You should write a book!

A few months ago, before Covid-19 and lockdown (and doesn’t that seem a long time ago?), there was a group of us, all in the business, chatting in the Undercroft at Live Theatre in Newcastle and something somebody said reminded me of an incident from the time when I was Sunderland Empire’s photographer. I told the story and one of my companions said, “you’ve got a load of stories like that. You should write a book.”

That struck a chord. When I was young—or even just younger than I am now—my focus, like everybody’s, was on the future, on what I aimed to do, my plans, ambitions and dreams, but now I’m at that age when you realise you haven’t got the energy even to plan, let alone to work to achieve those plans, and all you can really do is look back with pride or with disappointment—or, more likely—with a mixture of both.

Now, having reached the age of 77, my focus is definitely on the past and time’s wingéd chariot, I’m afraid, is not simply drawing near but actually butting against my backside. In fact, when you’re in your late seventies, you simply learn to accept that you are sliding inexorably towards… well, not being anymore.

So that “you should write a book” really chimed with the way I was feeling, but the thought of finding a publisher (hard enough!) and then going through all the rigmarole of the editing stage, proofs and all the rest… Well, let’s say, been there, done that, can’t be arsed to go through it all again!

So this is what I decided to do: what you’ve got here, on the British Theatre Guide at the invitation of Editor David Chadderton, are the things that would be in that book if I wrote it, only published in instalments.

(Well, if that was good enough for Dickens, it’s good enough for me!)

It’ll be about incidents and experiences, the good, the bad, the happy, the upsetting, the annoying, the exciting and, yes, possibly even the boring, from the sixty-odd years I’ve been in theatre and show business generally.

It won’t be in chronological order, Bits of it may be but it’ll mainly go in the direction (directions!) my somewhat grasshopper mind takes me.

We’ll start with my time at Sunderland Empire where, from the late '60s to the early '80s, I was the theatre’s photographer, although this first story pre-dates that (but I was there, just not working).

Back then, long before the refurbishment, the theatre’s star dressing room used to be on a half landing just off the stage-right wings. It was perhaps about a dozen or so steps from the door to stage level.

Now when the wonderful Marlene Dietrich came to the Empire, the hems of her long dresses were so tight round her ankles that she couldn’t walk up or down steps, so a ramp had to be built from the landing to the stage and two stage crew were tasked with taking a hand each and leading her down and back up.

Can you imagine one if those guys going home that night and his wife asking, “what did you do at work today?” and him replying, “oh, nowt much. Just held Marlene Dietrich’s hand and took her for a walk!”

I told that story on a BBC Radio 4 programme about the Empire years—actually, it was decades—later and it was chosen as a Radio 4 “Pick of the Week”.