If you stand still long enough the conveyer belt of life comes round – a bit like The ‘Generation Game’. If you stand still and concentrate you may remember the items of your life. The pink eiderdown, the kitchen cabinet, the green half-moon rug.
On Tuesday I had a zoom cocktail hour with four people, all who have been instrumental in turning me into what I am today, an old Thespian with a propensity for melodramatic seizures.
I started learning to play the piano aged five. Mrs. Lyley taught me in her gothic mansion, where she had painted black trees directly onto cream walls. A far cry from the woodchip wallpaper my father hung.
When I was about ten my mother and I would climb onto the 358 bus, opposite where we lived, take the twenty minute ride to Boreham Wood High Street, alight, stand outside the newly opened Wimpy Bar and wait for the green 306 routemasteer to take us to Watford. Through Elstree Village, adjacent to the reservoir, round the roundabout past ‘Rosary Priory’, through Bushey and into Watford town centre.
Sometimes a trip was for shoes, or books but mostly it was to go to The Watford Palace Theatre. A beautiful old building with a shiny brown circular bar, and as I recall a lovely chandelier, that bit could just be in my imagination. My mother always booked the front row, bought us a programme and we’d settle down for all sorts of theatrical journeys. I could literally smell the grease paint, dry ice, hear the footsteps of those actors treading the boards. The delightful anticipation as the house lights went down, the audience hushed and those red curtains opened. My need for the limelight, apart from the desire to get my absent fathers approval, was firmly launched in that beautiful theatre.
‘Murder most Foul’ starring Margaret Rutherford, her version of Miss Marple, was launched from that very auditorium in the 60’s.
Aged eleven I attended St. Hildas’ School in Bushey, Miss Foulger believed in me, taught me everything I needed to know about not sliding off the piano stool and gave me her little blue musical dictionary. It still sits in my piano next to the hight notes.
Aged thirteen I got into Watford School of Music. Learnt how to interpret dreams for Mr. Churchill who, with a Brian Blessed projection, told me to press down that loud pedal, play with panache, then nobody would ever be able to tell the difference between right and wrong notes.
I graduated to Miss Spottiswood who hated my heritage, ate sulphuric eggs behind me and told me to stop listening to Jazz piano played by Jaques Loussier. Twenty five years later I took the dawter to see Jaques and his trio play at the Mayfield music festival. He shook the dawters hand, I stood back and wondered what old Spottiswood would have made of it when he shook my hand too. The dawter is now a musician.
But I digress.
After eighteen years of school I was encouraged to go to Drama school by Mr. Rangely. He too believed in me. I didn’t realise how many sound inspirational teachers I have had in my life. Mr.R drove me from drama school to drama school and paid for the auditions. I got into ‘The New College of Speech and Drama’, the precursor to Middlesex University.
For three years Wiggy, the janitor, unlocked the piano room for me. I practiced for an hour, then set about the daily joy of learning how to be dramatic. At the end of my term – 1970 – I bought a copy of ‘The Stage’ newspaper and highlighted an audition for an actor musician. Forty weeks of work, and if they employed you, and believed in you, you got an equity card. Theatre was a closed shop none of your reality bollox then.
I took the train to Watford and played the piano which was on the stage, the very stage I had smelt all those years before.
I was then taken to do my two speeches – in the very room I had learnt the piano. The very room where Bach had broken my fingers and Chopin had broken my heart. The very room where Miss Spottiswood spat out egg shells and Mr Churchill declared me psychic. I got the gig and became part of Watford Palace Theatre’s Education company. We toured schools, travelled abroad, and so begun my fifty year career.
I was directed by the great Ken Campbell, worked with the likes of Stephanie Cole, drunk in the bar and received my first ever review from Patrick Stoddart who wrote for the local Watford newspaper, he eventually became an award winning journalist.
It was he who I zoomed with on Tuesday night.
Nick, my other zoomer, knew Pats’ wife Nicki, Nicki is an agent, and has been around our ives for 40 years. We talked, along with Nick’s partner, about Watford Palace. The bar has gone, but the building remains. Pat is now a patron of that noble establishment.
Some years ago I was bet I couldn’t write a Mills and Boon, always up for a challenge I did indeed write ‘Swan Song’ – a huge romantic confection set in a theatre. That theatre was, of course, based on The Palace.
On Tuesday night my life sat before me housed in a little screen on my table in East Sussex. The beginnings of my life now witnessed by the old git, and four other people. The speed with which our lives hurtle towards the great beyond was evident as the six of us sat sipping wine, staring at each other, swapping stories.
One minute I was 22-years-old with the whole of my life before me, now I’m 72 with the whole of my life before me only now the whole is smaller. Watford Palace Theatre gifted me the ability to negotiate my way through trauma, success, feast and famine. The very existence of theatre enables millions of us to understand and navigate life.
Now as fires burn in Greece, Algeria, California, as audacious soldiers rip 12-year-old girls from their parents so they can sleep with Taliban tyrants. As floods, tsunamis and howling winds ravage our beautiful planet some of us will have the opportunity to go to the theatre where we will be entertained, educated and taken on flights of fancy, sadly most repertory theatre’s have now closed down or turned into bingo halls or Weatherspoons’.
‘The Palace’s foundation stone was laid on 6th June 1908, and the theatre opened for the very first time on 14th December. At first, the auditorium only had the stalls and the circle. The top-price tickets were one shilling and six pence which would be £39 today’.
For 113 years, through wars and demolitions, that delicious emporium of culture still stands. Watford Palace Theatre is a monument to creativity.
Long may she remain.