My daughter wants to be an actress. Fine by me, if she can stick it. My mother’s elder sister was an actress in rep in the 1930s. And it was the only other thing I wanted to do, having come out for teaching some time around the age of ten (the teachers were impressed, as I think all teachers, self included, are impressed when our former students become teachers). I remember telling my mum (you didn’t say this sort of thing to your father) that I wanted to be an actor, and she looked worried by this deviation from the norm. But there again, she was worried by my wanting to be a teacher.
My first job, however, actually was as an actor, and by ‘job’, I mean an activity that required a national insurance number, and where the money (a few shillings) came in a brown paper packet. I was a Roman legionaire in ‘Androcles And The Lion’ at the Sunderland Empire. This came about because I was available, and because (as mentioned the day before yesterday) I had been in the National Youth Theatre. A little known fact at the time I was in the NYT was that it regarded Sunderland as its second home, and I was doubly lucky in that, not only did I pass the audition in London, but I gained a speaking part in Peter Terson’s Zigger Zagger.
The audition was a disgrace. On my part, I mean. There I was, an earnest public schoolboy (only allowed out of school by the headmaster on condition that I had a haircut within an inch of my life), attempting to do – pause to cringe – the dagger speech from Macbeth, and a vicious speech by Mick from Pinter’s The Caretaker. I could remember neither. ‘Use the book,’ said Michael Croft, the NYT founder, possibly the only words he spoke to me, apart from a reprimand later. Zigger Zagger had a cast of 120, so I was not exactly fighting huge competition. Every member of the crowd – it’s a football play – was an understudy for a small speaking part. And every single person with a speaking part was fit and well, except mine, who was ill – so I had three lines. I was the Third Student, and I had to say ‘You’d be a wow in the NAAFI’. Can’t remember why. But on one night, I got a laugh, so the next night I camped it right up, and gained a bigger one. Michael Croft was displeased. ‘Just say the line,’ he said, very sternly.
Anyway. Shaw’s Androcles And The Lion was short of extras, so they rang round the NYT members in the area. It cannot have hurt that one of my best friends was the theatre manager’s daughter (the first girlfriend to cause me to sob when she dumped me, which is why it did hurt that, at this stage, the actor playing Androcles had taken up with her, having the advantage on me of several years. I seem to have packed a lot of girlfriends into a short space of time, I admit. My teenage years were a constant tide of emotion).
When you have a bit-part in a play, intended to do nothing but carry a spear, it is a challenge. You feel you ought to do something, but the (non-) part requires you to do nothing. So I came up with some ostentatious chewing of gum.
One night Androcles came up to me, unaware that we had anything in common, and with a face on him that indicated his view that I was a very stupid office junior. ‘Do you really think,’ he said furiously, ‘that a Roman soldier in 100 AD would chew gum?’ I looked at him disdainfully. In Androcles And The Lion, Shaw is not afraid of anachronism. ‘Do you really think,’ I riposted, ‘that Christians in 100 AD would sing “Onward Christian Soldiers”?’ And I threw in, ‘when the song was written in early 1849?’ I had no idea when it was written, but I was probably not far out. He had no reply to that, and backed off.
I had the gum back in, the very next night.