I am the son of loving parents – very much in love with each other and in love with their profession which was their world. If I think of Paradise I think of David and Monica working together in some amazing stage production.
It was a privilege to be their son.
My father took me backstage to the world behind the curtain. The smell of wood, canvass and paint transported me, the thrill of finding rudimentary doors and windows cut into the towering backs of the flats, I would run up steps to appear on balconies, I would crane my neck and look up at the stuff hanging from the flies – remembering the oft told story of a cantankerous old Scotsmen who worked in the flies in Perth and who didn’t take kindly to shows overrunning as he had to catch a bus to his home in a remote village. One such night as the spotlight lit the hero as he walked downstage for his final soliloquy, the audience could hear muttered rumbling from above their heads. The God was restive – his bus would depart in twenty minutes. Careless of impending calamity the actor took his time. The rumbling increased. There was no lightning, but just as the actor opened his mouth to speak, the God spluttered a gargled oath and a pair of false teeth clattered onto the boards.
My father became a productions manager after he acknowledged that he was not cut out to be an actor – something to do with the arrival of Ted Woodward and Dicky Johnson in the Perth Theatre. Thereafter he appeared rarely on stage he often told me that you could always spot a member of the production team on stage. They’d be the ones who’d be looking round the set, making sure it wasn’t going to fall down.
He told me the story of a stage manager who was roped in to play the statue of Eros. Covered in wet plaster of Paris he had to stand behind a couple of actors playing a love scene in a park. Ever practical – this was Scotland in the winter – the manager ran out an electric fire to be concealed behind the statue’s plinth. As the lovers’ dialogue became more intense the audience might have missed the steam rising from the statue. As the lovers leant forward for their first kiss, the audience might have been distracted by Eros suddenly coming to life with a wriggle a yelp and a dash to the wings.
Dad worked long hours six days a week and so he was quite a remote figure in my early childhood. Once – after he’d been away on some tour – I remember finding a strange man in the bath. I screamed and it took mum some minutes to explain shaving to me.
After our move to Birmingham and my mum’s increasing number of acting roles, it became Dad’s turn to take on a parenting role. Somehow he found time for us to go to football matches. The walk to West Bromwich Albion and the bus ride to Birmingham City, and then holidays together in Devon and Cornwall enabled us to set all the world’s problems to right – from the Great Train robbery to Apartheid – we indulged our mutual curiosity as I tried to acquire his strong moral sense.
Dad’s curiosity was unbounded. With a strong sense of history – even when it was repeating itself – he waited impatiently to find out what happened next. His strong belief in fair play, perhaps linked to his love of cricket, led him towards an active sympathy for the weak in society. This informed his direction of cutting edge modern drama as well as explaining his political campaigning.
My father loved the countryside and he showed complete disrespect for notices that said Private or Trespassers will be prosecuted. Barbed wire was no impediment on Sunday walks where the object was to find a good picnic spot by some water. Dad was renowned in the family as being better than a pair of divining rods.
My father was a generous, modest and fiercely independent man. His neighbours speak of him walking down the street, head held high, with a smile and greeting for everyone. As a theatre director, as a political campaigner, as a parent-in-law in a strange country, he had the miraculous gift of hunkering down and getting the absolute best out of everyone.
The last role my father played on stage was in Samuel Beckett’s surreal drama Happy Days. My mother played Winny, a woman buried first up to her waist then up to her neck in sand. Dad played her husband faithful Willy in a natty straw boater and smart blazer.
This very moving and often funny play was to resonate with me as my father became my mother’s fiercely protective nurse in the last years of her life. My mum and Dad faced this trial with humour. Wot larks Pip!