A personal and unscientific meander through five hundred years of British theatre
It’s quite an undertaking, but I have pledged to post a chapter of this book a month, in biteable chunks, on Substack.
The subtitle of the book is a clue to its nature. Those who know me and my writing know I am not an academic and I don’t have an academic mind. What I do have is a long life spent in various aspects of the theatre – acting, writing, teaching, excavating – and a fascination with the world of theatre and how it has reincarnated itself over the centuries.
The book is intended very much as a personal exploration into how theatre began in this country, beginning before Shakespeare and moving gradually to the present day. Who were the actors? How did they get to be actors and why did they want to do it in the first place? Their backgrounds, their characteristics, what they think it takes to be an actor, and on and on as the mood takes me.
As I am effectively publishing the first draft of my book it will need editing and maybe even correcting here and there, which is why I am definitely looking for feedback not just about the content or the accuracy of it, but the tone. I like to think my books are above all readable. I’ve spent too many hours poring over incomprehensible texts in the course of my own studies to ever want to be bracketed with those academics who write in lengthy sentences with no punctuation using the kind of language only they could possibly cognize.
The real challenge in such a book is not so much the writer’s knowledge or her ability to research, it’s to turn months or years or a lifetime’s preoccupation into a page-turner. Let me know how I’m doing!
OUT ON FRIDAY 12 JANUARY. SPECIALLY DISCOUNTED PRICE OF .99c or .99p. CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER.
The Humbling of Meredith Martin is book five in my Modern Women Breaking the Mould series. It tells the story of an ambitious actress struggling to achieve the stardom she believes she deserves by any means possible. If that entails gate-crashing auditions or upstaging her fellow performers, so be it.
‘It was how the theatre worked, was Meredith’s view. A girl had to take chances, grab opportunities as and when she could, using guerrilla tactics where necessary. Meekness in the theatre did not inherit anything.’
Some writers are naturally good at it – a surprising amount of writers appear to have a PR or marketing background. Others, like yours truly, not only find the whole business tedious and baffling they’ve been brought up never to blow their own trumpets, as the saying goes. It isn’t easy for a lady novelist of a certain age to market her products with anything approaching authenticity.
Marketing involves getting to grips with technology
Whether it’s figuring out social media or creating an author website and blogging on it, or setting up a newsletter and finding people to subscribe to it; all of which, clever me, I have done. I have even, for my sins
Designed my own book covers
Received wisdom says authors should not design their own book covers unless of course they have a good knowledge of graphic design. I’ve repeated this mantra over and over myself and despite what I’m about to say it still holds true.
In my case it was made clear my covers – which I really liked incidentally – were not selling my novels. However lacking the wherewithal to have all of them redesigned by a professional, and with the help of Canva and the encouragement of the wonderful Katie Sadler I set about redesigning them myself. Here they are:
I also have a new book out soon
On 12 January 2024 to be precise. It’s called The Humbling of Meredith Martin and it’s book five in my Modern Women Breaking the Mould series.
Meredith has appeared in two previous books – The Makings of Violet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons – alongside her colleague, friend and rival Gaye Worth. (Aka Merry and Gaye.) This book features Meredith centre stage and tells how an actress with aspirations struggles to become the leading lady she believes she was put on earth to become. It’s set in Edwardian London and like my other books it’s a light-hearted read with a touch of romance and is available to pre-order HERE.
And I have joined Substack
Substack is what you might call an online newsletter platform which anyone can join for free and post away to their heart’s content about anything and everything in the hope that someone will actually read what they have to say. I’m still learning the Substack ropes but my eventual idea is to post chapters or part-chapters of my new book – tentative title Theatrical Women – on Substack at regular intervals.
‘Uncle Vanya’ is a play very dear to my heart. Many decades ago I played Sonya in rep at Harrogate Playhouse. I had only just started out as a professional actress, with no training other than getting out there and doing it, and while I have no idea if I was any good or not I identified with Sonya totally and utterly: the plain, naive girl who falls in unrequited love with a man who looks on her as no more than a friend, and a child to boot.
More recently I booked to see the play in the West End but was thwarted when Covid shut down the theatres the day before I was due to see it in March 2020. Fortunately that production, with Toby Jones as Uncle Vanya, was subsequently filmed, so I was able to watch it over and over until I knew every word, every movement by heart. It was a wonderful production and featured Aimee Lou Wood as a heartbreaking Sonya.
The play also features very strongly in my current novel-in-progress. My central character is an actress who thinks she is the bees’ knees until she is put very firmly in her place by a Russian disciple of the great Stanislavsky. When asked to act the part of Sonya in a demonstration of the famous System she is bullied into a realisation that acting is more than just walking onto a stage and projecting your lines to the furthest row of the gallery. Through the medium of honest, homespun Sonya the sophisticated, haughty Meredith learns something not just about herself but about the whole business of acting itself.
So when I heard that Andrew Scott was to play every part in a one-man production of the play my first thought was, Why?
Duke of Yorks theatre poster
The answer is partly because Andrew Scott, in an albeit restricted run, is able to sell out a West End theatre where the cheapest available ticket is £120.
One hundred and twenty pounds.
But then I read the reviews, first in What’s On Stage and elsewhere, in which the reviewers dispelled all my doubts. I knew I had to see the thing. But at £120??
Fortuitously this production is mounted by the same company, ATG, as my missed Uncle Vanya, for which I dimly remembered I was in receipt of a voucher. That reduced the cost of the ticket by around a third, which mean my seat in row K of the stalls only cost me around £80.
So what of the production?
I have loved and not loved Andrew Scott in the past. I did not love his Gary Essendine in Present Laughter at the Old Vic, but I did love his lockdown performance in Three Kings at the same theatre, filmed and transmitted live. There’s no doubting his extraordinary talent.
First of all, you really need to know the play before you see this version. Set in the present in Ireland, it is confusing, at least to begin with. Who is Michael? (Astrov) And who is Ivan? (Vanya, of course) Scott signals his switch of roles partly by use of props – he fingers his necklace as Helena and wipes his hands on a cloth as Sonya; Vanya toys with sunglasses and Vanya’s mother Maureen smokes cigarettes. Helena speaks RP and her husband Alexander has what sounds like a pompous Ulster twang. It is very subtle – so subtle in parts that it was difficult to hear the dialogue, though Scott does have the ability to whisper on stage and be audible – and at times very funny. The adaptation by the supremely talented Simon (Curious Incident, to name one) Stephens is deft and fluent and artfully edited down to just under two hours without a break.
Uncle Vanya, 2020 production (Official London Theatre)
In the end though, does it offer up anything new about the play? You have to admire the performance, that goes without saying. However it’s my view that Andrew Scott is always even at his best just a little mannered, and some of his mannerisms – hands over the face, wiping the eyes wearily – do not seem to be fixed to one particular character. Yes, it is extremely moving at times, but ultimately it struck me as above all a masterclass by an actor at the top of his game. For a definitive version of a great play, give me Toby Jones and his fellow actors any day.
The first real person to appear in a novel of mine was Noel Coward. He wasn’t planned, or strictly speaking invited, he just appeared at a party given by my protagonist Claudia’s daughter and her husband in The Awakening of Claudia Faraday. He and Claudia formed a warm relationship and she even gave him the title for his first play, The Vortex, and the idea for his film Brief Encounter. (Both these events needless to say were fictional.)
Noel Coward 1925 (Wikipedia)
In my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Ville Prue found herself working as the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell’s dresser and confidante, until she was sacked. She went on to hobnob with the likes of Mrs Millicent Fawcett, founder of the suffragist movement, Lady Ottoline Morrell, the well-known socialite, and through Mrs Morrell, members of the Bloomsbury Group such as John Maynard Keynes – to whom she was briefly engaged. (That too was fictional.)
Violet in The Makings of Violet Frogg worked for the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who built Her Majesty’s Theatre and founded RADA – then ADA – in the Dome. She also rubbed shoulders with Bernard Shaw and attended suffragette meetings presided over by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Cristobel, the latter of whom also makes a guest appearance in my novel-in-progress The Humbling of Meredith Martin, as does the theatre director Harley Granville Barker and the actress Edith Wynne Matthison.
Other celebrities also appear in my books under thin disguises: Claudia Faraday is Clarissa Dalloway, from Virginia Woolf’s novel, her gardener Sellers is a reference to Lady Chatterley’s Mellors. Mrs Morphett in my third novel Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons, first name Phillicent, is a Spooner version of Millicent Fawcett.
Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Westminster Square
Am I breaking any rules here? I hope not. I went to a lot of effort to research these people and they are represented in my books as accurately as I could make them. In this I believe I am breaking fewer rules than writers who write biopics that knowingly distort the facts. (I could name some but I won’t.)
Featuring real people is not just fun, they add substance and context to a book that is set in the past. Anyone who is familiar with Coward or Mrs Pat or Tree or Barker will I hope recognise this and appreciate that by featuring them in my made-up stories I am in a sense acting as their publicist, with the best motives.
Coward had an uncanny understanding of older women, so it makes sense that this might have come from his meeting with Claudia Faraday. Mrs Patrick Campbell overcame huge odds and the almost permanent absence of a husband whose name she used even after his death, to become one of the West End’s most celebrated actresses, and by portraying her through the doting Prudence’s eyes I have tried to convey some of the hardships she underwent.
John Maynard Keynes was happily bisexual before he became happily married, though not to Prudence of course, so why shouldn’t he have enjoyed an eleventh hour flirtation with her? Herbert Tree was a genial genius, a philanderer, unfaithful to his wife yet loyal to everyone else and seemingly loved by everyone, including his wife. So why shouldn’t he invite young and green Violet to lunch and flirt with her? (That’s all he did.)
Mrs Pat and Herbert Tree, the original Eliza and Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion. The slipper-throwing is part of the script but apparently Tree objected to the force of Mrs Pat’s bowling arm so she was told to tone it down, thus effectively defeating the purpose of the exercise.
Millicent Fawcett was a well-bred woman who stayed true to her belief that women’s suffrage could be achieved through peaceful means, and Harley Granville Barker, actor, writer and manager of the Court Theatre (now the Royal Court) was in his unassuming way instrumental in revolutionising theatre in the early twentieth century and introducing the notion of the theatre director.
So if nothing else, by including these luminaries in my books I hope I am introducing the readers to fascinating characters they might not otherwise have been aware of. Call it homage from an ordinary writer to extraordinary personalities, call it the writer’s aid, they are portrayed as authentically as possible (within the bounds of fiction), and with great respect, admiration and a lot of affection.
First, we are led into a room with a table map of 1605 London, where we are given a bit of background on a video screen to the events we are about to witness and instructions on how to work the virtual reality headsets. Next we are taken into the dungeons of the Tower of London itself (actually the Tower Vaults next door) where it is cold and dark and there is the sound of shrieking from tortured Catholics. We are in a prison and greeted by a sick-looking prisoner. It appears we are Catholics, so why is the Officer of the Crown treating us – if not exactly politely – at least as fellow human beings? Is it a trick? I ask him. (He ignores me.) Donning black hooded capes we proceed through the still dimly-lit rooms where we are greeted by Lady Cecil, who explains she is recruiting us as spies to infiltrate the group of conspirators planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the day of the Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the King, his family and untold numbers of parliamentarians and bystanders. A little later, in the Duck and Drake tavern (where the real conspirators met) we decide if we will obey Lady Cecil and become spies or remain true to the Catholic faith and become terrorists. We choose the latter.
That’s just the first half. It continues much the same, as we are led by often mysterious figures from room to room in this cold, dark dungeon, trying our best not to trip over the scenery or – horrible thought – to get left behind in the gloom. Now and again we pause to sit down and place the VR headsets on our heads and allow ourselves to be taken into the heart of 1605 London, now flying on a tripwire high above the City streets, now on a boat being rowed across the Thames by Guy Fawkes himself. (This last was nothing less than thrilling.) When the events we all know about come to a head we find ourselves trapped in a cage and only finally let out to end up in a room where we are told what happened after the gunpowder plot was discovered and then to have our photos taken and be led out through the shop (of course).
The Thames1605 (gunpowderimmersive.com)
Time Out described these goings-on as a ‘theme park ride’ but they could not be less so. This is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s not just the darkness. It is an experience quite unlike anything I’ve ever known, a miracle of logistics – there are several casts and audiences are admitted in groups of no more than 16 every ten minutes – creativity and technical prowess.
I can’t say I enjoyed it. I did admire it, I was even at times quite frightened by it, and once I’d managed to find out how to put the headset on properly (I missed most of the tripwire business due to my ineptness) the VR sequences absolutely took my breath away. It is the nearest to being transported in toto back to 1605, and it was worth the visit for those sequences alone.
Had it been up to me I would have allowed to practise with the headset before the event began. I would also, I think, have included a real live opening scene between Catesby, Fawkes and the other conspirators as they explained what they were plotting and why, rather than have the ‘backstory’ told us by a voice from a screen. After all nothing, not even VR, can replace the oddly thrilling experience of having real live flesh-and-blood actors ordering you around peremptorily in a cold dark dungeon right next to the Tower.
Aussies won’t like this series, I guarantee it. A six-parter about hopeful British migrants promised a better life in Australia in the 1950s, it depicts Aussies as racist misogynists and the British newcomers as enlightened and classless.
We are halfway through this Sunday night series here in the UK on BBC1 and its reception has been shall we say luke-warm. ‘A hilariously watchable drama in which no Australian cliché was left unturned’ said The Times; ‘. . . a burst of sun-soaked schmaltz’, The Independent.
Written by a Brit, it looks fantastic, and it touches on some familiar themes, in particular the contrast between the almost aggressive informality of the Aussies and their mockery of the ‘stuck-up’ poms. But as many people have pointed out some of the attitudes, of the British migrants in particular, are more 2023 than 1955. That a British woman should be shocked to see an Aboriginal woman shoved to the end of a queue in a department store, and then respond to a (hyper-) racist Aussie’s comment that ‘Abos’ were not humans with ‘they were here long before you were’ is frankly pretty unconvincing, as is the fact that the only white man who is prepared to talk to the Aboriginal worker is a British migrant. And all this in the time of Windrush, when it was not unusual in England to see signs saying ‘No blacks, no Irish’ on the windows of boarding houses.
Then there are the anachronisms: being able to pick a phone and call England at the drop of a hat (I remember having to book a long-distance phone call days ahead); use of words and phrases such as ‘the UK’, ‘I was like’, ‘Oh my days’ and I think I heard one of them refer to ‘Brits’.
There’s some excellent acting in Ten Pound Poms, particularly from Warren Brown as the conflicted Terry, David Field as the foul-mouthed, but utterly believable Dean and Faye Marsay as Terry’s wife Annie. But all in all, to quote The Spectator ‘ . . . it also left you wondering if Ten Pound Poms has fully decided what kind of show it wants to be: a thoughtful and well-researched microcosmic portrait of what happened to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary postwar British people who moved to Australia, or an incident-packed Sunday-night melodrama.’
I was a ten pound pom, back in 1968, albeit in very different circumstances. As the daughter of an Australian mother half my family was there – not that I met many of them until much later – including and in particular my brother, who was also a ten pound pom. I lived in Sydney mostly and I was not aware of the racism, not until I ventured inland. That’s not to say people living in the bush are more racist, just that I never came across Aboriginal people in Sydney and nobody ever talked about them. (It’s very different now.) I was aware of the term ‘whingeing pom’ and a certain defensiveness that defied the newcomer to cast any kind of aspersions on their new home, but otherwise I encountered very little resentment. In fact as an actress arriving from the Old Country I found it remarkably easy to find work (like so many other things, that changed as time went on, both the attitude and the availability of work) and I found Australians the friendliest people on earth.
So the comment that echoes my own thoughts are from The Evening Standard: ‘I couldn’t help feeling there would be enough drama in the events as they happened – the culture shock, the separation from home, friends and family – without the addition of the big secrets, lies and shocking events forced on the characters.’
It is much harder to do the first than the second of course. The soap opera elements of Ten Pound Poms are annoying distractions from the much more complex, harder-to-define issue of migration and the subtle yet colossal differences between our two countries. It has taken me three books to begin to describe this from my own point of view.
All that said, it seems the ten pound pom story comes as a surprise to a lot of folk over here, so on the whole it’s good to see it on prime-time television.
The more I research the past the more I find parallels with the present.
The women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain comprised several different organisations, each of them with slightly different aims and with very different approaches. The two largest, the NUWSS (The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), founded by Millicent Fawcett, was a peaceful movement whose members were referred to as suffragists. The WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union), founded and run on authoritarian grounds by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, espoused ‘direct action’ which included on occasion storming the Houses of Parliament and vandalising buildings. This in turn spawned a breakaway group called the Women’s Freedom League, who disapproved of the dictatorial way the WSPU was run.
Confused? I certainly am. Although the different organisations did cooperate on occasion it can’t have helped their cause to be so split in their aims and their methods.
Reading about the the suffragettes I am reminded of Extinction Rebellion, aka XR, a British-founded global environmental organisation, well-known for their disruptive tactics such as blocking bridges and roads in central London and on one occasion gluing themselves to underground trains in order to draw attention to our climate emergency.
In both cases their more extreme methods, whatever you may think of them, were a direct result of years of being ignored. Mrs Fawcett’s suffragists had been lobbying parliament for decades, with very little result. XR came to the fore a few years ago when they imported a boat into Oxford Circus and reminded us of the urgency of climate change. Both attracted the attention of the media, not always positively. Both divided public opinion. Both had MPs effectively demolishing their arguments by condemning their methods.
XR and The Boat (The Telegraph)
(Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, like a more recent MP and Prime Minister, seemed to change his mind about women’s suffrage according to who he was talking to at the time. At one point he told the suffragettes he was their ‘friend’, and then declared women would never get the vote until they ceased their militant tactics; to which those women might have responded ‘If you really were our friend you’d have done something to help us and we wouldn’t have needed to resort to those tactics’.)
So how do we, the protesting general public, achieve our aims? Public opinion, led by the media, is one thing; a peaceful demonstration is unlikely to attract media attention unless someone metaphorically or physically throws the odd stone. In 1908 a quarter of a million suffragettes and supporters held a peaceful rally in Hyde Park, to no avail. In 2003 a million people, including yours truly, marched through central London protesting against the impending war in Iraq, to no avail.
Women’s suffrage rally, Hyde Park, June 1908 (wiikipedia)Anti-war rally, central London, February 2003 (Imperial War Museums)
Contemporary historians on the whole tend to believe the suffragette movement was hampered rather than helped by their militancy, but just maybe they are basing their beliefs on statements from the likes of Winston Churchill at the time. ‘We will never give way to violence!’ (Not a direct quote by the way.) By refusing to allow women the vote because they were a nuisance meant they were condemning their tactics rather than their aims.
Setting aside the odd Violent Fringe that has hijacked many otherwise peaceful protests in the past, if peacefulness doesn’t get us what we want, what will?
All this is in the course of my research for my latest novel, working title The Humbling of Meredith Martin. It concerns an actress – who has already appeared in my previous books – struggling to make her way in the unpredictable and radically changing world of Edwardian theatre. Which reminds me of yet another organisation, the Actress’ Franchise League. They produced hundreds of propaganda plays satirising the anti-franchise movement, performed, one assumes, almost entirely to already-converted audiences.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The Humbling of Meredith Martin (working title). Book five in the ‘Modern Women: breaking the mould’ series
So much has changed since I first published this book in 2016, both in Australia and the UK. Australia has experienced horrendous bushfires followed by disastrous floods. They’ve also had a change of government, from Liberal under the right-wing, rambunctious Scott Morrison (ScoMo) to Labor under the quieter, more thoughtful Anthony Albanese (Albo). Here in the UK meanwhile we’ve gone through Conservative Prime Ministers like hot cakes, ending up with Rishi Sunak, who at the time of writing has at least outlasted a lettuce but is still having to cope with Brexit, the cost of living crisis and not least a fractured government.
So I’ve brought out a slightly amended version of the original book and for good measure I’ve added a few sketches, drawn by my talented friend Anna de Polnay, whose wonderful silhouettes adorn the covers of my novels. Here’s a selection from the chapter called Sydney’s Beach Wars:
As we all know Valentine’s Day is an invention created by commercial enterprises to sell cards, flowers, champagne and exorbitantly expensive nights out.
All that said, it’s good to celebrate love – not necessarily just romantic love, but love of any kind. Here for instance is a poem I just constructed about my grandson. I am not – as is blindingly obvious – a poet. But there is something about watching a small person grow that brings out the McGonagall* in me. So here goes:
I’m looking at you. Yes, I’m looking at you, kid, In a way I never did with my own. (My own kids, that is: Not enough time, too much anxiety, Too much of everything.) But you I can watch without judgement Or criticism or anxiety, With time, and simple fascination and wonder, As you grow and learn and become Your very own person. But there is one thing you both have, Both you my children and you my grandson, You have my total, undivided, unconditional love.
As anyone who knows me will confirm that is about as sentimental as I am likely to get. For a different take, or series of takes, on the thorny business of love, have a look at my collection of short stories about love in adversity.
*William McGonagall was a Scottish poet in the ‘doggerel’ style. He was widely regarded as ‘the worst poet in British history’ (to quote Wikipedia). His life, incidentally, was fascinating, and he was remarkable for his total belief in himself and whatever he chose to write or to do, no matter how weird and unlikely.