Around the time of my birth, my mother decided to become a playwright. Given the times, it was a brave decision for a woman to embark on that most heartbreaking of careers. Nothing daunted she sat down and proceeded to write plays. To everyone's surprise, and I hope, delight, THE MAN FROM
THE MINISTRY, a comedy by Madeleine Bingham, was duly presented for a try-out at the Royal Court Theatre on a Sunday night. From there it transferred to a larger theatre and despite post war gloom subsequently enjoyed a respectable run - most probably because it was a satire on the ludicrous new building regulations.
From my earliest years the word 'rehearsal' and 'play' meant glamour - it meant people going dressed up to the nines to the first nights of friends' plays or performances. It meant my grandmother telling me of Queen Mary watching my mother's play from a box, and my grandmother and my mother watching Queen Mary - hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of her laughing - which, joy oh joy, she did. About all I could think about was the Theatre.
At my boarding school bulletins of rejections, or occasionally acceptances of my mother's latest work arrived by post, hand written from 'on tour.' The monthly arrival of the magazine Plays and Players sealed the unspoken bond my mother and I had developed. I was the playwright's most loyal fan and spent a great deal of time crossing my fingers for her.
The theatre was all that mattered. Film was always greeted with open disdain. I would overhear conversations, usually carried on in funereal tones along the lines of - 'he's ruined, gone off to Hollywood! So that's the end of him!' Hollywood became synonymous with exile and disgrace and I came to see it as some sort of actors' graveyard, from whence no one ever returned except in artistic disgrace.
Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, the Redgraves, the Quayles, all the names from that era's theatrical royalty were forever on our lips. Personal scandals concerning the gods and goddesses of the theatre came and went, but whatever their peccadilloes, unlike the rest of the world they were always excused and someone somewhere would be sure to be found to be saying, with a sigh, 'oh, I know, I know, darling, it's all absolutely awful, but such a shame you never saw his Richard II', or 'if only you'd seen her Portia - if I tell you even the press were in tears.'
Actors and actresses at the top of the post-war profession not only behaved like royalty and were entertained by them, but lived like them too. They engaged social secretaries, were attended by butlers and maids, and swept in and out of London's West End in limousines. They commissioned fashionable interior decorators and society gardeners to do up their houses and gardens, and in rehearsal rooms they expected deference, not comraderie. My mother used to say 'you're always 'Miss' in the theatre', and seemed to enjoy being called 'Miss Bingham' more than any of her other titles.
Occasionally my cousins and I would be taken backstage to meet one of these grand theatrical creatures, but overawed as we were by these visits, nothing in our minds ever quite matched meeting Leo McKern, and William Squire, whom we had just seen playing Toad and Ratty in the Shakespeare Memorial's producion of Toad Of Toad Hall. To shake their paws and have them sign our programmes reduced us to dumbstruck awe. And the tact of them, to stay in costume! How different it would have been if they had not deferred changing to greet us and shake our hands, had they not stayed be-whiskered and costumed while we stared up at them with innocent adoration, leaving their dressing rooms to be taken home singing songs from the show.
Shakespearean scholars came to our house to talk to my mother and her friends about Hamlet or Othello, to argue into the night about rival Hamlets previous Hamlets, modern dress Hamlets - well - any Hamlet really.Sometimes I would go to bed worrying about why I preferred John Neville's Hamlet to any other that I had seen - and as for poor Othello - why had he been taken in by such a shallow trick as Iago had played on him? In earlier productions of Hamlet I learned Hamlet always had a dog. I liked that idea, but often as I saw Hamlet I never did see him being upstaged by anyone except his mother - oh, and occasionally Osric, of course.
At school I could only find one friend who had an actress mother dipped in theatrical ink. Perhaps missing the smell of the grease paint, if not the roar of the crowd, she did not stay at school very long. As consolation I was left to read and re-read John Gielguid's and Noel Coward's biographies, and play an LP, kindly given to me by my friend's mother of Noel and Gertie which had among other things a splendid recording of Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence playing scenes from Private Lives I played it every morning while I was dressing before church, lines of restrained passion running through my adolescent head.
I imagine my teachers must have given up on my mother by then, because plays and autobiographies and the copies of Plays and Players were all that now interested me. Schooling was just an interruption. My mother was sympathetic to this - and it is here that the child of the professional woman has a great advantage. Playwright-mothers are always distracted, so if you sidled up to them as Act One or Act Two was going well, and asked them 'can I give up Maths/Latin/Pass on A levels/leave school at sixteen - the answer would inevitably always be 'yes' because they had just thought of an amusing line and had to get it down so could not care less if you could translate Cicero or not or add up a thousand and one.
I look back with such intense affection to my childhood and adolescence, grateful always for its thespian overtones, its quirkiness, its irreverence, its sheer fun. I can hear the theatrical voices, the laughter, remember all the great stars of the day, the about-to-be stars, the character actors - who always seemed to need a bed for the night - the terrible tales of horrendous first nights when the scenery didn't shift, the actors forgot their lines, and critics walked out and not just because they had deadlines. I remember the Angus McBean photographs that decorated the halls of our flat, and I treasure the literally hundreds of theatre programmes left to me by my mother. If I pick one up I can feel the excitement we both felt as we settled into the stalls, or, if I was on my own, the Upper Circle of some West End or provincial theatre, sixpence or one shilling had to be paid a programme containing but two small pages on which were printed the barest details. But what did we care? We were in the theatre!
However, for all that I have seen the great productions, for all that I have seen Hamlets - although alas never with a dog - the mere mention of Toad of Toad Hall with some new and famous cast will always bring about a faraway look to my eyes, and I will find myself saying 'ah, but you never saw Leo McKern's Mr Toad' and then seconds later, I will add, 'and William Squire, the greatest Ratty, ever.'