The Scottish Rep. season came to an end and I returned to London, but it had been a lucky break for me, as it brought me into close contact with "Binkie" Beaumont and the all-powerful H.M.Tennent organisation. Shortly after my return, Binkie offered me a part in NO TIME FOR COMEDY, with Rex Harrison, Diana Wynyard, Lilli Palmer, Elisabeth Welch and Arthur Macrae - a really slap-up West End production, with Harold French as producer. This was heaven indeed. A pre-London tour was to be followed by an opening at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, for me, then as now, the premier West End Theatre.
We travelled up to Blackpool to open there on Christmas Day, 1940. The train was crowded, and during the war it was not possible to reserve compartments, as theatrical companies normally do. Diana and Lilli squeezed their way through the crowded corridor to the Guard's Van in search of some sort of privacy, to go through their words. They went through a scene concerning Diana's stage husband which culminated with Diana declaiming with much dramatic force in her clear penetrating voice, "Sleep with him if you must, but for Heaven's sake don't ruin his style." At that moment they became conscious of the guard, sitting in his little seat, red in the face, fascinated and maybe shocked. No doubt he thought he was listening to a slice of real life.
As we drove back to our hotel at Lytham St.Anne's after the opening night, we could see and hear Liverpool being heavily bombed in one of the early raids. During this pre-London tour we all stayed together in the same hotel, with a private sitting-room, where, after supper, with the lights out and before a cosy fire, Liz Welch would sing negro spirituals to us. But I confess that I sometimes felt lonely and ill at ease with my more sophisticated colleagues, talking interminably about their favourite haunts abroad, their hotels and restaurants and maitres d'hotels, of which I knew nothing. Arthur Macrae, the acme of sophistication, Diana with her dry reminiscences, the "debunking" and often vulgar interjections of Rex Harrison, combined with the mid-European whimperings of Lilli Palmer, left me way out of the picture, and I felt very much the country boy of my youth.
On the last night of the tour, when we were supping at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, Diana made a fatal remark, "Haven't we been lucky? Not once throughout this tour have we been troubled with raids." At that moment a waiter appeared in panic. "Will you please leave the table, they are bombing the station."
The nightly raids had now begun in earnest, and we opened at the Haymarket to the sound of sirens. Garlands Hotel, in Suffolk Street next to our Stage Door, was demolished, and yet another bomb later fell on its ruins, blowing out the windows of our dressing rooms. But the last, and worst, raid came in May 1941. After a broken night, with little sleep, I emerged from my apartment in Park West to walk to the theatre. We had a Matinee. New Oxford Street had been badly blitzed; some buildings were burning fiercely, and Stone's Chop House, where Angela and I had lunched the day before, was flattened. I thought, "What use going on? The Haymarket must have caught it this time". Jermyn Street was indeed in flames, but the Haymarket was intact. We had a good Matinee, taking £155 I remember,whilst outside, all around us, firemen were busy putting out fires and erecting barricades against un-exploded bombs, and the Civil Defence boys were still dealing with casualties - dead and injured.
After the Matinee, Arthur Macrae and I wandered along Jermyn Street to have a look at Hawes and Curtis, the Tailors, where I had two suits under construction. The shop was badly shattered, though still standing. When, later, I paid another visit to enquire about the suits, I was told by the head tailor that they were quite alright - dusty but intact.
After a twelve month run, NO TIME FOR COMEDY had to finish, as Rex Harrison had decided it was time he joined the R.A.F. I went to see him in his dressing room one evening after the show to find him trying on his uniform. Passing his hand across his left breast, he said to me, "I say, Fitzy old boy, looks a bit bare doesn't it? Do you think I could persuade them to sew on a few ribbons?"!
Shortly before this, Angela and I had decided that the time was right for us to get married. Her father, Prebendary P.T.R.Kirk, was dead against the whole idea, and who shall blame him? As he saw it, I was just a penniless actor, about to be divorced, approaching middle age - a far from suitable match for his young and beautiful daughter, much sought after by younger men of good position. Her mother, on the other hand, her loyalties divided between her husband and her daughter, decided to stand by us and see the matter through. It must have been a very difficult decision for her to make, and she too must have had grave doubts about the wisdom of it, but for her daughter's sake she made her brave decision. Perhaps she knew Angela well enough to realise that she would go through with it in spite of any opposition, for, like her father, she had a strong will of her own. Mrs.Kirk, Lulu as we called her, earned my undying gratitude, and later I am sure that she felt herself well repaid by the love and affection of her four grandchildren and, of course, our two selves.
Angela and I were married on February 21st, 1942, at Chelsea Registry Office, with a Church Ceremony afterwards at St.Ethelburga's, Bishopsgate. My old friend Timothy Eden acted as my best man. We had taken and furnished a delightful flat on the top floor of Whitelands House in the King's Road, Chelsea, and Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer were our first supper guests.
The next important event in my career was to be a play by Patrick Hamilton - THE DUKE IN DARKNESS - with Leslie Banks, Michael Redgrave, Hugh Burden and myself, directed by Michael Redgrave. It was the first time I had worked with Leslie, and I soon became great friends with him and his charming family. During rehearsals he and I saw much of each other, and often went to the Savoy Grill for supper. During the run of the play, and indeed, after it finished, Leslie came to stay with me at Whitelands. Angela had gone on tour with Barry K.Barnes and Diana Chuchill in STRANGER'S ROAD, and Leslie, whose family were living at Oxford, went home for weekends. Late one night, coming out of Sloane Square Station, we saw a Chelsea Pensioner, the worse for wear, reeling about in the road. I saw Leslie making steps in his direction. I said, "Come on Leslie, he'll be alright". But not a bit of it. "No, we can't leave him; let's get him back to the Hospital". We each took an arm, and started towards the Chelsea Hospital. He was deadweight, and we were tired. We got as far as the Duke of York's Barracks and then sank down exhausted on the low wall which separates the Barrack Square from the pavement. What next? Taxis were practically non-existent at that hour in the black-out. But we were in luck. A taxi drew up to drop someone on the opposite side of the road. I rushed across. The driver had another booking, but I explained our plight, and he promised to come back for us. Some fifteen minutes later he proved to be a man of his word. We got the old drunk back to the Hospital Guard Room. The Sergeant came out, "Oh, it's you again is it? Go on, get inside! Sorry gents, but he does this nearly every night." I wished Leslie were not so humane! He always was one for helping a lame dog. His spirit of fun was ridiculous and infectious. When I first met him he was at the height of his career, a fine actor, popular with everyone in the profession and in society. A strict disciplinarian in his work, he was intolerant of bad manners, bad actors, slackness, cant and humbug. He worked unceasingly was the theatre which he loved. Quickly roused by injustice or unfair criticism, he would boil over with rage at what he considered an uncharitable remark by an outsider about his fellow artists. A cringing Clergyman once asked him, "Tell me Mr.Banks, how are the morals on the Stage?" Came the quick, angry retort, "Fine, how are they in the Church?" An angry man, like my other friend, Tim Eden, he had the heart of a child, and would revel in schoolboy pranks, and the simplest jokes. Many stories have been told about him, and many were told by himself. Once, in the Third Act of GOODBYE MR.CHIPS, he was sitting in his armchair preparing for his death scene, when a voice from the Stalls was heard to say in a loud whisper, "He is now about to die". He "died" with scarcely suppresed chuckles coming from somewhere inside him.
In THE DUKE IN DARKNESS, Leslie played the good Duke, whilst I played the wicked Duke of Lammore. He was being held prisoner by me in a dungeon, and I had heard rumours that he was planning to escape by feigning blindness, so I decided to visit him. We were rehearsing this scene one morning after a late night at the Savoy, during which we had become involved with dear Robert Newton, in an advanced state of intoxification. On my entrance, I had to approach very close to Leslie, and stare hard into his eyes, so close that we were almost touching noses. The dialogue ran, "How are you my dear Duke, how are you, my dear sir; how do you find yourself?", to which he replied, "I am well, I thank you, and you?" I then responded "Well enough, well enough; a little tired perhaps, I've been travelling all night you see." At this point the wicked gleam in Leslie's eye was unmistakable; he was up to no good. He made the reply, "And drinking too I daresay", and then added "With Bob Newton". The result was inevitable; we both collapsed into helpless hysterics. It was not so funny for Michael Redgrave, who was taking his work of directing, naturally, very seriously. That morning we could not go on rehearsing the scene. The thought occured to me, as no doubt it did to Leslie, how we were ever going to face up to it again? I knew my weakness, that the slightest thing could send me off into a paroxism of helpless giggles, and this was one of the highlights of this very dramatic play. If I couldn't control myself, one of us would have to give up the part, and it would not be Leslie. To both our credits, neither of us ever batted an eyelid again, at rehearsal or during the entire run of the play. We never even spoke of it to each other.
During this same scene, when I was suspecting the Duke of feigning blindness, I had to pick up a poker and hold it into the open fire, removing it when it was red-hot, and pass it close to his face, across his supposedly blind eyes. Failing to get any reaction from the "blind" Duke, I would then carry the poker across the stage and, gradually, to the fascination of the audience, it lost its red-hot glow and returned to cold blackness. This amazing prop was due to the inventive imagination of the proper master, and was created by the insertion of an electrical device which responded to the pressure of my thumb, increasing or decreasing the amount of glow visible. It was the subject, one evening, of a great compliment paid unwittingly to its creator. I was supping with a doctor and some friends after the show. As I was about to leave, the doctor took me aside, and said in a guarded whisper, "I think you should be very careful when you wave that red-hot poker across Mr.Banks' face. One false move on your part, and you might do him a serious injury." I nodded understandingly, and, putting on a grave face, I thanked him for his professional advice.
We opened a pre-London tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. The play was a great success. We all stayed at the Turk's Head, a whole crowd of us including Bill Linnit, who was presenting the play, Phil Algar, Jerry Clifton and others. We were all in the gayest of moods, staying up into the small hours, helping the night porter clean the shoes, bribing him to put up "just one more bottle", for drink was rationed and in short supply. When we left, he remarked, "That was the worst week I've known since Nervo and Knox were here in Pantomime"!
We played five weeks in the Provinces to packed houses, before coming to the St.James' Theatre in London. There we had a disappointment; the notices were indifferent, the business poor, and the play closed down after only two months. We blamed the theatre, being far too off the beaten track for people to find in the black-out. Michael Redgrave had begun rehearsing A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, which he was to bring to the St.James' when we finished. Some of us scoffingly remarked, "A month in the Country and a Week at the St.James'". We were wrong. A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY lasted for one solid year, in that same theatre which we had blamed for our failure. There followed for us a post-London tour of five weeks, with Mervyn Johns taking over Michael's part. Again we played to packed business. What the answer was we could not fathom, as we had all thought the play a better proposition for London than for the Provinces. How wrong one can be in this business.
On December 30th, 1943, our first child, Julia was born. She came gracefully into the world and has remained graceful ever since. She was christened at St.Peter's, Eaton Square, and Timothy Eden and Leslie Banks were her godfathers. And now I must make further reference to the Reverend Grandfather, who christened her.
Paul Thomas Radford-Rowe Kirk, M.A. of Trinity College, Dublin; Prebendary Emeritus of St.Paul's; Director General of the Industrial Christian Fellowship; erstwhile Vicar of Christ Church, Westminster; Priest-in-Charge of St.Peter's Eaton Square, was an Irishman who possessed many of the Irishman's virtues, and no doubt, some of his faults. An Irish rebel, of great strength of character, he defied the world, and though his judgement may sometimes have been at fault, it was his own judgement, and none could sway him. He bowed his knee to no one save his God. On the several occasions that he had, as Vicar of St.Peter's, to receive Royalty, he would do so graciously, but with a poker straight back, which gave the impression that it was they who were being presented to him.
As Vicar of Christ Church, Westminster, he was a popular figure with Bishops attending Conferences at Church House. At his Vicarage, No.1, The Broadway, they found his hospitality, assisted by his gracious and vivacious wife and two charming daughters, Pauline and Angela, most welcome on many occasions. But tragedy was in the air, castin its ugly shadow over Church and Vicarage. One terrible night both were destroyed by fire caused by incendiaries, and seven firemen perished, falling from the burning roof of the Church into the furnace below. Kirk was heart-broken; he had lavished so much of his life's work on what now lay in ruins.
That same night, the Reverend Austin Thompson, Vicar of St.Peter's, Eaton Square, was killed by a bomb as he emerged from the crypt of his Church. Next day the Bishop of London called on Kirk. He said, "You have lost a Church, I have lost a priest. Will you please take charge of St.Peter's?"
Kirk transferred his great energy without delay, and maintaned it during the next ten years until his retirement. After he and I were reconciled, I served on the Church Council, along with Andrew Cruickshank and Leslie French. Cruickshank and I, on occasions, marched up the aisle together after handing the Plate round, and on one Patronal Festival, the three of us, with the help of Angela, performed a play about St.Peter's, in the Church. I don't think the Play, or we, were very good,and I'm glad there were no critics in front, except of course the Parishioners, and they can be tough!
As I have already said, when a cloud appeared on Kirk's horizon in the shape of a not-so-young, divorced, relatively unknown actor who threatened to entice away his attractive and popular daughter, his reaction was quick and incisive. He would have none of it. The door of No.1 The Broadway was slammed hard shut, not only by Kirk on the inside, but by his equally strong-willed daughter on the outside. "But" as he said later, "She took the key with her!" Some years later, the key was to take the shape of Julia, her first-born, but until this time father and daughter were completely estranged, neither meeting, speaking or communicating in any way. When there came to the ears of this stubborn Irishman the news that he was about to become a grandfather, he made his great gesture, which must have cost him dear. He wrote asking that the feud might end, taking all the blame on his own shoulders, which was grossly unfair of course, for looking back on it all, one can see how much there was to be said on his side. He said, "If you will agree to this, I would like you to have lunch. Perhaps you will telephone me." Feeling the size of Alice after drinking from the bottle, I telephoned my gratitude and thanks. Came the roaring full throated Irish voice, "Good, well now about lunch....I can offer you the choice of two Clubs, the Athenaeum or the United Hunts; I think you would prefer the United Hunts."
I arrived there at the appointed time to find him dancing excitedly on the Club steps. "Come on now, you must have a drink, what's your tipple?" I said "Whisky". He replied, with what I thought was a touch of relief, "Ah! You're a man after my own heart". Perhaps, knowing nothing about me, he was afraid I would ask for a lemonade, which might have caused another and longer estrangement! We arrived at the bar, "Two whiskies, and make 'em large ones." Peace and lasting friendship were sealed in some of the best whiskies I have ever tasted. From then on we became good friends.
Prebendary Kirk's great life work was the Industrial Christian Fellowship, for which he worked for so many years as Director General. He was untiring in his demands for money to keep it going. He would call personally on the great business tycoons, insisting on an interview. "Well Mr.Kirk, and what can I do for you?" "Ach! It's not what you can do for me, it's what I can do for you. I can get you the Kingdom of Heaven, but its going to cost you somethin'. Now get out your cheque book." And he would come away with handsome sums for the I.C.F.
Intolerant, moody, of untiring energy, he had few friends, his closest being Studdart Kennedy and Archbishop Temple. But he had a host of followers, who would sit at his feet, be it at a public meeting, in the pulpit, or at the Altar, where he would "bend the knee" to the God he so passionately believed in, and to Whose Service he devoted his life. Louisa Deborah, his wife, was in some respects the complete opposite in temperament, if not in character; gay, cheerful in spite of crippling arthritis, she made friends wherever she went, even a fourpenny bus ride could lead to a Christmas Card or a present. She could have taught even the Prophet Job a lesson in patience and tolerance.
And so we say farewell to the Reverend Kirk, who was created Prebendary Emeritus of St.Paul's on his retirement. He died in Tunbridge Wells, a worn out old man, but his great love, the I.C.F., still goes on. It seems strange that no-one up to now has written a biography of this great and fascinating man.
The coming of our daughter Julia, into the world, coincided with my playing the Devil, MR.BOLFRY, in the play of that name by James Bridie, with Alastair Sim and Sophie Stewart, at the Playhouse Theatre in Charing Cross. The Press made much play of the event with such captions as "The Devil has a Baby", "All Very Devilish", and such like. One is often asked, "Which is your favourite part?" It is always difficult to answer this, but certainly "Mr.Bolfry" ranks very high in my estimation. It is as near a perfect acting part as any actor could wish for. He makes his entrance into the Scottish Manse through an impressive curtain of "hell fire" flames, immaculately dressed, with top hat and umbrella, and announces to the assembled little company of devil-raisers, in a very common-place manner, "Good evening everyone, what dreadful weather we are having", and after a long and brilliantly witty harangue, during which he drinks an entire bottle of the Minister's best whisky, and in which he tries to convert them to his point of view, he makes his spectacular exit in a similar manner, but leaving the umbrella behind. When later in the play the umbrella is spotted by one of the characters, who says, "Look, he's left his umbrella behind," the umbrella makes a stately exit without any apparent human aid.
The "doodle bugs" were being particularly tiresome at this time, and one night, to the immense delight of the audience, Mr.Bolfrey's entrance and exit coincided with the sirens announcing the "Alert" and the "All Clear". After the run at the Playhouse,we did a prolonged tour of the R.A.F. Camps, and often one of the men would come up to me and say, "I am a good Christian, but you have shaken my faith with your devilish good arguments", or words to that effect. This was a fine tribute to the author, James Bridie, one of the most delightful men it has been my privilege to meet; a great intellectual, full of humour and boyish spirit. One day a group of us were discussing the relative virtues of Scotch and Irish Whisky. I turned to Bridie and said, "You, being a Scotsman, probably don't care for Irish Whisky". He looked at me over his glasses and said with much fervour, "I am PASSIONATELY fond of ANY whisky".
One strange thing happened during a performance at the Playhouse. I had settled down in the Minister's most comfortable armchair, with the whisky bottle on a table at my side, when I inadvertently knocked it over. It fell to the floor and broke - a think I have never known a whisky bottle to do before or since. It was a most important prop, as I had most carefully rehearsed this bit of business, taking swigs on carefully selected cues. There was not a second bottle to be had, so I had to play the scene without one. It was as much as I could do to get through the scene without drying up, so closely were the words interwoven with the business. During rehearsals an actor associates a particular word or speech with a certain stage move or action. The memory is a tricky piece of mechanism, and relies very much on association of ideas. I thoght of Martin Harvey's advice, "Always see to the props you are going to use, yourself". I should have seen that there was another bottle in the cupboard.
Of course, there is the case of the actor whose very conscienciousness led to his downfall. He was required to commit suicide on stage, by holding the revolver up against his temple. This necessitated the firing by the A.S.M., off stage, of a revolver at the identical moment. The actor, knowing the frailty of human nature, and that even the best A.S.M.'s can have their off-moments, carried a small bottle, presumably of poison, in his pocket. Came the night when he pointed the revolver at his temple, but no shot came from the wings. This was his moment. Throwing the revolver away, he took the poison...As he fell to the floor, a shot rang out from the prompt corner. It was clearly a case of "better never than late"!
One day, I went into the Green Room Club to find a poster on the Notice Board appealing for recruits for the Admiralty Arch Section of the Home Guard. I decided that it was time I got back into uniform, for part-time duties, so I went along to offer my services. I found myself amongst a collection of mostly elderly aristocrats - Peers, Baronets, retired Generals with rows of medals - with Headquarters, suitably, at Carlton House Terrace. Our sole duty appeared to be to guard the Admiralty Arch against advancing pedestrians, which meant, in effect, to request them politely but firmly to keep to the side walk, and not use the road. What effect this was to have on winning the War, I never found out. I ventured to suggest that a notice, "Pedestrians, keep to the sidewalk" might be quite effective, but this was heavily frowned on. Thier duties, not arduous, afforded these Gentlemen, when off duty, an opportunity of reminiscing back to their more active service in the First War, or Boer War, or even the Matabele Incident!
One distinguished old General, coming off guard, accidentally discharged his rifle in the act of cleaning it, and the bullet struck the sacred Admiralty Arch. In shame he cried, "And to think that I was a Gunnery expert". When someone unkindly suggested that he might have killed Winston Churchill, who frequently used the Arch to get from one office to another, he said quietly, "If I had, I would have shot myself".
Later on, a Home Guard Captain, Major Money, expressed a wish to start an Actors' Home Guard Section. He found immediate support from a dozen or so actors, all I believe Members of the Green Room. We were a merry bunch, including Frank Cellier, Naunton Wayne, Julian Mitchell, Michael Shepley, Ronald Ward, Lloyd Pearson, Cameron Hall, Haddon Mason, Osmund Wilson and Charles Lamb. Our Sergeant was Frank Cellier, a very fine actor, if not exactly cut out for a soldier's life! Julian Mitchell was an ex-Sergeant Major from the last War, and we were not allowed to forget it; he viewed with watery eyes and muttered oaths the shortcomings of his fellow Home Guardsmen! Ronald Ward was much in demand at that time as one of our leading West End Juveniles, but definitely did not carry a Field Marshall's baton in his haversack, in fact he was completely bewildered by the whole business. Naunton Wayne, the best compere in London, or anywhere else for that matter, managed to look immaculate even in his coarse and ill-fitting uniform. Charles Lamb achieved distinction when marching by swinging his left arm out as he advanced his left leg, and his right arm as he advanced his right leg. This, of course, is impossible, but he managed it! For the second time in two World Wars, I wore a L/Cpl's stripe on my left arm, and acted as Sergeant Cellier's right hand man.
We had Headquarters in Elvaston Street, Westminster, opposite the "Barley Mow", and we drilled in Vincent Square. We tried to take it all very seriously, but sometimes our sense of humour got the better of us. None of us were young, and we mostly suffered from middle-aged spread, short wind, corns and indigestion. We had a field gun all to ourselves - a kind of mini-gun, which we trundled along to Vincent Square and trundled back again. We decided one day to take it to pieces, which we did, but after much quarrelling, we had to get a Regular Gunner to put it together again! We shot .22 rifles at a miniture range in Regent Street, when much to my surprise I scored a possible. The Sergeant held up my card for the rest of the squad to see. Then Ronnie Ward scored a bull, and nearly fainted with excitement; "I've scored a bull; I've scored a bull!" We went to Bisley and shot at 500 yards with short sharp rushes up to100 yards, wearing gas masks; and this on a hot Sunday morning in June. Poor Lloyd Pearson was not the only one nearly to pass out.
But it was all getting too much, not only for us, but for our Adjutant, Major Money, who could not bear to see his actors parading in the hot sun, rehearsing in the rain, risking their lives at Bisley. He decided to make us into an "Intelligence Section". We were to meet two or three times a week, mornings only, at the Colonel's Headquarters in Meadows Street, to consider the vital problem of the defence of the Empire, and in particular London, embracing Buckingham Palace, the War Office, the Admiralty, 10 Downing Street, and so on. This was really big importance. Imaginary rows of medals appeared on our uniforms, as we sat round a large conference table examining maps of the Inner Defences.
The whole of London was zoned in different colours. Zone A Blue, B Yellow, C Green, D Red, and so on. "So you see, Gentlemen", explained Major Money, "If A Zone is hard pressed, you could bring up reinforcements from the Green or Red Zones." We nodded wisely. But not so Private ex-Sergeant Major Julian Mitchell. "Just a minute Major!" "Yes, Private Mitchell, what is it?" "What happens if you're colour blind?" A horrid hush! "Well, Private Mitchell, strictly speaking you shouldn't be colour blind in Intelligence", came the reply. "But I AM colour blind. Can't tell one bloody colour from another." We hid our heads in shame and left the Conference Table! On another occasion, for a time at least, London was left defenceless. A night exercise on a big scale was arranged for the whole of the London Area. Our "Intelligence Section" was detailed to bring to H.Q. important messages as they arrived. Ronnie Ward rushed into the C.O.'s office and saluted. "Important message just received, Sir." "Very well, read it to me." He read, "Flowers being dropped over London". The Colonel looked grave, and turned to the Adjutant. "What do you think? Flowers. Probably some new secret weapon. Here, let me see it. Flowers? Flares you fool, flares!"
For one of those night exercises, the Colonel said to Frank Cellier, "You will be my Aide de Camp. Follow me closely wherever I go. And, er, better carry a Tommy Gun under your arm...looks good, you know...for security". Sergeant Cellier followed the Colonel, as instructed, everywhere, with his gun tucked underneath his arm, all through the exercise, and finally up the flight of iron steps to the to the Colonel's office. The Colonel seemed to have forgotten him..but Cellier was not one to abandon his post. As last, as the Colonel entered his office, he turned round, "Oh, Sergeant Cellier! Thank you, that will be all." Frank summoned all his energy, raised his right arm in a tremendous salute, and thereby released the Tommy Gun which clattered slowly and noisily to the bottom of the steps. Said the Colonel, with a sweet smile, "Good night Sergeant, get some sleep. Oh, and er, I think you dropped something, better retrieve that, eh?" As Frank told us next day, "He wasn't a bit angry. Just said "get some some sleep" and wished me good night. Such a nice man"!
But tougher times were ahead. A Commando Sergeant was detailed to train with us in more primitive forms of warfare. "In case of enemy landing by parachute in the heart of London, you must have Commando training. You must learn how to break a man's arm or leg, the vulnerable parts of the body, where you plan to plant a knife. You will wear stockingette masks, black your hands, learn how to swarm up poles, cross hand over hand on a rope from one river bank to the other". The Sergeant paused, looked round to see what effect he was making; then Frank said drily, "Well, Sergeant, this opens up a new vista." I was a bit worried about Frank, well over the age for serving in any such capacity. He worked hard at his Home Guard training, and took it all very much to heart. At the same time he was also playing an exhausting part in the long-running QUIET WEEKEND at Wyndham's Theatre. I advised him more than once to give up the Home Guard.
Frank was living at the Gateways in Chelsea, small two-storied houses that looked as if they might collapse at the mere sound of a falling bomb, but he was always welcome at our flat close by in Whitelands House, a big concrete block with some chance of survival. We lived on the top floor with a wonderful panoramic view, and during a raid we would see as many as seven or eight doodle bugs in the sky at the same time, all coming in our direction. If the raids were bad, we would sleep on the fourth floor, by the lifts, in comparitive security. Angela had gone, under protest, to the country with Julia. One tiresome night I was in bed when Frank arrived. "Fitz, I think we should go down to the fourth floor." I told him I was too tired and couldn't be bothered, so off he went. At about 3 a.m. a rather different Frank burst into my room in high spirits. "Pooh bah, pooh bah, I met a man on the fourth floor with a bottle of whisky. I'm not frightened any more. Go away you silly things; pooh bah!"
One day, we were practicing throwing dummy hand grenades. Frank could not get the hang of it; the harder he tried to put distance between the loathsome thing and himself, the more it would fall, not the required thirty or forty yards away, but at his feet. The Sergeant called out, "Sergeant Cellier, you'll have to do better than that; next week you will be throwing live grandes". This was the breaking point - too much of a "new vista" indeed. A letter from his doctor informed Major Money that Home Guard duties were putting too much strain on Mr.Cellier; he had advised him to devote his energies to the theatre. Thus ended a noble period of sheer Patriotism. Frank hated bombs, the blackouts, and violence in any form. An actor of great taste and talent, he was more sensitive than many to the brutal side or human nature.
Soon after the war, his health began to fail. During the run of THE WINSLOW BOY he retired from the cast for three months rest, and particularly asked that I should take over during his absence. He died when the play was about to go to New York. I always think that the long run of QUIET WEEKEND, plus the added strain of his Home Guard duties, contributed towards his untimely death. Dear brave Frank, I salute your memory.
It was at about this time that I was to become involved in two "miracle" pictures. I refer to Noel Coward's IN WHICH WE SERVE, and SAN DEMETRIO, LONDON - both sea epics, and both made during the war when no sea location was possible.
My involvement in the Coward picture was not a big one, but I have good cause to remember it. Returning home one Sunday evening from an exhausting day of Home Guard exercise, in my ill-fitting uniform, with my Lance Corporal's stripe, I was told that "Binkie" Beaumont was on the phone. Could I possibly go to Denham the next day for one day's shooting on Noel Coward's film IN WHICH WE SERVE, to play the part of a Colonel of the Battalion of Guards returning to England from Dunkirk. "Noel 'specially wants you to do it, as he thinks you are the epitome of the British Army"! I explained that I was playing in Oxford in the evening, in a play called OLD MASTER with Alastair Sim, and the curtain rose at 7:30 p.m. I was assured that I could leave the set not later than 5:30 and that a fast car would be ready to take me to Oxford. I agreed, and was told to catch the 7 a.m. train from Marylebone next morning. Whilst sitting on the train, waiting for it to start, I heard the unmistakeable crunch of Army boots on the platform, and presently the shattering voice of the R.S.M., "Battalion, HALT". With two quick angry stamps of their heavy boots, they halted like one man. These were "my men" on their way to Denham, and I was to be their Colonel! I dreaded the moment when I would have to show myself. What would they think of me? Would they not sense at once that I was no Guards Colonel, but a Lance-Corporal in the Home Guard? When I came to try on the uniform which had been provided for me, I knew for certain what they would think. It must have been the only officer's uniform in the country not on active service. It was not fit for any service. The Major in charge of the Guards showed immediate concern, and he and the other officers fussed around me, trying to smarten me up a bit, offering me their equipment, a gas mask, a water bottle, etc. The men were too well disciplined to snigger, or, more likely, to shed a tear, which I felt like doing myself. The only acting I was called upon to do was a scene on the bridge of the destroyer with Noel Coward on the way back from Dunkirk in which he offered me a cup of elevenses. "By Jove, Commander, this is jolly good, what is it?" To which Coward replied, "Just plain Bovril and Sherry". "By Jove," says I, "I must try this on them in the Mess when I get home!" "Plain Bovril and Sherry" it always was thereafter on occasions when we met.
But time was getting on, and I had another problem: to get to the theatre at Oxford in time for the Show. The 5:30 deadline for me to leave the studio arrived. I declared my intention of going. "Just one more take" was the plea, with the assurance that the car was ready for me and that a hand-picked driver would get me there in three-quarters of an hour. Distracted, I eventually got away at 6 p.m. and rushed to the car. The driver was an elderly man and completely indifferent. "I can't do more than thirty; it's a built-up area most of the way" was his opening gambit. Twenty miles out of Oxford, the car broke down, my watch showing 6:45 p.m.
For fully fifteen minutes I tried to hitch a lift, but nothing would stop for me. Finally, a lorry drew up, I told the driver my plight, he said "Jump up", and off we went, he risking a summons, me not caring, thinking of those anxious actors waiting and wondering where I was. Outside Oxford the driver drew up t put me down. "I don't go into Oxford, but take the bypass here". I begged and implored him, and he relented and drove me at speed into the town and up to the very Stage Door. I gave him what money I had, and called down blessings on his head. Anxious faces were waiting outside the Stage Door, including poor Alastair. The curtain rose ten minutes late only, and I was the coolest customer on stage. But I was angry with the film people who were responsible for not keeping their word to let me leave in good time and had caused so much concern to my fellow actors. This was not the first time that I had felt resentment at the superior attitude of the all-powerful film world towards the live theatre. Film producers can be a ruthless lot, caring nothing about anybody or anything except their film. It taught me a lesson; "Just one more take"? No. Never again, when the hour agreed upon for me to leave the studio arrived.
Like IN WHICH WE SERVE, SAN DEMETRIO, LONDON, was a sea picture. It was the real life story of the oil tanker "San Demetrio", shelled and set ablaze by the German pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" in the famous Jervis Bay action of November 1940. Abandoned for lost by her crew, she was sighted again two days later, and reboarded by sixteen survivors. They fought the flames to a standstill and performed the miracle of sailing her back into the mouth of the Clyde with her petrol cargo practically intact; a sea voyage of nine hundred miles performed with the sole help of a school atlas. The Press were unanimous in their praise of the film, the accent always being on its authenticity and realism. After its release, the Red Cross reported a spurt in the Merchant Navy comforts - socks, sweaters, and scarves - that came pouring in.
Of course, no sea location was possible, and from beginning to end we never caught a glimpse of the ocean waves. What could have inspired Michael Balcon and his chief lieutenants Charles Frend and Robert Hamer to attempt this apparently impossible task? To quote a Press notice, "One 8,000 ton oiltanker into a modest film studio beside Ealing Green won't go. So Michael Balcon handed to Roy Kellino, one of the world's most able trick shot experts, the job of filming in a tank long shots of the shelling of the vessel and her subsequent burning." In off moments from shooting, I was able to watch some of these miracles being performed in the tank studio.
But the whole making of the film seemed to me miraculous. Once more I found myself on a studio ship rocking rhythmically to a background of seascape. The rockers, borrowed from Denham Studios, were those which had already brought me back on the destroyer from Dunkirk. Along each side of the studio, where the essential part of the tanker had been built, were huge tanks holding gallons of water ready to be tipped on to the ship. The force of one of them was enough to break the back of any actor who happened to be at the receiving end. But we had a rough enough time without that. The last order before each shot was "Wet the actors!", when the firemen would play their hoses on those concerned. At first, we were rewarded for this with an issue of rum, but this, proving too popular, was soon replaced with hot coffee. I well remember the jubilant voice of the first assistant shouting "Wet the actors! Rock the boat! Roll 'em!"
And what a cast we had, not of famous names, but of thoroughly good actors: Mervyn Johns, Ralph Michael, Robert Beatty, Gordon Jackson, Frederick Piper, Charles Victor, James McKechnie, Arthur Young and Duncan MacIntyre. I was entrusted with the part of the Chief Engineer. The original, Charles Pollard, was the technical adviser on the film. He said one day, "I would sooner go through the whole painful ordeal again, than put up with what you boys have to". He was a kind, lovable soul who won the hearts of us all. He must have sensed that I had no true feeling for machines. When I rehearsed my first shot in the engine room, he was horrified at the irreverent way in which I handled the various gadgets, all exact replicas of the originals. "No, no, please; you must treat them with great care, touch them as if you loved them, as an organist would the keyboards and pedals of a Cathedral organ". Dear fellow, he died not long after the picture was finished, probably from the after-effects of his live ordeal with "San Demetrio, London". I hope that his film will always be kept in the archives, not only as a reminder of a great sea epic, but as a superb example of British film production with which I was proud to be associated.
After my glorious moment as the Chief Engineer, I went to Salisbury to play in the A.G.Street film, STRAWBERRY ROAN, with Sophie Stewart, William Hartnell and Carol Raye. It was a relief to get away from London, and I was able to join Angela and Julia, who were still sheltering there away from the doodles. I was delighted with the character I had to portray - a jolly farmer, who had some resplendent moments galloping about on a farm horse. But in the film I also had to drive a car...this was not so resplendent. I had never been a car driver, and for one very good reason. I had an unfortunate habit of depressing the accelerator instead of the brake. This nearly led to serious disaster. In a trial rehearsal, I regret to say that I charged at full tilt, scattering the cameras and crew, and frightening the Director, Maurice Elvey, out of his wits. He, after gaining his composure, very politely asked the professional chauffeur in attendance to take me away and, at a safe distance, to give me a lesson or two. In the end, I have to admit complete failure in mastering the horrible device, and I ended up by being "towed" on a piece of rope!
(This story always reminds me of one that Leslie Banks used to delight in telling - of how, in one of his films, he was playing the "Master of Hounds" and had had the ignominy, dressed in his immaculate hunting pink, of actually being "towed" across the fields by a rope, himself seated on a lorry! In recounting this tale to us, he used to relish the fact that while shooting the scene, they actually ran into a real Hunt - no doubt causing a severe rise in blood pressure to some of the older brigade!
We had a lot of fun making STRAWBERRY ROAN, and it was further enhanced for us all by the wonderful hospitality we received from A.G.Street at his delightful farmhouse.
On returning to London, I met Norman Marshall in the Garrick Club one morning. He had once said to me, "If ever you find yourself at a loose end, and I also am not working, I will produce for you any play that you would like to perform". I had always considered this an enormous compliment, and I now reminded him of his offer. Without hesitation I picked on Strindberg's THE FATHER, a play at which I had always longed to have a crack; and, true to his word, Norman rang me a few days later to say that he was arranging for a special fortnight's production of this very difficult play at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. I was delightd but also rather terrified, wondering whether I could do justice to this forbidding masterpiece. However, it was too late to retract. It was a challenge - and I was further encouraged when Norman told me that he had approached Veronica Turleigh to play the part of Laura, my cruel and purposeful wife. She proved to be magnificent. As for me...it was an experience I shall never forget, a great trial of strength, and I can only say that both Norman Marshall and the local Press seemed happy with the end result.
My return to London coincided with Angela's return from Salisbury. There had been a lull in the raids, and, thinking the worst was over, she had brought Julia home. However, although we had got the upper hand in dealing with the doodles at this time, another sinister secret weapon was now being loosed upon us in the shape of rockets. These unpleasant things exploded on landing without any warning of their approach. With the dear old doodles one did at least have time to get under a table after the engine cut out and before it landed, but the danger from the rocket was instantaneous. One morning a rocket landed on the Chelsea Hospital, quite close to us. The impact was terrific, not only were all our windows blown in, for they all faced onto the Hospital, but long, thin, jagged pieces of glass were driven firmly into the opposite walls. Julia and her Nanny were sitting up to table under the Nursery window, having breakfast. As we rushed in, fearful that Nanny and child would both have been slashed to pieces, we found to our amazement that not one pane of glass was even cracked - the only window in the flat to be spared. Bomb stories can be a bore, but I defy anyone to deny that this incident had a miraculous quality.
Soon after returning from Cambridge, I received an offer very near to my heart. I was asked to play Captain Hook in the famous Barrie Play, PETER PAN.
Barrie, when he died, bequeathed to the Hospital for Sick Children, in Great Ormond Street, all profits from the yearly presentation of his famous children's play. This was of course of great benefit to the Hospital, but it also had very curious side-effects on the actors involved. During rehearsals, the mysterious authoritative body of senior officials kept an eagle eye, not only on the profits accruing from the productions of PETER PAN, but also, it would seem, on every movement made, every word uttered by the actors themselves. So traditional was the play, that nothing could be changed; and thus it became, to my mind, very stereotyped. Not only the actors, but even the producer himself had his hands tied behind his back. At the time when the offer of playing Captain Hook, coupled with the role of Mr.Darling, fell upon me, the production was traditionally in the hands of Mr.Cecil King, who had done his best for some years, with fading scenery and annual changes of principals, under the ever-watchful eyes of the Great Ormond Street authorities, to show gratifying financial results.
I was lucky in my Peter Pan - the vivacious and popular Frances Day - who played with much fervour and great sincerity, and kept me on my mettle in the scenes where we crossed swords. We opened in London at the very large Stoll Opera House in Kingsway, packed to the ceiling with hordes of excitable kids and nervous parents. During performances, we would occasionally hear the explosions in the distance, and the whole theatre would shake. One dare not imagine the shambles should a rocket fall on the theatre.
The doubling of "Darling" and "Hook" is both rewarding and exhausting, especially the quick change after the ship scene to that where "Darling" enters through the dog kennel. I always found this last scene heavy going. The play was virtually over, and most of the dialogue was lost amid the excited restlessness of the children, by this time anxious to go home, or to other places of comfort. Indeed, playing to children is not easy. During the entire play, there is a constant stream of parents and children passing to and fro in search of physical relief! I found that gestures spoke louder than words. When dialogue itself was not sufficient to hold their attention, a gesture, even a meaningless one, would arrest them out of sheer curiosity to see what you were going to do.
The Duchess of Kent brought her two children, Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra, to a matinee of PETER PAN. They came back stage afterwards and the two children enjoyed themselves flying through the air on the wires used by the children in the play. Prince Edward asked me, "Why is Peter Pan always played by a girl?", a leading question which I found difficult to answer. I suggested that it would be hard to find a young boy clever enough to play such a long and difficult leading part. He said, pointing at Frances Day, "Is she clever?" Princess Alexandra asked me, "When you cry 'Floreat Etona' and jump over the side of the ship, where do you fall?" I told her, "Into the sea, of course." She replied, "No you don't, you fall onto a mattress, I've just seen it!" They were gay, bright and delightful children, and stayed well over half an hour, till the Duchess felt that they had had enough.
It might be worth mentioning, that inspite of the size and depth of the Opera House, we played without any microphones - a tribute to the Producer and to the children's voices.
The London production was followed by a lengthy tour of the large provincial cities, with Nova Pilbeam taking over the role of Peter. We played, invariably, to packed houses, sometimes putting on three shows a day in an attempt to pack all the children in. This was quite an effort for all concerned - but it was a heartbreaking sight to see children weeping outside the theatre, unable to get in.