There is Nothing like a Dame
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'
Chapter 10 Harriet the teacher
The day of my visit arrived. I decided that I should look like an 'actress', so wore one of my prettiest dresses, high heels and stockings. I took great care with my hair and make-up. It had been arranged that I should arrive at nine-thirty, giving the class time to settle down. Louis XVIII of France is said to have coined the phrase 'Punctuality is the politeness of kings', and I always bore that in mind, so, although not a queen, right on the stroke of nine-thirty I arrived at the church hall in Finsbury Park where the acting class was held.
There was a murmur of excitement when I walked in the door and Miss Carson, looking slightly flushed herself, said “Class, this is Miss Harriet Stow. She's a well-known Shakespearean actress.”
“I'm very pleased to be here Miss Carson,” I said.
“Oh please, call me Jennifer,” she said.
“Then you must call me Harriet,” I replied.
I looked at about twenty young faces gazing at me and said “Good morning everyone, thank you for inviting me to your class. It's really nice to be here. Miss Carson has told you what I do. Currently, I'm working at the Globe theatre. There are many theatres in London, can anyone tell me why the Globe Theatre is different?
Several of the youngsters, including Antonette raised their hands, so I smiled at her and said “I know that you know the answer, Antonette, so I hope you don't mind if I ask someone else?” I pointed at a boy of about twelve at the front of the group.
“It was built by William Shakespeare,” he said.
“Well yes, in a way,” I replied, “But our present Globe isn't the original building; there have been two before it. The original Globe was built back in 1599 by a group of actors, one of whom was Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it burnt down thirteen years later in an accident during a play but was rebuilt and continued on for a number of years until the Puritans, who didn't like theatres, managed to get them all shut down. It was demolished and never rebuilt until an American actor and producer called Sam Wanamaker set about trying to get a new Globe Theatre built. It took a lot of work to do and unfortunately, he died about three years before the new theatre we have today was opened by the Queen in 1997.”
I could see their eyes starting to glaze over and realised that I was sounding more like a teacher than an actress, so I hurriedly changed tack.
“Now, can anyone tell me why we enjoy acting or going to the theatre?”
This seemed to stump them and then, bless her, Antonette spoke up.
“Is it because we like telling and listening to stories?”
I could have kissed her. “Yes, Antonette, that's exactly right. Do you remember hearing bedtime stories when you were little? It didn't matter if you'd heard them before, in fact, it was almost better if you had already heard them, you still loved them. You heard Miss Carson say that I act in a lot of Shakespeare plays, and there's a reason for that. Even though he lived four hundred years ago, he was a very good storyteller, and that's why people still enjoy his plays even today.
“I know that some of you may have had to study Shakespeare at school and think that he's boring; but his plays weren't meant to be read, they were meant to be performed on stage and there's a world of difference between the two. Performing them brings them to life, and even though some of the language is old-fashioned, it makes them easier to understand. Now, are there any questions you would like to ask me? Please tell me your names when you ask.”
One boy put up his hand. “I'm Dennis, miss. Who is your favourite actor?”
“Well, as far as lady actors go, I think that would be Dame Emily Good. Has anyone heard of her? She's been in some well-known films.”
A couple of hands went up. “Have you met her?” asked Dennis.
“Yes I have. I've even acted on stage with her.” That seemed to impress them.
“What about men actors,” said Dennis.
“One of my favourites is Richard Jenkins. I acted with him In 'Romeo and Juliet',” I said.
This produced a sigh from the girls. It sounded like they were very envious.
“Do you like him?” I said to the girls in general.
“Oh yes!” one of them said. “He's really hot.” It seemed that being on stage with him had really enhanced my reputation in their eyes.
At this point, Miss Carson stepped in.
“We have a surprise for you today Miss Stow. Each year our little group performs two shows for their parents and friends, one in June and a pantomime in December. At present we are rehearsing 'The Mikado' for our June show, and we'd like you to hear how it is coming along. Are you ready children?”
With a lot of excited chatter, the children all walked up the steps onto the stage and disappeared into the wings. Miss Carson took a chair from the side of the hall and set it up for me at about the middle of the stalls position in a theatre. As she did so, I couldn't help thinking that it was an ambitious project for such a young group.
There was a piano set up beside the stage and Miss Carson sat down and started to play an abbreviated version of the overture to 'The Mikado'. Then she started to play the introduction to 'Three Little Maids from School' and on to the stage walked three girls including Antonette, who started to sing. I didn't know what to expect but they were surprisingly good. This was followed by 'A Wand'ring Minstrel I', 'The Lord High Executioner' song, 'I've got a Little List', and 'The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring'. They concluded with 'He's Gone and Married Yum-Yum'.
When they finished, I stood up and clapped. I wasn't going to say so of course, but I could see that three of the girls, including Antonette were quite talented, but the stand-out was a young teenage boy who played Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. I decided that I must speak to Miss Carson about him when we could converse without being overheard.
“Thank you very much, everyone. That was most enjoyable, If I can, I would love to come along and see the complete performance,” I said. I glanced at Miss Carson who had just reappeared after going out to the hall foyer and she nodded.
“Now I have a surprise for you too. Miss Carson has spoken to all your parents, some of whom are waiting outside, and we are all going down to the Globe Theatre. After you've had a tour of the theatre and lunch, you will see a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” in which I'm performing at present. I hope that might change your mind about acting in Shakespeare plays.”
There were some gratifying squeals of pleasure at this announcement. The doors to the hall opened and in came the parents of most of the children. Everyone picked up their belongings, and we walked down to Finsbury Park tube station which was only five minutes away and took the train. After changing trains a couple of times, we alighted at Mansion House station, and from there it was ten-minute walk across Southwark Bridge to the theatre.
At the southern end of the bridge I paused to address the group, again feeling rather like a teacher.
“A little way up this road on the left side is a building called Anchor Terrace and some years back the foundations of the original Globe Theatre were discovered there in the car park.”
“Why didn't they build the new theatre on the same site, miss?” asked one of the group.
“Because it's what's called a 'listed building' which means it's historic and can't be pulled down. Fortunately a site was found only five minutes away to build the new theatre,” I said as we took the steps down to Bankside and walked along beside the Thames. After a few minutes, the theatre came into view and the children looked in awe at the white-painted building. I don't think they expected it to be so large.
I led them to the main entrance where we were expected, and then into the 'groundlings' area in front of the stage. The children stood open-mouthed as they turned around, taking in the sight of the three tiers of seating.
“How many people does it hold, miss,” said Dennis.
“Well it seats over eight hundred and fifty people,” I said. “But another seven hundred can stand in this area. They're the ones called 'groundlings', and their tickets are the cheapest.”
They looked impressed.
“Can we stand on the stage, miss?” This came from the boy who had played the Lord High Executioner and whom I now knew to be called Ernest Wiseman.
“Of course,” I said, and led everyone up the steps and onto the stage. The adults looked at the young people as they walked about the stage, and I watched Ernest in particular. I knew exactly what he was thinking 'One day I'm going to act on this stage', and I thought he was probably right.
Just then, Jean, one of the tour guides came up on the stage and I introduced the group to her. “I have to leave you now so that I can get ready for this afternoon's performance. After Jean has shown you around, Miss Carson and your parents will take you for lunch and bring you back in time to see the show. I'll see you again after the performance has finished.”
The performance went very well and I caught sight of some familiar faces standing in the 'groundlings' area. They seemed to be enjoying the show very much. At the conclusion of the performance and after the rest of the audience had left, I came back on stage again, still in my costume and Miss Carson brought the group up on stage to see me.
“Well, what did you think of the play?” I asked. The response was very gratifying. It seemed everyone had enjoyed themselves and would now love to play Shakespeare! Miss Carson said that Ernest had been asked to say a few words.
“On behalf of all the group and our parents, I would like to thank you, Miss Stow, for a really enjoyable day. We enjoyed performing for you and also see you performing for us. I'm sure it's inspired us all to do the very best that we can when we perform for an audience.”
“Thank you very much for those kind words, Ernest,” I replied. “That's one final point which I try never to forget. When I perform a season of a play I might do it thirty or forty times, but I try never to forget that each person in the audience only sees the play once, so I do my best to make sure that he or she sees the very best performance I can give.”
They all nodded after I spoke. Then I said farewell and that hoped to see them perform again. It seemed the day had been a great success, and after the next Saturday meeting of the group, Miss Carson rang to tell me that the children had not stopped talking about the day we had had together. That made me think that helping children learn to perform on stage was something that I would like to get involved with when I had the time.
The season continued and we played to packed houses. Some Saturdays Reggie came down and stayed the night with me, although sometimes he was playing football and couldn't get away. He was now the vice-captain of the football team and they were playing against other university teams most weekends. Phillip Whitlow was the captain, and Reggie mentioned that he often asked after Stella. To me that seemed unusual. To be honest I didn't trust him.
Finally, the season was over and after the usual farewell drinks, we all went our separate ways. I took the train back to York where Reggie met me at the station. It was wonderful to be together again. We hugged and kissed as though it had been years since we had seen each other.
The next two weeks I enjoyed being Mrs Staunton 'far away from the footlights' glare' as the old song goes. While Reggie was at the university, I drove to Bridchester and my first destination was the cemetery to visit Mum and Dad's grave. I took along some fresh flowers and was pleased to see that Mum's name had now been added to the headstone. Some flowers were already on the grave, so Emma must have been there recently. Looking round at some of the other graves that looked rather neglected, I made up my mind that my parents' grave would always have fresh flowers even if Emma and I were not around to tend to it, and I decided to check with a local florist if this could be arranged.
No-one else was around, so I sat down on the grass for a while and talked to them. That might sound silly, but it gave me great comfort. I told them all that I had been doing and how I was off to America soon. I knew that Mum in particular had always wanted to go there and never made it, so I promised to return and tell her all about it.
After that I drove to Emma's house to have lunch with her and see the children. They seemed to be growing so fast. Stella was calling Emma “Mumma', which was hardly surprising, so rather than confuse her we agreed that it was better for me to be 'Aunty Harriet'. Perhaps when she was old enough to understand, then the true relationship could be explained to her.
Twice more I made the visits during the two weeks that I was at York. I also drove past 'Mum's house' as I continued to think of it in my mind, and I was pleased to see that it was looking neat and tidy.
Finally the day came when I would have to leave for America. Reggie loaded my suitcase into the back of his car and drove me to Manchester Airport. We hugged and kissed like teenagers before I went through to Security. We weren't going to be separated for too long as Mr Thompson had kindly organised a return ticket for Reggie to fly over for a weekend after I had been there about a month.
I had expected to be given a Business Class ticket but was surprised to find that it was First Class when it arrived. I don't suppose the Thompsons travelled any other way. The only thing better than a First Class ticket is one you don't pay for! The first leg of the journey was the hour's flight down to Heathrow where I changed planes for the trip to Boston.
I settled into the luxury of the First Class cabin where all the 'guests' as we were called, were waited on hand and foot. The seats converted into beds, although for a relatively short flight of about ten hours it didn't seem necessary to use this facility. The food was of a very superior quality and I could easily have spent the trip in a drunken haze with all the liquor that was available, but I restricted my intake to a glass of wine with the main meal, and mineral water to keep up my hydration. There was plenty of in-flight entertainment on the screens in front of each seat and I amused myself by watching a film with a ridiculous story-line and very bad acting, while I mentally imagined myself to be a critic and was composing in my mind a damning review. Eventually I tired of this and started to doze off.
I was suddenly awakened by a loud although muffled bang which appeared to come from outside, and the aircraft started to shudder violently.
To be continued.
My continuing thanks to Louise Ann and Julia Phillips for alerting me to typos and errors of fact to be corrected before publication
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