One of the Lawyer’s school friends is making it in the world of acting, appearing in a recent episode of Silent Witness and fronting his own series soon I believe. Which made me ponder why, for someone such as myself who veritably glories in making a complete and utter tit of himself for laughs, haven’t I tried the old acting game more?
It’s not always been the case, though.
When I was small, I have had the odd moment, in amongst crucifying shyness.
At ten I played ‘Father’ in a school drama called Mischief at Midnight where I had to put my arm around my stage wife, Alison Randell, dying several thousand deaths over the two performances.
All I can now remember about Alison are her blond, page-boy haircut and green woolly tights. I suppose in some ways that’s not a bad way to be remembered.
I made it big the following year, as Joseph in the long running ‘Nativity – The Stable Version’. This involved some standing and looking thoughtful in amongst a bit on my knees when I think God, but it could have been a Roman or Herod, gave me what for for doubting Mary. I think this probably began my antipathy towards kneeling. I assumed I was chosen for such a leading role because I brought gravitas and dignity to a difficult to pull off characterisation as the husband cuckholded by the Big Man. Whereas it was because I was the tallest in my year.
The biggest role that I undertook occurred some six years later when I was transitioning from gawky gauche teenager into a pre-adult gearing up for university. I was just 17 and taking French to A level. This turned out to be a bit of a bad call (I failed) but at the same time I thought it was rather splendid and ever so slightly romantic. I read aloud from Camus, did the pretend shock thingy over Maupassant’s misogyny and sneered at Voltaire. Too cool to be the fool. Not.
When the Head of French, a redoubtable dumpling of a lady, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Post announced we would be doing a play I was a little indifferent. But then the play was announced. A Jean Paul Sartre affair. Les Mains Sales – Dirty Hands, as a scruffy translation – I had to be involved if any street cred was to be maintained. I was existentialism personified. In my own head.
There were auditions. Looking back I wonder I was chosen for the second male lead, Hoerderer. My acting credentials were poor and during a read through Peggy stopped to correct my pronunciation twice as much as the next candidate. I blame ‘feuille’ – leaf. Sartre was fixated with the bloody word. Peggy summoned all the dignity bestowed by her role as ambassador (Hampshire Branch) for L’Academie Francais and demanded I master the back of the throat sound needed to give air to the ‘euille’ piece. This youthful English larynx was not up to the challenge.
Peggy – who we also knew (I like to think affectionately, but will let history be the judge) by her Spoonerised Christian name of Piss (Miss Post – Piss Most – this was rural Hampshire, circa 1972 and so that passes for wit) – had a sister in arms in the production: head of English and former torturer from the Valkyrie Section of the Waffen SS, Ethel Davis. No one gave her a nickname. No one called her Ethel. At least not while in the same county. Miss Davis disliked anyone who might not be pulling their weight. Enthusiasm counted for a lot and I became convinced my selection fell to the simple fact that I kept trying. That and I was one of two boys capable of growing an approximation of a beard, needed for my anarchist character.
The Misses Davis and Post left nothing to chance. We had individual scripts, with stage directions scribbled on them. We rehearsed daily for what appeared to be several weeks. Miss Davis pleaded with me to give up rugby – she feared injury – though Miss Post evidenced a greater understanding suggesting a broken nose or, better still, lost limb might add a certain ‘verité’ to my character.
We gave two performances. The first, to the school itself was somewhat farcical. A bottle of red wine (Ribena from memory) was knocked over in scene one and the puddle was still spreading and being avoided by the characters in scene four which, in the play, took place some months later.
After that rather staccato performance we had what can only be described as a vigorous dress rehearsal for the last showing – to our families and invited guests. I recall two things from that.
First Miss Davis decided my beard was too blond and blacked it in. Andy, the other beard grower had no such problems and made what I thought were some rather hurtful remarks about my masculinity based solely in my bleached bristles.
Second there is a scene where Jessica, a femme fatale character, hands me a gun (or something like that – the plot escapes me now). In the first performance Catherine, playing Jessica, and I rather messed up the transfer – entirely my fault as I was already thinking about the kiss we had to undertake next (this was to our first lip on lip contact) and I had drifted up stage. In front of the assembled company Miss Davis admonished both of us for the clumsy acting and said (I’m near enough quoting so seared in my memory is it) ‘Remember Geoffrey after the kiss you get it on the bed’. I may not have learnt much about acting but I did experience my first corpsing.
*I have to thank Mum for the pictures – being the hoarder she was, she kept everything as you can see.