Saturday, 11 January 2014

The First World War Ended My Acting Career

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the First World War. Contrary to popular opinion I did not fight in that war. I'm not that old.

However, I do have a connection with the First World War that goes back forty years (so perhaps I am pretty old after all). The First World War ended my acting career.

In 1974, on the 60th anniversary of The Great War, my school, Teddington decided to put on the musical production "Oh What A Lovely War", a hard hitting satire on World War One ( and the vulgarity of war in general).

It was the first and in fact the only play that I have appeared in. It could have been the start of a great acting career. Other great actors started their careers at Teddington. Whenever I see Kiera Knightley on screen I delight in saying "I went to school with her". (My annoying children then feel obliged to point out that she was not actually born at the time I was at that school, but these are minor details that should not get in the way of the fact that both Kiera and I went to Teddington and performed on the stage there).

I was a tender, impressionable, young first year pupil (okay, I admit it. I wasn't very tender). I was excited to be chosen to be in the play and even more excited that I was given the part of Young Johnny Jones. I loved the play and forty years later I can still sing along to most of the songs, which have delightfully re-surfaced on youtube!

Young Johnny Jones was an important part. I like to think of it as the lead part in the play (others, including the original writers, might well disagree but, hey, what do they know?). The song "Row, Row, Row" is the first song of the play and Young Johnny Jones (that's me) is the first person to appear on the stage and dance around with an umbrella. A big responsibility for an 11 year old, first year student I think you'll agree. But, fear not. I was up to the task. No pre-opening night nerves for me. I was ready to wow the crowds.

As we prepared for opening night, I took my turn on the chair in make-up. Now before you read on, bear in mind that this was 1974. Things were a bit different in 1974.

The make-up ladies were doing a tremendous job. They wanted to make sure we all looked our best under the stage lights. Fake blood for the lads who were going to die in the battle scenes. Lipstick for the lads who had to play the part of girls (we were an all boys school then. Before Kiera's time).

When it came to me, the make up ladies had a bright idea. They thought it would get the play of to a tremendous start and have the audience laughing in the aisles if Young Johnny Jones (aka me) was "Blacked Up" like a minstrel. Bear in mind that this was 1974. The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on TV in 1974 and it was very popular. So, why wouldn't you black up the 11 year old Young Johnny Jones on the opening night of Oh What A Lovely War and stick him on stage in front of the whole school and everyone's parents, including his own mother, whilst they screamed with laughter? I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. The time was 1974.

So, I did as I was told and sat quietly whilst I was duly blacked up. Then, with satisfied giggles, they sent me out of the room to wait with the other actors. As I stepped out of the room with my shiny blacked up face, the whole cast fell about laughing! It was the funniest thing they had seen in ages.

Sad to report, I couldn't quite join in the hilarity. Sorry about that, chaps. Perhaps I was just too young and tender to embrace it. Instead I'm afraid to admit it but I burst into tears and ran away to hide. The play's director, our drama teacher, a really nice chap,  arrived on the scene and asked where Young Johnny Jones was as it was nearly time to open the show. Someone told him that Silly Johnny Jones was sobbing in a classroom somewhere and wouldn't come out.

When he saw what they had done, the Director hit the roof. He had them wipe the nonsense off immediately and shouted at the lads who were still throwing sambo jokes in my direction (bear in mind this was 1974. The odd sambo joke was par for the course in the good old days).

There wasn't time to put new make up on me before the show started, so I was launched onto the stage as Young Johnny Jones for the jolly, opening number "Row, Row, Row" with only dried tears for make up. I performed for the masses. The masses loved it.

My mum mentioned that I looked a bit pale on the stage. Yes, I explained, I didn't have any make up on.

Oh, What a Lovely War. I love that play. I really do. I can sing almost all the tunes. The last song still brings a tear to my eye "And when they ask us, how dangerous it was, oh we'll never tell them, no we'll never tell them". Bear in mind this was 1974. Things were different then.

I haven't been in any plays since.


june forbes said...

Funny that your made me remember something that was said to me quite often at school in Bletchley Milton Keynes circa 1975 and I quote " Feeling browned off? Nigger mind, go to sleep and you will be all white in the morning." Oh how they laughed.

Anonymous said...

Bombs last night, Bombs the night before, we're gonna get bombed tonight like we've never been bombed made me rehearse all the songs with you