In 1936 I went to South Africa with Sir Seymour Hicks and his Company. It was for me, I regret to say, not a very happy time. His brilliant wit and his engaging personality are too well-known for me to record, and I can well imagine how valid is his reputation as one of our finest light comedians. But, like all prize pieces, they have to be shown off in a proper setting. A crack First Division football player would probably never be at his best in a Fourth Division team. One day Sir Seymour said to me, after a stormy performance, "Isn't it marvellous! I pay for these people to come all the way to South Africa, and when they get here they can't act. Join Equity and see the world". I had fought with other lions in my time and was not frightened by his tirades - so I said, "You don't pay them enough, Sir Seymour. You are the King of Farce, and must be amongst the first to admit that farce is one of our most difficult media. You can't expect these half-trained small-time actors to play along at your level". It annoyed me that he should make his Company so unhappy - most of them were frightened to death at the sound of his tumultuous entrance through the Stage Door. "Oh, my God, he's here" they would say in fear and trembling; to which I would say "So what? You have as much right to be in his theatre as he has. In fact, he could not give his performance without your help". But, directly he arrived at the theatre there was air of awe and oppression which killed any possible enjoyment one could have had in the evening's work, and before his first entrance he could be heard pacing up and down, roaring like a lion, waiting to pounce upon his prey. He never mixed with the Company socially, and never passed on any invitations which were sent to him for the Company - at any rate, I never saw any. Being a leading member of his Company, I should have been loyal to him I suppose, but I resented his autocratic behaviour and became a kind of leader of a rebel section. Some distorted rumours got to his ears about things I was reputed to have said, and he requested me to leave the Company and return home. I did this willingly, going through the Kruger Game Reserve with some friends. There I saw real lion, which was very exciting, and many other kinds of Wildebeeste, that one does not meet in the Theatre.
In retrospect, I regret the break I had with Sir Seymour, and like to remember only his greatness as an actor, and his wonderful sense of timing. His technique was quite absorbing. When he wanted his audience to laugh, he would literally lead them into it guttural guffaws. He often reminded me of a conductor in full command of his orchestra, but in this case the orchestra was the audience. After a nerve-wracking performance, he would invariably close with a polite and humble little speech, ending "I have the honour to remain Ladies and Gentlemen, your Obedient Servant". One then felt that all was forgiven: the players, the crew, the props, and even the audience themselves!
Once again it had been my lot to serve a Master in the declining years of his great career. It had been an experience, though not a happy one, and I was grateful for the opportunity of playing with such a superb artist. I had learnt from him - and I had had the chance of seeing that wonderful country.
Returning from Africa, I was invited by Peter Haddon to join the company of NO SLEEP FOR THE WICKED. A starry cast included Claire Luce, Martin Walker, Marie Burke, Katie Johnson and Peter Haddon. After a short tour, we opened at Daly's, and for the first time, I had feature billing. I played a spy who disguised himself as an Arab carpet seller. The play was a failure, and Peter Haddon nearly went bankrupt trying to find the money to pay the cast. I felt very sorry for him, a lovable man, who was to do such wonderful work at Wimbledon Theatre in the last years of his life. He used to brag good-naturedly to me in later years, "Wally, I dragged you out of the gutter and placed you on a pinnacle of fame..."
There was a grain of truth in this, for it was during the short run at Daly's that Margaret Yarde came to see me with the script of POISON PEN. This play was to prove the turning point in my acting career. POISON PEN was by Richard Llewellyn, who also wrote HOW GREEN IS MY VALLEY, though I have never been able to believe both were by the same author. There was no beauty in POISON PEN, and it was not a good play, but it was effective clap-trap with dramatic scenes and an impressive climax in the Third Act. I was to play the Parson, and Margaret Yarde my sister, the evil woman who wrote the poison pen letters.
We opened at Richmond, and brought the play to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. And now, at last, for the first time, I had "Star Billing". It felt pretty good, and I was much encouraged to receive a letter from Miss Mabel Constanduros in which she wrote: "I know it sounds fullsome but I do really mean it when I say that I have never seen a more perfect piece of acting. I enjoyed every intonation, every look, and how well you managed to keep the parson manly and sincere. It is your sincerity which lifts up the whole show...." The play ran for nine months in three London theatres, the Shaftesbury, the Playhouse, and the Garrick, and we played to indifferent business. We also took it to Wormwood Scrubs and Maidstone Gaol. In the latter, the Governor told me just before I made my entrance that there were nine murderers in the front row. Another distinguished patron of Maidstone was Hattrey, the financial swindler, who during his term used his great brain to the good of the prison, serving amongst other things as Librarian. The Governor said that he would be very sorry to lose him!
But POISON PEN was a landmark in my life in more ways than one. After we had been running a few weeks, we had to find a replacement for the part of my daughter. An audition was held, and Margaret paid me the compliment of asking my help in making the final choice. When I saw Angela Kirk on stage I was not particularly impressed; admittedly we were only working with a pilot light, which was not very flattering. But when I went round to Margaret's dressing room, there she was. I was struck dumb by her beauty. My critical faculties were silenced; and in any case it was obvious that Margaret had already decided. I took Angela out for a glass of sherry to drink to her future as my "daughter". But it was not long before I realised that I wanted to cast her in a very different role.
POISON PEN was followed by UNDER SUSPICION, a play by Leslie Harcourt and Basil Dearden, with a cast that included Patricia Hilliard, William Fox, George Cross, George Street, Ann Trevor, Leslie Harcourt, John Ruddock and Angela. It was directed by the up-and-coming Gardner Davies, who was running the Richmond Theatre with Andrew Osborne. Alas, he was to meet with an early and tragic death. He was a big man, and one day when he was leaning on the balustrade of the Richmond Theatre, some masonry gave way and he fell wenty feet to his death. I believe he would have become an outstanding personality in the theatre had he lived.
In the play I had to appear as four different characters in the First Act. It was absolutely essential that the audience should not realise this point, otherwise, instead of being a thriller, the play would become a mere farce. So quick were the changes of character that, as the Daily Sketch remarked, at one time I actually "answered myself back". Both Gardner and I were doubtful that I could carry this off, but we decided to risk it. However, on the very eve of production, Gardner, still in some trepidation, sent me a message to say that if, on reflection, I decided the risk was too great, he would understand and would scrap the production. After further consultation, wedecided to go ahead, and all went well. Only one critic - th redoubtable W.A.Darlington - saw through the plot. He said,
"...Walter Fitzgerald had a great evening. He had almost as many wigs as Bransby Williams, and changed them with such speed that I began to suspect him of wearing them one on top of the other. He was instantly recognisable to me in all of them, but then perhaps I know him and his distinctive voice unfairly well."
It was during the run of UNDER SUSPICION that I suffered the second great sorrow of my life. My mother, to whom I was devoted, died in a nursing home at Richmond. Her last words to me were, "Walter, you must go to your work". She died at ten minutes past six that evening, and at eight-thirty I was on the stage at the Playhouse, I got through the show somehow, none of the company knowing of my great sorrow. But even the saddest moments in life have their comic side. My eldest brother, Arthur, of whom I was very fond, was incredibly pompous. Driving in the funeral Rolls Royce behind the hearse on the way to Paddington (my mother was to be buried at Ashburton), Arthur seemed to become the owner of this enormous car, and to imagine that the men in the streets who raised their hats to the passing coffin were in fact paying respect to him. "You know, Waler, people are awfully decent; did you see that man raise his hat? There's another one", and Arthur would smile, lean forward and bow, acknowledging the salute as royalty might on a State Occasion! Dear Arthur! His end was sad. His one passion was painting, and a stroke deprived him of the use of his arms for the last years of his life. He left behind him a legacy of seascapes which are a lasting tribute to his exceptional talent.
During the tour that followed the London run of UNDER SUSPICION, a very untoward happening occurred one night in Belfast, at the beginning of the Third Act. In the part of 'Barney', I had to creep up behind one of the characters seated on a settee, cosh him on the head, causing him to fall unconscious across the stage, and then proceed to search his pockets. One night I knelt down over his prostrate body I noticed smoke coming from him. Quick thinking was essential. I could not just let him lie there and burn, yet he had to be in that position for the play to continue. I started to drag him off up-stage through the centre door. Not unnaturally he was a bit bewildered and started to mutter in protest. I whispered to him not to worry and not to resist. When I got him off, we found a box of matches had ignited in his pocket, obviously as he made contact with the floor. We put out the smouldering material, then I dragged him back into position, and we went on with the play. I could only hope that the audience thought it was all part of the plot!
That tour also included the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. On the Monday morning, as was customary, I paid my respects to the famous Theatre to check up on my dressing-room, etc. On leaving, I asked the doorkeeper, "Tell me please, what time does the curtain rise?" He spread himself visibly and answered with much relish in his thick Irish brogue, "Well now, it's supposed to go up at 8 o'clock - but it doesn't really matter.....whenever you're ready."!
During this period, my son Michael was attending a preparatory school in Surbiton, and, as a dutiful parent, I had been to a Prize-Giving there, during which the Headmaster, in his speech, had made what appeared to me as a very humorous remark. He had said, "I cannot let this opportunity pass without a word of gratitude to our Matron. She has been with us now for nearly a year, and is already becoming a great figure amongst us". This remark was to have no small influence upon my own personal future.
Nursing this picture of a vastly progressive Matron in my mind, I conceived what was to become a rather scurrilous but not humourless sketch which I called "DR.FITZBALL OF DIVINITY HALL", and in which I referred to "Matron" in glowing, but not entirely respectful, terms. Night after night I worked at this sketch, wondering if it was really as funny as I thought it was, and if a live audience would really laugh or would give me a very deep-frozen shoulder.
Eventually I summoned up sufficient courage to offer my services at the Green Room Dinner, thinking that the worst that could happen would be to be sent to Coventry by the entire Club. I had never attempted anything like it before and was very nervous. It was rapturously received, and the President, C.V.France, liked it so much that he requested a repeat of it at a Green Room Rag, which was to be held at the Adelphi Theatre a few Sundays later. The Green Room Rag Society gave about four rags a year in aid of the Green Room Fund, a fund to help members who were having a hard time. The generosity of Music Hall stars and leading theatre celebrities knows no bounds when it comes to helping others, and a Rag is therefore a star-studded occasion. "FITZBALL" was again well received, and as a result, Paul England, who at that time was indulging in a little Agency work, offered to try and place it for me at a London hotel or restaurant. Shortly afterwards he told me that he had arranged for me to appear at the Ritz Hotel in ther Cafe Chantant programme, the following Monday night, on approval, and, if well received, I could stay for the week. This was staggering to me. I hadn't the courage to say "Yes" or "No". I just knew I had to face up to it.
"FITZBALL" went down well on the Monday night, and, significantly, P.K.Hodgson, Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor, was among the customers. I was told that I could stay for the week. On the Tuesday when I arrived, the Manager was waiting in the corridor. I thought he seemed a bit on edge. He asked me if I felt in good form, told me that every table was booked, and then, looking past me, said, "And here comes the Little Man himself". And there, walking past us was the lone blonde figure of H.R.H., walking down the broad corridor to the Restaurant to join a party which included Mrs.Simpson as she then was. This indeed was retribution, a just punishment for my precocity. I wished that the earth would open up and swallow me; but the solid marble slabs of the Ritz Hotel had no intention of affording me a get-away.
The other attractions in the Cafe Chantant programme were those brilliant pianists, Ravitz and Landauer, with their two grand pianos, and Joe Loss and his band. These experienced professional artistes seemed to sense that there was something about me reminiscent of the sacrificial lamb, and wished me good luck with warm and generous hand shakes. I had one prop, a small table, which I had arranged for a waiter to place on the floor just in front of where I was to stand. The lights were lowered, the spot shone on my table, the Band struck up my entrance music, "Boys and girls come out to play", and on I cam in cap and gown, cane under my arm, tripping over an imaginary step, and getting my first cheap titter of a laugh. Then came catastrophe, as I thought. A waiter came running up to me, "Excuse me, the Prince he want to see you." It threw me completely; what did he mean? What was I supposed to do? Was I to receive the Accolade "on the field" as it were? The waiter started to move my table forward a little. "The Prince, he behind a pillar, he could not see you". So that was all! I felt relieved, but my carefully rehearsed timing was thrown for six. I managed to recover, however; the act went well, and I came off the floor walking on air. There was even sufficient applause for me to make a quick reappearance, and a low bow to the Prince's table.
There followed several bookings for other Hotels and Restauants - Casani's Club in Regent Street, the Piccadilly, and Quaglino's which I played many times. It was hard work at Quaglino's, doing the act twice every night without a break, first on the ground floor, which was patronised more by the elderly and sober, then downstairs for the younger and noisier. The latter were much more difficult to handle. However much one was heckled, however much one was tempted to be "rude" back, it was forbidden ever to give offence and afford the customers cause to complain to the Management. This called for tact and quick thinking, and some such remark as "I thought all the Lower School boys were in bed", or "Will any boy wishing to leave the room please signify in the usual manner". This sort of "crack" would generally get a laugh against the disturber, keep him quiet, and win support for me.
But I never liked this kind of work. Apart from the nervous strain, it was a lonely job, waiting till perhaps midnight before going on to a floor reeking of good food and wine, and gaiety. I always felt I was interrupting the customers' enjoyment, and indeed there were some who made this quite plain by turning their backs on me. But this was a challenge that had to be accepted, and if I could persuade them to turn and face me before I had finished, I felt that I had won through. I am sure that this period of Cabaret, facing an audience alone and under the most difficult conditions, was beneficial to my theatre work later on. An actor who can control a disorderly clientelle at "Quags" and force them to listen to him, almost against their will, must have a better chance of impressing his personality upon an orderly theatre audience. Sometimes later, on an important First Night, I used to think back to that night at the Ritz, and it gave me courage.
My next turn of the wheel of fortune put me in touch with Robert Nesbitt, who approached me about a spectacular tour of the Drury Lane musical THE SUN NEVER SETS, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, and based on the famous West African novel by Edgar Wallace, SANDERS OF THE RIVER. I was to play the part of "Sanders", taking over from Leslie Banks who had originated the part in London. The cast included Todd Duncan and Adelaide Hall in the principal musical parts, Jack Barty and Billy Leonard, and a company of one hundred artistes. This fantastic production included such stirring incidents as a Tribal War Dance, an Aeroplane Crash, and the Blowing up of the Temple, (particularly stirring when the Temple resolutely refused to be blown up at the given moment, as happened on more than one occasion!) This really was a musical on the spectacular scale, and it made a welcome change from my life as the lonely figure of Dr.Fitzball, in cap and gown, trembling on the floor of the Ritz Hotel.
But now another shadow began to fall across our lives.
No-one who heard it will ever forget Neville Chamberlain's Sunday morning broadcast on the declaration of war with Germany, followed immediately by the first Air Raid warning. We did not know what to expect, and I confess that the wailing notes of the siren did nothing to sooth my over-wrought nerves. I imagined the sky to be already black with enemy bombersabout to lay London low with their latest high explosive bombs, about which we had heard and read so much. I dragged myself with shaking knees to the basement of Vandon Court, Petty France, where I was living in a one-roomed flat, and waited along with the other tenants, gas-masks at the ready, for the destruction that was to come. History knows now that it was a false alarm.
After the "all clear" I went to te nearest telephone and rang up Angela's home, to be told curtly by her father that Angela had left. The B.B.C. had for some months been secretly organising a repertory company which, in the event of war, was to go to a secret rendezvous in the West Country to carry on with a programme of plays to help keep up the morale of the nation. Great secrecy had been maintained and the chosen company, of whom Angela was one, were sworn on oath not to divulge the hiding place. They had taken swift action...and very soon "Lord Haw-Haw" told us in one of his early broadcasts from Germany that "the B.B.C. had gone into hiding at Evesham, and will shortly be bombed out of existence.."
I was desolate. There was no hope of work, as every theatre, except the Windmill, immediately closed down. I had no money, and I was too old for the Forces. I decided to join the police as a War Reserve. Ballard Berkeley, who came to share my flat, had the same idea, and next day we set off for Marlborough Street to offer our services. We were accepted without any questions asked; we might have been ex-criminals, or spies, no matter. We were told to report for duty next morning at 6 a.m., were sworn in, and posted to various duties...Ballard and I to guarding the back of the Italian Embassy in Three Kings Yard. Now it so happened that Tom Walls had a flatin Three Kings Yard with his girlfriend, Veronica Rose. He drove in one night while we were on duty, and on leaving shortly afterwards said, "There's a bottle of whisky upstairs. You boys help yourselves. Veronica is there to look after you." We took it in turns to surreptitiously go up and take a noggin. By the end of our watch we were in high spirits, and staggered back to our sub-Station which was at Keysign House.
I must have been the worst policeman since third rate pantomime. I never had a good sense of location, and in the black-outs I stumbled about like a lost soul. Indeed one night I did lose my way back to the station, which was very galling. I could hardly stop and ask a passer-by, "Please could you tell me the way to my Police Station". When eventually I did arrive to sign off duty, I was half an hour late. The Sergeant said, "536, You're very late signing off." I said rather lamely, "Yes Sergeant, I saw some suspicious looking lights in a garage, so went to investigate." He patted me on the shoulder, "Quite right 536, always be conscientious about your work."
One terrifying day I was put on traffic duty. I could feel the blood drain from my face as the Sergeant called out "536, Traffic Duty, junction of Oxford Street, South Molton Street." I have always had a dread of traffic, and admired the cool, brave way the London bobby faces up to that unending stream, and how he subdues it to his will with a flick of the wrist. But what would happen to me? I had no uniform, just my civilian clothes, plus a steel helmet, truncheon and gas mask, not very impressive. I crept like a snail to where I was to take over. A "Regular" was waiting to be relieved. a big six-footer, in full resplendent outfit. Picking up his neatly rolled oilskin cape, he said, rather surlily, "Come on Chummy, I want my cuppa char", and off he went, without even wishing me luck. I wanted to run after him and cry like a school girl, "no, no, come back, don't leave me", but England was at War, and I, one of her sons, must be brave.
I was left alone, and so was the traffic! I had had no instruction, and I had to rely on what I had seen Police doing ever since I came to London. I had two arms, and must use them to the best of my ability, and that quickly, as eveyhooter in London seemed to be blaring. I must say it gave me a sense of power to be able to hold up buses and taxis simply by sticking my arm out; but what would happen when I dropped it to my side? Could I get the other one out in time to stop that other stream of traffic that was now flowing past me? Everyone seemed bad tempered; bus drivers snarled down at me from their heights, taxi drivers shouted at me with their particular sarcastic brand of Cockney. No one came near me for four hours, the longest four hours of my life, but eventually I was relieved by another seedy looking, pale-faced War Reserve.
At last the day arrived when we were fitted with our uniforms, and very smart we looked in our blue tunics and trousers, with peaked caps. The only trouble was that I could not tell the difference between a War Reserve and an Inspector, so I saluted all and sundry for fear of making a mistake! I began to fancy myself as a copper, and soon picked up their particular habits, such as bending at the knees to relieve the calf muscles, as I had seen them do on the stage as well as in real life. I began to overact, always a fault of mine. One day I was on traffic duty in Park Lane, as a Motorcade of royal cars came out from Hyde Park, with King George VI in the first car. I just managed to hold up the traffic in time, then nearly toppled over myself giving a terrific salute when His Majesty passed me. I bragged about this when I got back to the Station. Said the Sergeant, "Well, don't do it again; never salute when on traffic duty. You might have caused a serious accident."
Another thing that terrified me was the chance of being in on an accident. I have always been squeamish about street accidents and invariably pass by on the other side of the road rather than join a mob of gaping onlookers. But, as a War Reserve, I thought differently. I didn't care if the streets were running with blood. What worried me was how to make out the report correctly. I could not stand the biting sarcasm of the Sergeant; also I could never find my pencil, and if it was raining my cape always fell over my notebook.
But, as in the old days of Leadenhall Street, relief was at hand. The "phoney" War, as it was called, was continuing; nothing exciting was happening, the panic was over, and the edict went forth that any War Reserve who wished to do so could return to civilian life, either on indefinite leave or by resigning. I resigned.
I was now able to accept an offer from the B.B.C. to play the part of Geering in a series called UNDER THE SHADOW OF THE NAZIS, which involved travelling once a week to Manchester, whither Angela had been transferred from Evesham. Some weeks later she heard that Hugh Beaumont of H.M.Tennent was to form a Repertory Company to play in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and she applied to join. She was unlucky, but when she enquired on my behalf if they wanted a leading man, to my delight, they jumped at the idea.
The Company was a very strong one, including amongst others Mary Jerrold, Hubert Harben, Marjorie Fielding, Sonia Dresdel, Richard Littledale, Joan Harben, Clive Morton, Judith Furse, David Markham, Rosalie Crutchley, Dulcie Gray and Michael Denison. We were split into two Companies and played alternate weeks at the Lyceum, Edinburgh and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. I well recall the May evening in Edinburgh when we had an important news flash and I was asked to make an announcement to the audience during the show, "Just to let you know that Winston Churchill is Prime Minister." This was received with rapturous expressions of thankfulness; somehow we felt that all would now be well.
Another day, a German raider which was being chased out to sea dropped its load of bombs on some ploughed fields quite close to Edinburgh. As it was our first experience of bomb-dropping, many flocked to see the craters. I said to the policeman on duty, "Lucky they didn't drop them on the City". He turned to me, "Drop them on the capital of Scotland? They would'na dare."
But the war was going badly for us; Belgium fell, France fell, and invasion seemed only a matter of time. Angela had by this time joined the Rep. at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. I pictured the Sussex Downs as a likely spot for paratroopers to land. Brighton would be cut off, and all would be lost, including Angela. I persuaded Esme Church, who was about to produce PROMISE, that Angela should play one of the parts, and so, at last, Angela came to join us in Scotland. THis was some reward for the good turn she had done for me, for, without her prompting, Tennents might never have thought of me.
During our season in Edinburgh, Lord Roseberry was in residence with his family at Dalmeny House - not the safest of places to be at that time, as Dalmeny House issituated practically at the foot of the famous Forth Bridge, and several attempts to bomb this had been made, some of the bombs having landed in the grounds of Dalmeny House itself. The Roseberrys patronised our Company at the Lyceum, and one day an invitation arrived for Marjorie Fielding and myself to Sunday lunch. It proved to be a most enjoyable occasion, but one which I shall remember for a reason other than the gracious welcome of our host and hostess. After a really wonderful meal, Lord Roseberry excused himself to attend to some business, and Lady Roseberry bade us to accompany her into the drawing room. This procedure was not in strict order, as the ladies usually left the table first, allowing the gentlemen to patronise the "geography" of the house. But My Lord was busy, and the male guests followed Her Ladyship into the drawing room. Lady Roseberry was a splendid hostess, and she and Marjorie got on like a house on fire. But I was "on fire" for another reason - the call of nature was making pressing demands. I crept unobtrusively out of the room, hoping to find a stray butler or footman who could direct me to the "loo". But the place was deserted; not a soul to be seen in those vast corridors. I gently tried door after door, without success. Finally, I pushed open a door which, to my chagrin, opened into the Earl's study, and there was my host dictating letters to a man in a neat black coat - his secretary. I made apologetic noises, and prepared to withdraw, but Lord Roseberry was most solicitous and hearing of my predicament he instructed his secretary to show me the way. All well and good - but, unfortunately, the secretary didn't know where "it" was either. By this time we were both pushing open doors to right and to left, until, finally, at last one led us to the butler's pantry and all was well. The secretary returned to his master, and I to my hostess in the drawing room.
And thus ended a happy Sunday interlude. Marjorie and I returned home to our digs - Marjorie with one of Lady Roseberry's hats, which was thrust upon her by a charming hostess; me with a lasting and happy memory. No hat - but perhaps his Lordship had decided my head was not a fit receptable for one of his hats, for which I was duly thankful!