Shaking the Provincial dust off my feet, I returned to London to place myself at the disposal of any Management sensible enough to engage me. There was no great rush for my services, and I prepared for another of those frustrating periods of unemployment..but with one difference. Now I was married, and had not only myself to think of. Luckily for me, and for them of course, the Lena Ashwell Players had a vacancy, and I soon found myself working at the Century Theatre in Ladbroke Grove. Not exactly the West End, I had to admit, but at least it was London. The policy of the Management was to run three Companies simultaneously, each Company playing one week at the Century Theatre, and two weeks on "The Roundabouts", as they were called, which meant playing in the surrounding boroughs, such as Brixton, Camberwell, Staines, Watford, Edmonton, Battersea and so on, whilst at the same time rehearsing the next play. Lena Ashwell had originated the scheme, which was an excellent one, in 1919, and thus provided good dramatic entertainment for those who had not the time or money to visit the West End.
We had to play in some rather odd places: Town Halls, Baths, Club Rooms, generally without proper dressing rooms, and making up on the side of the stage, or in a lavatory or pantry. Hence the nickname we acquired: "The Lavatory Players". The journeys on "The Roundabouts" were sometimes long and tiring; we got back late at night and had to be early at rehearsal next day. But the week at our headquarters, the Century Theatre, gave us a respite, and we had the advantage over weekly "rep." of rehearsing and playing each play for three weeks. It was Repertory on rather a luxurious scale.
The players were mostly experienced, but there were some of talent who were to become established West End artists later on: Frederick Leister, Kynaston Reeves, Cecil Trouncer, Olive Walter, also Esme Church, who played and sometimes directed. Other producers, apart from Lena Ashwell herself, included Irene Hentschel, Beatrice Wilson, and, when he was free, Leslie Banks. One decided attraction was the possibility of a visit from a London critic, and the chance of a write-up in his paper which might attract the attention of a Theatre Manager. On one occasion, St.John Ervine gave Wilfred Babbage and myself a wonderful notice for a fight we had in a play called MONEY DOESN'T MATTER, and again, in his own play JANE CLEGG, he said some nice things about me as Henry Clegg. John Masefield was another staunch supporter of the movement.
The winter season in London was followed in the summer with six weeks at the Theatre Royal, York, and another six weeks at the Theatre Royal, Bath, reproducing plays we had done in London during the winter. Two more delightful cities to visit for a leisurely season I could not imagine, and the two famous Theatres were, and are, gracious relics of a bygone age. Once, whilst we were playing in York, Archbishop Lang invited us to tea at Bishopsthorpe, an experience never to be forgotten. While showing us the portraits of his predecessors, he dryly remarked, "Of course, being an Archbishop nowadays is not what it was. When these gracious dignitaries visited the Minster, they travelled in state with their carriage and four and their scarlet coated outriders, and the citizens would stand aside and bow low or curtsey. Now I have to go in a stinking little motor car, and nobody knows it's me."
We were in York at the time of the General Strike in 1926. Private radio sets were at a premium, and the Company used to collect at the local electrical shop to hear the news from London. We were selfishly pleased to be at work during this time of unrest and unemployment.
I stayed with the Players for three years, revelling in the vast experience I was getting. Starting with small parts, I graduated to the "leads", and during my time with them I played in well over thirty plays ranging from Masefield's GOOD FRIDAY to Pinero's THE MAGISTRATE, not forgetting of course such rollicking farces as TILLY OF BLOOMSBURY and LORD RICHARD IN THE PANTRY.
Towards the end of my time at the Century, I was to have my first experience of playing before Royalty. In December 1927, a special Royal Performance was to be given in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the present Queen Mother, in recognition of the good work Lena Ashwell was doing for the London Boroughs. The play chosen was A MESSAGE FROM MARS, and I was allotted the leading part, originated by Sir Charles Hawtrey. Special deluxe Programmes were printed with pictures of the Duke and Duchess inside...and, there was my name in letters of gold! The streets were decorated, crowds assembled outside and inside the little Theatre, while I trembled and shook with my first real attack of nerves, waiting on stage for the curtain to rise. The audience had all been warned to be in their seats fifteen minutes before the advertised time, and the uproar of expectant chatter was ear splitting. As their Royal Highnesses entered there came a sudden hush followed by the first strains of the National Anthem from Miss Coates' violin. The house rose to a mighty crescendo as the last line was reached, and up, (or rather sideways!) went the Curtain. My nerves vanished when I got my first laugh, and the play went like a bomb. Everyone, including the kindly audience, was determined that it should.
At the fall of the Curtain, we were marshalled like school children, with strict instructions only to speak when we were spoken to, and to say, "Yes, Sir" and "Yes, Ma'am". That may have been the correct mode of address, but of course it didn't work out like that at all. Feeling now very relaxed, I led the crocodile into the Presence, and spent several minutes talking to the Duke and Duchess while the conversation flowed to and fro quite freely. "You reminded me of Hawtrey", cleverly said the Duke. "You made me laugh and cry", said the Duchess, whilst Lena was practically hitting me in the back to get me to make way for the rest. But of course I couldn't go while they were talking to me. At last, she made her point. "Excuse me, Your Royal Highness, but there are others waiting to be presented".
Then came the line up for the photograph. The front row was quickly filled with the various Mayors and Mayoresses and other dignitaries, while the cast had a "free for all" in the background. I hadn't done too well out of it; I expect my colleagues were annoyed with me for taking up so much time in conversation. Then the Duke, turning round to look for me in his typically courteous way, said, "Come and stand between us. After all you are the Leading Man." When at last we were all in position, the flash bulb operated by Sir Henry Simpson, Lena Ashwell's distinguished husband, failed to work four times. "I really think we must be going now," said the Duchess. "Just one more" pleaded the perspiring Sir Henry: and that time all went well. It was a poor photograph, and I looked like the schoolmaster to whom Mrs.Pat had likened me, but I still treasure it, as I do the signed programme which I subsequently received from 145 Piccadilly, together with a letter of appreciation from the Duke's Secretary. After all, I was a country boy, and this was a far cry from the Vicarage at Ashburton and the amateur dramatics on the lawn, and the days when I wrote to Baden Powell in Mafeking.
After leaving the Lavatory Players, and a long period of full employment, came atime familiar to most aspiring actors: the long, empty, fruitless days, doing the Agents, singing my own praises to deaf unfriendly ears; the try-outs of bad plays with indifferent casts; the meagre Friday nights. In despair one day, I went into a post office in Bedford Street and phoned the Barry O'Brien Agency. Miss Lovell answered the phone. She had nothing to suggest, but then, as an after-thought, "Unless of course you would like to understudy Sir Gerald du Maurier...?", and I fancied I could detect the superior note in her voice, and see the smirk on her face which inferred I hadn't a chance in hell of getting the job. However, she told me to go and see, if I could, Mr.Herbert Chown, at the St.James' Theatre. He was Sir Gerald's Manager at the time. I found him on the roof of the theatre sunning himself and reading a play. I told him what I was after. He looked at my shoes, "I suppose you realise that this is a much coveted engagement; half the actors in London are after it. Unless you can get someone to speak for you, you haven't a chance." I remembered hearing Mrs.Pat talk of du Maurier on more than one occasion. I said, "Would Mrs.Patrick Campbell be any help?" His eyes shot up from my shoes to my face. "If you could get her to recommend you, you might have a chance. Sir Gerald thinks the world of her."
Mrs.Pat at ths time was living in Pont Street. Her long tour of the Provinces was finished, and so was she, or so she thought. No one would employ her, she was too much of a nuisance, and the Managers were all frightened of her. This was before she made her sensational return in THE MATRIARCH. I had kept in touch with her; she was lonely and depressed, and always pleased to be remembered, even by me. She asked me to tea now and again, and I would sit at her feet, listening to her reminiscing about her life. "If only Mr.Bernard Shaw would let me sell all our wonderful letters to each other, I could pay off my debts." Then, lying full length on her sofa, "Now read to me while I close my eyes and dream of the past." When I thought she was asleep, I would stop. "Go on reading, I'm not asleep"; then later, "And now you must go, I'm dining with the Guinnesses and must make myself look beautiful."
Leaving Chown to continue reading his play, I rushed out of the Stage Door with thoughts of Sir Gerald racing through my head. Somehow I found a phonebox and called Mrs.Pat. I told her I needed her help. "Come round to tea", she said. After sending me off to buy milk and some cakes, she was ready to listen while I told her what I wanted her to do. I did not know how she would take it; she might have had a flaming row with Sir Gerald as she had with most of her erstwhile friends.
All was well. She sat down at her desk and wrote: "Darling Gerald, Mr.Fitzgerald wants to understudy you. Of course you must let him. He can easily play your part. He is a much better actor than you are, though not nearly so good-looking. Stella."
Armed wiith this letter, I planned to waylay Sir Gerald on the morrow, after the Saturday Matinee. Would the morning never pass? I wandered aimlessly around the West End, hoping to meet someone I knew along the Actors' Mile, as the stretch from Piccadilly to Leicester Square wascalled, to tell them of my hopes and plans. On impulse I went into St.Martin-in-the-Fields and spent some time in prayer and contemplation. I felt it to be a possible turning point in my life.
I waited in the narrow passage by the Stage Door leading to Sir Gerald's dressing room. He took the letter, tore it open and read it. "Dear old Stella. Yes of course. If she says you're all right, that's good enough for me. You're engaged. Chownie? That's O.K."
I muttered some incoherent noise of thanks, and reeled away like a drug addict, not knowing or caring where I went, and found myself in a telephone box. "It's all right, Mrs.Campbell, I've got the job." I heard her gasp; then, "This is the beginning of a great career. Now we must go and see the play. You get the seats and call for me on Monday at eight o'clock.
I must explain that the play, Arnold Bennett's THE RETURN JOURNEY, had been running for some time, and the vacancy had occurred because Scott Gatty, who often understudied Sir Gerald, had left to take another job. Hereupon I sought out Mr.Lane, the Front of House Manager, and asked if I could have two seats for Mrs.Campbell and myself to see the show. He looked at me curiously and said that that would be all right.
On the following Monday I called for Mrs.Pat with a taxi at ten minutes to eight. She was dressed and waiting for me in all her finery, and off we went to the St.James's. Of course we arrived much too early; the curtain didn't rise till eight-thirty. "We can't go in yet, we shall look like dead heads; tell the man to drive around and come back here at eight-twenty." Around we went, my eye fascinated by the clock ticking up the fare which I could ill afford, and we arrived back at the steps of the theatre at the appointed time. "Have you got the seats? They always give me a box." My heart sank. I pictured two end stalls, which actors asking for free seats usually occupied. She must have read my mind. "Now you pay the taxi while I go and see about the seats." She swept majestically up the steps while I gratefully paid the taxi, certainly the lesser of two evils, and mounted the steps after her, feeling four-foot-nothing in height.
"Come on, they've given us a Box." We were ushered into the Royal Box and bowed in by the attendant. It was a large Box, holding six comfortably, with a withdrawing room, and a private staircase leading down to the Stage. I say it was large, but by the time Mrs.Pat had spread herself in full view of the audience, there seemed hardly room for me. "Now they haven't given us a programme." I realised I had boobed and offered to go and get one. "No you can't do that. They must bring us one." But no one came, and it was not till the first interval that I managed to slip out and put matters right.
Heads were frequently upturned to our Box, and from time to time Mrs.Pat would wave to someone she recognised and beckon them to come and join us - The Countess of Warwick, Lord This, Lady That - they came, and I was driven steadily back to the rear of the Box. Not that I minded, I was far from enjoying myself, as may be imagined.
During the performance she behaved disgracefully, making loud remarks which must have carried to Sir Gerald and the entire cast..."Look at the way Gerald kisses that girl, just the way I kiss my dog"..."He can't say to the waiter, 'Shove it down', he must say 'Put it down'." At the final curtain, what I feared most, happened..."Now we will all go round and see Sir Gerald." I dug my toes in firmly, but not firmly enough. "Not me, Mrs.Campbell..." "Yes of course you must come with us; it's good for you to be seen. You must get to know him." We all trooped down the little staircase and across the Stage to Sir Gerald's Dressing Room. She burst in, and their greeting was fond and memorable. "Gerald, my love..." "Stella darling, you look wonderful; what a pity we never maried, what children we would have had." Then the introductions. "The Countess of Warwick, Lord This, Lady That, Major the Other. Oh! and your understudy." A sudden hush, and then, "My understudy, bless my soul, come in old chap. Buckley, Champagne." Buckley, a magnificent fellow, neatly dressed in black coat and striped trousers, whom I took to be a Manager of some sort, turned out to be Sir Gerald's dresser.
Mrs.Pat then proceeded to tell Sir Gerald what was wrong with the show, and with his performance in particular. Surely this was a unique occasion, where a newly-engaged understudy was present to hear the Idol of the West End being flayed alive by this fantastic old girl. He took it all in good part, and called a rehearsal of the entire Company for the next day. "Stella was in front last night. Just a few notes, after all she does know what she is talking about." To his everlasting credit, he never showed any resentment towards me for my presence in his dressing room that night, as many lesser men might well have done.
Mrs.Pat turned up at the theatre on one later occasion when she wanted me to take her out to supper; the "Ivy" was the actors favourite haunt in those days, and in the centre of the room was a dessert table from which customers would help themselves to cold sweets. She banged on Sir Gerald's door and said "Fitz is taking me out to supper. We're going to the Ivy to watch the actors steal the fruit." She paid! And, bless her, I feel sure she did it from the kindest of motives. "It's good for you to be seen around", she would say.
I stayed with Sir Gerald for two more productions after THE RETURN JOURNEY finished. He said tome once, "You must go on for me one night." And sure enough, one Matinee he sent for me, "My throat is not too good, would you like to go on for the Matinee? I said firmly, "No, Sir Gerald. Of course I will if you tell me to, that's why I am here; but I think the audience would be bitterly disappointed if they saw me come on in your part." He played the Matinee, and I don't believe there was anything wrong with his throat. He just wanted to give me the chance.
One of the Productions was a comedy, THE PLAY'S THE THING. Full of brilliant satire, it had been a big success in America. At rehearsals we all thought it good and very funny; failure was unthinkable. It was to be my first experience of hearing "The Bird" on the First Night. The First Act was received in silence, likewise the Second. It was at the time when King George V was ill, and we were wondering if the audience had heard any bad news. In the Third Act, one of the characters, played by Lawrence Hanray, had to say "Would you mind telling me what I am laughing at?" The House picked it up: they roared and laughed hysterically, and the Curtain fell to loud boos. Sir Gerald was very upset. On the second night he went before the curtain and complained of the unfair treatment the play had received; a fatal thing to do. Sympathetic applause at the end did not save the play, and we came off after two weeks.
The next Production was FAME, with Nora Swinburne as the Leading Lady. I believe I am, or was at that time, the first understudy to get an understudy rehearsal before the First Night. I asked Chown if it would be possible, and he deputed Alan Whittaker, the Assistant Stage Manager, to arrange it. It so happened that Sir Gerald was "off" at the first of the three Dress Rehearsals, and, thanks to my earlier initiation, I was able to deputise for him without holding up the action too much for the Principals; so the understudy rehearsal had done some good for all of us. That was the nearest I got to playing for Sir Gerald. However, I hope and think that I learned a great deal while I was with him. I spent many of my evenings in the opposite prompt corner watching intently. He was the leader of the "natural" school of acting, with easy grace, easy manners, and an expert knowledge of how to throw away a line without it being lost. It was a joy to watch him handle a bottle of Champagne, or light a cigarette. Others tried to copy him, but many failed, becoming tepid and ineffectual. That "Throw away" line had a punch behind it which the audience could not detect, but without which the line would become a damp squib. His apparent casualness was the result of much practice and natural artistry.
One thing I learnt early in my acting career was never to judge anyone from hearsay, but to wait until I had met and worked with them. Actors can at times be catty, often through jealousy, and I had heard many stories about Sir Gerald before I met him. I was told that he was a snob, that no one had a chance of getting a job with him unless he could boast an Old School Tie, preferably Eton or Harrow. I can only say that he was always friendly and popular with his Company. Many stories have been told about his practical jokes in the theatre. I suppose the most famous is the one about the horse. One night Sir Gerald came off the stage in high spirits declaiming, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." Said one of the cast, "He wants a horse." Said another, "He shall have a horse." The next night when he arrived, he found a horse in his dressing room. Without the flicker of an eyelid he said, "Hullo, old chap, someone's made a mistake; you should have gone to Herbert Marshall at the Globe. Buckley! Have him taken to Mr.Herbert Marshall with my compliments."
Spencer Trevor was the butt for many of Sir Gerald's jokes. Just after his entrance one evening, there came a knock on the door and Alan Whittaker, the Assistant Stage Manager, came on stage dressed as a taxi-driver, carrying a large ham. "Excuse me, sir, you left this in the taxi." It was up to Trapsey, as he was called, to get out of the situation as best he could! Another time, Trapsey had to pick up a box of matches to light his pipe, only to find that all the other objects on the table had been attached to the box with thread, and got drawn up with it. All this was taken in good part, and anyone was entitled to pay Sir Gerald back in his own coin. But it was a point of honour that the audience should be unaware that anything untoward was happening; there must be no giggling or subdued chuckles. There is nothing more maddening for an audience than for the actors to have a private joke among themselves and let it show in their performance. This is quite unforgiveable and in the worst of taste. Friends of mine have complained that a show has been ruined for them because of this, to which I reply that they should write to the Management, and if the actors get the sack it serves them right. (Such a display of bad manners must not, of course, be confused with the spontaneous, irrepressible, uncontrollable lapse when the quite unexpected happens. Then it is the actor who suffers, but agonies, in his efforts to control himself.)
FAME came to the end of its run in due course, and I had to say goodbye to that great theatrical aristocrat of the Thirties. When I bade Sir Gerald farewell, he apologised because I had never played for him. I left feeling richer than on that dreadful night in the Royal Box, richer in my understanding of the best traditions of the theatre, richer also in my knowledge of the art of acting. I had arrived at the Golden Gates of the West End, but as yet I had only entered by the side door. The heavy Double Gates were not to open for me for some time.