Walter Fitzgerald

A site dedicated to the actor Walter Fitzgerald

Fifty Years of Strutting and Fretting

 

"...a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more..." - MACBETH

Chapter 1

Perhaps I should say something about my ancestry, or, to be honest, perhaps I want to, mainly because I am a direct descendant of William Prynne, who three centuries ago devoted a thousand pages, no less, to the denunciation of the stage. "Popular Stage Plays" he declared, "are sinful, heathenish, lewd ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions; condenmned in all ages as intolerable Mischiefs to Churches, to Republics, to the manners, minds and souls of men"! Yet there is no doubt that Prynne himself had an eye for the effective scene. When in 1637 he received the severe punishment of mutilation for his puritan opposition to the religious policy of Charles I, his heroic bearing and courage whilst in the pillory caused one spectator to declare "This day will never be forgotten...through these holes (poynting to the pillory) God can bring light to his church." And later, on February 21st, 1660, when as a duly elected member of the Long Parliament, he took his seat in Westminster Hall for the historic meeting of the first strictly legal parliament since the King's execution, he made an entrance worthy of any of the finest tragi-comedians of his day. For, as Pepys records, "Mr.Pryn came in with an old basket hilt sword and a great many shouts uon his going into the Hall", but immediately thereafter the sword tripped up Sir William Waller, amid general laughter. Thus, as so often in the life of an actor, did the solemn and the ludicrous go hand in hand.

My mother, Julia Caroline Teresa, was the daughter of his worthy descandant George Rundle Prynne, for many years vicar of St.Peter's, Plymouth, whose claim to fame can still be found in the English Hymnal, No.194, "Jesu, meek and gentle." I can just remember him, a white haired old man, rising ninety, with indeed a "meek and gentle" face, but from the stories that my mother proudly told us I would say that, like many men and women possessing those two virtues, he was brave as a lion. Plymouth in the early nineteenth century was a rough, tough place: religion was not popular, the people were poor and crime was prevalent. So were dirt, squalor and disease, and medicine was far from its present advanced state. Father Prynne was an avid visitor of the sick. During the cholera outbreak of 1831 he led a charmed life; no amount of warning could keep him away from administering the Sacrament to the dying. On another occasion an old woman, terrified at the thought of having an abdominal operation, consented "only if Father Prynne will hold me in his arms". It has been recorded that he once crawled on his knees into a blazing house to rescue a child, while the parents stood by helpless in the street. He married the daughter of Admiral Sir Thomas Fellowes, and had a large family. It included George Fellowes Prynne, the architect; Edward, the artist who decorated St.Peter's with the Stations of the Cross, now destroyed, alas, by bombing; Bernard, who was my favourite uncle because he sang songs at the piano, and offered me a cigarette when I was eleven; and a host of daughters, holiest of the holy, who with their knitting and needlework built churches for the Zulus - I hope the Zulus wee grateful. The pick of the bunch, my mother, married Richard James Bond, at that time Father Prynne's curate.

I was born at Keyham, Devonport, where my father had obtained the living of St.James, and we moved to Ashburton when I was four years old. Ahburton lies the heart of Devon, on the fringe of Dartmoor. It is an unprepossessing market town, with nothing beautiful about it in the way of architecture, except the fine church of St.Andrew. as large as a cathedral it seemed to me then. There my father ruled his flock much as Barrett of Wimpole Street ruled his family. There at the lectern would he break down, overcome with emotion, as he read the story of the Passion. I have inherited from him hat same embarrassing characteristic: I can never get through the National Anthem, or even "Once in Royal David's City" without choking. There too would he thump and bang the pulpit and, beneath the pulpit was the Vicarage pew where we, the family, Mother, four boys, one girl and the Governess, spent so much of so many Sundays: Sunday School 10 a.m.; Matins 11 a.m.; Catechism 3 p.m.; Evensong 6 p.m. There was another specially reserved pew, known as the Funeral Pew, and there would gather the close relatives of anyone who had died during the week. All attired in deepest black, there they sat through the entire morning service, with white handkerchiefs held up to their red faces to emphasise the depth of their sorrow. Generally "The Red Lion" would supply them with some comfort once "Church" was over. The Vicarage was large, cold and rembling. Family Prayers before breakfast was the rule, the boys half-dressed and shivering, the three servants in a row, their backs towards me. I can see them now as I knelt at my chair, their coarse linen uniforms, the worn soles of their uncleaned shoes. Their wages were £26, £18, and £12 per annum respectively, but they expected no more and they were happy. Cook was always angry of course, but Eliza the house parlourmaid was gay, and "a bit of a one" my elder brothers seemed to think, but I was too young to entertain such adolescent thoughts, though I did wonder what Father meant when I heard him say to Mother "Julia, we shall have to get rid of Eliza. She's too flighty." 

But we were a happy and homely family, and we loved our parents, and our home with its beautiful garden, its walnut and chestnut trees, and the field where we kept our donkey, Mr.Punch. I don't think Mr.Punch liked us very much. He never wanted to be caught for saddling. He had a disconcerting way of kicking sideways, and would throw me over his head alomst as many times as I succeeded in mounting him. Later I made friends with the butcher boy who delivered our meat, and he would let me ride his pony when turning it in at the end of the day. I had no saddle, only a halter, but a sharp smack on the buttocks and away we would go at a terrifying speed. However, I managed to stick on more successfully than I did with Mr.Punch.

The trips to the Moors were a great treat. Once a month my Father took the Sunday duty at that gem of a village, Buckland-in-the-Moor, surely one of the prettiest in all England, with its age-old church, its high pews, its creaking doors, its cracked ring of bells, and its villagers with their warm friendly Devonshire burr. These visits meant hiring a Wagonette. I liked to sit up on the box with the driver smoking his clay pipe, and watch the horses' hind quarters bouncing up and down, whilst now and then theybroke a far from obnoxious wind in my face; it was the aroma of the countryside, warm and fragrant. The hills were steep and we men would walk up them to ease the horses' burden, leaving the ladies to ride.

The town of Ashburton itself was, for me, full of life and mystery. There were the public houses with their red blinds drawn, even in daytime, and the noisy townsfolk within; places of sin and debauchery, so we were taught, and, like the Chapels, no place for Vicarage children. Then once a week was Market Day, when the streets were filled with wild, angry red cattle. Their big horns and frightened eyes terrified me as I scurried along the pavements to and from school. I tried not to see the cruel herdsmen beating the animals across their eyes and twisting their tails to make them move. On those nights, so they told me, farmers drank long and deep, their pockets bulging with money from the sale of their cattle, till they were helped onto their ponies and sent off insensible into the night. But one heard of no robberies or hold-ups. Occassionally, a farmer was found lying on some moorland track, with his pony waiting patiently to take him home, but his money would still be in his pocket. Had it been otherwise, no doubt my Father, who was an avid reader of the "Western Morning News", would have told us as he presided at the lunch table. This was a time when he expounded on the wickedness of the Liberals and the virtues of the Tories. Winston Churchill, I remember, was one of the wicked Liberals, and we used to sing a poltical rhyme which ended "With Mister Winston Churchill keeping goal for Wormwood Scrubs". Elections were very exciting to us in those days, and we Vicarage boys were very politically minded. So were some of the Town boys, and of a different way of thinking. We would wear large rosettes of blue and white with streamers attached, and the red and yellow boys - dirty liberals we called them, probably Chapel-going as well - would gang up against us, and a fight would ensue for the colours. What narrow minded prigs we must have been.

When I was six years old, and the Boer War was being waged, prompted by my Mother I wrote to Baden Powell, in the besieged town of Mafeking, expressing my sympathy, and the hope that his soldiers' heads didn't come off as easily as mine did, and offering the free advice that they could be stuck on again with match sticks. I well remember the excitement when I received a reply written in B.P.'s own hand, on khaki paper, in a small khaki envelope with the Mafeking stamp and postmark, thanking me for my letter and assuring me that his soldiers' heads did not come off easily, but that he would not forget about the match sticks. I only wish I had it now, but it got lost in later years.

 The time was now approaching for me to start upon an academic career, and I attended my first school, "Miss Laye's School for Young Ladies of Gentle Birth". Little boys of doubtful gentility were also admitted. I can see Miss Laye now as clearly as I did all those years ago, a spinster of seventy or more, so she seemed to me, with her bun and her bustle, and her steel spectacles on the end of her little red, button nose, which always held a drip, menacing, as she bent over my exercise book. It was here that I experienced my first humiliation. I had a penchant for tweeking the pigtails of the girls as I passed behind them while they sat at their desks. Inevitably I was caught in the act and, in front of the whole class, I was told in a squeaky voice to write out five times "I must not pull girls' hair".

But the school had its uses and was to provide me with my first opportunity of appearing in public. Miss Laye's Young Ladies were to give a dramatic performance of THE SLEEPING BEAUTY, and I was to play the part of "Fairy Crocus". For the first time I was to experience the pangs of jealousy. I had three lines to say, but Hugh Mortimer, the Grammer School Headmaster's son, who was to play "Fairy Rose", had a longer part - five lines in all. I saw through the plot at once. Miss Laye and the Headmaster were blood relations, cousins in fact, and I was only the Parson's son. It was a clear and blatant case of favouritism. But I need not have worried; my dear Mother was adet at making costumes, and the Headmaster's wife, poor dear, hadn't a clue. The result was that I appeared in a bewilderingly beautiful creation of yellow and green scalloped sateen, with a headgear the very image of a crocus, completewith stunted green stalk, while poor Fairy Rose had to make do with a miserable string of roses across his bare chest. My jealousy turned to pity, for Fairy Crocus won the day and was the talk of the town. I should add that Hugh and I became good friends during our Grammer School days, and, together with my brother Basil and Alan, Colonel Tucker's son, helped to form the first Boy Scout troop in Ashburton when Baden Powell started the movement, with Dartmoor as our happy hunting ground for camping and scouting. Hugh and Alan were to meet their fate in Flanders early in the war, while Basil and I were spared. Whenever I buy my poppy on Armistice Day I remember Fairy Rose and his paper flowers, and feel rather ashamed at my empty triumph.

Life at the Vicarage was not dull for me as a boy. Once a month there was Mother's "At Home" day, when the ladies of quality came to leave their cards on the brass tray in the hall and to take tea and cucumber sandwiches, lifting their veils nose high - if they remembered in time. Hiding in the laurel bushes leading to the front door I would watch them arrive, and listen to their sibilant wagging tongues as they left. Fifteen minutes, or at the most half an hour, was the orthodox time to stay. And on occasions the Squire, who rejoiced in the name of Bastard, would drive in from Buckland Court with his Bastard wife, in his beautiful brougham, immaculately clean and shiny, as were the Driver and Footman on the Box. They wore immaculately fitting white buckskin breeces, top boots, and blue frock coats, silver buttoned up to the stiff collars round the neck, and surmounted by even more immaculate top hats with cockades, their red faces and noses turned heavenwards. Whilst the Squire and his wife were received by Eliza, the Parlourmaid - no mere HOUSE Parlourmaid on this occasion - in clean starched cap and apron, I watched from my hideout in the laurels. The horses, a beautiful pair, with glistening harness on their glistening buttocks, were kept moving slowly round the gravel drive until the reappearance of the Squire, and of course his wife. I used to get funny feelings in my stomach on those grand occasions - later I was to know them as "butterflies" on First Nights - I suppose out of anxiety for my parents, that all might be well in the drawing room, that the fire was not being smoky and obstinate, or the gas mantles popping as they had a habit of doing. I hoped that Mother's blue-green teacups with the gold ivy leaf design were being duly admired, and that the bare patch in front of the piano was not too noticeable, for they were very grand people, the Bastards.

At Christmas, the Bastards, in common with other prominent and well-to-do parents in the surrounding district, would give a children's party, to which we were invited. These parties always posed a problem for my parents; there was not only the problem of suitable clothing for us all, a new frilly frock for my sister Edith perhaps, or dancing pumps or the boys, but the question of transport. We could hardly go on foot in our fine party clothes, and sometimes the distances were considerable, four or five miles maybe or even more. This meant hiring a Landau, and country parsons were not over-endowed with this world's goods. How vivid is one's memory of those dark winter evenings, the carriage wheels crunching against the hard country lanes, the candle-lamps casting their flickering light on the passing snow-covered hedges. Meanwhile in my blue velvet suit with knee breeches, buckled patent shoes and lace collar, I would be shaking with cold and nerves, for I hated those parties with all the beastly rich children. We would play "Hunt the Slipper" or "Musical Chairs", or perhaps it was a dance.. oh, horror of horrors! For this we would be given a little programme with pencil attached by a piece of silk cord. Advancing timidly upon my intended victims I would stammer politely, "p-p-p-please may I have the p-p-p-pleasure of a dance?" "Oh dear" would say the spoilt popular girl, "I have only number 7 or number 14 left". It was the choice of two evils, and I would settle for one of them. Not knowing the wretched girl's name, I would scribble in my programme "pink dress, blue sash", only to find when the time came that half the girls were wearing pink dresses and blue sashes. The great thing was to bag the prettiest girl for the Supper Dance, but I never succeeded in this, and was too tongue-tied anyway. And besides, who wanted to spoil the best part of the evening by making small-talk to a silly girl!

Among the entertaining diversions which life had to offer were the visits of missionaries and special preachers who frequently came to stay with us. We would have guesses before they arrived as to what they would look like, and a strange assortment they were. I suffered terribly as a boy from giggles, and being introduced to them with my sister and three brothers was an agonising affair. Oh, the agony of that suppressed giggle, under the glare of Father's stern face and bushy eyebrows - and yet, perhaps, there would be a fleeting glint in his eye or a twitch in the corner of his mouth as we came face to face with the visiting cleric, whom we had guessed as tall or fat, short or thin, clean-shaven or black-bearded. One dear little may with silver hair and a pink face was so short that he could not see to read the Lesson from the Bible on the Lectern, to remedy which my Father pompously carried over to him a hassock from his Vicar's stall and literally put the man on to it. The inevitable happened when he went up into the pulpit to preach. All we could see was a silvery top-knot moving about uncertainly, and then, what we dreaded most happened: Father followed with the hassock! Then there was Mr.Travenan with his grey-black scraggy beard. When he came down to breakfast, each and every one of us exploded in his face as we bid our "Good morning Mr.Trevenan", until finally my Father came once more to the rescue, "Mr.Trevenan, you have a burnt matchstick in your beard, go upstairs and comb it out". Best of all there was the Curate, without a vestige of humour in his make-up. One Sunday after lunch he showed us with pride his alarum watch, which, he explained in his choked voice, he could set at any time so that he would not be late for church. But that very evening it went off in the middle of his sermon, the sound decreasing and increasing as he grabbed and let go his surplice in his frantic efforts to drown it. The Vicarage Pew shook to its foundations with unsuppressed joy and delight, until the lot of us were shepherded out and home by an outraged governess.

This unfortunate Curate was the victim on another occasion. We were sitting in the drawing room after Sunday supper, Father in his armchair on one side of the fire, Mother in hers on the other. To our shame, we four boys were hogging the next best chairs available, with the Curate sitting upright in what was left. In came my sister, and no-one moved until Father, "Now boys, make room for Edith". A moment's pause, and then, without a word spoken, but with each one guessing the other's thoughts, pandemonium broke out. We rose from our chairs, flung open the French windows, carried the furniture on to the lawn, took down the pictures, rolled up the rugs and generally denuded the room. With my Father in fits, the tears streaming down Mother's face, my sister in hysterics, the poor Curate just sat there bewildered. He must have thought himself in a mad house; perhaps he was right. Years later this story was told in many a theatre dressing-room and restaurant as Leslie Banks and his family were entranced by it. "Make room for Edith" became almost a theatrical password.

Incidents in the life of our little town, both grave and gay, added to the spice of my childhood. There was the mad Colonel Beresford, who would attack anyone he saw riding a bicycle. We would court danger by riding as near to him as we dared, then dash away as he tore after us with raised stick and blood-curdling threats. Every morning he ordered a carriage to take him to the station to catch a train to Totnes. One morning he absent-mindedly forgot to take the carriage and walked. On arrival at the station, which was quite a short distance, he realised his omission, walked back to the house, got into the waiting carriage, drove to the station again, and of course missed the train.

Not so funny was the time when a strange man called at the Vicarage late one evening, carrying a stick with a heavy knob. By chance, my Father was in bed with a feverish cold, a most unusual occurence. The man, unable to see him, was seen walking unsteadily away shouting to anyone who was within earshot, "I couldn't see his Reverence; if I had I would have done 'im in". It turned out that the stranger was a friend of the local Bank Manager, who had committed suicide, and whose remains my Father rightly or wrongly - rightly in the eyes of the Church - had refused to bury in consecrated ground.

After graduating from Miss Laye's School for Young Ladies, my sister and I, together with my three brothers, went through a period of "home education" under a series of governesses who came and went like greased lightening. They would come to us bright, smiling spinsters in the best of health, only to depart months, or even weeks later broken, neurotic and heading for the nearest mental home. Perhaps we were unkind, but we never really meant to cause them unhappiness. Father put a stop to this by engaging a tough Tutor,by the name of Mr.Gee. Now Mr.Gee was a very different kettle of fish, and ruled us with an iron hand. He took his work seriously and saw to it that we did the same, more or less. I do remember that I used to spend most of my time on the floor "looking for my pencil" and tickling my brothers' ankles. But Mr.Gee was not above administering a little corporal punishment with a heavy pencil with which he would playfully rap the knuckles of our hands. Even at meals he was second in command only to my Father, and at nursery tea he was supreme. It was a rule, mainly on economic grounds I imagine, that we must have two pieces of bread and butter before being allowed any cake or jam. We would try to circumvent this by asking in our most engaging manner "Will you please pass the cake?" Then would come the inevitable query from Mr.Gee in measured, deep tones, "Have you had two pieces of bread and butter? Here you are", and bread and butter it was. This phrase became so familiar that that we used to join in the chorus altogether "Here you are", and Mr.Gee, to his credit, used to enjoy the joke with us.

But these halcyon days were soon to end. My two elder brothers were destined for Kelly College, Tavistock, my sister for Plymouth High School, and my brother Basil and I for the local Grammar School,which was founded by Bishop Stapleton in 1314, and was famous as being the oldest grammar school in the country. The Chapel of St.Lawrence, once a chantry of the Guild of Woolworkers, with its ancient tower and spire is still, I believe, preserved as an historical building. As I remember, the accomodation was very adequate, and apart from the two main classrooms and a third in the tower, there was a playground, a carpenter's shop, where we were initiated into the mysteries of how to plane a piece of wood, and a blacksmith's shop with a real fire and hand-worked bellows, where we learned to straighten an iron bar on the anvil, and even to make a horse-shoe. There was also a large kitchen garden belonging to the school at the top of East Street, where we had to plant potatoes, weed the paths, protect the strawberry beds from intruding birds, and generally supply vegetables for the Headmaster and the rest of his staff. Last but not least, there ws an excellent playing-field just outside the town. This was indeed a corner of Heaven, where we spent many happy hours and played our first games of cricket and football. All this together with the not-so-pleasant indoor classes comprised a useful and comprehensive eduation.

The scholars were mainly sons of tradesmen and business men, a cut above the local Board-School. Oh yes! But they were a pretty tough collection, and after the cosy private lessons at the Vicarage they gave us our first taste of "life in the raw". The discipline was strict, and corporal punishment was the order of the day. This took the form of caning on the hand, three strokes on each being the maximum, and generally the minimum. Only the Headmaster was allowed to administer these, the assistants having to content themselves with boxing the ears or the imposition of innumerable lines. But the Headmaster was a Welshman with a hot and fiery temper, and those six strokes could cause much pain and quite a lot of physical damage. I managed to escape such punishment as a rule, but my brother Basil was always in trouble and suffered cruelly from the vicious strokes. Frequently he would come home with his hands bleeding, and my Mother would sooth and tend the open wounds across his palms. Aft much pleading from her, my Father did eventually write to the Head, suggesting that he deal less severely with his boy. What an uproar there would have been today at such treatment; what headlines in the papers and cases in court. More's the pity, for I still believe in the old maxim, "Spare the rod and spoil the child". But the time was approaching for Basil to go to Public School: King's College, Taunton. My parents and I went down to the station to see him depart. He sobbed bitterly as the little branch-line train puffed importantly on its way. Though I remained dry-eyed, it was a sad day for me when I lost my school-mate, friend and brother, but I was consoled with the promise that I should follow him to Taunton in a year or so, if, and it was a big IF, funds permitted.