Hugh of Hugh’s News and Views had Sally Cronin visit yesterday. Sal recounted her experience treading the boards at college and the disastrous ending. Check it out here, it’s worthy of investing your time.
As happens, that reminded me of why I had no ambitions to make it on stage. Sure, I like the sound of my own voice, I’ve harboured a small desire to be a stand-up, and I have no difficulty saying a few words at some wedding/funeral/planning meeting. But being part of an ensemble terrifies me.
Back at school, you generally had no choice in the matter until about 13 or 14 after which you had to put yourself forward. I didn’t.
But as so often happens, one mistake can be compounded and then ratcheted up exponentially. That was what happened when, in some parallel universe of wisdom I decided to undertake a French A level. I wasn’t that good at French, German came to me more easily as did Chemistry but I wasn’t to be disabused.
What I didn’t realise was the head of French at my sixth form college was about to change, as I entered the lower sixth (year twelve if you want the modern equivalent). Geoff Bain, all nylon shirts, shiny brown suits and an irrepressible chumminess that no amount of ignorance could dampen became head of the sixth form and Peggy Post, a formidable ancient took over. Peggy, our favourite spoonerism (Miss Post, P…. M… – oh work it out, class) was Jurassic, beady eyed, with aggressive knitwear and weaponised bosoms that she marshalled like recalcitrant sheep.
If there was one thing Peggy loved it was French as an oral language. I agree, it is a language that cries out to be spoken but as a nervy 17 who at that stage hated putting his head above the parapet, I loathed it. And when she announced we who were doing French would put on ‘a little entertainment’ my worst fears looked like they might be well founded.
In fact my worst fears – I might have to stand on stage, memorize some godawful poem and recite it – were modest by comparison to Peggy’s grand plans. Oh no. We were to put on a play, and an impenetrable existentialist piece of bollocks by Jean-Paul Sartre to boot. The chosen vehicle to disport our lack of linguistical talents was Les Mains Sales.
I told myself I’d be in the chorus, a gangster or some silent hoodlum. We read through the text ‘to get a feel for the delights in store’. I hadn’t a clue what was going on, but we all took it in turn to read so I was equally ignorant of what role might be assigned to me. Apart from having no clue what was happening, my only memory of that read through was my inability to get my mouth round the word for leaf – feuille. If you don’t know it, it’s the sort of sound you make when you realise, just as you step onto the carpet you have dog crap on your shoes – a sort of sick-angry combo. I was made to repeat it several times until even Peggy despaired. I hated that word. It’s the French equivalent of moist, a word loathed for its sound.
A few days later, Peggy announced we’d be choosing our parts. That hint at an outbreak of democracy was of course of the Burmese military kind, i.e. nothing of the sort. However to add to the inevitable consternation, things that couldn’t get worse, did. In addition to Peggy, the session was attended by the Head of English, Ethel Davies. If there was one reason not to do English it was Ethel. The word formidable doesn’t begin to encompass the terrifying personality that lurked, kraken-like close to Miss Davies’ surface. Hers was an electric cattle prod of a personality. I heard her once articulate how her best students had the gumption and personality to be their own people, but then she would consume their vital organs in order to feed her need to eviscerate any challenge.
‘I’ve asked Miss Davies along to help us put on the best production we can,’ simpered Peggy.
‘Oh ignore me. Pretend I’m not here. I’ll chip in if I think I’ve anything to add.’
Had we dared talking in the Presence, we could have opened a book on how long it would be before she took over. About seven minutes as it happened.
I sat at the back, as was my custom and waited for whatever axe would fall.
‘I want all the boys at the front.’
Neil, a close friend and similarly unenamoured at the whole idea groaned and wondered if we were to be offered a final cigarette before being shot. We lined up.
‘Oh yes. Now, each of you. I want you to say ‘feuille’. Nice and loud. Geoffrey, would you like to start?’
Of course it had to be me. But as I took my final breath, I thought it made a certain sense. I was the one singled out as hopeless. Start with me and the only way was up….
I forgot the first rule of sixth form fight club. Never be good. While my ‘feuille’ wasnt the worst I’ve ever articulated, Miss Post managed to restrain her wince. ‘Neil?’ she said brightly.
Neil, who was a natural could barely get beyond the ‘f’. Andy was equally inarticulate. Rog made it sound like a breed of dog and the rest were hopeless.
Peggy looked distraught, but I was the clear winner. ‘Well, Geoffrey, it looks like you’re going to be Hoederer. One of the main characters.’
And the reason for ‘feuille’? Hoederer must have said it twenty times. The man had a tree fetish.
So there it was: I was in, the heavy political fixer, the counterpoint to Hugo’s idealist. Neil was stuck being Hugo – served him right. All we had to do were learn the lines, unpick the turgid communist realpolitik schtick and understand what on earth the play was about and try oh so very hard not to get on the wrong side of Ethel as she began to take over the direction.
What could go wrong…?
See part 2…