When my time at the St.James's was drawing to an end, Frank Vosper asked me if I would understudy him in a play which he had written and was about to produce at the Lyric Theatre, with Nora Swinburne as his Leading Lady. The play was called MURDER ON THE SECOND FLOOR, and the cast wasto include the famous Irish actress, Sara Allgood, Frederick Leister, Frank Cochrane, Muriel Aked and Stanley Lathbury. I was also to understudy the part of the Indian student played by Frank Cochrane. I thought this role would suit me down to the ground, but Frank was giving a gem of a performance, and one could not wish anything to happen to him. True, he did have a tricky bit of business to manipulate. It took the form of breaking through the second floor bannisters and falling, together with a burly policeman, presumably to the ground floor. The stage represented the second floor, the ground floor being out of sight of the audience, and the fall broken with mattresses. It was the only bit of the Indian student's part that I was not too keen on.
One night, not long after we had opened, poor Frank in falling, broke his leg. And so at last, through someone else's misfortune, I found myself playing a good showy part on a West End stage. It was some time before I could persuade them to put my name on the programme, and this might easily have not been necessary for the second night I nearly met with the same fate. I twisted my leg bady, but was still able to continue playing, although liking the idea of that fall less and less. After some weeks, Cochrane returned and I was once more relegated to the obscurity ofthe understudy room, to emerge only briefly, later in the run, to play for Frank Vosper, as he wanted to go to Paris for the weekend.
Prior to my engagement with Sir Gerald du Maurier, and in my efforts to find work, I had travelled up to Sheffield where Sir John Martin Harvey was playing, and, after a matinee, had presented myself unannounced at the Stage Door of the Lyceum Theatre. This visit was the result of a suggestion made to me by Sir John's close friend and legal advisor, Greene Armitage of Bath, whom I had met while playing with the Lena Ashwell Players. A devotee of the Theatre,with one of the best private theatrical libraries in the country, he was determined that I was destined for greatness, and that a season with Sir John would be an indispensable step to that end. He told me that Sir John was about to leave for a tour of Canada and was looking for a Leading Man to complete his Company.
I think my journey to Sheffield must have pleased and astonished the Great Little Man, and no doubt led to his decision to expore the possibilities of employing me. I put it no higher than that, for I was to have quite a job to convince him that I was capable of playing the parts he had in mind. In due course, I reeived a copy of THE ONLY WAY, with a request that I study certain speeches in the part of Defarge, and attend upon him at his residence in East Sheen.
I was shown into the hall by McHugh, whom I was to know later as Sir John's dresser and wig maker. After an impressive, and oppressive, wait, Sir John emerged from his drawing room and led the way up to his study. It was a large, book-lined room, with many trophies of former triumphs, for Sir John had had a glamorous and colourful career, and was acknowledged to be the rightful successor to Sir Henry Irving, under whom he had worked for many years. His popularity was at its height during the earlier part of the century, and his visit to a provincial city with THE ONLY WAY, was a Gala Occasion. It is said that it was not unusual for the crowd of admirers at the Stage Door after the performance to take the horses out of the shafts of his waiting carriage, and draw the hero back to his hotel by human endeavour.
He was in some ways the complete opposite of du Maurier. He represented the grand style of the late Victorian and early Edwardian gilt-and-red-plush period, when the grand manner, voice and deportment were essential attributes to carry the highly coloured parts and costumes, and to fire the imagination of the largely unsophisticated public. Props such as stage telephones and cigarettes were not for him. As the drunken Sydney Carton, he could make that dusty, dirty, old wine bottle look very heavy and intoxicating, while he said those famous curtain lines to the first act, "Love is good, but drink is better, and death is best of all" - and how beautifully he delivered them. Yet I doubt if he could have manipulated that bottle of Champagne at the St.James's with Sir Gerald's panache and easy polish.
But I am keeping Sir John waiting in his book-lined study. I recited my piece, but failed to impress him. This was not surprising. My voice sounded like an alto in the Vatican Choir. It was not my idea of Defarge, the fierce revolutionary, and certainly not his. He very kindly made another appointment. I failed again. "No, no, Fitzgerald, I'm afraid I cannot see you carrying these heavy leading parts, your voice is rusty with so much understudying." And yet another appointment was arranged.
By this time I was getting, to put it mildly, somewhat irritated, as no doubt he was. I knew he was right, and I was angry with myself. I was learning the truth, that I could NOT play just ANY part as I once thought I could. I realised that my time with du Maurier had not been the the right preparation for this kind of work. I decided it was my last attempt, I would do or die, but I would not try again that dreary Defarge speech. On my way up to the house I went into a nearby pub for a stiff noggin. Feeling more at ease now, I too command and told him that, with his permission, I would enact a scene from FAME, the play in which I was understudying Sir Gerald at the time. He agreed, not with a good grace, I thought, as he sat with his chair half-turned away from me while I set the stage, took off my glasses ("You look like a schoolmaster") and went through the scene, which was a dramatic one in which a famous violinist, Paolo Gerardi, regains the use of his paralysed right arm after being told that he would never be able to play again. As I came to the end, I noticed that Sir John had now turned fully round in his chair and was watching me intently. "Yes, Fitzgerald, that was very good, " he said; and then, sotto voce, "You played it far better than du Maurier, if I may say so."
I thanked him, but did not take the compliment. Either he disliked Sir Gerald, or his critical powers were jaundiced, I thought. Then, to cap everything, I could not remember where I had put my glasses, and the evening session ended with the two of us hunting for them. But at last I had convinced him that I would "do". A contract was signed there and then, (he had had it already prepared!): twenty-eight pounds a week with first class travel all the ay across Canada to Victoria B.C. and back again, as Sir John's "leading man"..."leading man" a slight misnomer, I thought, as no one could possibly have any pretentions of being a leading man with Sir John anywhere around. I think "heavy leads" would more accurately describe my roles.
We were to start rehearsals some three months later. He knew I was to go to the Lyric when I left Sir Gerald, and Frank Vosper had agreed to release me if and when Sir John wanted me. But there were unforseen problems ahead. While I was playing the Indian student for Frank Cochrane, William Mollison came to see the play, which he was to produce on Broadway, and he offered me the part. Broadway! My heart sank. Why had I been so hasty in signing that contract for Canada? What was Canada compared with Broadway? I wrote to Sir John asking him to release me. He wired back "YOU WILL LOSE NOTHING BY STICKING TO YOUR WORD AND CONTRACT." I lost my head and accused him of interfering with my career; how could he compare playing on Broadway with touring Canada in obscurity? This was a stupid and unforgiveable thing to say, as I afterwards realised. He must have regretted engaging such a mannerless clot. His reply was dignified but firm, telling me of the date of the first rehearsal and requesting me to come LETTER perfect.
My recepion was, not surprisingly, far from warm. I sensed that I was to pay for my impertinence. I felt like a new boy, as most of the others had been with Sir John before, some for years. The first time I met the Company was in Sir John's garden at East Sheen. I was introduced to them by Frank.B.O'Neill, brother of Norman O'Neill the composer. Frank.B. was Sir John's Manager - he was a large, genial, likeable soul, and we were soon on friendly terms. My fellow actors were at their ease laughing, chatting, smoking, when suddenly, "Look out, here comes Sir John!" Cigarettes were hurriedly stamped out as strange noises were heard coming from Sir John, to prepare us for his entrance. Everyone froze as Sir John, with Lady Harvey, the ageing Miss Nina de Silva, leaning heavily on his arm, entered upon the scene. It was obvious that all the Company were worshippers at the shrine of Martin Harvey, and I soon realised that he was a Master of his craft, though quite different from my previous employers, du Maurier and Mrs.Pat.
Before sailing, I went to Hereford to say goodbye to my mother and my sister Edith, who was now married to Harold Richardson, then Rector of St.Nicholas. My mother was in failing health, and an air of gloom pervaded the Rectory. Would she survive until I returned? Would I survive the rigours of a Canadian winter? Would I even survive the Atlantic crossing? At that time a gramophone record of the sinking of the Titanic was much in vogue, and after lunch my mother, her sweet voice choking slightly with emotion, said "Edith, put on the record." It started off gaily with orchestra playing, passengers dancing and laughing and the popping of champagne corks. Then suddenly came tragedy, the horrid sound of the iceberg cutting through the sides of the ship, the alarm of the sirens, the laughter of the passengers turned to terrified shrieks, the rising force of the gale (I don't quite know why!), the shouted orders to abandon ship, the agonised farewells cut short by deafening storm effects, and, rising triumphantly over all, as the great liner sank into its waterly grave, the brave strains of the orchestra in angelic crescendo, "O hear us while we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea." My mother was by now in tears, and I was fervently hoping that I should escape inclusion in this category!
We sailed from Liverpool in September 1929 on the s.s.Aurania, and after an uneventful but very enjoyable voyage we entered the mouth of the St.Lawrence to begin that wonderful river trip of one thousand miles, past the ancient City of Quebec, to the port of Montreal, to start our journey across Canada to Vancouver, and then on to Victoria, in British Columbia. Our progress was nothing short of royal, with receptions in every town and city, and undreamed-of hospitality from the populace. These receptions proved a great strain on Sir John, and there were times when he absented himself to rest before his evening performance. At Lady Harvey's request, I used to stand in for him on these occasions, she remarking, "Fitzy dear, you stand next to me and be Sir John; nobody will know the difference"!
The theatre was practically non-existent in Canada, which was in the firm grip of the mighty American Movie magnates, who did not welcome theatrical companies. Apart from visits by Maurice Colburn and Barry Jones, who made several tours as far as Toronto and Ottawa, the Canadians had little chance of seeing stage plays, and Sir John Martin Harvey was the only Actor-Manager who was able to book such an extensive tour. On previous visits he had established himself as a popular favourite, and could always rely on a warm welcome and good business.
Never shall I forget the grandeur of the scenery, the luxury of the travel on the Canadian Pacific trains, the immense distances, punctuated with night-stops at the modern luxury hotels at every big town: rolling through the Praries watching the sun rise while eating the best fish cakes I have ever tasted, in the spacious dining cars. Signs of life were infrequent and we would all wave to a lone farmer at his work, and he would wave back. The journey through the Rockies was the highlight of all. Their immensity has to be experienced to be believed. We passed the Great Divide one night with a blinding blizzard in progress, only to wake in the morning to find ourselves rolling into Vancouver with green grass, the first we had seen since leaving England, and roses in full bloom; an incredible transformation. How right Sir John had been in insisting on my sticking to my contract. I would not have missed all this even to play on Broadway; (and in any case the play had no success there!)
My relations with Sir John remained straned for some time, and I felt that I was not giving satisfaction in my playing of Defarge. One night he sent for me after the show. "Fitzgerald, I shouldn't make up for Defarge if I were you." "You mean not at all, Sir John? No wig, no unshaven appearance, nothing?" "No. You're not a master of make-up, you know!" This was unthinkable. Throughout the years Defarge had always been heavily made up, at no small cost in grease-paint to the actor. But if Sir John decreed, so it had to be. Next evening while I was standing waiting for my entrance, Miss de Silva exclaimed in horror, "You've forgotten your wig!" I went on stage feeling half naked. Sir John had scored a point and taken me down a peg or two, and I felt my stature diminish in the eyes of the Company.
And speaking of diminishing stature, I might mention was an adept at this. Being himself a small man, he liked to surround himself with small people, but this was not always possible. Playing a scene with someone slightly taller, he would emphasise the points in his speeches by pressing continually on the culprit's shoulder till he was positively bending at the knees. For Sir John, though small, was of great strength. I was to discover this in a melodrama called THE LOWLAND WOLF. I was the villainous would-be seducer of the beautiful maiden, portrayed, of course, by the no-longer-young Miss Nina de Silva. I had to chase her round the kitchen table, hissing savagely, "Kiss me, kiss me". As I got her into a compromising position, honour would be saved by the timely intervention of the hero, Sir John, making the strangest animal noises to divert my attention from my beautiful prey. There followed a well-rehearsed up-and-down stage rough-and-tumble between the hero and villain, with the terrified maiden looking on making appropriate squeaks. The hero having got me down, would press my head backwards across his extended knee. Then, in the deathly silence of the theatre, he would break the match stick which he had been concealing in his hand, to simulate, most realistically, the snapping of my neck. Sir John sometimes forgot his natural strength, and I had to remind him, in undertones, that with his permission I would like to live a little longer.
One of my favourite memories is of Sir John rehearsing for THE BELLS, which had been made famous some years before at the Lyceum by Sir Henry Irving, who was always referred to by Sir John and Nina as "the Master". Let me describe the scene. A fierce blizzard is raging, and as each character makes his entrance handfuls of white paper are thrown into the wind machine concealed behind the street door, making a truly chilling effect. Sir John rehearsing his entrance, with Miss de Silva supervising, is something to be remembered. Wrapped in a black cloak held well up against the elements, with a large black hat pulled well down over his forehead, he enters to the sound of howling wind and amid flurries of snow. He slams the door, turns, leans exhausted against it, and announces in no uncertain terms, not only to the characters assembled on the stage, but to the whole audience, two very short but very effective words, "'TIS I!" Then follows a pause for the entrance round of applause before the play can continue. But here there was a distinct difference of opinion. "No, Jack dear; enter, shut the door, turn to the audince, wait for the applause, then ''Tis I'." "No, Nina dear, if you will allow me, the Master always said his first line, ''Tis I', first, then the applause." "No, Jack dear, I ought to know." "So ought I, Nina dear, I saw the Master play it so often." And so it went on, Sir John gentle but firm, and Nina getting redder in the face than usual. But she usually ended up by playing the trump card, "I may not be beautiful any more, but no one can say I don't know my job." "Nina, you are still beautiful." And so on. They were in many ways an endearing couple of whom I grew very fond.
There is a sequel to this episode. In the part of Father William I had an identically similar entrance, the same flurry of snow and howling wind, the same black cloak and hat, the cloak held well up to hide my face. I, of course, entered before Sir John. Occasionally, as I slammed the door shut against the elements and paused for breath before speaking my first line, the audience would uncontrollably bestow on me the entrance round they were reserving for Sir John. Strange indeed! But even unknown actors must be permitted to make the most of their opportunities. And it seems that I made the most of mine, for whilst I was on a second Canadian tour with Sir John, two years later, some unusually perceptive reviewer put the following notice in his local paper:
"RARE TALENT Sir J.Martin Harvey in DAVID GARRICK
After paying tribute to Sir John Martin Harvey, whose genius and talent can even in these days make a period play a delightful entertainment, let us take off our hats to Mr.Walter Fitzgerald. As Squire Chivey in DAVID GARRICK at the Opera House last night, Mr.Fitzgerald gave us a masterly study, which in itself was sufficient to make the whole performance outstanding. His revelation, in his cups, of Simon Ingot's plot for the disillusionment of Ada was a magnificent piece of acting, and he handled the character throughout in a way that almost made us admire his vices......."
This was nothing short of staggering, since no humble actor appearing in Sir John's "London Company" was expected to receive any notices at all. No reference was ever made to it by the Great Little Man - perhaps he really did think I was "in my cups", as the day after it appeared, he gave me a lecture on the perils of drink in the theatre!
Nodoubt I owed any small success to Sir John for what he taught me, and this was a great deal. I remember an occasion when we were rehearsing THE BURGOMASTER OF STILEMOND under pressure of time, and Sir John took a good three-quarters of an hour showing me how to take off a pair of gloves to his satisfaction. He would take infinite pains over the smallest details. I saw him one evening between Acts fussing over a sugar bowl, "Always supervise your props personally. Note how I arrange the lumps of sugar so that I can pick them up cleanly with the tongs, and put them into the coffee cups without any fumbling" - very useful advice which I took to heart later - things of such importance as checking the cigarette box to make sure a cigarette had been placed inside; arranging bottles andglasses satisfactorily to ensure that you can serve the drinks neatly, and in the time at your disposal; seeing that the telephone is so arranged that you can lift the receiver without getting entangled in the lead or tripping up the leading lady. I learnt not to leave these details to the A.S.M.; it may be his job, but you are the one who will suffer.
During our second Candian tour, apart from DAVID GARRICK, already mentioned, we produced amongst others a not very good play THE KING'S MESSENGER. The Second Act contained a long scene in which Sir John had nothing to do except sit in a chair, dead centre of course. During this he would invariably fall fast asleep, with loud whispers from Nina, "Jack, dear, it's getting near your cue." In the end, the nearest one to him had to go and shake him. Not me, for I had to lie on a window seat, and I, too, took the opportunity of having a good sleep. It was about the only sleep I got on the tour! I was young, and late nights were the order of the day, or, rather, the night.
I parted from Sir John and Lady Harvey with warm feelings of friendship and gratitude. The hatchet had long since been buried. When I bade my farewell, I asked him to give me some advice to carry away with me. He at once produced the following maxims.
"Always use a minimum of make up; don't cover up the natural lines of your face which have cost you so much to acquire. You will take away 'character', one of your most valuable assets. Keep yourself fit, physically and mentally. Remember that 'Curtain Up' is the important moment in your twenty-four hours. Don't arrive at the theatre tired out and unable to give your best. Remember that your performance on a First Night can only be a sketch of what you may eventually achieve in developing a character. You should be at your best in a fortnight or three weeks, when you have played before several audiences. They will help you to discover points in the part which have escaped you during rehearsals."
This last point is very debatable and many critics and actors will disagree with it, including that most honoured critic and devotee of the theatre, W.A.Darlington, who once said to me, "I consider any actor should give of his best on a First Night." Speaking fro my own experience, I agree with Sir John, and I have always thought it hard on the actor that he is only seen on a First Night by the majority of critics. There are exceptions: Mr.Harold Hobson once told me that he always tries to pay a second visit to a play in which he is particularly interested, to see how it, and the players, have developed.
And so I said farewell to Sir John and Lady Martin Harvey. I still retain feelings of gratitude at having met and worked with them.
I returned from Canada to find England in the throes of the great industrial depression. Unemployment was rife and the theatre in consequence was suffering. Productions in London were failing after a run of a few weeks or less, and the Managements were incurring crippling financial losses. They now favoured seeing try-outs of plays, before audiences that included over-worked critics, to try to judge whether they were worth the risk of a West End production. These try-outs involved little expense; a patched-up set and a cast of actors giving their services free in the desperate hope that an engagement might follow. It rarely did. There might be a fortnight at the Embassy or a week at the Arts, after two or three weeks of rehearsal, during which the actor had to pay his own expenses for travelling, meals, wardrobe, make-up etc. After my long and secure engagements with Mrs.Pat, the Lena Ashwell Players, Du Maurier and the Martin-Harveys, I could only look upon the future with some trepidation.
However, it seemed that I need not have worried, for despite my absence abroad, I had not been forgotten, and over the next few years I was hardly to find myself out of work. In April 1930 I was engaged to play in DEBONAIR at the Lyric Theatre. It was not a good play, but it had a strong cast, including Mary Jerrold, Celia Johnson, Kate Cutler and Frank Vosper. Celia made a striking success, and it was this that launched her on the road to fame. Along with countless others I have remained her ardent admirer to this day. This play was followed by LET US BE GAY, a comedy which starred Tallulah Bankhead, together with Arthur Margetson, Helen Haye and Francis Lister; and this in turn was followed by BLACK COFFEE, an Agatha Christie thriller at the St.Martin's with Jane Millican, Renee Gadd, Francis Sullivan and Roland Culver amongst others in the cast.
It was in this year also that I made my first film, MURDER AT COVENT GARDEN - a weird experience for me, and I thought my voice sounded as if I had a plum in my mouth. It was made at a time before Equity was in its stride, and there were no rules then as to the number of hours an actor could work. It was nothing to work up to midnight, or into the small hours, but I didn't mind - indeed, I was glad of the work, and it was a great experience.
At this time Peter Godfrey was making a big name for his productions at the Gate Theatre in Villiers Street, underneath the Arches. I phoned one day to ask if there were any vacancies. "Yes" came the reply. I was there in no time at all, only to find when I reached the theatre that they had meant vacancies for club members and not for actors. I was going away despondently when Peter Godfrey came into the foyer from the theatre. I told him of my disappointment, and he said, "You can play my part if you like; I've just begun rehearsing it, but I'm not really keen and have plenty of things I want to get on with." The play was a good one, A RACE WITH A SHADOW, with three characters, and here was I being offered the lead. I was word perfect in a couple of days and all seemed to be going well. Then came the blow. Owing to some unresolved legal troubles, Peter Godfrey was prevented from opening with the play. But my time had not been entirely wasted. I had impressed him, and subsequently played in many productions at the Gate, and later with his successor, Norman Marshall. Three pounds a week was the salary was one and all. There was one dressing room for the ladies, one for the men; and the front row patrons invariably used the stage as a footstool so we played to a row of boots and shoes. But a lot of good work was done there, which attracted distinguished audiences and also many players who were to become famous. I think of Dame Flora Robson, Robert Morley, Margaret Rawlings, Jean Forbes-Robertson, Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester and W.E.C.Jenkins. How we lived I do not know, but I enjoyed working there enormously, and Gordon's Wine Bar opposite did a good trade with his shilling glasses of Marsala!
One day I called in to see if there was any work going, and was told "Peter Godfrey has been looking for you. No, you can't get him now. It's probably too late anyway. He wanted you for a part in Clifford Bax's new play, THE IMMORTAL LADY, with Jean Forbes-Robertson. Now they are both in the Library of the British Museum, and you can't get in there without a pass." I hared off to the Museum and implored the commissionaire to let me go into the Library as it was a matter of life and death. I managed to persuade him and presented myself to the astonished Peter Godfrey and Clifford Bax. I got the part! The play did not run, however, and once more the hunt was on.
It was at about this time that a most important event occured in my life. I was elected a Member of the Green Room Club.
We used to think of the Green Room Club in Leicester Square, above Thurston's Billiard Hall, as the best Club in London. Certainly it was unique, and the home of all the leading actors of the day, and of others who were not so successful but nevertheless well known in the West End fraternity of actors. The main Green Room was very fine, with its bay windows overlooking the famous Square, its green carpet and oak panelling, its large fireplaces at each end, and its collection of silver. Members were invited to present to the Club a tankard, or fork, or spoon, with their autograph engraved, so that, sitting down to a meal, one might use a fork given by Fred Terry, or a spoon by du Maurier, or a tankard by Beerbohm Tree.
It was all very exciting, and, to a newcomer, rather unnerving. Could one really speak to these great figures informally, sit next to them at luncheon, listen to their brilliant wit and conversation? When I was first elected in 1933 I would wander uneasily among the ranks of the mighty, anxiously peering at the notice board, not really reading, but trying to appear at ease and praying that someone would be there whom I knew and who would call out my name and engage me in conversation. But the newness soon wore off in what I came to realise was a very friendly atmosphere. Many of the Members were far from prosperous. I remember an actor saying, "Do you know I have not worked for three months?" whereupon a voice came from an old character sitting by the fire, "I haven't worked for seven years!" When I first joined, anyone could buy drinks just by signing a chit, so that a Member who was having a bad time need not feel afraid of standing his round of drinks even if he had not got the ready cash to pay for it. But this, although a kind and humane ruling in a way, was not so kind in the end. Members would run up bills which they found difficult to pay, so "Cash on delivery" became the rule.
The Club was presided over by the Head Steward, grumpy genial Winter, who was beloved of everyone. As we sat around at night after the theatre, sipping our drinks, the clock showing well after 2 a.m., Winter would announce in his gruffy troaty voice, "Fines commence at two o'clock, gentlemen." That was an invitation to drink up and go home, or to stay and pay fines; 5/- the first hour, 10/- from three to four o'clock, £1 from four to five, and after that I think everyone, including Winter, lost count. He would benefit from the fines, which was only right, as he would be kept up all night serving drinks and, if we were lucky, a sandwich.
A school of poker might well start at 2 a.m. and continue till daylight, and, if one was unlucky, a tidy sum of money could be lost. But the stakes were kept within reason, and we always looked upon it as a temporary loss to be won back another time. Many a time did I wend my way home when the streets were being washed down, as they invariably were in those days at about four in the morning. But, in spite of these late hours, it was a point of honour that no-one was late for rehearsal next morning, (if there was a rehearsal to go to.)
In many ways the Club was a great leveller. No-one was allowed to put on airs, and any Member who was considered to be in need of being taken down a peg or two, no matter who he was, might have to undergo the humiliaton of being 'put in the chest', a large oak chest between the two bay windows. Resistance was useless, however much he would try, and once in, the lid was shut down and three or four chaps would sit on top of it. After some minutes he would be allowed to get out and a large whisky would be handed to him with the compliments of his aggressors. Few members escaped this ordeal of being 'put in the chest' and would brag about it thereafter.
There was much good natured ragging, and no offence was taken. One night Hubert Woodward arrived with a guest, a genuine Oriental potentate in full regalia. This was taken as a great joke, and the guest had the indignity of various articles being hurled at him from the assembled company. Profuse apologies followed the realisation that he was the "real thing", and libations of alcoholic refreshment were showered upon the astonished victim.
Many were the stories that circulated about Club Members. Hugh Wakefield, a keen horseman, was frequently seen riding about town in immaculate riding habit. He even arrived at the film studios on horse-back. Someone remarked that he was seldom seen in the Club, to which a ready wit replied "Poor old Hugh, he resigned because he could not get his horse in the lift". Another absentee was Eric Maturin, an eccentric if ever there was one, who was elected a Member but who, for a whole year, did not put in an appearance. Then one lunch time he came in, looked at the menu and exclaimed, "Good God, rice pudding in a Gentlemen's Club", strode angrily out, and never came near the place again! It was also related that Fred Terry, when President of the Club, reprimanded a Member for using obscene language. The Member remonstrated, "Excuse me for saying so, but I have heard you using some pretty strong language at times". To which Terry replied, "Well, damn it, after all I am the b - President."
But the Second World War was to come, and with it the end of those beautiful premises. During one of the interminable night raids, in November 1940, one of Hitler's land mines chose Leicester Square as its destination. I was filming at Elstree at the time, and staying most nights at Barnet to get some sleep. When I heard the news I came up to town to view the sacred ruins. The Square was a shambles, with pieces of taxis hanging like ribbons in the trees. The Club building was roped off, and as I stepped over the rope, a bobby asked me where I thought I was going. "To my Club", I announced with suitable gesture and a touch of drama. He accompanied me up the steps, inches deep in rubble. The lift that had served so many theatrical celebrities was still there, though of course not working. Apart from the outer walls, the destruction was complete. The inner walls were gone, the windows blown out, the furniture mostly in splinters, the large oak silver chest on its face, with the presentation silver sprawled about among the rubble which covered the floors.
On seeing this once beautiful room so scarred and battered, I confess to a moment of emotional weakness. I stood and froze, feeling sad and lonely. I pictured us sitting round that table which now lay broken; I heard again the carefree laughter as we prepared to face the unknown hopes and disappointments of the morrow; I heard Winter coming in, as we waited for news at the time of King George V's illness, "Gentlemen, the King is dead". We had waited in this room too to hear of the abdication of Edward VIII.
I turned my head to see the bobby standing silently behind me. He too must have sensed the atmosphere of spirits disturbed from their resting places.
"Excuse me, Constable, but you are standing on the Visitors' Book". He picked it up and turned the pages. "Some famous names in here, Sir". There were indeed. I said, "Constable, I left an overcoat hanging in the entrance hall; can you see any signs of it?" He spotted a piece of dusty tweed peeping out of the rubble. We pulled and tugged, and out came my coat. I have it still.
Later in the day, other Members arrived and we gathered together such valuable pieces of silver as we could and took them by taxi to the Adelphi Theatre, where sanctuary had been offered to them by a sympathetic Management. I am happy to say that, to this day, most of the silver presentation pieces engraved with the names of their donors are in daily use at the Club's new premises in Adam Street.
It was a sad day for all of us. This lovable room overlooking Leicester Square had been my refuge for several years. In it, and amongst its associates, I had grown up professionally, and I was now building a reputation of which I had some reason to be proud.