Sunday, June 07, 2020

Peaks and Troughs, by Margery Mason

Subtitled "Never Quite Made It But What The Hell?", this is a memoir by Margery Mason (1913-2014), the actress I knew best for shouting "Boo!" in The Princess Bride, though the blurb makes a deal of her having been "trolley lady" in the Harry Potter film The Goblet of Fire.

Mason begins with her 90th birthday in 2003 - though a letter from 2005 pasted into my second-hand autographed copy says,
"In fact I wrote a lot of the book some ten years ago and then I looked at it last year and thought, no, it's too literary; I want it to sound as if I'm talking."
It does. She's immediately engaging, bubbling with energy, enthusiasm and self-effacement, while keen for her next job. Mason, we're told, learned to scuba-dive in her 80s, and was competing in tennis matches until around the same time, while her anecdotes about performances all round the world are peppered with notes on the opportunities afforded in these far-flung locales to swim outdoors. She was also an active member of the Communist Party, an (she says herself) ineffective member of Equity, and wrote, directed and produced as well as acted.

Mason admits she's always keen on getting a laugh, and this fun, lively memoir often breezes over events that must have been hard at first-hand. There is a lot of casual groping in her early life - from an uncle, from a stranger on a train, from strangers when she's working for ENSA in Egypt, and from two successive therapists, one male and one female. She brushes over details of a rape during the Second World War, mentioning it only to mitigate her impatience years later when an assault means another actress misses some rehearsals. The sense is that this fun, funny woman was also ruthless and unrelenting to work with.

Of all the stories and revelations, I was most struck by the mention of Patrick Troughton, who played her husband in A Family at War between 1970 and 1971, the series recorded in Manchester.
"Patrick and I used to share driving up and down [from London] on weekends and he seemed confident enough with me, perhaps because he was a bit of a speed merchant himself, never able to resist doing the ton on a certain bit of motorway. We were pulled over by the police once in my car, not for any offences but because they were doing some sort of check. The dodgy thing was that among the luggage I'd flung onto the back seat was a large transparent plastic bag of marijuana. Pat had asked me to get some for him and although I'd long given up any hope of having it work for me I could still get hold of it easily enough - well everybody could. Pat had forgotten it was there so was quite happy to respond to the officers' excited recognition of him as an ex-Doctor Who. 'Come on Pat, we're late already' I said, frantically looking round for something to throw over the bag. But they were still burbling on with 'Who was the chap who took over from you? The one with all the hair?' Finally I put the car in gear and we were nearly on our way when, 'Just a minute, just a minute.' (Oh God!) 'Did you say you came from London? Can I see your licence?' 'What? Why?' 'You're sure you're not from Luton?' 'Luton?' 'I live there. I'm sure I've seen you around.' 'I've never been to Luton in my life. I live in London. I'm an actress. I'm Mrs Porter, for God's sake!' 'Who?' 'Pat, tell him. We'll never get away. Tell him!' Pat did, but it so happened he didn't watch A Family at War so we left him only half-convinced I wasn't a secret denizen of Luton. He'd been a great Dr. Who fan though and thought Pat was the best of the lot, so one of us was happy and Pat later said he'd had quite a good time with the pot." (pp. 68-9).
Mason then proceeds to regale us with anecdotes about her much more effective experimentation with LSD.

As with Yootha Joyce and David Whitaker, Mason was with the Harry Hanson Court Players - in her case, on and off for 10 years from c. 1943. She speaks of Hanson's "fondness for 'Anyone for tennis?' type plays" (p. 32), but counters the idea that weekly rep taught bad habits because there was little time for background research or navel-gazing (something she has little patience for anyway).

Short of work, between 1947 and 1948, Mason wrote her own play. Because "one of the characters had lesbian leanings", she had to go for a meeting at the censor's office. However, club theatres were exempt from the censor, so her play was put on at Oldham - where she'd been in rep alongside a very young Bernard Cribbins. You can still feel her pride more than half a century on:
"Sitting in an audience and hearing your lines get the laughs you'd hoped for takes a lot of beating." (p. 51)
Soon after this, Mason wrote and produced Babes in the Wood, a pantomime, and having made money from it dared to apply to run a summer season of rep in Bangor. This was just as her husband absconded with the money from their joint account, and she gives a good account of the struggles that followed.
"I put on the play Oldham had done, trusting the long arm of the censor didn't stretch to Ulster, and another one I'd hastily finished, happy, like Clem [her later mother, also an actress and sometime writer] in the past, to save on royalties [to other authors]." (p. 54)
With the 10-week season a success, Mason then established the New Theatre in Bangor, and ran it for 15 months.

She says in the book that this time in Bangor was in the 1960s, but my other research says that the opening night of the New Theatre in Bangor was on 4 October 1954, with the comedy For Better or Worse about a newly married couple. Mason produced and also played the bride's mother. Her husband was played by 26 year-old David Whitaker, who'd been with the Harry Hanson Court Players himself since 1951.

In the six months or so that Whitaker was in Bangor with Mason, he also produced (that is, directed) three of the productions and seems also to worked in radio serials in Northern Ireland - his first broadcast work, as far as I can tell. The energetic, enthusiastic Mason may also have encouraged him to write as well - for one thing, he was in the cast of a remounted version of her Babes of the Wood.

Within a year of leaving Bangor, Whitaker was co-writing with his mum Helen, and she made first contact with the BBC to get their work on screen. The following year, in 1957, Whitaker was performing with the York Repertory Company, who also staged his play A Choice of Partners. A member of the BBC's script unit was in the audience and the play was subsequently adapted for TV. By the end of the year, he'd given up acting to join the script department for three months. He was still there in 1963 when the department was closed down - and he was moved on to Doctor Who.

Mason doesn't mention Whitaker or anyone else in the Bangor company by name. So my hopes that she would acknowledge her influence on him were disappointed. But I read her book in a single sitting, caught up in her vivacious, steely energy - so how could he have not been?

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Dear Yootha..., by Paul Curran

This is a 2014 biography of the actress Yootha Joyce (1927-80), best known as alpha-cougar Mildred Roper in the 1970s sitcoms Man About the House and spin-off George and Mildred. As a fan, Curran has sieved through a wealth of material and spoken to what feels like anyone who ever knew or worked with Joyce. The result is exhaustive.

I was especially interested in Joyce's early life and career to see if I could overlap anything with that of David Whitaker (1928-80) - writer and story editor of significant bits of 1960s Doctor Who, whose life I'm slowly piecing together. In a 1986 interview, Whitaker's first wife June Barry (who sadly died last month after long illness) claimed that Whitaker had been "almost engaged" to Joyce.

Joyce and Whitaker were born a year apart and both grew up in London - but she was in Hampstead, Clapham and then Croydon, while he was in Barnes and then Kensington. Joyce attended RADA (in the same class as Roger Moore), while Whitaker went into accountancy, where he did amateur dramatics through Sedos. In the early 1950s, Joyce and Whitaker were both in professional repertory with the Harry Hanson Court Players - but for different companies, in different parts of the country. Joyce met Glynn Edwards in the summer of 1955 and married him the following year, so if she and Whitaker were ever together it must have before then - but as Curran says in the book we don't know much about this time in her personal life. (He's also been kind enough to respond to my inquiries and say that nobody he's spoken to about Joyce ever mentioned Whitaker's name.)

Even if this connection remains a mystery, Curran is good on the kind of theatrical world Joyce and Whitaker were both part of at that time. There's the glamour of showbiz:
“Whatever their background, Harry Hanson was known to pressure his actors to always appear glamorous, on and off stage. This filtered through to the other associated Harry Hanson companies.” (p. 28)
There's the pretensions of the material performed twice-nightly for six nights a week:
[From an interview with Dudley Sutton] “But up until [Joan] Littlewood’s appearance, the English theatre was completely middle-class. It was run by the officers, and when an ordinary man or woman come onto the stage, they’d always have to be stupid, comic or both." (p. 34)
And all of this under the condescension of the state:
[From an interview with Glynn Edwards]: “Of course you had the Lord Chamberlain’s rulings, where you were only allowed to say ‘bloody’ twice.” (p. 30)
There's a horrible irony in what follows. Joyce escaped this kind of safe, sentimental theatre for bolder, more experimental stuff that dared to base itself in lived experience and to get political and sexy. Curran underlines the breadth of the work she was doing in the 1960s, from Littlewood's abrasive theatre to episodes of The Avengers and The Saint. Indeed, Mildred Roper is a bold character for her time - sexually assertive, frustrated, real, and immediately connecting to the audience. But the role overshadowed her life, and limited her options in an age of type-casting.

The last section of the book, detailing her sudden decline and death from alcoholism at 53, is hard going not least because there's a sense that it's the success of Mildred that killed the woman who played her. But Curran is shrewd in closing with a poignant last appearance, on Max Bygraves' show Max, screened after her death, where Joyce performed a song that seems to reveal something of what she was feeling in those last days. As Curran says, that made an impression on Kenneth Williams, who was haunted by it ever after:
"Years later, on 9th April 1988, not long before his own death, he added [to his diary] 'can't get Yootha Joyce out of my head - and the time she sang 'For All We Know', there was almost a break in the voice when she got to [the line] tomorrow may never come, but she carried on. She died shortly after [recording it]. A lady who made so many people happy and a lady who never complained." (p. 164)
It's as if, I thought, even after death she could produce the goods: a role that was moving, surprising and real.

(You might like to know that Joyce's co-star Brian Murphy was in a Doctor Who story I wrote, released last year.)

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Doctor Who: Lesser Evils

Big Finish have announced Lesser Evils, a short audio story written by me and performed by Jon Culshaw, which will be released for download in October. The artwork, right, is by the amazing Anthony Lamb.
"The Kotturuh have arrived on the planet Alexis to distribute the gift of the death to its inhabitants. The only person standing in their way is a renegade Time Lord, who has sworn to protect the locals. A Time Lord called the Master..."
The release is paired with Master Thief by Sophie Iles, who had to suffer me as editor, and it's all part of the Time Lord Victorious cross-platform extravaganza wossname.

The Short Trips range gave me my first professional gigs as a writer of fiction, way back in 2002. Here's a list of my previous Short Trips stories. My very first one, The Switching, also features the Master and is being included in the special edition Masterful in January 2021.