Five years a student! I went in wearing an immaculate blue Pierre Cardin herringbone tweed jacket, pseudo-studious horn-rimmed glasses, a lilac buttoned-down collar shirt purchased in Carnaby Street and a pink crocheted tie. I emerged in scruffy desert boots, an old army greatcoat, John Lennon specs and sporting a pair of enormous sideburns. I considered this process of change to be really cool. My parents must have been laughing their heads off!
The course encompassed an enormous number of skills, only some of which have turned out to be of any real use in later life. These included lino cutting, etching, life drawing, metal work, millinery, historic shoemaking, landscape painting, art history, the making of scale models, technical drawing, sculpture, television lighting, glue technology, scenic design, costume design, prop making, fabric printing and dyeing, music and literary appreciation, mask work, Commedia mime and the study of baroque architecture.
Also on the syllabus was play analysis. This involved working out from the text the angle of the sun throug John Gabriel Borkman’s attic window or how many pillows Peer Gynt’s mother might have had on her death bed. If you want to know how far the cherry orchard was from the station, I’m your man. This process has ruined my theatre-going ever since. I can’t watch a play without thinking ‘Hmm, the door shouldn’t open that way’ or ‘Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! The kitchen should be on the left!’
Because the college had a limited budget, all the hats we made had to be one third size, and we were only allowed to make single period shoes, not pairs. Thus for many years I was the proud owner of just one Tudor high-heeled brocade dancing pump and a miniature Victorian bonnet.
We also did creative movement. We were a somewhat lumpen lot and the dubious task of instilling a modicum of elegance and grace into us fell to a grande-dame with the snigger-inducing name of Litz Pisk. It was a huge honour to have her working with (on?) us…she’d studied with Isadora Duncan’s sister and had supposedly had it off with Bertolt Brecht. Her hair was drawn into a French roll seemingly cast in solid steel and so tight we thought her forehead might split asunder at any moment. Despite her obvious great age, she could execute a deep plié squat like nobody’s business. But her skills were wasted on us.
After a session with Litz it had to be said we glowed a bit. Our iron-fisted millinery tutor, with the equally sniggery name of Sheeta Riddle, was heard to comment that we were a smelly bunch. We got our revenge by filling the bowler hat steamer with cheap Cologne and locking her in the room, thereby almost killing her.
Life drawing was another jolly adventure, involving long hours of silence, with the occasional dramatic highlight such as the time a particularly statuesque model, known for obvious reasons as ‘Melons’, fainted onto a very shy boy at the front of the class. For even more obvious reasons, this poor lad was ever hence dubbed ‘Melonhead’.
One day the life drawing tutor told each of us to choose our favourite pose at ten minute intervals while he went off to have a smoke. To introduce a little levity, I chose to have the model, a bouncy Afro-Caribbean lady, sit on my lap. Apparently a neighbour caught sight of us over his hedge and through the studio window (shouldn’t have been looking!) and I got summoned before the beak for a wigging.
To my horror, for I too was a very shy person and had really only chosen this particular course because a couple of my mates had done so, I found out that ACTING was included on the itinerary. Having chosen French over German at grammar school simply to avoid being in the obligatory German play, and having limited my stage appearances to being inside the Punch and Judy booth in Bartholomew Fair, an exercise so stressful that it brought on a gushing nosebleed, I nearly left college in the first week. Then people said I was funny and I started to quite enjoy the experience. Even so, the thought that in just a few years I would be touring Europe playing the leading role in a cult musical to nightly standing ovations was far from my mind! That The Times would declare me ‘Britain’s next great pantomime dame’ would never have occurred to me. And that I would spend the next forty five years more in character than out of it would have seemed a prospect so unlikely as to be utterly laughable.