Strange things can happen, anywhere, at any time, and without any warning, as everyone knows; and I doubt if there is anyone who when asked, could not recount some strange happening at the most inappropriate time or place. In the theatre this can sometimes call for quick action, and great control over one's sense of humour. The incidents are not always funny, indeed they can be very serious, or even tragic, and no trace of anything untoward should become known to the audience. There are times when this is not possible; for instance, on more than one occasion an actor or actress has fainted during a duologue scene, when the only thing to do is ring down the curtain.
I remember playing a scene with Henry Mollison in UNDER THE GOOSEBERRY BUSH at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, soon after the tour of Peter Pan had finished. Henry had been a prisoner of war for five years in Germany, and this was his first return to the Stage. His nerves were in a pretty shocking state, but he was putting up a very good fight to overcome them. One night, however, in the middle of a duologue scene, I turned round to see him disappearing into the wings and back to his dressing-room in a state of collapse. While trying to make up my mind what to do, I crossed the stage and poured myself a whisky and soda, I suppose thinking subconsciously that somehow I must get Henry a glass of brandy. I then signalled to the Stage Manager to ring down the curtain, and went to see how Henry was getting on. By this time someone had fetched him a brandy, which was stronger than my stage whisky, (burnt sugar and water) and we persuaded Henry that he must come back and carry on with the scene at all costs. I then went in front of the curtain and explained what had happened, with the result that, on his return, the House rose to him in a most affecting manner. From then on, Henry had no more nerve trouble.
Unfortunately for me, I was to have trouble in the same play later on when were playing at Bath. I had an attack of 'middle ear', which caused complete loss of balance. I just managed to get through the performance by clinging on to pieces of furniture. I'm afraid the audience must have thought I was drunk! After the show, the Stage Manager, Sammy Lysons, took me back to bed, where I stayed for the rest of the week, unable to move.
We later took the play to the St.James's Theatre in London, with Basil Radford replacing Henry Mollison by a pre-arrangement. One night during the second interval, Sammy Lysons was on stage having a last look round to see that all was in order. The A.S.M., however, thinking that Sammy had left the stage, rang up the curtain, with the result that poor Sammy had to dive down behind the settee and stay there for the whole Act. No doubt the reader can imagine the effect it had on us as we made our entrances. That really was prolonged agony, and not only for Sammy! Some plays seem to have a kind of jinx, and THE ASTONISHED OSTRICH, as we renamed it for London, was certainly one!
Before bringing the play to London, the dreadful war being at an end, our Management decided to give us a run in Germany to entertain the war-worn British troops - and, incidentally, to offer us a chance of viewing the now deserted battlefields. I look back on this adventure with mixed memories. It was a carefree time for us in that bombed and desolate country, with its shattered walls and grim silent faces. Our drink ration was generous and a great change from the severe rations at home. We also had a plentiful supply of cigarettes, and the penniless and depressed Germans had none. This fact led to shameless bartering with the German housewives, who were eager to exchange their meagre household goods for cigarettes. I remember particularly a concert given by a famous pianist, whose name eludes me now. He played beautifully and was rapturously received by a house crowded with British Tommies. After being recalled several times, he made a final low bow, and as he turned to go a cigarette fell from his trouser pocket. I imagined it was part of his payment, and wanted to leap from my seat, run after him and return the cigarette one hundredfold. My conscience was ill at ease, and I was not sorry to return to England, which we did, and we opened at the St.James's Theatre in April 1946. However, the Press was indifferent, and we closed after a limited run of a few weeks.
Our second child, Jonathan, had made his entrance into the world, and this necessitated enlarging our home and leaving our beautiful flat in Whitelands House. A large house which had been run as a hostel for the Canadian Air Force had now become vacant, and we decided to purchase 10 Cadogan Gardens.
My life now was full of promise for the future. Gone indeed were the bad old days when I had filled empty hours pacing the "Actors' Mile" and beseiging Managements with pleas for work. Offers were now coming to me in all three media - stage, film and television. I had just completed a television with Angela Baddeley of Oscar Wilde's WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, and a film with Sonia Dresdel and Cyril Ramond, THIS WAS A WOMAN.
In this film, the script demanded that I was the owner of a small dog, who was devoted to me - and I to him. Unfortunately, however, this proved not to be the case. "Jackie", the little horror, a mongrel terrier, who had been hired for the occasion, couldn't care less about my sham show of affection for him. With a view to improving the situation, I suggested that the dog should come and stay with us during the making of the film, so that we could "get to know one another". This was gratefully agreed to by Marcel Hellman, the Producer, and I returned home with strict instructions to be on the set, with the animal, for the first shot in the morning. The children were delighted; Angela was horrified! But we made him a cosy little bed in our best bedroom chair, and duly retired for the night.
Waking a few hours later, I sensed that the dog was no longer "in residence". I woke Angela with a start, crying, "Darling, Jackie has fled". Jumping out of bed, I raised my voice and shouting after him, I tore downstairs and out into the street, yelling frantically, "Jackie, Jackie, you little beast, come back to your master", (and several other things besides), but all without success. We returned to bed with vision of the distressed Marcel Hellman, swearing and crying alternatively when he heard the news.
Lying on my bed some time later in the early hours, wondering what I could do, I thought I heard a dog barking. In a flash, I was down in the street once more, shouting "Jackie, Jackie", and sure enough, a frightened, spiritless animal came running round the corner and leapt into my waiting arms. It may have been my imagination, but "Jackie" and I seemed to understand one another much better from then on. Perhaps he realized that he was not the only one to have suffered a fright.
Shortly after moving into No.10, I received word from Binkie Beaumont that Frank Cellier was in need of a rest from his part of Mr.Winslow in THE WINSLOW BOY, and would I take over for a limited time? Terrence Rattigan's play, starring also Angela Baddeley and Emlyn Williams, was running successfully at the Lyric Theatre. I jumped at the opportunity, and enjoyed playing in this distinguished production until Frank's return.
Some three months later, I was sent for to go to Pinewood Studios to audition for an important part in the film, BLANCHE FURY, with Stewart Granger and Valerie Hobson. Auditions were always anathema to me. They made me feel like a schoolboy on trial. But this time everything was alright. I got the part, and with it, for the first time in films, "Solo First Feature Billing", which I regarded as something of an achievement.
However, I had been working on the set for for only three days when I received an emergency call from Binkie saying that Frank had once more been taken ill, and could I possibly play for him that same night? I consulted the Producer, Anthony Havelock-Allan, who agreed, provided that it did not interfere with the shooting of the film, and that I did not expect to be let off early.
Quick thinking was necessary, and the decision of vital importance, not only to me but to my two Masters whom the Bible tells me no man can serve. Could I remember the part of Winslow, which I had not played for three months? Could I make the journey from the studio to the Lyric Theatre in time? We finished shooting each evening at 6:10 p.m., the curtain went up at the Lyric at 7:30 p.m., and Mr.Winslow made his entrance at about 7:40. I consulted Ted, a first rate private hire chauffeur, who with his Rolls Royce was under contract to drive me to the studios each day. The roads were icy during that bitterly cold winter of 1947, and breakdowns were not infrequent, but Ted said, "Yes, Sir, we can make it." I rang Binkie..."Yes, if you will send the A.S.M. with a script of THE WINSLOW BOY, I can go quickly through the words on my way to the theatre."
We arrived at the Lyric just in time, and as I made my entrance, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I survived the entire evening without a prompt. This razor-edged routine continued for several weeks. But, thanks to Ted, we always made it with a few minutes to spare, having changed and taken off my film make-up in the car. After a long and tiring day on the set, I remember how relaxed and happy I felt on re-entering my own home ground, the Stage - with no terrifying cameras to trip me up, no harsh steely arc lamps to face, just a cosy theatre with its warm and friendly audience. The whole incident helped to prove what in my heart I already knew - that the Theatre would always remain my first love.
Sadly, when the play went to New York, I was unable to accept the part as I was by then tied up with another film; but when WINSLOW BOY was later made into a film, my name was not considered to have sufficient drawing-power, and the part of Mr.Winlow was given to Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who was specially brought over from New York. By way of compensation, as I felt it must be, Puffin Asquith, who was to direct the film, asked me if I would consider playing the part of the First Sea Lord, which had been written into the script. I accepted. I knew that films were vitally important to me, professionally, commercially, and, not least, financially, in this increasingly mechanical age.
One day, during the shooting of BLANCHE FURY, Marc Allegret, after consultation with a group of scriptwriters, decided to re-shoot a scene concerning Valerie Hobson and myself. It was a long duologue scene which we had already studied, rehearsed and shot with some difficulty, and the new bit of script handed to me showed only minor alterations of a word here and there, which to me seemed to add nothing of value to the speeches. But such is the jungle-law of the film world - and the Director's slightest whim has to be obeyed. We were given a few minutes in which to study the new version. But, as I have already said, the memory is a tricky piece of mechanism, and dislikes being treated in this way. I had studied the original script and learned it thoroughly; now I had to unlearn it, substituting the altered wording. After two or three "takes" my nerve began to crack. The Director, an excitable Frenchman, threw up his hands in despair; the Assistant Director asked me if I was feeling alright; Valerie Hobson was kind and understanding and offered me benzedrine. After several more "takes", they decided to call it a day, and to settle for the best of a not very good bunch. In any case the scene was perfectly well covered with various "cross shots". I was annoyed with myself. Havelock-Allan came to my dressing-room next day and asked me if I often had trouble with my lines. I (who was known in the profession as "the Rock of Gibraltar" where the learning of lines was concerned) tried to explain the difficulties of re-learning an altered speech and shooting it at short notice, but I do not think I convinced him, and I was left wondering how far and wide the news had spread. "Give a dog a bad name" is a saying that applies very much to an actor. I comforted myself with the thought that the Tennant Management and the cast of THE WINSLOW BOY would have no complaints of my memory. I wonder, could it be that my difficulty on the set resulted from subconscious fatigue due to this double commitment?
My troubles with BLANCHE FURY were not yet over. Before shooting finished there was some night work to be done for a spectacular and terrifying scene in which a barn was burned down. This involved some horse riding. George Pollock, the No.1 Assistant, said to me quite casually, "Oh by the way, Walter, are you O.K. on a horse?" I said, "Yes" hopefully, remembering my early days on - and off - Mr.Punch, the Vicarage donkey, and the bare-back rides on the butcher boy's pony. It turned out to be a real night of terror! At about 10 o'clock on a pitch dark night, dressed in my Victorian Squire's costume, with cut away evening tail coat, flowered waist-coat, stiff pointed collar and flowing cravat, trousers strapped under my patent leather boots (of the thinnest material and quite unsuitable for riding), I was driven out to the 'Lot', a spacious area belonging to Pinewood Studios, where I was introduced to the biggest horse I have ever seen. The contemptuous look he gave me boded no good. He seemed to say "Come on, you clever rider. Jump up and I will show you". The stretch of ground chosen for shooting was brilliantly lighted with powerful Arc lamps. Deprived of my glasses which I usually wear, I was lifted onto the enormous animal, and told to ride up to a post some hundred yards away to await further instructions. I went off at a merry gallop flying past the starting posts to shouts of 'STOP, STOP', to which I yelled back, 'I CAN'T, I CAN'T'. However, the beast, having had his little joke, was kind enough to let up before descendng a sharp incline into some woods. Then, in company with some three or four other mounted characters, I was told to ride hell for leather up to the 'barn' erected some four hundred yards away. This episode had to be rehearsed three or four times before shooting. As I managed to stick on all ths time perhaps my mountainous piece of horseflesh was beginning to have a little more respect for me; at any rate I began to feel more at home, though I still did not relish riding over rough, unfamiliar ground, and without my glasses. But the great moment was reserved for the actual shot. With cameras rolling we rode right up to the barn, which, having been saturated with petrol, and aided by some electrical device, burst into a really frightening blaze ascending high up into the deep black night. Not many horses would stand for this sort of treatment; but actually mine did, standing on his hind legs with distended nostrils, and neighing his disapproval in hideous discords. Even Stuart Granger, who was an expert horseman, could not control his steed. But the camera boys recorded the shot to their satisfaction, and I was rescued by eager, helping hands. Truly, a night of terror for the horses, but, for me, a night of triumph!
Sir Cedric Hardwicke once remarked: "If you want people to look at you, keep still. On a stage full of restless characters, it is the silent still figure who will always capture the audience's attention".
By the same token, I reasoned that if a theatre knew that the central character in a play was "blind", nothing and noone would distract their eyes from his every movement. Of course, this would depend to some extent upon the authenticity of his performance - if he was played with arms outstretched and groping, eyes tightly closed and an agonised expression on his face, I doubt if any audience would be impressed, but if the actor could convince the audience that he was completely without sight, he could be more or less assured of their attention from the beginning of the play until the final curtain.
I was given the chance of playing a blind man in THE PARAGON, a play by Ronald Pertwee and his son, Michael. I was really thrilled at this opportunity. For an actor to really live out a part, it is not enough to merely disguise his voice. He must also adopt the movements and mannerisms typical of the character he is portraying. For this reason, as indeed with artists and cartoonists, he is never "off duty". So much can be learnt by silent observation of individuals, be they at a cocktail party, in the drawing-room, or on a crowded bus or train. I had so often been fascinated to watch how blind people coped with their absence of vision, and now here was a chance to put into practice those traits which I had observed.
I made a point of playing the character of Sir Robert Rawley with my eyes open, yet unseeing - never looking directly at a character - footsteps slow, but firm and unfaltering, as the action all took place in his own home where all the furniture was set to a mathematical inch, with any useable props in an exact position so that Sir Robert could lay his hand on them without fumbling. This was essential too to the action of the play, as, in the last Act, when he, a devoted father, discovers the truth about his baseless son and switches out the lights saying, "Now we are on equal terms...", the clever and worthless offspring immediately alters the furniture around, and this ensures an exciting finish.
Without a theatre having been settled, we started rehearsing under Norman Marshall's direction. We had a strong cast, with Rachel Kempson as my wife, Hugh Burden as the renegade son, Anthony Marlowe and Elizabeth Kentish, and that fine old veteran actor, Arthur Wontner, playing the part of a courtly old peer, Lord Clandon. (In one scene he sat in a chair, dead centre, facing the audience, legs crossed, playing an imaginary game of football with one toe, twiddling his monocle with one hand and playfully twirling his beautiful gold cane with the other. I thought to myself, what he really needs now is a plate to balance on the end of his cane, and then he could turn himself into a real juggling act. But, being blind, I could not be seen to observe these details, so we both continued to stare out front!)
One day, E.P.Clift, who was presenting the play, arrived at rehearsal, breathless with excitement, to announce, "Ladies and Gentlemen; you will be glad to know that we have a theatre. We open at the Fortune on May 13th." This news was received in deadly silence, broken after some minutes by the rich and aged voice of Arthur Wontner, who enquired, "Where IS the Fortune Theatre?" As most people knew, the Fortune is the little theatre hidden behind Drury Lane. Frequently, on walking from the Garrick to rehearsals, people would stop and ask me, "Could you please direct me to Drury Lane?" I would seize these opportunities by saying, "Oh yes, indeed, it is just behind the Fortune", leaving them to work it out.
As I had expected, the play attracted much attention, and many distinguished people came to see it; amongst them no less a personage than Queen Mary herself, in company with her daughter, the Princess Royal. The cast was presented to her during the second interval, and she asked me if I played the part with my eyes open or shut, apologizing for her own failing eyesight.
I quote from two letters which gave me particular pride and pleasure. One was from my former "headmistress", as I liked to call her, Dame Lena Ashwell. "I admired your performance so much last night" she wrote, "that I must write to tell you so. It is a very masterly performance. Never for one moment did we think that you were not completely blind, which is a real achievement. Then, with all the rough egotism and ruthless power of the character, you gave us the tenderness and lovingness in him..." And of the same play, wrote Anthony Kimmins, "...I thought your's was one of the grandest performances I have seen in the theatre for a long time..."
Our run was limited, but far from forgotten; and to this day people still say to me, "I saw you as the blind man in THE PARAGON".
Later in the same year, I was to score perhaps my biggest success so far, in the role of Dr.Relling in Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK, which was put on for a limited season at the St.Martin's Theatre. The all-star cast consisted of Fay Compton, Robert Harris, Mai Zetterling, Anton Walbrook, Miles Malleson and myself. Again, there were encouraging reviews and letters, among them a note I received from Sir Julian Hall, lamenting that his paper had allowed only about two hundred words for his notice, and adding, "I should so very gladly have written about your performance at the length it deserves. You got under the skin of the part in a way that gave me the keenest pleasure of the evening. Such acting puts one under a debt which it is, alas, seldom possible for a member of the audience to repay".
After this sombre tragedy my next engagement, to play Monsieur Perrier in MARRIAGE STORY, offered a welcome contrast. I liked the play, and I liked my part, that of a poorly dressed French bourgeois with a scruffy little beard. We opened at the Strand Theatre one Tuesday, and how bravely my name shone out in lights all the way to Charing Cross. But the critics were not impressed. Not even the performance of Angela Baddeley could save us, and on the following Saturday the play was taken off. However, by a lucky stroke of fate, Walt Disney's producer, Perse Pierse, and his director, Bud Haskin, had chosen that very week to come to London to cast the film of TREASURE ISLAND. Bill Linnitt, my Manager, persuaded them to pay a visit to the Strand. Next day he phoned me to say that I was the man they wanted for Squire Trelawney. How they could see in the seedy old Frenchman the character of the rich and boisterous Squire Trelawney was beyond my comprehension. I was overwhelmed at the news. I imagined that I might now realise my dream of long ago, when I worked for for the P&O in Leadenhall Street, and be wafted off to some distant desert island in the South Seas. But alas, Disney decided to bring the South Sea Island to Denham, where he transformed the very English surroundings with the importation of Oriental palms and other vegetation. Knowing what English summers can be like, he took a great chance with the weather,but his luck held, and for four months we were able to shoot in the open without one day's interruption, under blue skies and in glorious sunshine.
Robert Newton was outstanding in his interpretation of Long John Silver, and as always I much enjoyed his company. Despite his well-known weaknesses, he was a grand actor and a lovable friend.
In the early part of the following year, 1950, I was playing Captain Shotover in HEARTBREAK HOUSE at the Arts Theatre, in a production by John Fernald. It was to celebrate Shaw's 94th birthday, and included in the cast was my old friend from the days of Mrs.Pat - Catherine Lacey, who gave a brilliant performance as Mrs.Hushabye. Of the many compliments which I received for my performance of Shotover, I particularly treasure the one by Beverley Baxter in his Review of the Year. I quote:
"What is to be said about the acting in this year of grace? On the whole it must be rated very high. Think for a moment of what we have seen - Olivier's brooding aristocrat in VENUS OBSERVED, Paul Schofield's twin brothers in RING ROUND THE MOON, Peggy Ashcroft's Viola, Walter Fitzgerald's Captain Shotover, John Mills' Tycoon in TOP OF THE LADDER, Yvonne Mitchell in CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR, Ralph Richardson in HOME AT SEVEN, and Frederick Valk in JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN. Admittedly we have had to go to the little theatres to pick up some of these collector's pieces, but I regard that band of brave guerrillas as an important feature in the upward climb of the British theatre....."
During the run of HEARTBREAK HOUSE, I received an invitation from James Bridie couched in terms which it would have been impossible to resist. "You have played the Devil. Now I want you to play God." His new play, THE QUEEN'S COMEDY, was to receive its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in August, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, and I was being offered the part of Jupiter. Sonia Dresdel was to play Juno, and in the cast was a young actor called Stanley Baxter, playing the part of Mercury.
The play ended with a very long speech in which I had to address and admonish a gathering of lesser gods and goddesses, and at rehearsal I delivered this is what I hoped was my most impressive and dramatic manner. But the oratory fell flat, and I was at a loss until Tyrone Guthrie, one of the most gifted and understanding of producers, showed me in one simple sentence how to put things right. "Walter," he said quietly, "just remember you are talking to your family". Thus can a few words of sensitive direction achieve in minutes what hours of wearying rehearsals often fail to do.
On the last night of this memorable engagement, James Bridie, after his final speech of thanks from the stage to Sonia Dresdel and myself, led the audience in singing "Will ye no' come back again?" It really was a highly emotional experience.
One cold, wet August morning soon after the play opened at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, I called at the theatre to collect my mail, and there was a letter from Norman Marshall: "I am taking a little Company of six to India", he wrote, "to give a seies of recitals, in costume, of Shakespeare. I have told the British Council that I frankly cannot see any particular reason why you should want to do this rather odd job - unless you have a burning desire to see India. But I need hardly say how delighted I would be if you were interested. We fly on November 1st."
I put the letter down and stared uncertainly out of the dressing-room window at the cheerless scene. India and Pakistan were not the West End, and hardly within visiting distance of the London critics. But all my life I had been prevented from acting in Shakespeare; perhaps, I thought, to save his works from desecration! As long ago as 1932 I had sought Martin Harvey's advice about doing a season at the Old Vic, and he replied "I don't think I should consider it if I were you. You have all the intelligence, but I think your personality will always be of most value in modern work - a much more paying proposition." Later, I hadgiven an audition to Tyrone Guthrie: "Well, after all, you have no difficulty getting work, do you? Perhaps another time....." I also did a test for Olivier, when he was about to film HENRY V, but the part I auditioned for went to someone else. Was this my chance at last? The summer was departing; we had scarcely seen the sun, and winter would soon be upon us. I chose India.
Ironically, a second and even more exciting Shakespearean offer came to me shortly before we left. One day, Alec Guinness phoned; would I play the King in his Festival Year production of HAMLET at the New Theatre, after my return from India? This was to be a production on the grand scale, put on by Henry Sherek, and the London run was to be followed by New York. This was a truly glamorous prospect to treasure during my absence in the East, and I could afford to ignore the cutting comment of one important personage, who shall be nameless, who remarked on hearing of my intended tour, "How wise of Walter to go to India to play his Shakespeare!"
But the best send-off came from James Bridie, whowrote from Edinburgh a few days before my departure,
"My dear Fitz, This is a belated letter to thank you on behalf of all of us for coming to Edinburgh and Glasgow and putting in a noble and distinguished piece of work. Your Jupiter was really memorable, and I, for one, shall always feel grateful for it. You got out of the part every ounce of fun and intelligence there was in it and a bit more of your own, and I never hope to hear lines of mine more finely spoken. I think that W.Shakespeare is a lucky fellow and I hope that your interpretations of that dramatist will be appreciated by our brown-skinned co-dominionists at something near what their worth will be."
I hoped so indeed.
We flew to India on November 1st, 1950, speeding through the skies in our Argonaut, beyond Rome, beyond Cairo, beyond Baghdad, and feeling somewhat apprehensive.
Apart from myself, the Company included John Wyse, Frances Clare, David King-Wood, Judith Stott and Jonathan Meddings, together with Norman Marshall, our producer.
The tour we were embarking on was experimental in nature, to find out how much demand there was to hear Shakespeare spoken by British actors, and to explore the possibility of sending out more, and possibly larger, companies in the future. It was, of course, well known that in the widespread study of Shakespeare India was unequalled in any country in the world, including our own, and the British Council had received many requests for such a visit.
Theatres in the whole of India and Pakistan could be counted on the fingers of one hand, not including the thumb.
We gave our opening performance in Delhi, in a very third-rate picture house - the best available accommodation. Our dressing-room was ill-equipped, badly lighted, with no washing facilities and, what was more important, no "conveniences". This was something that had to be remedied, and, after our strong protests had been made, a receptacle of some kind was produced. When we arrived at the theatre the following day, the "receptacle" had not been touched, and neither would any of our so-called "domestic" staff do anything about it. The bearers complained that it was too menial a task for them, and even the "untouchables" refused to comply. In the end we, the cast, took it in turns to empty it ourselves. But the audience was far from third-rate, and the hall was guarded as closely as the Crown Jewels. The President, the Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, his Deputy, Sandar Patel, Commander-in-Chief Cariappa, Cabinet Ministers, members of the Diplomatic Corps, and a host of distinguished Asians honoured us with ther presence. They had come to see a small group of British actors and actresses, six in all, give the first performance of a tour that was to cover the length and breadth of the sub-continent. It was the first time since Partition that an organised British body of any sort had visited the country.
Later, the British High Commissioner, General Sir Archibald Nye, and Lady Nye, gave a big reception for us which was attended by Pandit Nehru. We were all feeling rather bewildered at the noise and bustle of this strange eastern city, with its fine buildings, its wide avenues designed by Lutyens, and its innumerable bicyclists in their white dhotis rushing heedlesly along in the utmost confusion. Norman Marshall, Frances Clare, Judith Stott and myself were on our way to the reception in a large car, driven very fast by a Sikh chauffeur, when, to my horror, I saw a cyclist coming right at us. The Sikh made no effort to avoid him, and he slithered across the bonnet of the car, cracking the windscreen, and fell to the ground, his bicycle being smashed as we went over it. I told the driver to stop. He accelerated. I yelled at him again, "Stop!" He took no notice. When we were at last halted by some traffic lights, an Indian gentleman drew up alongside and said "Do you know you knocked a man off his bicycle and did not stop? That is very anti-social." I told him that I had tried to make the driver stop without any effect, and he spoke severely to the Sikh, telling him to return to the scene of the accident. We did so, fearing that we might find a dead and mangled body and a hostile crowd. But he had disappeared, presumably to hospital. The remains of the bicycle were lying by the roadside. The police called on me next day, and I learned with relief that the man was recovering. We arranged compensation for the broken bicycle.
But it had been an unnerving start to our evening, and we arrived at the reception considerably shaken. During the proceedings, General Nye introduced us to Pandit Nehru, who was very friendly and came and shook hands with us, western style. To me he said, "You and I have something in common - we never stop acting!" Later in the week, he, too, gave a reception for us at his Residence, a palatial building which I gathered had been Auchinleck's Headquarters when he was Commander-in-Chief before Independence. On a hot afternoon after a matinee, and without a proper wash, we had to climb into our dinner jackets, there being no time to return to our hotel to change. We were ushered into a large room, empty except for one or two ladies who received us, but soon the place began to fill with people of all nationalities. I was dying of thirst, and presently sure enough, the drinks did arrive. A bearer came up to me carrying a huge silver tray with glasses of what was obviously tomato juice, and a colourless liquid which I could only hope was gin. As I took one, I asked the bearer what it was; he replied, "Water". Hurriedly replacing the glass, I had to console myself with tomato juice as the lesser of two evils! Hindus, of course, do not drink alcohol.
I tried to talk intelligently to a Chinaman on my right and an Indian on my left, till Nehru made his entrance, very regally, and shook hands all round. Our leading lady, Frances Clare, looking very lovely in her evening gown, made an immediate conquest and asked him to autograph a book she had brought with her. He took her away into his study, and, after a long absence, she returned with two more books. What happened behind the closed door no-one knew. Did she get somehing stronger than tomato juice? Anyway, "Mother India", as we soon began to call her, scored a big social success, as indeed she did wherever she went. We hurried back to our evening performance, me dizzy with tomato juice, and Frances with her three autographed books.
By the end of the week we were worn out with receptions, speeches, the warm climate and upset stomachs, and were glad to leave for the comparative peace and quiet of Agra. The journey gave us our first glimpse of the Indian countryside. As it was only a short distance, we travelled by road. We had to allow an interval of at least fifteen minutes after each car had started to give the dust time to settle enough for those in the following car to see where they were going; and, if a car was stationary for a short time with a window open as much as one inch at the top, it would fill with flies. Monkeys clambered amongst the trees as we passed through mud villages. Everywhere there was teeming life. It was hard to distinguish the humans from the animals, the wild dogs and sacred cows of which we were to see so many. If we halted by the wayside in an apparently deserted spot, within minutes there would be a crowd of inquisitive villagers surrounding us. They seemed to spring out of the very soil. And standing sentinel, ever watchful, were the vultures, waiting for their prey, a dying animal or human being. They are surely quite the ugliest birds God ever created, but, I imagine, in such a climate, one of the most useful.
Whilst we were in Allahabad, we had a taste of Indian hospitality at a party given for us by a merchant reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the whole of India, and judging by the standard of entertainment he providing for us, I can well believe it. We drove up the long private drive, lit at intervals by ornate street lamps, passing beggars lying in the gutters with arms outstretched, and, on arrival at the house, we were escorted across a lawn to a large pavilion. Here was an enormous bar, and tables groaning with food - dishes and dishes of various curries. We ate and drank blindly, not knowing what was what, gazing meanwhile upon a large floodlit swimming pool with coloured fountains, and artificial waves simulating a rough sea. These were created simply by pressing a switch in the pavilion where we stood, and our host took great delight in demonstrating this to us.
Presently we heard bagpipes wailing through the night. We walked across to the other side of the pavilion, and there below us was a large floodlit courtyard and a band of Pipers and Drummers, gorgeously arrayed in red tunics and tartan kilts, who proceeded to entertain us to a full-scale tattoo. After that we were invited to view the treasures of the house, a circular one-storied building, with show-cases round its entire circumference. These contained an amazing collection of amber, ivory, pottery and jade, mixed up with a lot of meretricious junk. It seemed to me to be vulgarity in the extreme. Our host had no conversation and merely roared with coarse laughter when anyone spoke to him. We made lame and obvious remarks, such as "what a wonderful collection", to which he would reply "Ha ha ha ha, it is nothing; it is all in my house in Bombay, in Calcutta, seventy five per cent there, only twenty five per cent here. You must see my brother in Bombay, my brother in Calcutta, they will show you". It made me feel rather sick. I thought of those beggars in the drive. Were they real, or had they been placed there for effect and perhaps given a rupee each, like film extras, to emphasise the background of wealth and power? My impression was that the rich man cared not one jot about his poor neighbour, an impression that lasted throughout my short time in India. Indeed, the whole caste system, now that I saw it in operation, revolted me. But I do not attempt to sit in judgement on a country so ageless and mysterious in its usages and customs, so diverse in tongues and religions. Perhaps indeed it is mannerless of me to criticise a man who had shown us such well-intentioned hospitality.
But we did not spend all our time in the company of the rich. Our audiences included bazaar stall-holders, bearers, and even the "untouchables", the sweepers. One of our main objects was to play to as many students as possible. Everywhere we went we gave Student Matinees, with an all-over price of Rs.2 a seat. There was never a vacant seat, and the overcrowding and packing that was necessary would not have found favour with the L.C.C. authorities. In Poona the Manager received a petition from 1500 students who failed to get in, asking for extra Matinees to be put on, but, owing to our tight working schedule, this was not possible. Some of the students found it hard to raise the two rupees and could not come on that account. At New Delhi, a student came to see our Manager during the interval, and asked if he could see the second half of the show for one rupee. After the show , he thanked the Manager and said he intended to follow us to Agra to see the first half and pay him the other rupee.
To play to these students was something quite unique and unforgettable. The atmosphere was electric with an enthusiasm that often gave me "first-night nerves". We felt a great responsibility to play our very best as we knew the performance would be remembered for many years to come. Those who had seen Sir John Gielgud play at the Museum Theatre in Madras duing the war were still talking about it as though it were yesterday. The behaviour of these youthful audiences was impeccable, and their knowledge of the plays astounding. At first I was disturbed at hearing a curious kind of chant going on in an undertone during the performance. Then I realised that they were saying the lines with me. Every eye was riveted on the actor, every ear distended to drink in each word, as if it were a drop of rain in a thirsty land. Their sense of comedy was quite remarkable, and the ear-splitting laughter that greeted the bilingual wooing scene between Henry and Kate in HENRY V was as infectious as that of children watching clowns at a circus. At Poona, I was again reminded of playing to children. When I came to take my call as Shylock, I was received with Elephant and Castle boos. This was in contrast to the cheers that greeted Portia's speech forbidding me to shed one drop of Antonio's blood. Yes, I could say truthfully: "The denizens of Poona thought my Shylock was immense"!
Only one thing puzzled us. In many places the curtain would fall without applause. It occured to us that this was because they had never seen any live acting before, and knew only the cinema as a form of entertainment. I mentioned this in a radio broadcast at Lucknow, and the next night we got all the applause we could wish for.
At Dacca, in Eastern Pakistan, the military plice had to come to our assistance to quell an incipient riot by those who were unable to gain admission. Things looked a little ugly for a time, but the arrival of the Governor, Malik Firoz Noon, and the Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was staying with him, helped to pacify the crowd, and we started the performance to pin-drop silence. The Governor told us afterwards that he had ordered the military to stand by in case of trouble. He evidently knew his own people. And so I could go on enumerating instances of this tremendous enthusiasm, showing a genuine desire for more and more Shakespeare.
Of all the places that we visited, the Muslim State of Hyderabad stands out as possibly the most interesting and picturesque. We were the guests of the Hyderabad State, the head of which was the Nizam. He is, or was, reputed to be the richest man in the world...perhaps it would be safer to say he was a man of untold wealth. I was told that he had three hundred wives, though who could ever count them I cannot imagine. Were they kept in pens, in packets of twenty? Or perhaps they had to parade each morning in the Palace courtyard, and number off from the right to find out if any were missing. I suppose that even the richest man in the world would feel a draught if he had to provide for three hundred wives. It was said that if he decided to dispose of his jewels, it would kill the world market. He possessed so much wealth in diamonds, pearls, emeralds and other precious stones that the value had never been assessed...cellars full of unmounted and uncut stones. Could it be true? Or was I just a polite wide-eyed listener to some fairy tale?
To give veracity to the eccentricities of this fabulous phantom Prince of Wealth, the Nizam would sleep on the roof of his Palace, wrapped in an old shawl, and lead the life of a recluse. Once a day he would leave the Palace in a dirty old Ford car, to pray at the tomb of his mother. This I was witness to myself. Wandering one evening in the old part of the city, edging my way through the crowded streets, there was suddenly great excitement. Whistles sounded, troops and police appeared as if from nowhere. In no time, the streets seemed to be empty, and along came the Nizam himself, preceded by an outrider on a motor cycle with a large red flag, and followed by a motorcade. His Highness was in the first car, muffled up in an old shawl, followed by others filled with women, all heavily hooded, (some of his wives, I supposed) going to pray at the tomb of his mother.
He had two sons, a small family I should have thought with so many wives. One son, the heir, lived in another Palace. The second son, in disgrace, was banished from the State.
We were alloted quarters in "Hill Port", a fantastic pseudo-gothic castle, which was supposed to be a replica of Windsor Castle, although I saw no resemblance. It had previously been occupied by the disgraced son. Fallen into disuse, it had no proper furniture except for one or two horrors which had been specially put in for us. We were supplied with a tired lot of servants, who were worse than useless, but we did boast a rather tatty sentry, who leaned against the front entrance, complete with rifle and fixed bayonet. One day I remember was the Festival of Kites, when everyone, young and old, goes around with a kite - an enchanting and colourful sight. We felt sorry for our poor sentry not having one, but he was not forgotten, and sure enough, later in the day, there he was with his fixed bayonet in one hand and a kite in the other.
But the food was better than we wee used to, and the china was good, probably from the Nizam's own Palace. The views were wonderful, and from my ridiculous bedroom I could see for miles over the lake and the trees; and the skies at dawn and dusk were beautiful. My bathroom was ostentatious, three marble steps up to the bath, but nothing really worked - the water might be hot or cold, or non-existent.
I was really sorry to leave Hyderabad with its equable climate, its beautiful lake on which we sailed several times; its horror of a theatre with large stage and small auditorium and audiences who never stopped talking; and its narrow streets with their many silver shops, and the smell, colours and atmosphere of which seemed not to have changed for centuries past.
Being a small Company, we travelled almost entirely by air, taking our scenery with us. Accommodation was difficult to get, and expensive. This indeed was not our problem, but that of the British Council, and we owed them a great deal for their expertise and efficiency in ensuring our well-being. I frequently stayed with District High Commissioners in their comfortable houses, with butler and servants to wait on me. On the other hand, the discomfort in the impoverished make-shift dressing-rooms was at times almost unbearable, with no water laid on, inadequate lighting, no fans, and dust, eternal dust; monkeys, rats, bats and other livestock to contend with. At Caunpore, we were overrun with rats; one jumped out of my Gladstone bag as I put my hand in to get something. Playing a scene with John Wyse one night, I saw two of them on the stage, having a pow wow. We persuaded the Manager to put down some traps, which he did; not lethal ones of course, but large wire cages. When the cages were sufficiently well patronised, they were taken outside, and the rats were set free! It is against the Hindu religion to take life.
But there was also the other romantic side: the starlit bathe at Madras on Christmas Eve; the Taj Mahal, that ethereal and meringue-like piece of heavenly confection, seen by moonlight; sailing on the Sagar Lake at Hyderabad; or lunch at the Bengal Club in Calcutta, still trying to keep up the style of its British Raj days. Then there was the Residency at Lucknow, with its peaceful grounds still so beautifully kept; the flowering trees and shrubs at Bangalore, the bazaars and snake-charmers and fortune tellers, the sunsets, and daybreak seen from the Dakota. One sweet memory I still have. We had been to look at an old fort somewhere, and coming away we started off in the car. I happened to look behind and saw a girl running madly after us. We stopped, she caught us up, panting, and pressed little posies of flowers into our hands, with smiles as beautiful as the flowers. The Indian love of flowers is very real: the bearer who lays out your dinner jacket will put a buttonhole ready for you to wear. Once at Poona, at a supper party, we were presented with flowers and I remarked to my Hindu host what a nice way it was to express one's friendship. He replied, "The flowers come to you from God".
Nevertheless, my main impressions of India were of squalor, bad food, bad smells, noise, dust, flies and beggars, and I was not altogether sorry to leave. While we were on our way into Pakistan, I said to Frances Clare, "Now remember, we are going to Pakistan, so no more Mother India nonsense, or you may get a knife in your back". "Don't worry, Walter", she replied, "Mother India is being left behind. From now on I am Auntie Pahk!" She was as good as her word, and scored as big a social success in the land of Jinnah as she had in that of Nehru.
We were at once aware of the differences between the two countries. The Pakistanis look you in the face, and shake hands instead of folding them in front, breast high, in Hindu style. The food was better, and I remember my first dinner in the hotel in Karachi, where I was presented with a menu of a size and variety that would not disgrace the Ritz or Claridges. I said to the waiter, "Can I have anything I choose?". He answered, "But of course; you are now in Pakistan."
I was fortunate in finding the Graceys in Karachi. General Sir Douglas Gracey and his wife Cecile, were old friends of my wife's family. He was about to give up his duties as Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, an appointment which he had held since Partition. They showed me great kindness, and arranged introductions for me up country to Peshawar, and one especially which I was later able to take up, to the Wali of Swat. Once more, as in India through the kindness of General Cariappa, we had entree to Flagstaff House, as the Army Headquarters in each district was called.
After playing Brutus and Shylock to packed houses in Karachi, it was time to move on again. The Graceys came to the station to see me off to Lahore. It was my first experience of train travel in the sub-continent - quite something to remember. The entire station was alive with very excitable natives who, when the train arrived, swarmed into every available inch and onto the roofs of every carriage, including the engine. We, however, were treated with quite extraordinary respect, travelling in so-called "First Class" carriages, with large slabs of ice placed under our compartments in an attempt to keep them cool.
In Lahore, I saw the office in which Kipling worked for a time and wrote KIM. I also heard about the terrible massacres that took place there during the period of Partition, between the Sikhs and Muslims. But for me there was peace and quiet, which I described in a letter home:
"....I am marooned at Ross' bungalow (Ross was the British Council Agent in Lahore) and entirely dependent on others for transport, as it is four miles to anywhere and walking in the heat and dust does not appeal to me. But the house is quiet and the garden quite lovely, green and with heavenly flowers, the sky blue, the sun dazzling, the birds never ceasing to chatter. I have just seen the most lovely bird, in brilliant shades of blue; I don't know what it is; and yesterday, an emerald green parrot. While lazing in the garden after lunch, I saw the gardener, a devout Muslim, on his knees making his religious obeisances. As he lowered his face to the ground, something caught his eye - a weed in the flower bed he was tending. His devotions were temporarily arrested while he plucked the offending growth from the bed. I was reminded of the prayer scene in HAMLET when Claudius says, "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below"!
It was in Lahore that we were visited by a girls' school, but as the girls were all in Purdah, a special kind of curtain had to be hung in front of the gallery, behind which they sat, and from which they could see us but we could not see them. But we heard that at one girls' college they were to give a performance of THE RIVALS, and we begged the Principal to allow us to attend. We all sat in the front row, and very lovely some of the girls were. It ws the first time that men had ever been allowed to look upon them, let alone watch them act in a play. After the performance we were allowed to mix with them, and I think that there was not a little fluttering of hearts! Purdah was on the way out, however, and sometimes young married girls were allowed to meet us at parties. But we were warned not to let our gaze rest upon their lovely faces too long, or their husbands, becoming jealous, would slash their noses.
We left Lahore by road for Rawalpindi; and en route I had my first experience of locusts. I soon understood what was meant by a "cloud". The sky darkened and in no time we were in the midst of them. We had to stop several times to clean the windscreen which became inches thick with their squashed bodies. When we eventually outrode them, the sky was blue and the sun shining as brightly as ever. One realised what a frightful plague they were, and how, when they settled on a particular piece of land, they would eat it clean of all vegetation.
Whilst I was in Pindi, I had the very different experience of being stuck in a snowdrift. We were invited to lunch with General Roza and his wife, a very beautiful woman who reminded me of Angela Baddeley. Flagstaff House was on top of a mountain 7,000 feet high, and about forty miles out from Pindi. It was a steep climb, with hairpin bends. It might have been Switzerland or Italy, with changing vegetation as we climbed higher, blossom, firs, and then snow. We were ushered into a cosy little chalet, with lights on and a blazing fire, and the lunch was very jolly, rather like Christmas, with the snow outside and the warmth within. Afterwards, we started on our return journey. Although it was only forty miles, it seemed a long way down from the snowcapped mountain to the sunny plains of Pindi. We had a show to give that evening and I began to get fidgety. Our fears were not unfounded. Twice we got stuck in snowdrifts, and had to be dragged out by a jeep that happened to be conveniently near. To heighten our anxiety, at one time the jeep itself got stuck. But all was well, and we arrived back safely with some time in hand before curtain up.
The next luncheon party I attended was very different. Before leaving England, Kenneth Merryless, who had been stationed in the Khyber Pass, and was well-known for his water-divining gifts, had given me an introduction to the Malik of the Shinwaris, Khan Bahadur Haji Murad Khan, whom I was to contact in Peshawar. A notorious and patriotic old brigand, he was a powerful tribesman, a friend of the British, who lived and ruled in the heart of the Khyber Pass at the fortified village of Llandi Khotal. Merryless warned me that he might invite me to lunch, in which case, as the guest of honour, I should be offered the sheep's eye, which on no account was I to refuse or it would be taken as a deadly insult. Also, I would be able to see the orange grove which had blossomed on the arid spot where Merryless had divined water.
Sure enough, one morning a very old Ford car drove into the forecourt of my hotel, and as I looked from the window of my apartment, out of the car came a ruffianly, bearded, swarthy, fierce-looking old man, armed to the teeth, and followed by three more equally brigandish types, also armed with bandoliers, knives, rifles and so on - obviously his bodyguard. I heard him enquiring for me in his limited broken English, and presently all four were ushered into my room. We greeted each other effusively, and then sat in awkward silence, punctuated by attempts at conversation. He managed to convey to me during my stay in Peshawar he was my friend and protector, and I divined from the earnestness of his demeanour that he and his men would indeed protect me with their lives if necessary. Then came the invitation to lunch, which I was permitted to extend to the whole Company.
Next morning, he and his entourage called to pick me up in the old Ford car, and off we went, all squeezed in together, with lots of smiles and merry quips though we could not really understand each other. The rest of the Company made their own arrangements for transport, though each car load of guests had a fully-armed brigand to see them safely through the strictly guarded entrance to the famous Khyber Pass of which we had heard and read so much during the past decades when the British Army had kept the peace through innumerable scraps and skirmishes. This indeed was excitement and adventure beyond my wildest dreams, and the highlight of our tour since we left England so long ago. During our journey along the narrow, dusty, winding tracks of the Pass, I noticed many relics of bygone days: regimental crests and names of British Regiments carved out of great slabs of rocks.
We arrived at the village of Llandi Khotel, and were escorted into a large lofty hall, its mud walls pock-marked with bullet holes, scars of previous encounters with neighbouring villages, and in a commanding position overlooking the surrounding countryside. Slits in walls afforded lookouts and protection against marauding bandits. There were no women to be seen. We were seated at long roughly-made wooden tables, complete with trestles for which I was thankful as I was afraid we would have to squat on the ground. I was put on the right of Murad Khan, and the inevitable sheep, being the traditional Festal fare, was served. We were waited on by rough-looking tribesmen, still fully armed. As the meal progressed, I became conscious of a pair of eyes gazing at me, and realised they were resting in a small dish, together with other tit bits just in front of me. Presently, Murad Khan picked up the dish, and I could see his thick grubby fingers pushing a sheep's eye to the edge as he held the dish in my direction. My hour of trial was at hand. He smiled winningly and his eyes gleamed with anticipatory pleasure as he leaned towards me. To refuse the delicacy was out of the question. I rose to the occasion. I picked, I smiled, and I swallowed; hidden strength came to me, and I did not disgrace myself.
After lunch, he showed me the orange grove which was flourishing where Merryless had divined water - a green oasis in the midst of barren sandy soil.
On departing, we saw a small crowd of women and children on the opposite side of the courtyard, all in a state of excitement, laughing and gesticulating. I imagined them to be the wives and children of the tribesmen. We exchanged greetings as best we could, waving and shouting to them, and presently Murad Khan beckoned one of the boys over to be presented to us. It was his eldest son and heir. The rest were shooed back into their quarters.
Later in the week we were invited to take tea with him in his Orangerie on the outskirts of Peshawar. Here all was different, it might have been Ranelagh or Roehampton; everything was served in Western style, and we drank tea out of that superb Gairdner china of which he had a fine collection, incuding teapots and milk jugs. The Gairdner china, originally designed by an Englishman for the Czar of Russia, had seeped across the border through Kashmir and Afghanistan into Pakistan, and it was no uncommon sight to see the buyers and sellers in the markets drinking tea out of this lovely porcelain.
At a party I met General Majid, who invited me to a buffet lunch the follwing Sunday to meet the Graffety Smiths, the District High Commissioner and his wife. He emphasised that it was to be "on the lawn". I remarked how luky he was to be able to arrange an alfresco party days ahead with such certainty. "Ah" he said, "It is not like England. Here we can depend more surely on our weather." Came Sunday, and it poured with torrential rain. I couldn't help feeling smugly delighted. But we had lunch "on the lawn" nevertheless. Huge marquees were erected with wooden floor-boards, and the party went on without interference from the weather.
Hearing of my intended visit to the Wali of Swat, Murad Khan declared his intention of coming with me, this time without his bodyguard. With two other members of the Company we set off through that wonderful stretch of country, the steep and treacherous Malakand Pass. Swat is very beautiful, not unlike Switzerland, with snowcapped mountains, and the Wali was one of the most cultured men I have ever met - and this although he had never travelled outside of his own country. Very well dressed, in western style, he took us for a drive in his Chrysler, the very latest model with windows that opened and shut at the press of a button. We were accompanied on this outing by a jeep containing his bodyguard, and on occasions when we stopped for the Wali to point something out to us, the bodyguard would leap out of the jeep, forming a circle round us, with rifles at the alert. I wouldn't have thought this was necessary, as he was from all accounts a most popular ruler. After "tea in the garden", English style, we bade farewell to our host, who loaded us with Swat blankets as parting gifts. We were sad at leaving what seemed to us so beautiful and peaceful a State, and so kind and gentle a Wali.
Returning again to Peshawar, again through the Malakand Pass, we had to stop the car at a certain hour for Murad Khan. "Now I go to pray", he explained. He walked ahead of us, and quite unconcernedly went through his Muslim devotions. It was an impressive sight to see this dignified old man prostrating himself before the great towering mountainous country.
One evening we were due to give a performance of OTHELLO at the Ishmalia College, which is situated outside the Cantonment and not far from the Khyber Pass. This being considered brigandish country, we were provided with a guard of Chokadurs, armed with rifles,who invaded the stage door and lay about in the wings, mostly sleeping. We had to stop over the prostrate bodies to make our entrances and exits. All went well until Emilia discovered Desdemona smothered in her bed, and rushed from the bedroom screaming, "Murder, murder!" This was too much for the sleeping Chokadurs, who leapt to their feet and were on the point of blazing off their rifles at all and sundry. But there were no casualties; we managed to calm them down just in time!
We had now come to the end of our tour. I went to say goodbye to Murad Khan, explaining as best I could that I was flying to England the next day. Tears came into his eyes as he said, "I pray for you." And I know that he did.
I spent my last day in Karachi sun and sea bathing, and within a matter of hours was being frozen to the marrow in a devastatingly cold March wind and sleet at London Airport. Alas, I paid the price. Good health temporarily forsook me, and among other distressing complaints I developed a slipped disc, which meant going into a cumbersome plaster cast. I began rehearsals for the eagerly awaited HAMLET in acute pain and scarcely able to walk. But I was determined to go through with it at all costs. I felt that I needed to be seen at last as a Shakespearean actor, and especially in such a distinguished production as HAMLET promised to be.
The enchanting Stanley Holloway, who was playing the First Gravedigger, shared my dressing-room with me. This was very pleasing to me, and his irrepressible high spirits helped me to some extent to forget my ills and pains.
But soon there were disturbing signs that all was not well. Alec Guinness had told me that he was going to produce the play, but that as Hamlet was on stage most of the time, he had asked Frank Hauser to watch rehearsals for him. Brilliant though Frank can be and has often been, I am sure that he would be the first to agree that he was not at that time fully qualified to take on a big Shakespearean production. I, for one, felt that I needed a Bob Atkins to lash me ino shape. As it was, rehearsals lacked the necessary cohesion and discipline. A fortune was spent on the Elizabethan costumes, which proved cumbersome in use, and the scenery was equally unwieldy; the heavy solid scene drop took four stage hands to raise it on chains, and the noise was very audible to the audience. In addition to this, the lighting was wrong.
The First Night was a disaster. The notices were merciless. At rehearsals I had been much impressed by Alec's Hamlet, but the critics slated him and his entire production. We lasted only six weeks, but, ironically, we ended up playing to packed business. This was due mainly to a second visit to the play by Harold Hobson, who gave us a glowing column in the "Sunday Times" headed "Hamlet Revisited". He said in effect that no playgoer should miss seeing Alec Guinness' striking Hamlet, which was one of the best in our times. But it was by then too late to continue the run, and the chances of a production in New York had faded into oblivion.
I believe that every actor shoud have a classical background, and that he should play Shakespeare, preferably in his early days. But, alas, when a second chance came to me I was unable to take it. The temptation to a successful actor to spread himself and live well is great, especially after a long, hard struggle to the top, and one or two fat film contracts can easily lull him into a sense of security quite unrelated to the real hazards of this unstable profession. Angela and I now had a young family of four, with Nanny and a nursery maid to look after them, and two of the most expensive prams in London. We had a household staff consisting of "Cookie" and Margaret, the housemaid, and a drunken old sailor who came in to clean the steps and do various odd jobs; and we had spent lavishly on our large house. The dining room had been decorated and furnished by Daphne Banks, Leslie's daughter, who at that time was making quite a name for herself in interior decoration, and it was in that room that Anthony Quail, whilst lunching with us, offered me the part of Wolsey in his forthcoming season at Stratford.
It had been one of the dreams of my life to play at Stratford, and I would dearly have loved to accept this offer, but, owing to my financial commitments, I had no option but to refuse. The top salary which Stratford could offer was no more than £50.
Incredibly, only a few weeks later, I received an invitation from Hugh Hunt to join the Company of the Old Vic for their coming season at the New Theatre; and once again, for the same reasons, I had to refuse. Could it be, after all, that Martin Harvey was right when he said, "Stick to modern work...a much more paying proposition"?
That brilliant and witty authoress, Miss Lesley Storm, broke in upon my regrets by bringing to me a script of her latest play THE DAY'S MISCHIEF. This struck me as one of the best plays I had ever had the good fortune to read. Norman Marshall was to produce it, and the other leading parts were to be played by Catherine Lacey, Ian Hunter and Muriel Pavlow.
We were a happy crowd - not least because of the knowledge that we had a really fine play to work on. We started a short tour at Blackpool, and came to London where we opened at the Duke of York's three weeks before Christmas. The First Night was a riot of acclamation. I am even tempted to quote some of the headlines: "A woman playwrite goes from promise to strength"; "Top Ranking Drama"; and, as one critic wrote, "Lesley Storm has written a play which makes the interval between the two Acts seem interminable. The applause must be the loudest and most sincere in London".
All this helped to confirm our belief - that we indeed had a success. Next morning Bill Linnit rang me to say, "How nice, Walter, to know that you have nothing to worry about for at least a year."...But Christmas was approaching...this was not a Christmas play...and we ran for six weeks. So can even the most astute in our business be confounded.
A film was made shortly afterwards of this delicate play, but here was yet another case of blundering big brother, Mr.Celluloid, crashing into the scarcely silent heart-beatings of his aristocratic and sensitive brother, the Living Theatre. For some reason, I was allowed to play my original part in the film - the only member of the cast so favoured. Gene Tierney, a highly professional and very attractive "film star" was brought from Hollywood to replace one of our finest actresses, Catherine Lacey, while Glynis Johns took over from Muriel Pavlow as the truant daughter. Leo Genn was deputed to play Ian Hunter's part of the schoolmaster, and the direction was in the hands of Anthony Pelissier. For my part, I was completely carefree as, possibly for the first time, playing a part largely unaltered from the original with which I was so familiar, I had no fear of cameras or other mechanical contrivances which might have been placed there for the sole purpose of tripping me up. To my mind, however, the film, renamed PERSONAL AFFAIR, lost all the subtlety and delicacy of feeling which was so great a feature in the stage production with its original cast.
There followed for me a busy period of television. One production came after another in hot pursuit. Indeed, from the end of the Second World War onwards, very much of my working life, perhaps the greater part of it, has been spent in the studio, and I have participated in a humble way in the development of the "mechanical" media from their beginnings.
It has been a strange progress. First came the silent screen when the actor was seen and not heard; then sound radio when he was heard and not seen; and then the "talkies" and television, putting the two together. And the interesting thing is that the old sound radio still survives and flourishes. Few people will remember the "Electrophone", which existed in the days even before Savoy Hill and 2LO. My own recollection of it is very feint, but I do remember a table with earphones which, in collaboration with the telephone service, could relay concerts from the Albert Hall or the Queen's Hall.
The technique of acting for television was difficult to learn, especially in the early days when we were all, producers and actors alike, feeling our way. Gone was all our accustomed freedom of movement: for one character to cross to another might necessitate practically stepping over a third person who happened to be sitting on a sofa between them.
I remember my old friend Arthur Wontner, having been shot in a dramatic scene, falling lifeless to the ground, and after what he considered a sufficient lapse of time slowly rising to his feet and vigorously brushing down the knees of his trousers, sublimely oblivious of the fact that the cameras were still on him!
The action in the early shows was live and continuous, so film techniques could not be applied. Owing to the financial exigencies of the B.B.C., rehearsals took place in any available club room unused by its members during the day. I found myself travelling by public transport to outlying districts of London, to rehearse in Church Halls, Working Men's Clubs, Boys' Clubs, Scout Clubs. Later, the B.B.C. built a well-equipped rehearsal centre in Marylebone High Street, but this was soon swamped by the needs of bureaucracy, and taken over by the "Radio Times". The actors were pushed back to the Clubs again, and some of them were far from clean, with broken windows, or lacking in washrooms and W.C.s. I would let my mind slip back to the rumoured tale of dignity in the far-off days of the great Sarah Bernhardt who apparently would never make an entrance without a red carpet running from her dressing room to the stage.
My very first television show was GRACE DARLING OF THE LAKE, produced by Fred O'Donovan, and with Flora Robson as Grace. Having rehearsed for a fortnight, we assembled at Broadcasting House at 9:30 one Sunday morning, to be driven by B.B.C. bus to Alexandra Palace. It felt as if we were being taken to some remote, sinister place to be liquidated. Then came make-up, a very complicated procedure in those days; we had to apply many different shades and colours, which under the equally complicated system of lighting gave the appearance of a nasty attack of measles. Then came Dress Rehearsal, when we saw the set and furniture for the first time. It lasted with scarcely a break until the time of Transmission to the Great Big World at 8:00 p.m. I confess that I viewed the advent of performances such as this with terror, in spite of the fact that the audience in those days was limited and reception was bad and uncertain anyway. Once I remarked to a member of the cast, as casually as I could, "Nervous work, don't you think? "What are you worrying about?" he said. "There's only one T.V. set in London; that's at Selfridges, and they're closed!" I felt better after that, and it was more or less true, as Selfridges were giving exhibition sessions in the same way that Harrods later did for colour television. I have since done countless television shows, both in England and New York and Hollywood, but I have never really liked it as a medium - all that hard work gone in an evening, and seemingly vanished without trace.
Later, when the sale of T.V. sets multiplied, it became an easy way to a kind of fame. "Saw you on T.V. the other night", the stranger will say in the street or bus. After I had appeared as a master crook in a series called "Six Proud Walkers", I enjoyed a temporary notoriety when visiting my local shops. "Look out Harry, here comes Mr.Walker, keep your hand on the till!" But such fame is as ephemeral as the screen image. It doesn't last, and often people remember the face only, and not the name, which does little to enhance an actor's reputation. Once when I was moving house, one of the men, carrying a piece of furniture on his back, dumped it down and looking hard at me with his far from intelligent eyes, said, "I've seen you on T.V." "Oh", I said, "When?" "Last week". "Oh, that would be EDWARD MY SON." "No", he said, "It was you all right."
Years later I had a frightening experience. I was doing a live show for Associated Rediffusion called THE WHITE CARNATION, directed by Cyrill Coke. It was a long part, and I was hardly ever off the screen. The one essential thing about commercial television is the timing: advertisement time costs big money, and programmes have to be timed with a stop watch so that they do not overrun. But when we had been running for seven minutes, an excited Studio Manager waved us to stop. "We have to start again from the beginning in one minute's time. Owing to a technical fault we have not been on the air at all. We must cut and omit scenes as we come to them. The producer and I will advise you. Keep going at all costs. We must be down on time." This was really asking the impossible, but we did not lose our heads, and somehow we managed to carry on. We finished on the dot of the appointed time. It was a triumph on the part of the Producer and the Studio Manager that they were able to cut so much, so fast, without making the play unintelligible. It was also a triumph for the actors that they managed to get through the performance without losing their heads completely.
Among the many official engagements of the Queen and Prince Philip during their Coronation Year was a visit to the Headquarters of B.B.C. Television, then at Shepherds Bush. A special programme included a play, THE DISAGREEABLE MAN, in which I was to play the title role. It was a short play with a cast of twenty-six, and several changes of sets all done with back projection slides onto blank screens, with furniture and props put into place by a busy studio staff. The B.B.C. was on its mettle. Dennis Vance was to direct the play, supervised in turn by Michael Barry, Head of T.V. Drama. As the day approached there was great activity just short of panic. Senior executives would put in an appearance at rehearsals; the hideous old barn-like interior of the studio was transformed with heavy carpets, yards of bunting, flags, plants and huge gilt crowns, whilst a large dais was erected with two rows of gilded chairs from whence the Queen and her party and all the senior B.B.C. executives woud watch the play, which we had to perform under their very noses. The Royal Party could either watch the actors in the flesh or look at the monitors placed on the dais in front of them. Having played through to the bitter end, we waited for the royal approval or otherwise, and were then told that Her Majesty would like to go into the control room and see the final scene again from there. This was almost the last straw, but we survived, and Robert Eddison and I were told to remain behind to be presented. The Queen must have sensed that the evening's effort had been a considerable strain on the nerves. "Don't you find televising rather nervous work?" she said. She gave me a sweet smile, and passed on to confer a knighthood upon George Barnes, the B.B.C.'s first Director of Television, a post which he held until 1956. Meanwhile the cast were royally entertained, and very relieved we all felt to have got through without mishap.
The tension on a film set is of course very similar. Miracles have been performed in film studios ever since the earliest days of film making, and before "Talkies" burst upon an astonished world. When I was a boy at Ashburton, a travelling Company gave a showing in the Market Hall of the FALL OF POMPEII. I can see now the burning of the city, the tall columns crashing into the streets. "Living Pictures" they were called; living indeed, and still alive in my memory. Later, whenever opportunity occured, I would visit the "Electric Theatre" in Plymouth, in company with my maiden aunts, where we would be thrilled by exciting imaginary scenes of fighting during the Boer War, or by pictures of the eternal struggle between good and evil, where a maiden's honour was at stake, and where the hero always triumphed over the villain, saving the heroine in the nick of time from throwing herself and the illegitimate bundle in her arms over Waterloo Bridge, to the accompaniment of a tinkling piano. Emerging from that cosy electric dream-land into the murky drabness of Union Street was like waking from an exotic dream.
Actors are frequently asked in which medium they prefer working, Stage, Film, Television or Radio. My answer is always the Theatre. Not being mechanically minded, I confess to a certain dread of the film or television camera, which I always feel is not a friend, but an enemy waiting to trip me up. A theatre audience, on the other hand, I look upon as a friend, ready to help and cooperate with the actor, to share in his emotions, his sadness or his gladness. Many actors will agree with me, but not all, and I have the greatest admiration for the successful film or television actor who has sufficient strength of mind over matter to make the camera his servant. But of course, it is nothing to do with the camera, that big, ugly, lifeless wonderful piece of mechanism; it is the eyes behind it, watching, waiting for the slightest slip up; the Director, coldly judging the dramatic value of the shot, the Cameraman, concerned only with the photographic side, the Camera Crew, each with his particular function, the intent faces of the army of technicians, carpenters, props, extras, and the Producer himself, looking at his watch, counting the cost. These are the conditions under which the film actor, sensitive and nervous as a race horse, has to work. But, like the race horse, he has to prove his worth, or be put out to grass.
In a mechanical age, no actor can live by "stage" alone, yet, without nerves he can hardly hope to be really successful. The best Film Directors are fully aware of this, and will do all they can to treat him, as a Jockey with his race horse, with care and understanding, to inspire him with confidence.
The method of approach towards the actual "taking" of a shot can fairly be described as "Third Degree". First come several rehearsals, and woe betide the actor who has not learnt his words so thoroughly that he can say them in his sleep, for once on the Studio floor he has to remember many other things simultaneously: exact positioning in front of the camera, keeping in the key light, intricate bits of business to be worked in with split second accuracy, looking to right or left of camera as directed, but never straight into it, and so on. During these rehearsals, work in the Studio still carries on, hammering, shouting, adjusting of lights, men rushing about doing their various jobs. Then follows a bell calling for complete silence for the final run-through. If the Director is satisfied, all is ready for a 'TAKE'. Another bell is rung, loud, long, and harrowing, an unnerving sound like a fire engine in distress; studio doors are locked, red lights switched on; a camera assistant rushes at you with a tape to measure your exact distance from the Camera, the "make-up" man starts working on your face with a towel and powder puff to mop up the beads of perspiration on your overheated brow. At that moment, more than likely, one of the big arc lamps will start hissing, or one of the crew may start hammering or sawing. Pandemonium breaks out with the No.1 Assistant and his two Under-Assistants shouting, "QUIET. The red light is on". Quiet is restored, the No.1 gives the order: 'ROLL'EM', the celluloid starts racing through the camera, the Clapper Boy snaps the clapper board nearly under your nose, '15 TAKE ONE', and finally the Director says, 'ACTION'. Can you remember your lines? Can you move onto your marks without looking at the floor to make sure where they are? Can you remember all the bits of business the Director has worked into the scene at rehearsals? Is the Cameraman satisfied? Is the Director happy? If not, it must all be gone through again, and it is 'TAKE TWO' marked up on the clapper board. And each 'take' costs a lot of money, but the Director must have as near perfection as he can get. Sometimes the number of 'TAKES' can reach double figures, by which time everybody is in a state of jitters. I do not know what the record is, but I have known over twenty.
A little psychological understanding on the part of the Director can sometimes save the situation. I remember Captain Anthony Kimmins, the kindest and most human mortal, directing a sequence in MINE OWN EXECUTIONER. One of the actors, an elderly man, just could not get it right. 'Take' followed 'take', and the actor got more and more nervous. Finally Kimmins said, "That's absolutely grand, you're giving me just what I want. I suggest we all break now for five minutes and have a cigarette, then we'll have just one more for luck". After this encouragement, the break, and the cigarette, the actor swam through the 'one for luck' without a hitch.
Another Director, with a sadistic turn of mind, who shall be nameless, had a habit of saying, "Now, let's get this in one. I always get my 'takes' in one". Nothing is more calculated to make an actor fluff. So different is the man who says, "I don't care how many takes we have, so long as we get it right". He is far more likely to get it in one.
I suppose Sir Carol Reed is the supreme Master of the psychological handling of actors. With his cool charm of manner, just before a 'take' he will draw the actor on one side and talk to him in a quiet, confidential manner, rather like a Bishop with a Confirmation Candidate, telling him how to conduct himself: "Now, I want you to play this scene speaking quite quietly, just as we are now. Don't take any notice of the 'sound man' if he says he can't hear you, we'll sack him and get another one". I worked on a film with Sir Carol called THE FALLEN IDOL. In this film, a boy actor, Bobby Henrey, had a very important role. Bobby had the face of an angel, full of irresistible appeal which won the hearts of a world-wide audience, but in other respects he was far from angelic. Like most boys, he was fidgetty, difficult to control, unable to concentrate, and, not unnaturally, spoiled by one and all. He was quite undisciplined, at times refusing to come before the camera when he was called, and tempers were inclined to run very short. This was where the handling of the boy by Sir Carol was so superb. He knew that, given the patience of Job, he could get the results he wanted to make the picture, and the boy, a great success. No one, however exasperated, was allowed to say a cross word to "dear little Bobby". "Once he begins to think that he is in school, I shall get nothing from him. If I don't get what I want in the first take, keep the cameras running until I do. Never mind about the footage. And during the waits, he must be kept happy at all costs."
In one of these waits, someone had the bright idea of giving him a puzzle to keep him quiet. It consisted of the face of a man in a round glass case, and seven tiny little balls of mercury which had to be rolled into position to represent the eyes and teeth. This was no easy task, as others beside Bobby were to discover. While he was engrossed in his efforts, one of the Assistants called out to him, "Come along Bobby dear, we are ready for you now." Came Master Bobby's reply, "Not until I've finished this puzzle." This was indeed a crisis! People crowded round Bobby, going down on their knees trying to help him, including Sir Carol himself, and minutes sped by, with all other activities brought to a standstill. At last one of the Property men had a brilliant idea. He got hold of a magnet, and, concealing it in his hand, managed to manoeuvre it at the back of the puzzle, when the little mercury balls obediently fell into place, and work was allowed to continue. An expensive interval indeed!
Another Director who understood how to get the best out of his actors was Richard Brooks, whom I first met in Hollywood in 1956, whilst filming SOMETHING OF VALUE. He was in some ways a terrifying man. A perfectionist himself, he expected near-perfection in those he worked with. He would storm and rave if everything on the set was not to his complete satisfaction. But he never shouted at his actors. I had been on the set three days - and this was my first visit to Hollywood - without having to open my mouth, but on the fourth day my turn came. I had to deliver a long and difficult tirade to the coloured workmen on my Kenya Estate. After two or three rehearsals, when we were ready to shoot, he came up to me and said in a quiet undertone, "Walter, when we've got this shot in the can, how about coming back to my place for a long cold whisky and soda and a dip in the pool?" This put me completely at ease, and I went through the scene without a quiver. We became good friends, and I am indebted to him not only for his kindness, but for what I learned from him about films and film-acting.
Bill Linnit phoned me one day to say that Donald Albery was talking about me for a part of the crippled Roman Catholic Priest in the play THE LIVING ROOM, and would I be prepared to go along to his house "for a cocktail" one evening to meet Graham Greene, the author? Two nights later, I duly went along with Bill to meet the two of them, and also Peter Glenville, who was to produce the play.
On arrival, I was told the situation: that although Eric Portman was provisionally engaged to play the part in London, there was apparently some doubt as to whether he would sign the contract, which included a Broadway production following the London run. In this case, they might decide to offer me the part. I chatted as agreeably as I knew how, sipping my champagne cocktail, while the distinguished and influential gathering took notes of my voice, looks, personality - all of which points would be discussed at a further meeting to which I would not be invited. Not for the first time did I offer up a silent prayer; I knew that I was right for the part. I also knew that Eric Portman was a popular star with much success to his name, and that, if he wished, he could and would be their first choice.
In a few days, I heard that Eric was to play the part, but that it was not yet settled whether or not he would go with the play to America. It opened at Wyndhams Theatre, and ran for over a year. It had wonderful notices, and Dorothy Tutin scored a huge personal success.
After the play had been running for close on twelve months, I met by chance Lord Tony Vyvyan, who was much in the know about things theatrical. I asked him about THE LIVING ROOM, and he told me that as far as he knew Eric was definitely not going to New York, and that, if I was still interested, I should get a move on. Next day I got Bill Linnit to phone Donald Albery. The result was that Eric was leaving the cast, and they asked me to take over the part and later to go with the play to America.
After my first night, Sir Bronson and Lady Albery came round to my dressing-room; also Peter Glenville, the Director. They were loud in their praise for my performance: "The first time the play has really been properly balanced", etc, etc. But the very night that I opened, Donald Albery, without a word to me, put up the notice that the play would finish in three weeks. I was hurt that he had done all this without telling me first - but, after all, there was Broadway to follow.
Much as I regretted having missed a whole year's run of THE LIVING ROOM, I was happy to play the last three weeks, mainly because of the opportunity of acting opposite Dorothy Tutin - a most sensitive and appealing actress. After one of the matinees, she said to me, "I don't know how I shall get through this evening's performance - I have given so much". This was as touching as it was sincere, and it was the kind of remark which would have been totally miscontrued by the cynic. But actually it pinpointed the big question which all actors have to face: how to give of your best when feeling at your worst. I read recently of a young but sucessful actor who said, "I can only give of my best about four out of eight performances". Hardly professional talk. What would the trapeze artist do on his "off days"? Fall to his death from the tight-rope? I have even heard people say, "We prefer not to go to see a play in the evening if there has been a matinee, because we feel the actors can't be bothered to give of their best a second time in one day". What a ghastly thought - and, yet, still more ghastly, in some cases true. But that surely is one of the main differences between the amateur and the professional. When does an amateur actor become a professional? Not when he is paid for his work, but when he becomes dedicated to it. Discipline is the word. The discipline that keeps an actor on his toes not for one performance, but for one hundred or even one thousand or more. Not many great stars will run the course that long; they have other fish to fry; but the mainstay of the production - the cast - are called upon to keep the show fresh and alive so that that audience on the hundredth night shall see a show as fresh as in the first week not to sigh and yawn and say, as I have heard so often, "Oh God! I'm so bored". To this I say, "Don't worry, so are the audience. It won't be long now, and you will have time on your hands for reflection - and boredom".
This is not, of course, to say that one can and must always be at one's best. Actors are only human, and there are days when one is off colour. It is not only a question of physical health that may determine the standard of performance; a troubled mind, domestic worries, family bereavement may intrude upon us, and on those occasions we have to rely upon our technique. I believe that over the years, and particularly during the period of rehearsal of a particular production, we build as it were a "platform" of technique, below which standard we should not fall, even when beset with worldly cares. On this platform we play our part, and when we are giving of our best we "take off", so to speak, and rise to some kind of altitude. The part one is playing will not permit of great heights if there are no great heights to rise to. I was greatly flattered when, during the run of TIGER AT THE GATES on Broadway, Alistair Cooke told me he had been to see the play with Humphrey Bogart. During the performance, Bogart nudged his arm and whispered, "That actor has taken flight", which I interpret to mean that I had risen above my "platform" and was carried away by the situation and the wonderful speeches in the play. One could, I suppose, retort, "Always keep your feet on the ground", but that would be a dull outlook...rather, I would say, "Don't cut the guide ropes, then you can still return to earth".
But to return to THE LIVING ROOM - I crossed to New York on the Queen Mary, full of luxury and excitement. Peter Glenville unfortunately could not be with us, but Hugh Hunt was to take over the New York production. We had a complete change of cast, including Barbara Bel Geddes in Dorothy Tutin's part, Michael Goodliffe, Nora Nicholson and Carol Goodner. Barbara Bel Geddes had a high reputation in America, and I found her charming and very nice to work with, but I fear she was not ideally cast for the Tutin role; they were opposite in character: Tutin weak and appealing, Barbara much stronger and more independent. We opened at the Henry Miller Theatre, but success was not for us. The Curtain fell to medium applause which signalled our doom, and the stage quickly filled with a crowd of well-wishers who told us with smiles and soft wooing words that we were a "flop". Three weeks was enough to prove the truth of their doleful prognostifications. The play was obviously not to the liking of the New York audiences - I suspect on religious grounds.
It was sad to say goodbye to Broadway after such a great disappointment, but this was not indeed to be "farewell" but only "au revoir".
Not long after I had returned to London, Michael Redgrave came into the Garrick in high spirits, and surprised me by saying how delighted he was that I was to play Ulysees in TIGER AT THE GATES. It was true that I had been approached vaguely about this play and the possibility of playing the part, but I had only provisionally accepted, and had heard nothing since. However, the following day, Bill Linnit rang me and asked if I would go along to Stephen Mitchell's flat to meet Harold Clurman, one of America's leading producers, who was coming over to direct TIGER AT THE GATES, and also the rest of the cast. The play was by Giraudoux, translated by Christopher Fry, and apart from Michael Redgrave as Hector and myself as Ulysees, the distinguished cast was to include Barbara Jefford as Andromache, Diane Cilento as Helen, Catherine Lacey, Leueen McGrath, John Laurie, Wyndham Goldie, Nicholas Hannen, Duncan Lewis and Robert Shaw. Their enthusiasm for the play was so great, and my own personal reception so warm, that I came away from Stephen's flat in a state of fever and high excitement. Ulysees was a wonderful part; making a spectacular entrance half an hour before the final fall of the curtain, he engaged in a superb duologue with Hector summing up in effect the entire contents of the play which the rest of the cast had been at such pains to express throughout the evening.
I soon realised that Harold Clurman was possibly the best producer I had ever worked with. I only wish I had tape recordings of some of his dissertations during rehearsals. I remember him saying as he addressed the Company at one of the final rehearsals of TIGER AT THE GATES, before we opened, "We think this is a wonderful play. We think it will be a success. But it may not be. It may be a failure. But remember this: unlike businessmen, actors are entitled to failures, it is their privilege. My whole career has been built up on failures." But, thanks largely to his direction, TIGER was not a failure. London received the play with unstinted enthusiasm. Our run at the Apollo was for a limited season only, owing to our commitments on Broadway, and we played to sell-out business at every performance. On arrival in New York, our advance bookings were already heavy - this was partly due to an early glowing write-up by Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times critic, who had been present at our First Night in London.
It was indeed a joy to be at last in a successful Broadway production. It is well known to the profession that nothing succeeds like success on Broadway. If you have a failure, the best advice is to get out of New York quickly and scuttle home; but, with success, stay on a while and enjoy the fruits of your pleasure (though not, perhaps, at your leisure, as the Broadway theatre-goers are quick to transfer their affections). During our stay we received so many invitations to social functions; one in particular do I remember from the Players' Club, inviting Michael and myself to a Gala Pipe Night in honour of "Our British Cousins" as they so warmly called us. Jose Ferrer was the Pipemaster, and others at the gathering included Barry Jones and Francis L. Sullivan, and the New Zealand Ambassador, Sir Leslie Munroe.
TIGER had an unexpected aftermath for me. Some time after we had returned to London, I was sent for by M.G.M. in Hollywood to play the part of an English estate owner in the film, SOMETHING OF VALUE, which I have already mentioned in an earlier chapter. The story was set in Nairobi at the time of the Mau Mau troubles. It was directed by Richard Brooks, whom at that time I had never met, and, as far as I knew, he had never heard of me. When I got to know him better, I asked him why I had been cast for this important part, and who was responsible. Brooks told me that several well known Hollywood actors had applied but when any of them were suggested, the Producer, Paudro S.Berman, would say, "No, I want that guy Fitzgerald whom I saw play Ulysees in London". As in the case of the casting for Squire Trelawny, what similarity Mr.Berman saw in the two very different parts will always remain a mystery to me.
But I was grateful for the engagement. It gave me my first insight into Hollywood and film-making on the grand scale. Rock Hudson played my son, and the other "stars" in the production were Sydney Poitier, Dana Wynter and Wendy Hiller. Robert Beattie was also in the film, and he and I had to be content with being "First Featured"; I soon discovered that the difference between a "Star" and a "Feature Player" was very pronounced. As for the smaller arts, they were referred to contemptuously as "Bit Actors". Though less distasteful, it reminded me in a way of apartheid in South Africa, or the Caste distinction in India. But in our personal relations I received nothing but kindness and friendship from all concerned. (It came as a bit of a shock to the Production Manager, who had arranged car hire for me, when I announced that I did not drive a car - "But you can't live in Hollywood without a car!" I said, "Don't worry, there are plenty of Yellow Cabs about; I'll manage." But Robert Beattie was a good driver, and together we shared the expense of a car hire!)
It is the exception rather than the rule that an actor experiences what is called a "long run" with a theatre production. I am happy to be able to record that such an experience should be mine to relate.
One day, my good friend, Anthony Kimmins, greeted me in his loud, ex-naval, manner, "Walter, you are the most lascivious person of my acquaintance. I have just written a play, which shall be called THE AMOROUS PRAWN, and I want you to play the title role of the very lascivious 'Prawn'." This called for two enormous gins to be swallowed on the spot, without further comment! Gasping in a moment of alcoholic revival, I thanked Tony for the compliment, and asked, without committing myself further, if I could read the script. This request being agreed to, the two of us settled down and, with the help of further alcoholic refreshment, he read me THE AMOROUS PRAWN. It was rather unfortunate that I preferred the part of the Major-General - but Tony was insistent, and the 'Prawn' I was apparently destined to be.
Some days later, the Company assembled for the first time for a reading of the play, under the direction of Murray Macdonald. To my great delight, Evelyn Laye was to be our leading lady, and others in the cast included Stanley Baxter, Hugh McDermott, and an - at that time - comparatively unknown quantity named Derek Nimmo. I don't remember that there were any great exultant shouts of "Hurrah!", "Jolly funny", "Bravo!" after that first reading, but we were all very happy - happy with the play, and happy to be working under Murray Macdonald for an author so near and dear to us all as Tony was.
The day of the first rehearsal arrived, and I naturally watched with eagle-eye the approach to the part of the Major-General by the actor who had been chosen to play it. But I was not amused. Maybe it was because I had formed my own ideas as to how this part should be played. However, later that evening I received a telephone call from Murray. He said that he had heard that I would prefer to be cast as the Major-General, and asked me if I would care to change parts as he was not quite happy about the casting as it was. I was secretly elated at Murray's suggestion, feeling that the part was now within my grasp, but I played my cards with care, and even dared to insist that whoever should be favoured with the name part must be an actor of undoubted repute before I would relinquish that role, and then only with the assured blessings of the author. Within the hour, Murray was on the phone again, saying that Ernest Clark was willing to play the part of the 'Prawn', and that Tony had approved of the suggestion.
We rehearsed hard, with an opening date booked; and I have to admit that I, like others in the cast, had my doubts about a possible success. But at our First Night at the New Theatre, Oxford, all doubts were dispelled. To our surprise and great joy, laugh after laugh came rolling across the footlights, and our spirits rose with the audience to the final Curtain, which was hailed with repeated roars of applause.
In our moment of triumph, I spared a thought for the actor we left behind, but I was assured by Murray that he had asked to be relieved of the part of the Major-General, mainly on the grounds of ill-health. And, without being thought patronizing, I must say how thankful I was to Ernest Clark for extracting so much fun out of his part of the 'Prawn' - far more I think than I could ever have done.
Following a short tour, we heard that we were to open in London at the Saville Theatre - by no means a choice we welcomed. It was not ranked high among the many London theatres we would have preferred. To begin with, the business was slow, but there were signs of improvement. I think we were helped considerably in our early days by the management securing for us a special televised performance which had an immediate beneficial effect on the bookings. We went from strength to strength, and after we had been running for a year were told that we had to move to another theatre - the Piccadilly. Once again, we had to go through the job of building up the business. At about this time, too, we lost the jovial Stanley Baxter, who had other engagements in his native Scotland, but his place was happily taken by Jimmy Thompson. We were a really happy Company, and under our charming leading lady and with the frequently expressed encouragement and appreciation of Tony Kimmins and his delightful wife, Betty, we played a total of performances, running for months.
The success of the play enabled Tony to achieve one of his ambitions - to give a Royal Matinee in aid of The Searchlight Cripples Workshop and the Chailey Heritage Craft Schools and Hospital, which had been founded by his mother, Dame Grace Kimmins, in 1903. The Queen Mother graciously attended this special performance.
I must mention one unforgettable moment in this play which concerned my sudden and unexpected re-entrance on the scene when cast and audience thought I was far away in the Azores. Without going too deeply into the plot, it is necessary to say that, during my absence abroad, and unknown to me, my wife (Evelyn Laye) had conceived the brilliant idea of turning the Official Residence where we lived into a Guest House, to help make some extra money before my retirement. An American, keen on the trout fishing, was duly installed as one of the "guests", and it was after an exquisitely played scene between Hugh McDermott and Evelyn Laye in which he declared his undying devotion to this beautiful "widow" and chased her into the garden, that I made my unexpected return. The well-earned applause from the audience was immediately turned into the most vivid shrieks of surprise mingled with shouts of horror and delight. Never, in my long stage experience, have I heard such pandemonium from an audience at every single performance. And, much as I regretted killing the applause, it was absolutely necessary in the interests of the play. This entrance never failed to create a furore, which lasted literally for minutes, and was entirely to the credit of the author for his perfect timing of a superb situation.
During the run of THE AMOROUS PRAWN, Donald Sinden asked me if I would do somethng for a Green Room Rag, of which he was to be the Chief Rag Picker. With great daring I chose the trial scene from THE BELLS, with Ernest Milton as The Meserist, and I quote here a letter I received from the late Ellaline Terriss, widow of Sir Seymour Hicks, of which I am, not unnaturally, very proud:
I was present at the "Rag" on Sunday evening and saw your performance of Mathias in THE BELLS. I thought it grand; and want to congratulate you on it (and, incidentally, I saw Henry Irvine).
Your old friend,
If anyone had told me at this time that my next visit to the United States would be as a member of a company under the management of Moral Re-Armament, I should have been more than a little surprised. It came about in the following manner.
Towards the end of the long run of THE AMOROUS PRAWN, I was beginning to get restless and wondering what my next move would be. One afternoon my Agent telephoned me and said, "Walter, put away your drink bottles; hide your ashtrays; remove all traces of smoke; the M.R.A. are coming to visit you!" Apparently they wanted me to take over the part of the Prime Minister in the play MUSIC AT MIDNIGHT, at the Westminster Theatre, with Nora Swinburne as the leading lady.
What is it about this organisation that arouses such hysteria in people? A few days later, I was entertaining two very distinguished members of the profession, Athene Seyler and Nicholas Hannen. "What is your advice?" I asked them. "Shall I be labelled as an M.R.A., or can I do it on a professional basis?" Athene Seyler said without hesitation, making a curious spitting noise with her lovable lips and tongue, "Don't touch it! Horrible beasts! They want to take away all our best talent to put on their rotten semi-amateurish plays." But Nicholas Hannen said quietly, "If the salary is right, I should take it, Walter, on a purely professional basis, as you say".
I had read the play carefully, and though it was not what I would call a good play, I saw possibilities in the part of the Prime Minister which appealed to me. I admit that there was the inevitable "message" to be put across - in simple words the message was that in an impasse when human means had failed to find a solution to an apparently insurmountable problem, the answer was to listen for the Voice of God, who would bring about a miracle in the form of a peaceful solution. I admit that I have never liked propaganda plays whose sole purpose is to put across a message of some kind, yet how many plays are really without one?...a "moral" to be learned from the good or bad behaviour of the characters. So much of the best literature is devoted to this very aim. Maybe I was persuading myself...and for good reason. I felt that I could "put over the message" to the satisfaction of my employers and, at the same time, take some of the sanctimonious curse out of it. It was in a way, a challenge.
Needless to say, I did not put away the bottles of drink and the glasses and ashtrays. Bunny Austin and Alan Thornhill duly arrived and we had a most friendly and frank talk. I made my position clear. I told them that I was willing to accept the part, provided that I was looked upon purely as a Professional Actor doing a job of work, with the same devotion to duty and integrity as I would give to any other theatre engagement. I told them quite frankly that I would not associate myself with the Movement in any personal way; that the character of the Prime Minister would be assumed on entering my dressing-room before the show and would be left behind in the dressing-room when I departed after the show; that I would not carry banners or appear on platforms as an active supporter of Moral Re-Armament. I would continue to lead my normal private life, smoke when I liked, drink when I liked, but I would not offend their customers by doing so on "official" occasions, any more than I would dream of smoking in a non-smoking railway carriage or in a dowager lady's drawing-room without her permission. They were charming and courteous. Next day my Agent phoned to say they would be delighted to offer me the engagement. I accepted, and thus began one of the most extraordinary periods of my career.
Let me say first and most emphatically that I was treated throughout with nothing but kindness and consideration for the long time I was with them. Cynics had told me I would have flowers in my dressing-room but no whisky. I had both. They provided the flowers, I the whisky. After all, what was so extraordinary about their two rules of life which came in for so much sneering criticism? No smoking. No alcoholic drinking. Many of my friends don't smoke; some of them don't drink, (not many, I must admit!). This was before the great lung cancer scare caused by smoking; before the introduction of the breathalyser to deter drivers from drinking. Surely the M.R.A. should have some credit for vetoeing both these national causes of worry.
During rehearsals I was entertained lavishly in their costly houses in Charles Street, where some of the "top boys" lived in great comfort, with young female devotees to do the housework, the cooking and to wait at meals at the immaculately laid tables, adorned with the finest linen and cutlery...yes, and glass too - to be filled with pear juice and other soft drinks. And the food was amongst the finest and best cooked to be had anywhere in the metropolis. I used sometimes to crave for the good wine to complete the feast, and longed for a cigar and a liquer, or a cigarette with the excellent coffee served in expensive china cups. But, after all, I have had many a good meal in my own home without a bottle of wine to wash it down.
I was invited to a reception at their headquarters, Clive of India House in Berkeley Square, one of the show places of London. Valuable carpets, and hanging tapestries, show cases filled with priceless porcelain and china, silver and gold. There I met famous people: heads of States from different parts of the world, heads of business, heads of Sport - an Olympic Gold Medallist, the famous West Indian cricketer, Conrad Hunte, a former Prime Minister of Japan, one County Cricketer, an opening batsman for Essex, who told me in the course of conversation that God had helped him correct a bad stroke in his batting. Their trust in God's power to help is strong and real; it has to be - that is the core of this world movement for peace which has attracted so many leaders of State and Industry and so many millions in sterlng. India House opened my eyes, but they were to stretch far wider open in the days ahead.
The play opened at the Westminster Theatre, and played to packed houses; audiences came by train, coach and plane. It ws a point of honour to see that all seats were sold by hook or by crook - no free seats were given away. Even the staff and cast had to buy seats to support the Movement. Support from regular West End theatre-goers was negligible. The production was, on the whole, ignored by the Press. The cast was professional and of a good standard. Most evenings after curtain fall, visitors would be brought to my dressing-room to meet the "Prime Minister" ("So like our dear Mr.Churchill"). On these occasions, I made no attempt to hide my glass of whisky or my cigarette.
After some months, the Company left for a "Grand Tour of America". We opened in Los Angeles, and the reception after the First Night was held at the M.R.A. Headquarters, a palatial residence in South Flower Street. "Residence" does not rightly describe the sprawling magnitude of this vast building, lavishly furnished, as at Clive of India House in London, with expensive carpets, rugs and furniture. The whole tour was conceived on a grand scale. The army of advance workers that prepared the way for us was experienced and efficient. We might have been the National Theatre, headed by all the Knights and Dames of our profession. In every place the reception was attended by the rich and influential, heads of industry and society, and never was there a drop to drink. Press and Television interviews were the order of the day, and I invariably stressed the point that we, the cast, were simply doing a job of work, adding, in all fairness, that the M.R.A. Management had behaved impeccably and had shown us every consideration. (I had particular cause for gratitude, as I was suffering from arthritis, and had to rest at the theatre before the show. I always found some kind of couch rigged up for me in whichever theatre we were appearing.)
In all we visited twenty-five principal cities, covering some 25,000 miles by chartered Greyhound coach or by plane, and ending up with a grand finale in Boston. Here the list of sponsors included the Governor, the Mayor, Senator Edward Kennedy, the Attorney-General, no less than thirty Presidents of commercial companies, a dozen or more Chairmen of Boards, and all their wives. This was the nearest we got to Washington, a grave disappointment, I fear, for the M.R.A., who had no doubt pictured an even more triumphal finish with President Kennedy himself heading the list of notables, as Eisenhower had done in Palm Springs. By now we were exhausted, and very ready for a short rest in yet another palatial M.R.A. estate outside New York before crossing into Canada for our two final "dates" at Montreal and Toronto.
After Toronto there was a fortnight "out" before going to Mackinack Island, Michigan, where we were to make a film of MUSIC AT MIDNIGHT. I took the opportunity to fly home to my family whom I had not seen for five long months. Before re-embarking on the plane to return to Toronto, I took advantage of the excellent B.O.A.C. offer of five bottles of whisky which could be purchased at the Airport for the modest sum of 17/6 a bottle, wrapped in a cardboard carton across which was printed in large letters, "Johnnie Walker", with a coloured picture of the jovial gentleman in his picturesque 1820 costume. I felt I should need this, shut away on Mackinack Island. I was met at Toronto by Eric Peterson, a devotee of the M.R.A. Movement, who escorted me to the Island, on which had been built one of the most up-to-date film studios in the world. We crossed Lake Michigan in a launch which had belonged to the late Franklin D.Roosevelt, and I was given to understand that it was a gift from him to the M.R.A. I was ushered into the main reception hall of yet another vast mansion, to be greeted with outstretched hands and warm smiles from a host of M.R.A. officials. Then something happened that I shall never forget. Following behind me was the kind and gentle Eric Peterson, carrying pieces of my luggage, and among them one all too clearly labelled. Conversations were hushed and smiles disappeared. In the silence that followed a polite voice said, "Shall I show you to your quarters?", and off we went, Eric still bravely following behind. Nor would he let go of the offending bottles until they were deposited safely in my room! I liked him for that and shall always remember him as a kind and understanding friend. And to be fair, no-one ever showed the least resentment at Johnnie Walker's intrusion into their midst.
Lewis Allen, of Hollywood fame, had been engaged to produce and direct the film, and had in his contract full powers over script and performance. He brought with him a first rate crew and was determined to make a good job of it, cutting out as far as possible all sentimentality or cant. The result was a good picture, now renamed DECISION AT MIDNIGHT. But it did not meet with the full approval of the M.R.A. The "message" had been submerged too much in the story. I returned home feeling that I had taken part in a film extremely well directed and photographed which might have some commercial success...but it was never shown to the public, only to invited M.R.A. audiences.
I had travelled some 40,000 miles; seen a great deal of the States; met thousands of American citizens; received much hospitality; earned some good money, and, in spite of my (by M.R.A. standards) rakish life, made no enemies and some good friends. Yet, when I left them I felt that I knew no more about the Movement than I did before. Was it their liking for the powerful, the rich and the famous that unnerved me? I once said to some officials who were discussing the important people in the audience on the previous evening, "Don't you ever have any ordinary people around, any working class people, any poor?" They did not reply. I thought of the British Council tour of India and the poor student audiences for whom we had catered. Did M.R.A. do good in the world commensurate with the riches it accumulated? Did it help the starving millions? The answer to these questions, I have never discovered; But I am an actor, and must leave it at that.
So far I have said almost nothing of my work with the B.B.C., although this has played quite an important part in my life, and, over the years, I have made countless numbers of broadcasts.
My first ever broadcast was done way back in the thirties from Savoy Hill, in a building adjacent to the Savoy Hotel - long before Broadcasting House was built or even thought of. It was a play called DR.ABERNETHY - HIS BOOK; and for playing the part of Dr.Abernethy I received the princely sum of three guineas. Our Producer was an endearing and lovable character by the name of Howard Rose. Popular, dedicated, and respected by one and all, he reminded me of a fatherly university professor. But he had one particular fetish, and that was an obsession for correct emphasis; he, and he alone, knew what emphasis should fall on what word, and no matter how talented an actor felt he was at reading, Howard Rose would always take the wind out of his sails by altering the emphasis which the actor in his humble efforts had dared to presume was correct. There was even a wonderful story going around at that time of a young actor one day confronting Howard and saying, "Mr.Rose, I have something to confess to you. I have fallen deeply in love with your wife". "Oh dear me, no!" Howard Rose was reputed to have sad, "You simply can't say it like that - you must say, 'I have fallen deeply in love with your wife'"!
Let no-one imagine that sound broadcasting is a soft option. Of course the technique of "acting" to a microphone is totally different to any other form of acting, but, although there are no words to remember, there is an essentially strong studio discipline to learn, and when the red light is on, it is hearts only that may flutter as the slightest flutter of a script would mean a re-take.
I have amongst my possessions a notice which I received after recreating on the air my stage part of The Duke of Lamorre in THE DUKE IN DARKNESS, with Hugh Burden, James McKechnie and Cecil Trouncer:
"What is the dividing line between a good radio-actor and a bad one? The man who has conquered the technique of broadcast acting is the man who knows that his cloak and dagger, his passion, his fool's cap, his age, his stature -his very looks - are in his voice alone.
Four such men were in one cast in THE DUKE IN DARKNESS. They were Walter Fitzgerald, Hugh Burden, James McKechnie and Cecil Trouncer - and what a feast of good acting they provided; how they illuminated our lack of good radio actors.
I never need to hear a more scarifying sound and fury than that which thundered out of Fitzgerald's Duke of Lamorre. Here is an actor who knows more about a microphone than a B.B.C. engineer.
We need, urgently, a Royal Academy of Dramatic Broadcasting Art - with Mr.Fitzgerald as tutor."
Who wrote that, I do not know. Nor what paper it appeared in. At any rate, an actor receiving such praise must have thought he would never look in vain for work with the B.B.C. But such has not actually been the case. It was not until very many years later, towards the end of my career, that I received an invitation to join the B.B.C. Repertory Company. It came to me at a time when life and work were becoming more difficult, and I was glad and grateful to accept the offer.
And when, at last, the Ivory Doors of Broadcasting House were opened to me, I entered to a great reception of friends, young and old. And what a strange atmosphere I found...a group of happy, carefree actors and producers, on yearly contracts at good salaries, and with paid annual holidays. I was in a different world...to hear actors saying, "I think I shall go to Spain for my holidays this year..or Italy, or Majorca". What a change from packing one's theatre basket and going to Wigan or Dewsbury! But we worked hard, with two or three productions every week, and I learnt again the do's and don'ts of a professional sound radio artist.
As a member of the resident Repertory Company, one played any and every part that came your way: you might be heavily starred in one production and just "noises off" in another.
During my two years with the B.B.C. Rep. I never attained the "Blue Riband" of broadcasting - an offer to appear in an ARCHERS programme. To become a regular member of THE ARCHERS was considered the richest plum in this Garden of Eden. I made more than one tentative enquiry, "Have you ever worked for the Archers?" "Who is their Producer?" etc., only to be met with strange smiles and arched eyebrows. However, I did not entirely fail to reach the hierarchy of sound drama. I was one day summoned to appear in MRS.DALE'S DIARY... ...
The lift was slow in taking me up the six floors to the Rep.Retiring Room, and I scuttled down the corridor to Room 56 where my scripts were kept, and there it was: -
I could not find "Ned" for some time, but soon discovered he was an assistant gardner, helping to clean a window. Not a big part, but I realised a nice chance for some characterisation; and, after all, "Ned" could become quite an important figure in the Dale establishment! These characters did sometimes become entangled with the Dale family - I might have a fall off the ladder, or perhaps meet one of the daughters and get a write-up in the Evening News. Anyway, there it was - two and a half pages, and who was I to question?
Next morning, I dressed carefully, wore my Garrick Tie, and set forth on foot (no taxi) and then underground to Broadcasting House. As I mounted in the lift to Studio 8 I checked in my scriptcase to see I had my script. The clock showed 10:25 as I entered. I could see no actors, as they all held copies of The Times well up in front of their faces. It was like entering the Athenaeum. I murmured, "Good morning ladies and gentlemen". One elderly gentleman looked at me over the top of his paper, gave me a wry smile and said, "Oh yes, Fitzgerald is it not? We met some years back." I smiled noiselessly and hid behind my own paper - The Telegraph. After some minutes, I turned to the actress on my left, a young flapper-type girl. "Tell me", I said, "How long have you been working in DALE'S DIARY?" A squeaky voice squeaked back, "Seven years." I paused for breath and reflection; so much had happened to me during those seven years. We gave each other a sweet smile. I then addressed another member of the cast - mature in years - and ventured once more the question, "Do tell me; have you been working long on the Dale programme?" A fine contralto voice answered me, "Fourteen years". Fourteen years! I was staggered into silence. I wondered to myself what the elderly gentleman behind The Times would have said, but my nerve failed me and I returned to the study of my script and the part of "Ned" in particular.
With the arrival of the Producer, the experienced Dale contingent popped up with the precision of the Brigade of Guards to the mike, said their little piece and then retired once again into the depths of their newspapers. I did actually see one of the cast advance towards the mike, newspaper still in hand, but on arrival he deftly substituted this with his script and spoke his part with unnerving professional aplomb. As "Ned's" turn approached, I gathered myself together, but as I neared the mike, the Producer said, "I suggest now that we have a ten-minute break for coffee". Everyone fled to the canteen, and all twelve of us crowded round one tiny table for four!
And so I could go on at length, recording move by move hundreds of different broadcasts, and introducing one by one my fellow members of the Rep. We were like a large and very happy family, working in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
But time moves on. My two years with the B.B.C. were rapidly drawing to a close, and so too, although I was loath to admit it, my career as a professional actor. For some years past my eyesight had been failing me. I had had several operations on my eyes, and seen countless specialists, but all to no avail. As one doctor told me, "I was not as young as I used to be", and there comes a point beyond which no amount of medicine can help. Within months of leaving the B.B.C., I found that I was no longer able to read a word; no longer able to recognise faces, and no longer able to get around on my own.
Was this then to be the end? No - I firmly decided that it was not. Over the years, people have said to me time and time again, "Why don't you write your memoirs? You must have so many interesting tales to relate". And so that is what I have attempted to do. I have written a "story" which covers a life period of close on eighty years, and a stage period of fifty. It is not the startling revelation of a great Star of Stage and Screen, but an account of the ambitions, struggles and disappointments of an average Actor's life - a life not without some success, and one which I would live over again, given the chance. Far from ever regretting having "taken the plunge", as I look back over the last fifty years, I realise how much I have to be thankful for. I have travelled a great part of the world, mainly in comfort, and at the expense of a variety of Managements; I have met many interesting and famous people; and, owing to the irregular hours of my profession, I have been able to follow closely that other great passion in my life - Cricket! How many happy days have I devoted to that game - watching it at Lords or the Oval, following with a great appreciation its style and beauty. And now, in the evening of life, when my sight has deprived me of the visual delight, I am still able, thanks to the B.B.C. and their Test Match Specials, to follow the game with a close urgency.
Three years ago, I was involved in a road accident in which I lost my beloved Angela. For some reason I, myself, was spared - although I too suffered severe injuries. However, I recovered, and here I am to recount this strange but not uneventful history. I have my children, and I have my memories. I have not made a fortune - far from it - but I have in my possession a packet of letters and press cuttings that I would not exchange for any fortune.
For many years, I have been referred to as a "Star", although I have never been a member of that exclusive Hierarchy of the Great who shine so brightly every night on Stage and Screen. Perhaps I may count as one of the Lesser Lights that go to make up the Milky Way. One day I shall die, and hope to join the happy band of actors who have preceeded me. Unlike Mrs.Pat, I cannot expect God to say to me, "Come on Walter, give us a line or two from MR.BOLFREY, or even Jupiter himself!" But perhaps I shall hear my father's voice, calling me back to my youth, "Come on Walter, give us one of your comic songs"; to be followed by a grunt from Mrs.Pat, "And do take your glasses off; you look like a schoolmaster"!