set of “Saint Joan” with its two sets of steps descending from the back wall down into the Dauphin’s court scene. We five, plus professional John Rogers, came on three from each side, carrying a tall pike topped with a sharp-looking metal spear. The director, the no-nonsense, sharp-tongued John Dexter gave us the cues and told us where to stand absolutely still for much of the scene. Not long after, we were plunged into the first dress rehearsal. Wearing our breast-plates, helmets and woollen leggings, we made our entrance. Joan Plowright, who had married Olivier two years previously, was playing Saint Joan. Robert Stephens, as the Dauphin, was interrogating her, with members of the court looking on. Suddenly a screech echoed from the darkened auditorium. ‘Daaviiid!’ My heart froze. Throughout the dress rehearsal, the earlier parts of which we had been allowed to watch, there had been no stoppages or instructions from out front. My heart raced. Surely there must be somebody else on the stage called David. I was standing there, stock still as directed. The voice returned. ‘Have you got short arms or something?’ Below me I was aware of suppressed laughter, particularly from Frank Finlay, playing Stogumber. After a pause, I realised that Mr Dexter must be addressing me. Lamely I replied, ‘Well, yes, actually I think I have …’ More laughter, somewhat less suppressed, from below. Mr Dexter called out, impatiently, ‘Then put your pike on a lower step. It looks f***ing awful!’ I did as I was told.
John Dexter had used his sarcastic wit in an earlier rehearsal we had been invited to watch. A scene was in full flow when suddenly into the auditorium came Michael Annals, the play’s designer. Dexter interrupted the actors, shouting, ‘Ooh, here comes Michael, everyone, with his pork pie hat on! So who were you sleeping with last night?’ Flouncing his way towards the seats at the back, Annals crisply replied, ‘Well, it wasn’t you, dear, or you’d have known!’
To me, at nineteen, the subject of homosexuality was something I was well aware of, having been to a prep school and, albeit for only one term, a boarding school. But to witness the very open camp behaviour at such close hand was nevertheless eye-opening and amusing. I was a little surprised, however, when things got more personal. After our Dauphin scene duty, we extras were allowed back into the auditorium to watch the rest of the dress rehearsal. The second time this happened, I went to sit next to a wardrobe assistant, as I had the day before. I think his name was Jay. He was from New Zealand, and in his distinctive accent apologised for the fact that I wouldn’t be allowed to sit next to him today, because Mr Dexter had said that I was his favourite extra, and should be available to sit with him! Wanting to avoid any unwarranted attention, I retreated to the very back of the auditorium, near the lighting box. After a while, Mr Dexter found me, sat down and offered me a Gauloise. The Inquisition scene was in progress. The Inquisitor was played vulture-like by the splendid Max Adrian. Mr Dexter proceeded to whisper to me criticisms of Mr Adrian’s performance and, for some reason, the shape of his legs. Then Mr Dexter scampered down towards the stage, stopped the rehearsal and suggested, quite forcefully, that Mr Adrian should change the way he said one particular line. Mr Adrian protested that his inflection was the correct one. Mr Dexter disagreed and reminded Mr Adrian that he was the director. Mr Adrian pointed out that he had done copious research in advance of rehearsal, and that his interpretation of the line was undoubtedly the correct one. Mr Dexter snapped that Mr Adrian should shut up and get on with it. Whereupon Mr Adrian, with great dignity, left the stage, and the theatre, and wasn’t seen again until the next day.
A similar event took place featuring Norman Rossington, the small, rumbustious actor best known for playing Cupcake in the television series The Army Game. Norman was playing the Soldier, who only appears right at the end of the play, in the Epilogue that some productions omit. Apparently Mr Dexter and Mr Rossington hadn’t seen eye to eye the day before, and there was speculation amongst the company as to whether Mr Rossington would actually appear. On stage, Joan Plowright as Saint Joan was talking to Dunois, played by Jeremy Brett. They gave the Soldier his cue to come on singing. Absolute silence. Quizzical looks on stage. In the auditorium, Mr Dexter starts to seethe. He stands. With brilliant timing, calculated to rile the director, a voice echoed from the vom, ‘Rum tum trumpledum, Bacon fat and rumpledum ……….’ and on walked Norman.
At the end of the final dress rehearsal, which had overrun, the curtain call needed to be blocked, because the opening performance was due to start an hour and a half or so later. The actors were longing for their meal break. We extras were not taking part in the curtain call, so were in the auditorium, as was Olivier, who had, as Festival Director, sat in on the rehearsal. ‘Right,’ shouted Mr Dexter. ‘Listen, everyone, I’m going to call out your names, your surnames, and you will answer ‘sir’, and I’ll tell you where to come on from.’ The actors meekly suffered this indignity. ‘Finlay!’ ‘Sir!’ ‘Stephens!’ ‘Sir!’ ‘Brett!’ ‘Sir!’ etc. etc. Each actor was directed to offstage left or offstage right to await the call to return and stand in line ready to bow. Last to be called was Joan Plowright. ‘Plowright!’ ‘Sir!’ Olivier watched impassively. ‘I s’pose you’d better come from up the back, different from the others!’ Then, to the world, ‘She thinks she’s the star. But she’s f***ing awful!’ Olivier didn’t react at all to his wife being insulted.
After a couple of run-throughs of the curtain call, some of the cast, led by Jeremy Brett and Robert Stephens, started to leave the stage via the auditorium. ‘Stop!’ screamed Dexter. ‘Brett, Stephens, that was not funny! Exit offstage properly!’ Mr Brett and Mr Stephens remonstrated, saying they were in need of their supper break, but obediently went off with everybody else.
In later years I heard other stories about Dexter’s tyrannical behaviour. But there was absolutely no doubt that he was a brilliant director, much respected by his actors, who were, on the whole, willing to indulge him. I once worked with an actress who had been an Assistant Stage Manager at the Royal Court. Dexter was directing a play in which an actress had to sing. Unhappy with her performance, he suddenly ordered the cast into the auditorium and asked the ASM, ‘that girl who sweeps the stage’ to come on, stand centre stage and sing. He organised a follow spot to be trained on her, saying he wanted to show the actress that anyone, literally anyone, could sing better than she could … The ASM proceeded to sing the song as badly as she could. Dexter showered her with praise! Such stories of directors having scapegoats or whipping boys are often told. It is sad that some directors feel it necessary to wield their power in this cruel way. But it has to be said that their results are often brilliant and revered.
“Saint Joan” was a play with which I was familiar. The year before it had been chosen as our school play, and I played de Beaudricourt and Stogumber. The title role was played by a local actress, Pearl Goodman, who had performed in several plays for the local amateur society, the Chichester Players, directed occasionally by our director, chemistry teacher Geoffrey Marwood. Now in her forties, with three daughters, all of whom later had acting careers, Pearl had been a professional and had worked with the visionary Joan Littlewood in the early days of her company Theatre Workshop. We teenage boys all fell for Pearl, who gave a splendid performance, and even managed to persuade Miss Littlewood to come and see it. After the show she came to the Art Room, our improvised dressing room, and said complimentary things, before saying she couldn’t stay long, because she had been invited up the road to see the ‘poofs’ emporium’ – her characteristically tongue-in-cheek description of the newly opened Festival Theatre!
At the time she was well known for having directed “A Taste of Honey” by Shelagh Delaney and the musical “Fings Ain’t What They Used T’be”, both of which had transferred from her theatre in Stratford East to the West End. It was another three years before her ground breaking production of “Oh What a Lovely War!”. It was clear she was very fond of Pearl Goodman – or Pearl Turner as she originally knew her – and had very happy memories of touring with her in the north of England. Pearl and her husband, David, were to become very important to me, too. They lived in Franklin Place, overlooking Oaklands Park, where the Festival Theatre was built. David was a fine artist who supplemented his income by running an art shop and graphics studio. His company created the Minerva logo for the theatre, and for many years David designed the theatre season programme. After acting in SAINT JOAN with Pearl, I was lucky enough to become a friend of the family. My own home life was not particularly happy at that point, and Pearl became my second mother, often cooking me meals and talking about theatre. She and David even took me on holiday with them to France and Italy, introducing me to the splendours of art and the architecture and history of extraordinary places like Urbino, where David and I would sip coffee while he sketched. I had very little money, so often slept in the back of their car. Sometimes they would smuggle me into their hotel room, where I would sleep at their feet on the end of the bed. Back in Chichester, rather remarkably, they never locked their front door, in case I or another young friend missed the last bus home. Several times I crept into their house and slept on the sofa. Next morning, without any comment or criticism, breakfast would be served. Special friends indeed.
“The Workhouse Donkey” by John Arden was Chichester’s first world premiere. It depicted political shenanigans in a small northern town. Stuart Burge, the director, worked in a totally different way from John Dexter. This quiet, cultivated man treated his actors with great care and respect, and that included us extras. He personally gave us our instructions and, after each run-through or dress rehearsal, having given notes to the main company and his technical team, would make a point of coming to see us and ask if we had any problems or queries. As policemen, we had fun in several scenes, arresting people or raiding a nightclub. Burge also cleverly used us as scene shifters. Each performance there were two special moments for me. As I made an exit, the drunken Charlie Butterthwaite, played by Frank Finlay, lunged threateningly at me. I dodged him and escaped. This moment was instigated by Mr Finlay and I looked forward to it as much as the exciting experience of escorting Mr Finlay, having arrested him, through the auditorium, up the stairs towards the back and out of an auditorium door. A few years later I was lucky enough to act with Frank Finlay in the Royal Shakespeare production of “After Haggerty” by David Mercer. On the first day of rehearsal I proudly reminded him of that moment when he went to attack me in my police costume, but sadly he had no recollection of it whatsoever! It just shows how impressionable I was.
On the day we first attended rehearsals for “The Workhouse Donkey”, I was lucky enough to meet the legendary Fay Compton, who was playing the mayor’s wife. After a run-through we met again, drinking tea in the foyer. As usual, Miss Compton was smoking and holding the lead of her faithful dog companion. ‘Well dear,’ she said to me, ‘you’ve seen the play now, what did you think of it?’ I replied, somewhat lamely, that I thought it was very interesting. ‘Well dear,’ said Miss Compton, ‘I’ve learnt my lines, I come on where they tell me to come on, say the words the way they want me to say the words, and go off where they want me to go off, but …… I don’t know what I’m doing, dear!’ Needless to say she gave a priceless performance.
We gave a preview performance for an invited audience. Having put on my policeman’s uniform, I wandered down to the stage door, where I found Miss Compton, smoking and with dog, looking out at the stream of audience members approaching the foyer. I asked her how she thought the play would be received. ‘They won’t like it, dear,’ she replied. ‘They haven’t paid.’
As extras we were treated very kindly by the acting company. They weren’t standoffish in any way. We were included in company parties. Magic memories include standing next to Sir Laurence Olivier in the gents – he politely wished me ‘Good morning!’ And Robert Enos and I plucked up the courage to invite two of the youngest actresses in the company, Louise Purnell and Jean Rogers, to a local dance party in a church hall. These two beautiful ladies amazed us by accepting our invitation, and, to our great delight, danced and talked and even seemed to enjoy themselves. More than fifty years later I still occasionally bump into Jean, who has become an extremely passionate and hardworking Vice-President of Equity, the actors’ union.
Laurier Lister, Sir Laurence’s assistant director, made a point of chatting to me when our paths crossed. One day he invited me to see an understudy run-through of “Uncle Vanya”. He knew I loved this production and had several times arranged for me to creep in and watch. Seeing the understudies proved just as awe-inspiring as the actual cast. Robert Lang and Derek Jacobi understudied Olivier and Redgrave. Jeanne Hepple and Rowena Cooper covered Joan Plowright and Rosemary Harris. They were brilliant.
Only two years later, following my involvement with the Oxford University Experimental Theatre Company production of “Hang Down your Head and Die”, which had transferred to the West End, Laurier Lister very generously offered me the chance to appear in a West End revue, and to write the songs for it. We all met for lunch, Laurier plus the cast, Adam Leslie, a South African comedy performer, Dilys Laye and Carole Shelley. I was over the moon. The Provost of my college, Lord Franks, kindly gave me a year off, encouraging me to return to my English studies. Sadly the production never actually materialised. But I was very grateful to Laurier Lister for thinking of me. I was somewhat nervous about the project, particularly when he said that I would be writing the songs and Harold Pinter would be writing the sketches!
One afternoon, an hour or so before the matinee of “Uncle Vanya”, I saw a group of people outside the stage door. They were waiting for the arrival of Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. I decided to wait, too. Very soon they appeared and spent at least 20 minutes standing chatting animatedly with their fans. Considering that Dame Sybil was 80 and Sir Lewis was 88, their generosity was remarkable. And I witnessed it personally a couple of years later, when they came to Oxford to appear in a play. They graciously invited me to tea one afternoon at the Randolph Hotel. Dame Sybil spoke more than Sir Lewis. Her eyes sparkled as she asked me about the student productions I was involved in. A truly astounding couple.
For my 21st birthday, my step-brother Richard asked Dame Sybil to sign for me a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. He must have posted it to her, so she must have had to post it back. A very large tome! Inside she wrote, ‘All good wishes to David from Sybil Thorndike Casson, Feb 21st 1966. Words! Words!! Words!!! The book is still in pride of place on my shelf.
Sunny Amey, one of Olivier’s assistants, was in charge of us extras. Sunny by name, sunny by nature, she visited us regularly in our hut checking up that we had no problems. However, she accused me of being selfish when, to my utter dismay, in the middle of the season, I contracted an itchy dose of chicken pox, which kept me away from the theatre for a couple of weeks. I was devastated, and probably returned to work earlier than I should. But the whole experience was so exciting for me that I rushed back as soon as I felt able.
After leaving school shortly before the season started, I had managed to find another job at another theatre. The Theatre Royal in Bognor Regis had been a cinema for many years, although its compact stage was still intact. The new co-owner and manager, Victor Freeman, decided to offer Bingo on two nights a week. With the confidence of youth I applied for the job of Bingo caller and got it. I had always enjoyed playing prize Bingo in the amusement arcades on the seafront, so felt able to run the theatre proceedings. I was even allowed the luxury of an organist, Jimmy Berry, in the pit, and used to perform a short show before the bingo started. Vic doubted my ability to attract an audience, who, in his opinion, only came for the Bingo, but, singing songs, doing magic and using audience participation, I had a ball and saw myself as Bognor’s answer to Bruce Forsyth comparing Sunday Night at the London Palladium. I was billed as the youngest Bingo caller on the South Coast! One night, when my mother was away for a few days, I told the audience I had bought myself a pound of sausages and was amazed at how expensive they were. One of the ladies in the audience shouted out, ‘Let’s have a look at them!’ I dashed back to my dressing room, unwrapped the sausages and carried them on dangling as a string. For several weeks afterwards, ladies would bring me cooked sausages of all shapes and sizes for me to sample! They even wrote me funny rhymes about sausages. And one regular couple, when they went on holiday to Torquay, sent me back a tub of Devon cream!
Remarkably, because the Festival Theatre performances were played in repertoire, I was able to fit them around my Bingo commitments. However, on a few occasions, I had to dash offstage at the end of my soldier’s appearance in “Saint Joan”, strip off my armour, put on a dressing gown, jump into a taxi and, while being driven to Bognor, change into my dinner jacket and bow tie. Still wearing my tanned soldier make up, I would leap out of the taxi, dash through the Theatre Royal stage door and run onto the stage, announcing, ‘Welcome to Bognor’s Biggest Bingo!’
One night I asked Norman Rossington, well known to my Bingo audience from his television performances, to make a personal appearance in the interval. My Bingo crowd were thrilled. Later I heard one of my regular ladies explaining to a newcomer that everyone was very proud of me because I was not only their Bingo caller, but was also working for ‘Sir Laurence Oliver’.
Two actors in particular regularly spent time with us extras. John Rogers played the main soldier, so wore a similar costume to ours. Raymond Clarke wore a smart dinner jacket in “The Workhouse Donkey” and often visited us in or outside our hut. Sadly I don’t know how their careers developed. Dan Meaden, a big, beefy actor, who played the Executioner in “Saint Joan” also had many friendly conversations with us. But none of the actors ever made us feel inferior or also-rans, so we really did feel part of the company.
Two other people working at the theatre were to prove significant in my subsequent career. Richard Pilbrow was the brilliant lighting designer for the whole season. A few years later he and his company, Theatre Projects, produced the feature film “Swallows and Amazons”, for which I was lucky enough to write the screenplay.
John Hole was working in the accounts department. We used to chat occasionally. Not long after he cropped up in two other theatres. He was working at the Mermaid Theatre when an Oxford Theatre Group play I was in called “A Spring Song”, directed by Michael Rudman, transferred there from the Edinburgh Festival for a short season. Then I met him again when he was working at the New Theatre, Oxford. In the summer of 1967, by which time I had turned professional, I was in a play put on by the Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival fringe. One afternoon John managed to reach me on the phone in the Traverse bar. Against the background noise of happy drinkers he made me an extraordinary offer. He had been appointed Artistic Director of a brand new company, the Worcester Repertory Company, based at the Swan Theatre. He asked me if I would become one of two actor/directors for the first season. Sam Walters, later to run the Orange Tree Theatre for Richmond for many years, was the other. Naturally I accepted immediately. What an opportunity for me, aged twenty two! Sam and I directed and acted in alternate productions. I directed the first show, Ann Jellicoe’s “The Knack”, featuring Sam. He directed me in “Next Time I’ll Sing to You” by James Saunders. Knowing that I had entertained at children’s parties, John asked me to run Saturday morning theatre at the Swan, featuring members of the company as well as myself. This proved successful and led to him inviting me to write the Christmas show for 1967. He wanted a proper children’s play, rather than a pantomime aiming to please adults as well. He suggested I adapt Hans Andersen’s “The Tinder Box”. Although, if I’m honest, I don’t think the play was up to much, it was good enough for him to repeat the invitation the following year. His secretary, Sonia Davis, suggested I might create a play from Edward Lear’s verses. With Sheila Ruskin, my then wife, I wrote “The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See…”, which became very successful up and down the country over the following years, including many London seasons that I directed myself. John commissioned a further eleven children’s plays for Worcester and at his next theatre, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. His confidence in me proved to be life-changing. Although my acting career continued, children’s theatre became an extremely important part of my life. Eventually, Whirligig Theatre, my touring children’s company, was formed in 1979, and toured to major UK venues for the next 25 years. To John Hole I owe a tremendous debt. And none of it could have happened unless we had met at Chichester.
One of the most memorable characters from that 1963 season was the formidable and somewhat forbidding stage manager, Diana Boddington. With her voluminous clothes and often ripe language, she marshalled the troops with strict yet kindly discipline. She had worked with Olivier for years and was, I discovered, the outstanding stage manager of her and subsequent generations. She became the first stage manager ever to receive an MBE. She treated us extras with the same respect and discipline as the rest of the company, and undoubtedly was the driving force behind the complicated arrangements needed to make the complex logistics of a repertoire season run smoothly. Little did I realise that in 1974 I would act alongside her husband, the Welsh actor Aubrey Richards, in a television play by Gwyn Thomas, in the BBC2 series “Sporting Scenes”.
The following season, in 1964,featured Olivier’s much-praised, yet controversial, “Othello”. By this time I had finished my first year at Oxford and spent part of the summer acting at the Edinburgh Festival. But I managed to return to Chichester to witness Olivier’s extraordinary performance as the Moor. Tickets for the production were like gold dust, but somehow I acquired one. Money was tight, so when a friend later suggested I queue all night to secure two tickets from the allocation sold ‘on the day’, I decided to do so, in the hope of selling on the tickets at a profit. A dozen or more of us spent an uncomfortable night outside the box office. I successfully bought the tickets. But, when I tried to sell them, I was made to feel guilty by the first prospective purchaser, who told me that I should see the production rather than to try to make money from it. I replied that I had seen it. But he wasn’t impressed. I salved my conscience by selling him the tickets at face value. I wasn’t destined to become a ticket tout!
During my few days at home I visited my friends the Goodmans. Julia, their eldest daughter, was working front of house at the theatre before going off to drama school. She invited actors from the company to sun themselves in the garden, and it was here that I first met Michael Gambon (Mike Gambon, as he was professionally known then). I doubt if he remembered our meeting when, many years later, I played a short scene with him in the Channel 4 drama “Longitude”.
Olivier opened the National Theatre, based at the Old Vic, in October 1963, and continued to preview productions at Chichester. In 1965, although I did another student production at the Edinburgh Festival, I managed to see John Arden’s “Armstrong’s Last Goodnight” at Chichester. Starring Albert Finney, directed by John Dexter and William Gaskill, the play was about the Scottish borders’ cattle raids, and I remember being impressed, although the use of vernacular language made it tricky to understand. Back in Oxford I was excited to find that the National were visiting the New Theatre with two productions, “Trelawny of the Wells”, and the double bill “Black Comedy” and “Miss Julie”. Not only did I much enjoy all these brilliant productions, I managed to get invited backstage and renewed my acquaintanceship with Derek Jacobi, Louise Purnell and Robert Stevens, who introduced me to Maggie Smith – they married a couple of years later.
After graduating in 1966, with three fellow students I co-wrote and appeared in the revue “Four Degrees Over”, which transferred from the Edinburgh Festival to the Fortune Theatre in the West End. Having turned professional, I rarely visited Chichester and managed to miss all the plays produced during John Clements’ tenure.
However, in the early 70s, by which time my children’s plays were beginning to be performed in London and by rep companies all over the country, I did write to Doreen Dixon, the General Manager of the Festival Theatre, asking if there might be any possibility of putting on one of my plays as a Christmas season. The polite reply pointed out that there was, as yet, no heating in the theatre, which made a winter production impossible, and also that it might be difficult to find front-of-house staff at that time of year. Furthermore, it was suggested that perhaps it was not a good idea for children to rampage through the auditorium.
So it was with surprise and delight that in 1978 I was approached by Peter Dews, the newly appointed Artistic Director, with a view to providing a Christmas production. Peter was a celebrated theatre and television director. He was perhaps best known for creating and producing “An Age of Kings”, the 15-part BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s eight sequential history plays, which were seen in 1960. Peter ran Birmingham Rep. In 1969 he had kindly invited “Three Two One On”, the revue I had co-written and appeared in, to play a few performances at the Rep on its way to the Edinburgh Festival. Since then I had probably written to him from time to time, in the hope that one of my children’s plays might interest him. As it turned out, thanks to Peter, Chichester Festival Theatre became the venue for the 10th anniversary production of “The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See…”, based on the verses and stories of Edward Lear. This was the show, co-written with Sheila Ruskin, that had convinced me, when I saw a week of performances at the Swan Theatre, Worcester that children’s theatre was something I wanted to concentrate on. The first production of “Owl” was directed by Mick Hughes, who not only became a famous lighting designer, but supervised the lighting for many Chichester productions. He did a great job on “Owl”, and the audience reaction from the children was passionate and heart-warming.
A year after its premiere, I persuaded my colleagues John Gould and Bob Scott to let me use our small production company to produce “Owl” in London. It opened successfully at the Jeannetta Cochrane theatre, was snapped up for publication by Samuel French, and for a few years became a Christmas fixture in London and in repertory theatres up and down the country. Cameron Mackintosh became involved, and together we toured the production a couple of times.
Being invited to Chichester meant a significant upgrade in production values. Peter, an avuncular and generous man, made sure that the show was produced to a high standard. I never felt that anyone at the theatre was treating it as a third division product, which in those days was often the accepted attitude. Paul Rogerson, the General Manager and Robert Selbie, the Administrator, were both very helpful when organising auditions, rehearsal times, contracts, publicity and all the other things which over the years I had become used to supervising myself. At Chichester I really felt cushioned. Robert Selbie had been an actor in many Chichester productions. Quite when he left the dressing room for an office, I don’t know. But he certainly was very efficient in his administrative role. Years later, in the early 2000s, I heard that he was running the Five Arrows Hotel in Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire. I’m sure he ran things with a theatrical flair.
Susie Caulcutt, my regular designer, who had created the sets and costumes for the first London production, was asked to re-design the show to fit Chichester’s thrust stage. She enjoyed the security of working with Bill Green, the splendidly calm and knowledgeable Production Manager, who made everything happen with smooth efficiency.
Sheila Falconer was our witty choreographer. She had first come to my notice when Jonathan Lynn directed another of my plays, “The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner”, as the very first Christmas production at the Shaw Theatre. Lighting was in the safe hands of Bill Bray, who had been brought up in Chichester and been part of the Festival Theatre’s lighting department for years. And I was especially excited that I was allowed a small group of musicians rather than what the show had always had before – just one pianist. Chris Walker, a brilliant arranger, who had been involved with another of my plays, “The Gingerbread Man”, gave us some beautiful arrangements and Clive Chaplin played the keyboard and acted as Musical Director. Several of the cast had been in the show before, including Janina Faye as Pussycat, Monty James as the Dong with a luminous nose, and Ben Aris as Professor Bosh. To play Owl we were lucky to find Tony Jackson, who had understudied and taken over in “Godspell” in the West End. Richenda Carey played the Runcible Spoon. The villainous Plum Pudding Flea, who terrified lots of children by hopping down the auditorium steps, barking out threats, was played by John Moreno, who, ten years previously, had, using his real name, Juan Moreno, created the role of Owl in the original Worcester production.Rehearsals took place in London in the dingy Portcullis Theatre in Westminster, which also formed part of the Westminster cleaning department depot. We had rehearsed there before and chose to come back, partly because in the next street rehearsals were going on for the second Old Vic Christmas run of “The Gingerbread Man”. It meant that I could occasionally leave my OWL dress rehearsals to visit Jonathan Lynn and “The Gingerbread Man” cast, which was fun. Indeed it was a busy time. I had just directed “Flibberty and the Penguin”, another of my children’s plays, for a tour. This became the trial run for my touring children’s theatre company, Whirligig Theatre, which started the following year. And “Babes in the Magic Wood”, one of my pantomime substitutes, was in rehearsal for its premiere at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch.
Directing a play at Chichester was a fascinating experience. Because the audience is on three sides, sight lines become very important. Peter Dews taught me various tricks involving lining up actors with the aisles, to avoid them masking each other. And Sheila avoided choreographic straight lines, so that everyone in the audience felt included. The production was well received and an enjoyable season was had by all. Thousands of children came, in school and family parties. Hopefully Doreen Dixon would have not been too upset; actually, I think she would have enjoyed the sight of my daughter, Katherine, aged two and a half, excitedly exploring the auditorium during our technical rehearsal.
Peter Dews, having generously given me the opportunity to direct at Chichester, further delighted me eighteen months later by inviting me to come back and do some acting. Alongside my developing children’s theatre career, I had managed, since leaving Oxford, to work consistently as an actor. On the big screen I had appeared with Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s “If….” and Jack Gold’s “Aces High”. On television I had played Michael Jayston’s best friend – I specialised in best friends! – in the BBC Wednesday Play about Siegfried Sassoon, “Mad Jack”, as well as playing opposite the legendary Shelley Winters in a two-hander for London Weekend called “The Vamp”. On stage I had played the young John Mortimer in “A Voyage Round My Father”, first with Mark Dignam as Mortimer Senior at Greenwich, then with Sir Michael Redgrave in Toronto. Little had I thought, watching Redgrave’s wondrous performance in “Uncle Vanya” at Chichester that a few years later I would be playing opposite him. And now, in 1980, Peter Dews offered me the role of Birdie Bowers in “Terra Nova”, a play about Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. This truly epic play was remarkable in that it was written for only seven actors. The playwright was a young Canadian called Ted Tally, who later achieved fame for his screenplay of the film “Silence of the Lambs”.
My agent, John Miller, told me, with a note of surprise in his voice, that I didn’t have to audition for the role of Birdie – it was an offer. I picked up the script from the Festival Theatre London office above the Queen’s Theatre and read it with increasing excitement. Birdie was an endearing character, arguably the most good-humoured of the five who reached the South Pole after an arduous journey, only to find that Amundsen had beaten them to it. The journey home proved impossible and all died tragically in their tent, apart from Oates, who had walked out with the immortal lines, ‘I may be some time’. Ted Tally had introduced some brilliant theatrical moments. At the beginning of the second act, we all celebrated our successful venture at a special London hotel dinner party which, of course, turned out to be imaginary. The journey itself was intercut with flashback scenes featuring Scott and his wife.
Hywel Bennett was brave and moving as Scott. Helen Ryan, with her beautiful voice, played the stoic Kathleen Scott. Benjamin Whitrow portrayed the calm and confident Amundsen as a triumphant anti-hero, and Martin Sadler, Peter Birch, Christopher Neame and I played Scott’s luckless comrades. We were given a day’s research at the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, where we began to comprehend the enormity of Scott’s enterprise, the courage and endurance of the men, and, most surprising, how skimpy were the clothes they wore, ridiculously inadequate in such extreme cold. We were shown how the men packed the boxes of necessary supplies and camping gear in boxes, then loaded them onto the sledges, which had to be pulled miles through the icy landscape by the men, attached with canvas harnesses.
Back in Chichester, rehearsals began, sometimes in the rehearsal room at the Minerva building at the end of East Street, sometimes on stage. Peter took us through the script several times, methodically looking for Americanisms, or rather Canadianisms, that had inevitably crept in. We all contributed to minor script alterations, carefully entered in his script by Peter, using a pencil and a rubber. As a director, Peter was relaxed and generous, encouraging us to discover our characters gradually. Hywel, who had worked with him before, once suggested that Peter had slowed down somewhat since having recovered from a stroke. But there was certainly no evidence of indecision or lack of insightful assistance to the cast. I remember that one of my speeches seemed overlong, with perhaps too much technical detail for the audience to take in. Peter said my homework was to rewrite it, which I found a bit daunting. I introduced a Latin word, ‘ergo’, wondering if it might be the kind of word Birdie might use. In spite of my misgivings, ‘ergo’ and the rest of my homework duly appeared in the Samuel French edition of the script.
Most rehearsal days I drove from Felpham, where I was staying with my mother and stepfather, and, on the way to Chichester, picked up Peter from his home in Oving. He was always a courteous and chatty passenger, never sharing any of the production problems that might have been troubling him.
Pamela Howard designed the brilliant and deceptively simple set for “Terra Nova”. All white, it represented the snowy wastes of the Antarctic as well as accommodating slide projections, particularly the famous photo of the disappointed five at the South Pole. During a hot summer, with no air conditioning in the auditorium, it gave the audience an illusion of chilliness. Unfortunately it didn’t stop us actors from sweating profusely in our costumes which, though inadequate for the real-life characters we were playing, felt very hot to us under the stage lights. The stunning lighting was by Mick Hughes, with whom it was great to be reunited more than a decade after he had directed my early children’s plays at Worcester. Mick was so successful in recreating the Aurora Australis, featuring subliminal variations of flickering lights, that several audience members were forced to leave with symptoms of epilepsy. One night, as Scott and Amundsen were playing an imagined conversation in front of the skeleton wigwam, created with poles and no canvas, in which the four of us huddled, suddenly anguished hoarse breathing was heard from the auditorium. I whispered ‘heart attack’ to my colleagues. The scene continued. The noises became louder and more alarming. It suddenly struck all of us that in a couple of lines’ time, Amundsen would say, ‘Really, it’s an extraordinary place. It wants so much for you to be dead’. Surely Ben Whitrow won’t be able to say this in such circumstances, we thought. Thankfully, Hywel, as Scott, halted the proceedings and said quietly to the audience that perhaps it was best if we left the stage. This we did. Later we heard that the front of house staff had managed to convey the poor man to an ambulance, which arrived with impressive speed. The man’s wife, apparently, showed little sympathy for her husband. She was cross with him for selfishly interrupting the play! To the amazement of the staff, she watched the ambulance drive off, then returned to her seat in the auditorium. We returned to our places, to warm applause and carried on the play.
The heat gave me major nose problems. Birdie Bowers had a very prominent nose, hence his nickname. It was very beak-like. This involved creating a false nose from special putty, which was meant to sit firmly on the bridge of my own nose. Several times sweat loosened it, and occasionally I found myself holding on to it mid-scene.
I was thrilled to be accommodated in one of the solo dressing rooms under the stage. I even had a dresser, a delightful young woman called Patsy, who hoped to go to Art College. Somewhere on my shelves there is an accomplished piece of artwork that she created for me, featuring Adelie penguins.
Every performance I dreaded my ‘ergo’ speech. It was lengthy, and spoken right on the point at the front of the stage, bang in the centre. Feeling very exposed, I had the job, while speaking the speech, of setting up the theodolite, a piece of scientific equipment. I am technically hopeless, so the combined worry of trying to set it up correctly and remember my lines became a nightly challenge. The relief when this moment was successfully accomplished was immense.
During the run I developed a silly superstitious ritual. Before the first performance I had walked round the vast theatre car park twice in a clockwise direction, going through all my lines. Thinking this had helped me get through our opening show, I found myself repeating the exercise before every performance, twice on matinee days, even in the pouring rain. Traditions like not mentioning the Scottish play in the dressing room or not whistling on stage seem trivial compared with this self-enforced routine.
One Saturday matinee in July our performance coincided with the eagerly anticipated Wimbledon Men’s Final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. This match is lauded as one of the greatest matches of all time. It was agreed amongst the “Terra Nova” cast that we would try to regularly update each other on the score as the match developed. As soon as we left the stage we would listen to the radio and somehow surreptitiously manage to whisper an update upon our return. Hopefully the audience were unaware of this. Come to think of it, they were possibly as keen as we were to follow the match. In fact it turned out to be a five-setter, which lasted much longer than our performance, and I remember listening to the final stages in the car while driving home. During another matinee it was discovered that for some reason Hywel had forgotten to take Scott’s diary on stage with him. Some of us had suspected that Hywel had never actually learnt the text of the letter Scott wrote before he perished. The text was in the diary. Quite how and who successfully found the diary in the dressing room or on the prop table and managed to pass it to Hywel on stage, I’ll never know. But the moment came for him to write the letter, and Hywel spoke the text perfectly.
The play was very well received, although not every seat was sold. The fact that it was a new play must have put some people off. Several friends, as well as my family, came to see the show and visited me in my dressing room. They included the jazz singer Annie Ross, who had appeared in my musical The Stiffkey Scandals Of 1932 in the West End, and her husband Peter Jeffrey, who had played the Headmaster in IF…. My Headmaster and his wife, Mr and Mrs Anderson, also came round and were generous in their praise. I reminded him of how he had encouraged my theatrical ambitions more than twenty years before.
My understudy in the production was Andrew Sargent. One afternoon, during an understudy rehearsal, he introduced me to his girlfriend from his RADA days. A very quiet, shy young lady shook my hand. Her name was Imelda Staunton. Not long after she was a stunning Miss Pepper in my children’s musical “The Gingerbread Man”, in two productions, at the Swan Worcester and at Leeds Playhouse. It has been a huge pleasure seeing her become more and more successful. Andrew came back into my life a year later, when he was in the cast of “Meg and Mog Show”, the musical play I wrote for Unicorn Theatre, based at the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square.
One of the perks of being in “Terra Nova” was that I was invited to take part in a poetry reading, featuring actors from the company. These included Joan Collins, who was starring in “The Last of Mrs Cheyney”. In the production she wore some striking gowns designed by Susie Caulcutt, who had designed “The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See…”, which presumably led Peter to offer her another Chichester production.
There was talk of a possible transfer to London for “Terra Nova”. I think we were offered the Roundhouse, which would have been perfect, with its thrust stage and audience on three sides. But it was not to be.
The following year, 1981, Patrick Garland took over as Artistic Director at Chichester. I had first met Patrick in 1964, when he was the Floor Manager on the BBC arts programme “Monitor”. I was performing in an excerpt from “Hang Down your Head and Die”, the Oxford student revue about capital punishment, which had achieved a transfer from the Oxford Playhouse to the Comedy Theatre in the West End. Producer Michael Codron had taken the very unusual step of bringing a student play into the West End, which proved a tremendous excitement for all of us. Five years later Patrick directed “The Stiffkey Scandals of 1932”, the musical I co-wrote with David Wright about the Reverend Harold Davidson, dubbed “the Prostitutes’ Padre” and subsequently defrocked by the Bishop of Norwich. The show had started at the Traverse, Edinburgh, where Patrick had seen it while filming a television series about Boswell and Dr Johnson. After the performance he said that if nothing further happened to the show, he would arrange for it to be seen on BBC2. In the event, Peter Bridge took a West End option, but didn’t use it. So Patrick was as good as his word. The BBC2 programme went into pre-production. Patrick had recently directed the extremely successful “Forty Years on” by Alan Bennett, at the Apollo Theatre. The producer, Toby Rowland, offered Patrick another West End opportunity, so immediately after the recording of “Stiffkey” for BBC2, rehearsals started with virtually the same cast for the West End. I was thrilled that Carl Davis was employed to arrange my songs for a pastiche 1930s dance band, which appeared on stage. Sadly the production only lasted a few days! The plug was pulled even before the Sunday reviews came out! But Patrick and I had kept in touch, and I occasionally came to Chichester to meet him and to see excellent productions like “The Mitford Girls” and “Underneath the Arches”. I suggested to Patrick that one of my children’s plays might be suitable for a week of schools’ performances. By then my touring children’s theatre company, Whirligig, took to the road each year and also played an annual season at Sadler’s Wells. Patrick and Paul Rogerson, who was still the General Manager, offered us a week for “The Selfish Shellfish”, my play about oil pollution, set in a rock pool. The play had toured in the autumn of 1983, and several theatres had asked us to mount a spring tour. We played the week of February 12th, 1984 at Chichester, and I had great fun slightly re-blocking the production to fit the Chichester stage and auditorium. Once again Peter Dews’ advice on directing in a theatre with the audience on three sides came in very handy. It was a happy and successful week.
John Gale became Artistic Director in 1985. I didn’t know John very well, but I had met him through Cameron Mackintosh, with whom I was now regularly presenting my musical play “The Gingerbread Man” in London and on tour. Over the next couple of years I came to Chichester with my family to see more musicals. I remember with pleasure “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Robert and Elizabeth”. In 1987, John, perhaps prompted by Cameron, got in touch to see if “The Gingerbread Man” might be available to play a Christmas season. He had already booked an evening production, “Daisy Pulls It Off”, and wondered whether “The Gingerbread Man” might fit on top for matinée performances. Cameron and I had several times organised a similar arrangement, notably when Cameron’s major tour of “My Fair Lady” played in the provinces. The set of “The Gingerbread Man”, designed by Susie Caulcutt, was a standing structure representing the worktop and shelves of an antique Welsh Dresser. It was self-contained, so could conveniently fit inside another set. A deal was struck and it was agreed that Cameron, by now being so busy, would allow me to go ahead with Bob West as co-producer. Bob knew the show technically better than anyone. He had been Cameron’s trusted and highly efficient Company Manager since the beginning of Cameron’s producing career. Our collaboration continued for many years. Our main contact at Chichester was Michael Lynas, a Production Associate who in later years rose through the ranks of the Ambassador Theatre Group. Most of the cast had played in the show before, though not necessarily with one another, and I much enjoyed returning to Chichester to direct. We were made most welcome and never made to feel that we were the junior production, as often used to happen in those days with shows for children.
More than a decade passed before I was invited back to Chichester. I had hoped that Michael Rudman, when he became Artistic Director in 1990, might offer me a job. He had previously directed me in an Oxford play that transferred to the Mermaid in 1964. But Michael was only at Chichester for a year before Patrick Garland returned. I got quite excited in 1993, when my adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” was playing in the West End. Patrick asked to see it, with a view to offering a Christmas season at Chichester. Having seen the show, he wrote to me apologising for the fact that he couldn’t give the go-ahead, because he felt that children would be disappointed not to encounter a ‘real’ giant. I realised, but never told him, that Patrick had obviously left at the interval! In the second half a splendid Big Friendly Giant, 14’ tall, made his appearance, to the surprised delight of the children. But sadly Patrick hadn’t seen it!
During Patrick’s second tenure, I saw two splendid productions – “She Stoops to Conquer” and a revival of the musical “Pickwick”, starring Harry Secombe, who had splendidly played the Narrator and Quangle Wangle on the Philips Records album of “The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See…”.
Duncan Weldon ran the theatre for two years from 1995. He had co-produced the Toronto production of “A Voyage Round my Father”. He was also a dab hand at taking the front of house photos of that show. Another face familiar to me took over in 1997. Andrew Welch had for several years been in charge at the University of Warwick Arts Centre. He was a huge help to Whirligig, my touring company, always inviting us to play a week there, and several times allowing us to open tours, giving us generous get-in time and technical rehearsals. The Chichester Festivities had by then become an established annual event, and, as part of them, I was invited to perform “The David Wood Magic and Music Show” in the splendid Minerva, the smaller Festival Theatre venue, which had opened in 1989. I thoroughly enjoyed performing in this space and could quite understand why directors were so keen on it. Circumstances had decreed that, although my acting career had continued alongside my writing and directing children’s plays, I had not acted in a stage play since “Terra Nova”, back in 1980. My “Magic and Music Show” was something I loved doing, because entertaining children was something I found exhilarating, but also I felt it was keeping my hand in as a live performer. I was grateful to Andrew for inviting me to bring the show to Chichester, where my mother and stepfather could see it for the first time.
In 2006 I was pleased to learn that Jonathan Church had been appointed the new Artistic Director. I had known Jonathan since he ran Salisbury Playhouse, and had worked with him at Birmingham Rep, when he directed a Christmas production, followed by a tour, of my adaptation of Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES. During Jonathan’s first couple of years at the Festival Theatre, my mother had several spells in St Richard’s Hospital, which meant I visited Chichester quite regularly. I would occasionally pop in to see Jonathan, who was proving to be extremely skilled in choosing shows and casting them so well that local audience numbers were picking up and audiences from much further afield were flocking in too. One day in 2008 Jonathan and I were having a coffee in the open air outside the Minerva when a young man approached. I thought he wanted to speak to Jonathan, who introduced him as Angus Jackson. In fact he wanted to speak to me. Having just seen his production of “Funny Girl”, I congratulated him, but he ignored my warm words, saying that I obviously didn’t remember him. This was true, until he reminded me that about twenty years earlier, when he was about 16, he had written to me for advice. He wanted to go into the theatre, but had been warned about what a precarious profession it could be. At the time I was working at Unicorn Theatre, near Leicester Square. I invited him to meet me at the Monmouth Street Coffee House, where I did my best to dissuade him from taking up the theatre as a profession unless he was really passionate about it. It was very rewarding to realise that he had indeed succeeded in his ambitions, and now was an Associate Director at Chichester.
My connection with Angus was to develop further. For many years I had tried to obtain the stage rights on Michelle Magorian’s brilliant novel “Goodnight Mister Tom”. It had been very successfully televised, starring John Thaw, but my interest had started long before. When eventually I was granted the rights, Tony Graham, who ran Unicorn, offered to commission the play. I spent several months working on a synopsis, but it became increasingly clear that I needed a cast of at least a dozen to make it work. Unicorn were unable to offer a cast of more than six or eight at the very most. Eventually, they kindly released me from my contract. Remembering that Jonathan Church had expressed interest in the project when he was at Birmingham Rep, I rang him to see if he might be interested in the play for Chichester. He was enthusiastic, but said he would have to discuss the idea with others. I thought I would have to wait a couple of weeks, but within minutes Jonathan rang back offering to commission “Goodnight Mister Tom” for Chichester. This was very encouraging, and over the next year I worked on the first draft, delivered it, then waited six months for Jonathan’s response. He had been incredibly busy, as had I, but the wait was well worth while! Jonathan made some suggestions for rewrites. He also brought in Edward Snape, who was trying to set up a company called the Children’ s Touring Partnership, which aimed, with Arts Council help, to take theatre for older children, on a large scale, into the mainstream UK theatres. I had worked with Edward several times, on productions of “The BFG” and “Fimbles”, and felt that a co-production of “Goodnight Mister Tom” with Chichester was an excellent idea. Things moved quite fast, until the question of a director was mentioned. I immediately thought of Angus, who was still working at Chichester. This idea was accepted, and Angus started working with me on more script revisions.
My number one choice to play Mister Tom was the splendid Oliver Ford Davies, whom I had known for years – he was at Oxford just before me – but never worked with. It was a significant moment when Oliver accepted.
Sometimes in children’s plays it is necessary to employ young adult actors to play children. This is not just for financial reasons, to avoid paying for chaperones and tutors, it is also because very often the child protagonist is the motor of the play and the actor needs to be able to sustain a demanding performance, not just once, but many times. With “Goodnight Mister Tom”, I felt that we needed real children, in order to achieve the vulnerability of William and the exuberant eccentricities of Zach. Guided by Jo Hawes, the children’s casting director, we found some splendid young actors, some from stage schools, some not.
Another important element was Sammy, the dog. Using live animals on stage is always a risk, but I knew that Sammy was a very important character in the story. The idea of puppetry, bearing in mind the huge success of “War Horse”, was explored, and Toby Olié, who had been a puppeteer in the original production of “War Horse”, made a brilliant puppet and trained Laura Cubitt to operate it. Needless to say, Sammy received a great reaction and stole many of the reviews!
Rehearsals off the Caledonian Road went well. More rewrites were necessary, but the cast were ever patient. The play opened on February 2nd, 2011 at Chichester, before embarking on tour. The response was heart-warming in the extreme. My long wait to be able to adapt Michelle’s book was vindicated by the reaction of the huge audiences, young and old alike. Because the play is about an evacuee in World War Two, the subject matter fitted with the National Curriculum, so school parties were happy to come. And many evacuees, now elderly, plus their children and grandchildren, came to relive their experiences or learn more about them. On the 22nd November, 2012 the production opened a West End season at the Phoenix Theatre. The reviews were mainly extremely positive, business was brisk, and we achieved a thrilling bonus by winning the Olivier Award 2013 for Best Entertainment & Family. Jonathan and Edward generously allowed Angus and me to accept the Award, on the stage of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. It was a memorable night.
So the wheel had come full circle. Chichester Festival Theatre had given me my first professional opportunity as an extra fifty years before, when Sir Laurence Olivier was the Director. Now, thanks to Jonathan, Chichester had facilitated my receiving an Award in Olivier’s name – in the presence of Dame Joan Plowright, Lady Olivier, who had played Saint Joan in the first Chichester production I had been lucky enough to take part in.
Finally I want to acknowledge how Chichester has played a considerable role in increasing the status and profile of theatre for children and young people. When I started, the interest in this area was minimal. It has been a privilege to be part of the change of attitude towards the children’s theatre movement that has significantly changed the landscape. One of the most significant achievements at Chichester has been the introduction and flourishing of its Youth Theatre. For thirty years it has inspired many, many young people, giving them performance experience as well as workshops in all aspects of theatre. When Dale Rooks became Youth Theatre/Education Director, with great skill and flair she developed the Youth Theatre so significantly that with the support of Jonathan Church, they have presented the main Christmas show in the Festival Theatre auditorium for a decade or more. It was especially exciting for me to see their productions of “James and The Giant Peach” (2007/2008) and “The Witches” (2013/2014), my Roald Dahl adaptations. JAMES had a huge cast – 83 I think! – filling the stage with talent and energy. “The Witches” played in the Minerva during the Festival Theatre’s renovation period. Both were highly imaginative and worthy additions to the glittering legacy of my favourite theatre.