The story so far –
* Your humble blogger (YHB) is a first-former at Salford Grammar School
* The head teacher seems to think that he (YHB) has potential as a public speaker and actor
* This is probably a case of mistaken identity, as there is another boy called Wilson who joined the school at the same time
* Nevertheless, YHB is entered for a Public Speaking competition, in which he does quite well
* Later in the school year, the kindly headmaster EG (Eggy) Simm gives YHB a script containing a scene from the up-coming school play, extracts from a 1930s musical called 1066 And All That
* Eggy has underlined the part of a Puritan woman, the part that YHB will have to play.
Now read on…
I was standing alone in the kitchen of the headmaster’s house, wearing a grey dress with a full skirt that was much too big for me. I wasn’t wearing a wig, so I looked like what I was – an eleven-year old boy in a frock. I was roused from my reverie by someone clearing their throat. A milkman was standing at the door which led from the kitchen to the garden. He was staring at me. He wasn’t expecting to see me there, he was expecting to see the headmaster’s wife.
“She’s gone to the front door,” I explained.
He nodded and walked out of the kitchen, stifling a laugh. Once outside on the path down the side of the house, he began to roar with laughter.
I was already a bit stressed about wearing the dress, so hearing the milkman laugh didn’t help.
This was the day I was fitted for my costume to play the Puritan woman in 1066 And All That.
1066 And All That was a ‘humorous’ look at the history of England that was originally written as a series of articles in Punch magazine in the 1930s. These were then turned into a book, and the book was turned into a musical, which was first performed at The Strand Theatre in London in 1935.
So it was pretty old and dated even before the English department at Salford Grammar School got their hands on it. And I don’t think it was that good even in 1935.
The original musical had 26 scenes and more than 100 characters. The Salford Grammar School powers that be had decided that only a selection of scenes would be performed. This still made it possible for a lot of pupils to get their five minutes of fame in front of their adoring parents.
I was involved in Scene Eight of the original, called Merrie England. According to the original programme, the following characters were involved:
Revellers, Court Ladies and Gentlemen and Dancers, The Common Man, Nell Gwynne, Oliver Cromwell, King Charles the Second, a Puritan Man, a Puritan Woman and ‘A Lady of Fashion’.
The last of these was played in the original by an actress with the wonderful name of Yvette Pienne.
In our version, we just had Charles the Second, Nell Gwynne, a couple of Court Gentlemen … and the two Puritans, played by me and a sixth-former called Ken Livesey.
The fact that I had to play a girl in the play hung over me like a cloud during the run-up to the day of the first performance. It didn’t even help that three other boys also had to play girls, although I did notice at rehearsals that I was by far the biggest and tallest of the four, AND I had more lines to say than the others. In fact, two of them had no lines at all, including the boy who was playing Nell Gwynne, the mistress of King Charles the Second, in the same scene as me.
Thinking back, it must have been pretty risqué to have a king and his mistress in a school play.
For the first three or four weeks, we rehearsed without costumes. Scene Eight was quite straightforward – the curtain opened, the king was sitting on his throne, bantering with the Court Gentlemen, who then for some reason burst into song. During the song, Nell Gwynne appeared and she placed herself decorously at the king’s feet.
At that point, we two Puritans stormed onto the stage and basically laid into the assembled throng (?) for their bacchanal. I use the word ‘bacchanal’ loosely. The director had told me that we were to imagine that there were scenes of great debauchery in front of us. I nodded when he said that, then went home and looked up ‘debauchery’ in a dictionary.
‘Extreme indulgence in sensual pleasures,’ it said.
We rehearsed in a room behind the school kitchen. Rehearsal time was after school and coincided with the kitchen staff thrashing around and cleaning things. I found it quite difficult to imagine a scene of extreme indulgence in sensual pleasures with the kind of post-lunch smells and the noise that was emanating from the next room.
But I didn’t really care about imagining anything. I just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with.
The head came to watch rehearsals one afternoon and congratulated us all. As we were leaving, he came over to talk to me.
“Tomorrow lunchtime,” he said, “could you nip over to my house? It’s walking distance from school. My wife has a dress she wants you to try on.”
This was how I came to be standing in the Simms’ kitchen.
Mrs Simm was a wonderful woman who did lots of unsung tasks for the school and the local community. She was also an expert seamstress. Do we use a gender-specific word like ‘seamstress’ any more? Are they now seamsters? Seampeople?
She took a very large grey dress from a box and asked me to put it on. It was vast, too long and too wide.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take it in,” she said. With that, she picked up a box of pins, got down on her knees and began to pin the dress to my shape.
Someone knocked at the front door, but Mrs Simm didn’t seem to hear. After a few seconds, I pointed it out to her. She wandered off to the front of the house. It was the milkman of course, and when he got no answer, he made his way round to the kitchen door. Which is where we came in.
I can’t hold back from describing the actual show itself any longer, can I?
The twenty-odd boys who were in the cast gathered backstage for the first performance, on a Wednesday afternoon in front of the whole school. I was probably more nervous than anyone, but there were still two surprises in store for me.
Firstly, when I put on the dress, I found that Mrs Simm had cleverly created a bosom for me. I was quite a tall broad lad even when I was eleven, and when I breathed in, my bosom increased in size. One of the other actors fell on the floor laughing when he saw that.
“Better not breathe in during the play,” he said when he got off the floor and stopped laughing.
There was one more surprise. The four boys who were to play girls had all been fitted with female attire of some sort or another, but none of us had as yet been given a wig. The director assured us that wigs would arrive in time for the performance and he was true to his word.
About twenty minutes before curtain up, he rushed backstage with a cardboard box, put it down on a table and opened it. There were about six wigs in it. The other three quickly chose one and went off to try them on. I looked in the box and saw that I was left with a choice of a peroxide blonde wig that would look good on a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like or a small wig of straight brown hair which would have been perfect but was too small for my large head. And the other one.
I can only describe the wig I had to wear as a giant curly Afro. I looked like Jimi Hendrix when I put it on. It was so high on my head that I was suddenly taller than my male companion.
The six hundred boys of Salford Grammar School filed into the assembly hall. They were in a rowdy boisterous mood. It was Wednesday afternoon and they were delighted to miss lessons in order to watch this final dress rehearsal of the play. After this, we were to do it again in the evening and then for the next two nights for parents.
The curtains in the hall were closed and the stage lights were turned on. I realise looking back that Salford Grammar School must have spent a lot of money realising Eggy’s theatrical dreams. The assembly hall really looked like a theatre. The opulent red curtains on the stage opened and the show kicked off.
Backstage, I was of course wishing that the earth would swallow me up.
The first seven scenes went pretty well, with a good-natured response from the audience when actors forgot their lines. The curtains closed after Scene Seven, and we hastily prepared for Scene Eight.
King Charles jammed a crown on his head and sat himself on his throne (the headmaster’s assembly chair), and his two courtiers prepared to swan around the stage singing an Elizabethan song a cappella. Nell Gwynne prepared to saunter onto the stage and ensconce herself at the king’s feet.
The scene was introduced from in front of the curtains and then they swept open again. King Charles pushed his crown back, threw his legs over the side of the throne, and the courtiers started singing.
Then Nell Gwynne made her entrance. And what an entrance. She smiled seductively at the audience, did a few dance steps around the courtiers and swished her way to the throne.
The audience were in uproar. They loved it and clearly wanted more. Instead, two kill-joy Puritans stormed onto the stage.
“Shame upon ye, ye sons of Satan!” yelled the woman with the Afro wig and heaving breasts. Puritan Man was completely thrown by how loudly I shouted that he stared at me and forgot his line.
In the ensuing silence, someone in the audience shouted: “That’s Kenneth Wilson!” And the place erupted with laughter.
Even though I wanted to cry, I also started laughing. Laughing on stage, what I now know is called ‘corpsing’. But I was enough of a trooper even then to realise I shouldn’t do that. So I stifled the laughter in my chest.
And that made my bosom heave up and down. So the audience laughter just intensified.
Puritan Man and me had about ten lines of invective each, before we stormed off the stage. I don’t think the laughter abated for long enough for a single line to be heard.
But at least it was over. The performances for the parents were much more refined, and people even heard our lines. And next morning, the talk was all about Nell Gwynne, not the other woman with boobs and an Afro.
I vowed never ever ever ever to appear on stage again, but of course I did. I was in every school play and every house play for the next five or six years. And really enjoyed all of them.
Please leave accounts of scary school stage stories!