In the countryside not far from Loughborough a millionaire had built himself a private luxury theatre, a sort of mini Glyndebourne. He also had his own cricket pitch and he led a team against the visiting Australians etc. A professional theatre company from Coventry provided a production there every third week. I was involved with a supporter’s organisation and we were very upset when the Arts Council withdrew funding from the Coventry theatre company. In a meeting we were told that a theatre company from Lincoln had offered to fill the gap. I’m not sure how but I was engaged to handle publicity for the Loughborough visits. I think I was paid for that but not very much. Certainly not enough to live on but it helped to spin out my capital. Because I couldn’t bear not to see it done I used to put on a dinner suit and stand around in the foyer as a point of contact with the public.
Through the charity I wrote a short talk for radio. This was offered to the chairman of our committee by the BBC but he passed it on to me. The BBC had a small studio in Nottingham. Instead of taking the lift I walked up several flights of stairs and never quite regained full breath. The studio had a very dead accoustic and this threw me and I didn’t do a very good job. It was being produced from Birmingham with the signal going down the line to be recorded there. After a very long pause that producer’s voice said “That was grand.” I didn’t think it was grand and might have asked for a second shot but took his word for it.
Many years later I read a book by a former BBC insider and found that “grand” was BBC code for not very good. Other bodies had similar phrases known to themselves but that wouldn’t be understood by outsiders. If a circus audience was a bit thin they’d say “We’ve got Mr Wood in the house tonight.” The wood, of course, referring to the wooden benches which were visible because nobody was sitting on them. In the case of a fire in a theatre that’s the one word you mustn’t let the audience hear. Hundreds of people who could have escaped safely have died over the years because they panicked, fell over each other, trampled others to death etc. In our theatre, and in many others, the code was the playing of “Three Blind Mice.” When the front of house attendants heard that they knew that they had to open all the exit doors and get the audience quietly and calmly out of the building.
Then came another of those unexpected developments that change the course of your life. The man who ran the Lincoln theatre combined the roles of manager and director of productions. He was leaving and thought that the job should now be split into two with me as the manager. So there I was in the professional theatre at last without really trying. And, of course, with a hell of a lot that I should have known but didn’t.
Before leaving Nottingham I did get a further shot at a broadcast. This time for the theatre and I did a much better job. The producer’s voice from Birmingham arrived much more promptly. “Thank you. I’ll send you a contract.” And they did, indeed, pay me a small amount.
The Theatre Royal, Lincoln, had been built in the late 19th century and for most of its days had been a music hall. When that closed down a group of citizens bought it and installed a repertory company. It was a beautiful little theatre with perfect acoustics. The builders had no knowledge of the science involved but simply knew that a theatre of a certain shape, with plenty of hard plaster grapes etc would be suitable for artists working without any microphones or loudspeakers. And it was. I could stand in the gallery and hold a conversation with somebody on the stage without raising my voice unduly.
Although the Director of Productions and myself were of equal status I always put his name ahead of mine on programs, letterheads etc because I believed that what happened on the stage was more important than anything else. We were jointly responsible for choosing plays with a new one every week. We decided that we respected each other’s judgement and that unless we were unanimous a play would be out. If he wanted a play but I wasn’t happy he would drop it and vice versa. I think there were only a couple of occasions when that had to happen. We did a mixture of more serious drama with lighter stuff. My predecessor said that every theatre had lovely people associated with it who would clamour for Ibsen and Chekov etc. “And they’re always at the station to see you off when the theatre closes.” My own philosophy was that if we wanted to live safely we had to be prepared to die dangerously. In other words a big, thumping failure with some panache would do you more good in the long run than some mediocre near success. That’s the problem faced by senior executives at commercial TV channels. I feel sorry for them. They’re professional gamblers working for bad losers and they know that they couldn’t lose their jobs through choosing programs that are safe but not very good.
Of course we had drama offstage as well as on – actors injured in a bus crash, a suicide attempt, numerous financial crises and times when I said “We’re in trouble. We’re going to have to buy our way out.” And you could get round most problems by spending money.
But I think I’ll report just a couple of the lighter moments. Before then a word about our touring arrangements. They built a new Civic Theatre at Scunthorpe and we provided a production there every third week. At Rotherham they turned a large former Methodist church into a splendid Civic Theatre and we added that to our schedule as well. Our actors went out and back every night by bus. The arrangement allowed us to have a much bigger company, an Associate Producer as well as the Director of Productions, two designers, two stage management crews but only one manager. I worked for about 80 hours each 7-day week. The financial pressure was horrendous because we were technically bankrupt and I became expert at fobbing off creditors. The important thing, though, was that it meant that we could give productions two weeks of rehearsal instead of one and that made a tremendous difference.
Enough of that. It was stimulating, challenging, perpetually interesting but stressful in the extreme. On the anniversary of the formation of the company we did a special birthday production and a local bakery gave us a large, multi tiered cake. Then they jacked up and said they wouldn’t do it any more. Fortunately one of the usherettes said that she would make us a cake and I relaxed. On the day that it was needed she brought her cake in. It was about 30 cm square and would look ridiculously small when seen from a distance. My secretary and I hatched a plan. We got hold of a cardboard box of about the right size and she went out and bought four large slab cakes about 20 cm by 10cm each plus cake decorations etc. The cake arranged in a square filled most of the box. We wrapped frilled, silver coloured paper round this and put something on the top. On that we placed four pillars supporting the real cake which we also decorated. The total effect was impressive although one wrong move and the whole thing would collapse and my hasty bit of fakery would be exposed. I sent it backstage with instructions that it was on no account to be moved in view of the audience. It was to be put in position whilst the curtain was down. Perhaps that was not explained clearly enough.
I watched nervously. The curtain went up and there were the actors but no cake. Then two actors carried on a table on which the “cake” was standing. It survived the trip to centrestage and I began to relax. But only for a moment. An actor stepped forward, picked up a knife and began to slice the top cake. It wobbled but stayed put which proves that if you’re ruthless enough, and desperate enough sometimes the Gods will smile on you. next