My two sisters who were ten and eleven years old both left school and trained as secretaries. My eldest sister became PA in Malta to the Surgeon Rear Admiral at 18 when my father was posted there so immediately put her skills to great use. My other sister on arrival in Cape Town was photographed for the front cover of the Cape Argus as a newcomer to the Cape and ended up working on the paper for two years. So obviously secretarial training led to them having some very interesting and high level jobs over the years.
However, madam, decided at a very early age that she wanted to be a singer and actress! It was all my mother’s fault really. Apart from the fact that she had rather the flair for the dramatic all her life, she manipulated me into being her co-conspirator every Saturday afternoon.
My father loved football and after he had cooked us one of his Spaghetti Bolognese lunches, followed by steamed treacle duff as he called them, we would retire to the lounge where our television took pride of place. I would be about 13 or 14 at the time and rather than be out and about my mother would use me as the get away driver for her secret pleasure. The Saturday afternoon musical on BBC2.
Of course this conflicted with the afternoon football offering on Grandstand. However, we knew that my father had a weakness. Stoked up with carbohydrates and sugars from lunch, within 10 minutes of the match starting, he would be stretched out in his Parker Knoll recliner, snoring.
You have to remember that in those days, we actually had to get up and down to switch channels and this is where I came in. As soon as my father began snoring, my mother would nudge me on the sofa and I would creep across the carpet and turn the channel over to BBC2. The running bit came in when there would be a temporary change to my father’s breathing and at a shove from my mother, I would leap up from the sofa, dash across the room and switch channels back to the football. My father would watch blearily for about five minutes then resume his afternoon nap.
This might happen six or seven times during the course of the movie and eventually at 4.45 we would turn the channel over to BBC1 and my father would wake up to the cup of tea my mother had made, convinced he had watched 90 minutes of fancy footwork, but not the kind we had been watching.
I had always loved dancing and singing and had been in a number of school plays. Being tall for my age it usually involved me standing completely still for 30 minutes in the guise of a tree or some other inanimate object.
But my heart and soul burned to be the lead, dancing and singing my way through the performance like Ginger Rogers, Esther Williams (yes I would have done synchronised swimming if called for) Deborah Kerr, Mitzi Gaynor etc. I had seen South Pacific at age 10 and I would have even taken the role as Bloody Mary given half the chance. I knew all the lyrics from the popular musicals of the day and had wept buckets as John Kerr lip synched to Younger than Springtime and could perform all the songs from Sound of Music.
Despite my best efforts, which included dressing in Swiss costume and dragging one of my friends around to old people’s homes to entertain the residents (very appreciative, let me tell you!) My parents said that if I was leaving school I must go and train as a secretary as drama was not a profession that would earn me a living.
I obviously had more faith in my acting and singing talents than my parents but they were looking out for me and they knew that the secretarial training my sisters had completed had led to them working in good jobs all over the world.
So, I enrolled for a one year’s secretarial course at Highbury Technical College in Portsmouth in September 1969 age 16.
The key to this is not my shorthand and typing speeds, that were more than adequate by the end of the year, but the extra classes we took in English. Our teacher was Mrs Betty Lavington, who actually has trained more than a few successful actors and actresses in her time at Highbury. However, to my delight, she was casting for that year’s drama production which was the operetta Passion Flower, the story of Carmen but adapted for the amateur stage.
Without informing my parents I auditioned. I was rather expecting to be cast as part of the scenery again but you can imagine my absolute thrill when Betty Lavington chose me to play Micaela – Carmen’s rival for the Toreador’s affections.
The police cadets were cast in the roles of the soldiers, an Australian dentist in the part of the Escamillo and a previous student of Betty’s played Carmen.
Rehearsals began and slowly but surely, under the direction of the indomitable Betty Lavington, Passion Flower, blossomed and came to life.
I can still remember standing on the stage, knees quaking as I prepared for the cat fight with Carmen, manhandled by the soldiers (the police cadets were very forceful) as they pulled us apart. Cut to the final scene where Escamillo threw a rose onto Carmen’s body and dragged me into his arms for a passionate kiss! Cue very loud gasp of horror from front row where unsuspecting mother and father were watching the last night’s performance, under the misconception that I was, as usual, part of the chorus and not some harlot in an off the shoulder blouse and big earrings!
As you can imagine there was much discussion on the subject of acting and drama schools on our arrival home, and I know that my parents had my best interests at heart. I left Highbury however, having achieved my dream of being in a musical, even though it was only performed to a small audience it was magnificent. I could also type at 45 words per minute and shorthand at 100 words per minute which actually proved very useful going forward.
I have never performed in a stage production since, but I have sung in some interesting places and in my work on radio and television I have satisfied my desire to perform. Writing is a performance art too and whilst I may not be wearing an off the shoulder number, I get as much pleasure from being on this stage as I did playing a Spanish floozy 48 years ago.
So thank you Betty Lavington for making my dream come true.