It's lousy being a luvvie

It’s lousy being a luvvie: Bitchy reviews, poor pay, stage fright, drunken co-stars… a riotous new history of the theatre reveals a litany of farce beyond the footlights

  • Gyles Brandreth explores tales and stories that litter the history of the theatre
  • Author’s earliest theatre memory was watching Judi Dench in Romeo & Juliet
  • He says James Villiers called people whose names he has forgotten ‘luvvie’


The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes

by Gyles Brandreth (OUP £20, 832pp)

When Gyles Brandreth goes to the theatre, he freely admits that he’s ‘waiting for the unexpected to happen’.

It’s a habit that was instilled early in his upbringing, for one of his first theatregoing memories was being taken to the Old Vic as a 12-year-old to see Romeo and Juliet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring a young Judi Dench.

Dench’s proud parents were there, too, and when she came on and said to the nurse, ‘Where are my father and my mother, nurse?’ a reassuring voice called back from the stalls, ‘Here we are, darling, in Row H.’

Now, as editor of a new compendium of theatrical anecdotes, Brandreth has harnessed two of his passions, story- telling and showbiz, gathering anecdotes from more than 400 years of the stage.

Gyles Brandreth explores the history of the theatre in his book The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes. Pictured: Stage actresses in their dressing room

From Burbage to Branagh, and covering just about every kind of theatrical story and experience, it includes triumphs, disasters, rehearsals, first nights, rotten reviews, directors, producers, audiences, critics and the miseries of provincial touring (as witnessed by Mrs Patrick Campbell, who, on being told her performance of Hedda Gabler in Brighton was a tour de force, replied mournfully ‘I suppose that’s why I’m forced to tour…’).

The resulting book is an absolute delight, as well as an essential Christmas gift for any stage-struck friend.

We meet plummy-voiced James Villiers, the actor who coined the term ‘luvvie’ (he used it whenever talking to anyone whose name he couldn’t recall).

We share the young Kenneth More’s embarrassment as he navigates his first ever professional job, helping the nude tableau dancers on with their dressing gowns between scenes at the famous Windmill Theatre in Soho.

One of Gyles’ earliest memories of the theatre was going to see Romeo and Juliet which Dame Judi Dench (right) starred in. Also pictured: John Stride (left)

And we experience some of Ian Ogilvy’s terror at finding himself acting on stage in a two-handed scene with an inebriated Trevor Howard.

Having commenced his performance by barking an obscene expletive directly to the audience the moment the curtain rose, Howard promptly forgot all his lines, forcing Ogilvy, playing his secretary, to say them for him, transposing the subject and object pronouns as he went so as to make it look as if they were his.

‘The following evening, Trevor came into the theatre beaming with joie de vivre,’ recalls Ogilvy. ‘ “Went quite well last night, didn’t it?” ’ he said, entirely without irony.’

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the acting game throws up so many fabulous reminiscences, for appearing in front of a live audience every night can be an unpredictable and nerve-shredding business; a fact confirmed by Ronnie Barker’s tale about a young actor who was so overwhelmed with first-night nerves that he sunk to his knees on stage and began to pray to his Maker. 

The book talks about how Kenneth More’s first job was to help nude tableau dancers with their dressing gowns at the famous Windmill Theatre in Soho. Pictured: Windmill Girls Lesly Wade (left), Maureen O’Dea (middle) and Lee Pearson (right)

‘Don’t rely too much on Him in the third act, laddie,’ whispered the leading man, ‘He’s helping me with a quick change.’

One’s place in the pecking order is a common obsession among thesps, and Sir Kenneth Branagh relates a conversation he once overheard about the supposedly egalitarian credentials of Sir Ian McKellen’s Actors’ Company.

‘Isn’t it marvellous about McKellen,’ he’d heard someone proclaiming. ‘He’s playing Hamlet this week and the footman the next.’ ‘What’s the other play called?’ asked their friend. ‘The Footman,’ came the reply.

And the tawdry reality of life backstage is succinctly captured by the story of actress and bon viveur Coral Browne, who once tackled Sir Laurence Olivier about an infestation of rats in her dressing room at the Old Vic, which he was running at the time.

When wished good luck by a young actor before performing, Dame Edith Evans (pictured) said ‘it isn’t luck’ for some actors

When Olivier offered to set traps to stem the infestation, she snarled, ‘What use are traps — with what you pay ’em, the actors will eat all the cheese!’

But this book is more than a catalogue of cock-ups. There are some profoundly moving offerings, too, not least from Brandreth himself, who describes how, as an undergraduate, he met his hero Sir Michael Redgrave when he came to address an audience at Oxford University.

Redgrave was battling with the as-yet undiagnosed condition of Parkinson’s disease at the time and, Brandreth, standing next to him in the wings, saw for himself the great man’s torture as he tried to marshal his increasingly foggy brain before stepping on stage.

Redgrave described this period of his life as ‘a grey expanse, with intermittent shafts of light’.

The transformative power of theatre is also chronicled in Arthur Miller’s recollection of the first night of Death Of A Salesman on Broadway.

The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes by Gyles Brandreth (OUP £20, 832pp)

‘I remember an old man helped up the aisle afterwards,’ recalls Miller. ‘He turned out to be Bernard Gimbel, who ran some of the biggest departments store chains in the U.S.

‘The next day he issued an order that no one in any of his stores — eight or ten in all — was to be fired for being overage.’

Not all audiences are so transported. Ned Sherrin writes of a production of Side By Side By Sondheim on Broadway: ‘At the end of one of David Kernan’s more lyrical songs, I saw an old lady nudge her neighbour as the last lovely note died away. She was pointing at Kernan’s trouser legs with some animation. “Look,” she said, “turn-ups are coming back.” ’

By turns hilarious, poignant and deliciously scurrilous, the book perfectly captures the highs and lows of a profession famously described by one jobbing actor as ‘this depraved carnival’; and who knows, it may even help compensate those of us who’ve been deprived of our usual theatre-going fix since mid-March.

Perhaps the final word should be left to the incomparable Edith Evans. Unexpected events occurring during live performance might be an occupational hazard for most actors but not, it seems, for Dame Edith.

As Bryan Forbes recalls, a young actor went up to her just before the red light flashed for transmission time on a BBC drama broadcast. ‘Good luck Dame Edith,’ he said. ‘With some of us,’ Edith replied in her inimitable style, ‘it isn’t luck.’ 

Michael Simkins is currently filming the ITV Drama Finding Alice for the New Year.

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