Everyone has a story about the first time they had to stand up in front of people to sing, tap dance, recite poetry, play the flugelhorn etc. This is mine about my first appearance in a school play.
In my last post, I mentioned that I went to Salford Grammar School, the same school as actor Albert Finney. We weren’t there at the same time. Albert is the same age as my brother Geoff, who is twelve years older than me, so both of them had moved on long before I arrived.
We did however have the same head teacher, EG (Eggy) Simm. Eggy had a special interest in public speaking and drama, and the school had a good reputation for its plays and also for its successes in public speaking and debating competitions.
It was Eggy who persuaded Albert Finney that his future lay in acting. Apparently, Albert was a bit puzzled by this idea. Although he enjoyed acting and was good at it, all he really wanted to do was play rugby. He had ambitions to become a professional rugby league player.
Egged on by Eggy (sorry!), Albert applied to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which was at the time and may still be Britain’s most prestigious drama school. He was accepted and went on to make his name in cinema and theatre, rather than the frankly more dangerous world of professional rugby league.
Many years later, and a few days after I arrived at Salford Grammar School, Eggy summoned me to his office. Like most school pupils when this happens, I was convinced I had done something wrong and was expecting to be punished for whatever it was.
In fact, he was all smiles when I entered his office.
“I’ve heard great things from your primary school about your speaking ability,” he said. “I’ll be talking to you later about the Manchester Public Speaking Competition that we take part in.”
I nodded my head and said “Yes, sir.” But I was puzzled by his remark and to this day I’m convinced he was talking to the wrong boy. There was another boy called Wilson who had joined the school at the same time. And he was from a different primary school.
I think if Eggy really had been in touch with Mr Harris, the head teacher of Light Oaks Primary School, he would have received a less than enthusiastic reference about my speaking skills.
Once a week at Light Oaks, a child from the top form was asked to read the lesson in assembly. The lesson was usually a few verses from the Bible. I remember hoping against hope that they would never get round to asking me to do it, but they did.
One Friday morning on a cold winter’s day, I found myself sitting in front of the entire school, on the dark wide wooden steps which led up to the stage in the assembly hall. The staff were seated on the stage itself. I was alone on the steps, feeling very isolated and exposed. Even though it was winter, I was wearing short trousers (we had to). I remember that my knees were very cold.
The moment arrived when Mr Harris said solemnly: “And Kenneth Wilson will read the lesson.”
I stood up and stared at the Bible on the lectern in front of me. During the week, I had read the piece so often aloud in my room at home that my mother must have thought I had discovered religion. I had actually learnt it by heart without even trying. But now the time had come and I wanted to get the whole dreadful experience over with as quickly as possible. I set off reading at high speed, gabbling and mangling the words.
I was half-way through when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Mr Harris had walked down the steps from the stage. He put his finger to his lips, lifted the Bible from the lectern in front of me and took it back to his seat, where he read the piece from the start. To make matters worse, he actually read about three times more than I had been asked to read, so the dreadful ordeal lasted much longer than it should have done. He then closed the Bible, gave me a stern look, and got on with morning assembly.
I really don’t think he was the one who gave Eggy Simm a positive review of my speaking skills.
Nevertheless, a couple of months after Eggy had approached me, I took part in the Manchester Public Speaking competition. I found myself in the 11-14 age category, so I was up against a bunch of boys (there weren’t any girls in the group I appeared with) who were much older than me. The piece I read had been written by two sixth formers that Eggy had press-ganged into helping me and I didn’t understand half of it. Not surprisingly, I didn’t win, but the judges were really nice and sent Eggy an enthusiastic review of my performance.
The next time Eggy approached me, he was carrying a script.
“I want you to be in the school play,” he said. “We’ll be doing selected scenes from a comedy called 1066 And All That. Are you familiar with it?”
“Well, we don’t normally have first-formers in school plays, but I think you’ll be just right for this part.”
He handed me the script. It must have been a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy and it was barely readable. There appeared to be four speaking parts, King Charles the Second, Nell Gwynne, and two others. One was called Ho and the other called Sho. Eggy had underlined Sho’s part.
It was only when I sat down and read the script that I realised the characters weren’t ‘Ho’ and ‘Sho’. That was just the bad carbon copy. They were actually ‘He’ and ‘She’.
My heart sank. Eggy wanted me to play a GIRL!!! ‘She’ was in fact a Puritan woman whose first line was ‘Shame upon ye, shame upon ye, ye sons of Satan!’ Or ‘Shamo upon yo, shamo upon yo, yo sons of Satan’, as it appeared on my carbon copy.
Eggy explained that there would be three evening performances for parents, and before that … an afternoon performance in front of the whole school.
Oh my Lord…
A week or so before the first performance, Eggy told me that his wife was making a costume for me. “She’d like you to pop over to the house for a fitting,” he said.
The Simms lived walking distance from the school and Mrs Simm 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?
I duly presented myself at the Simms house. She let me in, took me in the kitchen, gave me a very large grey dress and told me to put it on. It was vast, too long and too wide.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take it in,” she said. She picked up a box of pins, got down on her knees and began to pin the dress to my shape.
There was a knock at the front door, which she didn’t seem to hear.
“I think there’s someone at the front door,” I said. She went off to answer it. I stood still, staring into space, imagining appearing on stage in this voluminous garment.
I was roused from my reverie by someone clearing his throat. It was the milkman, who was standing at the back door, which led from the kitchen to the garden. He was staring at me. He obviously wasn’t expecting to see a boy wearing a dress.
“She’s gone to the front door,” I explained.
He nodded and walked out, a large grin on his face. 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.
1066 And All That, a ‘humorous’ look at the history of England, 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 in the early 1960s. I don’t think it was actually that good even in 1935.
The original musical had 26 scenes and more than a hundred characters. The Salford Grammar School powers-that-be 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, 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, Scene Eight was Scene Three, and 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 woman in the play hung over me like a black cloud during the run-up to the day of the first performance. Three other boys also had to play female rôles, but I was by far the 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 King’s mistress, in the same scene as me.
For the first three or four weeks, we rehearsed without costumes. Our scene 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 placed herself seductively (that was the stage direction) at the King’s feet.
At that point, we two Puritans stormed onto the stage and yelled at the assembled throng (throng?), criticising them for their bacchanal. I use the word ‘bacchanal’ loosely. The director, the head of the English department Mr Williamson, had told us that we were to imagine 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 the vast and echoey school dining room. 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 crashing noises that was emanating from the next room.
But I didn’t really care about imagining myself into the part. I just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with.
It was a Wednesday afternoon when the twenty-odd boys who were in the cast gathered backstage for the first performance, which was to be 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 created a bosom for me. I was quite tall and broad even when I was eleven, and when I breathed in, my bosom heaved upwards. One of the other actors fell on the floor laughing when he saw that.
When he stopped laughing, he said: “Better not breathe in during the play.”
There was one more surprise. None of the four of us who were to play females had as yet been given a wig. Mr Williamson 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. I was left with a choice of a peroxide blonde wig that would suit a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, or a small wig of straight brown hair which would have been perfect but was too small for my large head.
And one 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, who was a sixth-former, five years older than me.
The six hundred boys of Salford Grammar School filed into the assembly hall. They were in a 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 for parents in the evening and then for the next two nights.
The curtains in the hall were closed and the stage lights were turned on. Looking back on my time at school, I realise that SGS must have spent a lot of money realising Eggy Simm’s theatrical dreams. The stage was well equipped and the assembly hall really looked like a theatre.
The opulent red curtains on the stage opened and the show kicked off.
The first two scenes went pretty well, with a good-natured response from the audience when actors forgot their lines. The curtains closed after Scene Two, and we hastily prepared for Scene Three.
King Charles jammed a crown on his head and sat himself on his throne (the head’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 curtains swept open again, revealing the King, who pushed his crown back, threw his legs over the side of the throne, and ordered the courtiers to start singing, which they did.
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, 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 Wilson from 1A!” 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’. I was enough of a trooper even then to realise I shouldn’t do that. So I tried to stifle the laughter in my chest. That of course 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 the real talking point afterwards was Nell Gwynne and her seductive dancing, not the other woman with the heaving boobs and Afro wig.
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.
And then I spent 29 years with the English Teaching Theatre. Trying to make people laugh without having to wear fake boobs.
It’s funny how things turn out.