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A life of fun and frolics

Gerald Isaaman learned more than he expected about the world of theatre and its stars from Phyllida Law’s pocket book Dead Now Of Course

06 October, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

Phyllida Law. PHOTO: CAROLINE BONARDE UCCI

THE actor Peter O’Toole, who lived in Hampstead when he won an Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia, apparently sold yo-yos outside Selfridges when he was young and out of work.

Sir Ralph Richardson, who used to ride his motorbike down the Spaniards Road from his home in Highgate, happily kept a rat called Lord North, which used to perch on his chest and delicately take sugar from his moustache.

“People wouldn’t blink at the word ‘arse’ these days,” according to the 85-year-old actress Phyllida Law, who lives in West Hampstead.

“But in the 1950s we weren’t even allowed to use ‘fart’. And depending on who said it, ‘bum’ was a bit dodgy.”

The revelations come from Glasgow-born Phyllida in her poignant and amusing memoirs of life in the theatre, which, according to her indomitable granny, was the “Gateway to Hell”.

Nevertheless, Phyllida decided to become a set designer, and then spent her life on stage as an actress, as well as disappearing behind the set to deal with props.

Her saga appears in a pocket-sized hardback entitled Dead Now Of Course, in which she recalls the mad and hilarious moments of her life without worrying too much about moral overtones. Fun and frolics are the many delights she offers.

“I loved it. I lived in it,” she writes of her greasepaint days.

“The bottom of my case had absolutely everything… mascara, paintbrushes, hairpins, nail files, scissors, orange sticks, toothpaste, aspirin, Tampax, a corkscrew, Polo mints, vitamin C and a little bottle of J Collis Browne’s mixture.

“It used to have morphine in it. A working girl’s dream of bliss. Besides all this, there were the curlers, brushes, combs and two loo rolls, plus a tin of Crowes Cremine, a sort of gloop to remove make-up.

“One fateful day, I lost my tin-can case when I left my suitcase on the platform at King’s Cross station on my way to the Edinburgh Festival. Whoever stole it must have been alarmed by the toilet rolls.”

Her tales of touring at home and abroad are a miniature history of the theatre in the far-off days of rep. “We played everywhere possible, for miles around, even Dartmoor Prison, where I seem to remember I made my entrance ascending from a trap door,” says Phyllida.

Phyllida Law with her daughters Sophie and Emma Thompson

They took Shakespeare to South America, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Athens and Rome, Sir Ralph forever insisting he toured with people he liked.

“So he submitted a list of actors he favoured,” she remembers. “They were all dead.”

There is some fascinating name-dropping, with mentions of Noel Coward, whose first play was produced at the Hampstead Everyman (originally a theatre), Graham Greene, Alec Guinness, Tyrone Guthrie, Robert Donat, Moira Shearer, Alastair Sim, who lived for a while in Gayton Road, Hampstead, and Anton Walbrook, who is buried at Hampstead Parish Church.

“They used to bring tea to the audience in the matinee interval at the Haymarket,” Phyllida recalls. “Proper tea, on a tray with proper teapots, jugs, little bowls of lump sugar and a slab of very black fruit cake. It was served by harassed wee ladies in Lyons Corner House outfits, with those things on their heads that made them look quite unhinged… insane, really.”

More importantly, Phyllida tells us how she met her handsome late husband Eric Thompson – known as Tom – and how, following a madcap Boxing Day party, he asked her to marry him when she thought he was drunk, which lead to unhappy misunder­standings.

“He was rather like a wild animal who has eyes on the side of its head – you don’t know what it’s thinking,” she has remembered.

“He didn’t smile much because his front teeth had been chipped in a cricket match and he never made a ‘ha-ha’ laugh – he wheezed. It was my ambition to make him wheeze.”

She eventually asked the stage manager to ask “Mr Thompson”, as she called him, to repeat his proposal. He never got down on one knee, although Phyllida wept sweet tears when they finally wed. “Something new was my dress. I bought it in Country Casuals on Park Street in Bristol. It was made of oyster pink grosgrain and fitted me nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. The less said the better.”

Both out of work, they rented some awful lodgings in London. In one place, if they wanted a bath, they had to attach a hose to the kitchen hot tap to fill the bath beyond a dividing wall. So she never had a bath.

Tom eventually got a job moving opera scenery at Sadler’s Wells. “And so we began,” declares Phyllida on the final page. “Mr and Mrs Eric Thompson. I had a husband. He had a wife. Ridiculous.”

Ridiculous indeed. There was much more to Eric Thompson than that. Though he died at 53, he was the creator of the wonderful Magic Roundabout BBC TV show. Nor does she mention her OBE or, worse still, her two daughters.

They are, of course, also formidable actresses. Double Oscar-winning Emma Thompson lives nearby in Crediton Hill, West Hampstead, while Sophie Thompson, who has had an extensive career in TV, film and theatre, won the 1999 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the London revival of Into the Woods.

It has not always been easy entertaining the public, as all three have done in memorable fashion.

“My future mother-in-law burst into tears when she heard her son was to marry an actress,” Phyllida reveals. “There’s still something disturbing, I grant you, about the word ‘actress’.

“If an MP or some other outstanding person plays fast and loose with an actress the world is unsurprised. She is certainly no better than she should be, and probably French.”

Don’t you believe it, just read Phyllida and applaud her triumphs – on stage and off.

Dead Now Of Course by Phyllida Law (Fourth Estate, £12.99).

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