Round about now, forty-five years ago, I was starting a summer season of plays at the Shanklin Theatre on the Isle of Wight.
What a stark contrast to what is happening today!
Today in 2020, in theatres up and down the country, not a single seat is occupied. Not one.
In Shanklin forty-five years ago, we were playing to virtually full houses every night – six nights a week!
Thousands of holidaymakers have recently had to cancel their holidays in Spain, Florida and the Canaries to name just a few destinations. They’re going to be fighting for refunds, disappointed they won’t be getting their annual dose of guaranteed sun, all-inclusive indulgence and a pint at Gatwick at seven in the morning.
Forty-five years ago, the boarding houses and hotels on the Isle of Wight, were packed with families, happily enjoying the break from the struggles of their normal lives. Okay the sun wasn’t blazing down at 32 degrees, but I remember it being a warm, sunny, pleasant summer.
And of course, now in 2020, there’s PCness. We are all too terrified to open our mouths, while in the holiday towns nearly half a century ago, they still had saucy postcards and politically incorrect comics.
An example of q saucy postcards …
An elderly couple are dancing away on the ballroom floor and the Woman says ‘No … no I said I’d got acute angina.’
In Sandown which was another costal holiday town just a few miles from Shanklin, there was another theatre, but this didn’t produce plays, it was a variety house with dancing girls, acrobats, crooners … that sort of thing. And on Sunday evenings they had stand-up comics, a different one each week. So that theatre was also packed seven nights a week. Because we didn’t have a show on the Sunday night, we were able to go and see the comics. I think it might have been Ted Rogers who did the joke …
‘If you want to drink, have a drink… if you want to drive, then drive… there’s nothing worse than having a crash sober…’
I can imagine how that gag would go down today.
Did people rush out to drive tanked up? I really don’t know. What I do know is more than one comic referred to the Isle of Wight as ‘100,000 alcoholics clinging to an island,’ and people laughed. I don’t believe just because people stopped telling jokes about drinking and driving, it stopped people actually doing it. Society evolves and that’s what brings about the changes.
Some of the TV shows of the time, would certainly not be entertained these days. From 1972 to 1976, there was an ITV sitcom called Love Thy Neighbour. Before I start about this ‘comedy’ I have to declare I hardly ever saw any of it and what I did see didn’t do it for me. I just didn’t think it was funny. The premise was based around two suburban couples, a black couple (Bill and Barbie Reynolds) – played by Rudolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper and a white couple (Eddie and Joan Booth) – played by Jack Smethurst and Kate Williams. There is no doubt about the fact that the programme would be deemed totally racist today, simply on some of the terminology used by the Eddie Booth character. Did I think it was racist at the time? I’m not sure, what I do know is as I’ve already said I didn’t see the humour, and the bigotry came across as being stupid and ignorant, not witty and clever. Eddie Booth was the idiot of the piece – the person you didn’t want to be. The same went for Till Death Us Do Part, another ‘sitcom’ I didn’t find funny and I suppose I did find the Alf Garnet character offensive, but his ignorance was about everything and everyone. I obviously fight against censorship, but I wouldn’t like to see either of those programmes back on TV.
The people we were entertaining nightly in Shanklin were the people that watched these types of comedies, so naturally enough, the theatre’s programme didn’t include any Ibsen, Chekhov or Osborne.
We did three plays in repertoire, which is different from repertory. Repertory is when a company performs a new play every week, two weeks, three weeks depending whether it’s weekly, fortnightly or three weekly rep. Repertoire is when you have a number of plays that you rotate.
The plays we did that year were the perennial comedy Doctor In The House, a thriller The Whole Truth and a farce – Bed, Board and Romance.
We changed the play every Thursday so if you were on holiday for just a week, you’d be able to see two of the plays, and if you were there for two weeks then you could see all three plays.
I remember the company so clearly, a couple of them were really close friends, having worked with them on numerous previous occasions. Terry Wood was one of the actors who I was great friends with and eventually became godfather to our daughter.
Terry was six feet four/five inches tall and was well over twenty stone. He absolutely dwarfed me. We originally met doing pantomime and then went onto do three or four more together over the subsequent years, Terry playing the Dame and myself playing the Buttons character. We also played in numerous plays together. Terry unfortunately died of cancer when he was just 34. But when I first moved to the Isle of Wight to commence rehearsals, we lived together in a caravan, while I scoured the island for a flat to move in with my family. Invariably Terry would cook something for supper and invariably I would be late because of the habit I had of stopping off at the pub too long. When I arrived back at the caravan, he would waiting on the doorstep (if caravans have doorsteps) apron on, furious that I caused him to burn the meal. I never knew how serious he was.
The artistic director of the company was another old friend Colin McIntyre, who had originally directed me at drama school. Sadly, he too died in 2011 after a long and varied career. Colin was always fun to work with, but also quite a task master when he wanted to be. Early on in our professional relationship we’d been out drinking to the early hours of the morning, this was at the Queens Park Hotel in Chesterfield, where we were both staying for the exorbitant fee of £3.00 a week. It was an old-fashioned boozer, with not surprisingly, basic accommodation. It had been built in 1913 and was run by Marie and her husband – it felt like they had been there since it opened. To get to your room, you had to walk through the bar, which seemed never to close. This particular night, after I’d finished the performance of which ever play it was that week, I went for one quick drink, before I headed back to the Queens Park and my room, to learn my lines for the next play. As I tried to get through the bar as swiftly as possible, I was spotted by Colin who virtually demanded I had a drink. He was my boss, so it was difficult to refuse. One drink turned into numerous and I eventually went to bed not long before sunrise. Needless to say – I hadn’t learnt my lines, but I thought it wouldn’t matter, after all it was the director who insisted I stay for a drink. Wrong! The following day in rehearsal as I walked on stage still, carrying my script, he went ballistic and gave me a massive public bollocking. When I tried to offer the mitigating circumstances that it was him I was drinking with, he simply said: “I’m here doing my job, you should be here doing yours.” I decided not to point out to him that his job didn’t involve learning lines.
As a relatively young actor, every day was a learning curve.
Invariably during that season at Shanklin you never knew what was going to happen. The theatre was run by the actor/manager – Geoffrey Reed, who at the time were a dying breed. He played in a couple of the plays, Doctor In The House and Bed, Board and Romance. In the first production he played the bombastic, pompous Sir Lancelot Spratt and in the latter production he played the rather interfering grandfather in the boarding house. In both cases there were times when I had scenes which involved just me and him. For these scenes you had to be prepared to think on your feet, because Geoff liked to ad lib – frequently. Which was fine, I was able to handle most things he threw at me. But there was one performance when he caught me totally off guard. He did something I would never have expected in a thousand years. Halfway through our scene in Bed, Board and Romance he suddenly stopped and looked directly out into the audience. What was he doing? Then he told the lighting guy to put up the house lights and of course they immediately obeyed – after all Geoff was their boss. Then he looked directly at a member of the audience and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Row F Mr Ted Ray!” Ted Ray was a relatively famous comedian of the 50s and 60s with his own radio and TV series. I’m not sure how many people in the audience knew him, but Ted stood up, took a bow and they gave him a round of applause. The house lights went down and we continued with the scene. That was the first and last time that happened to me.
Geoff was married to the actress Joan Francis, who had been in Coronation Street for nine years as Elise Tanners best friend. Why she didn’t perform in that season at Shanklin, I will never know. Maybe because as well as running the theatre, they ran a pub in Shanklin, which was the setting for dramas than happened nightly as well. Joan, again another formidable character, was known to threaten to take her own life because of any minor occurrence. This involved her doing a farewell speech, pretending to swallow pills and collapsing in the most dramatic way on her bed. Like Geoff she liked to perform, and it was just brilliant to watch.
None of this could ever possibly happen in 2020 and not just because of Corona. Existence was important and people just loved going every year to the same little hotel and doing the same things they’d done before. As an actor I just wanted to perform and like I say we played to packed houses, full of unpretentious people wanting to laugh, wanting to be thrilled, wanting to enjoy themselves. I was incredibly fortunate that I had a wife who backed me and wasn’t bothered about materialistic wealth. Good job really as I was being paid £27 per week and our flat was costing us £20 per week. We both had to take other jobs whilst at the same looking after our young son. (The tales of bingo calling are for another time.)
I’m not sure what would happen if people had to go back to not going abroad for their holidays, relying on a local rep company for their entertainment and warm beer instead of iced pina coladas. Would they say they’d rather have a deadly virus, because that way there’s a chance one day we’ll go back to ‘normal?’ I don’t know, but I do know forty-five years ago it was far from being an unpleasant experience.