Talk Report: 2017-06-14

View from the Wings by Brian Freedland

Whilst studying Mandarin in Bristol as a young National Service officer Brian Freeedland visited the Bristol Old Vic where he saw the young Peter O’Toole performing in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. He was immediately overcome with a great excitement for the stage, for actors and theatre life. Immediately he finished his National Service he joined a theatre company and over his long life he has never ceased to be involved in the theatrical world.

Brian came to talk to us here at Wells on Wednesday 14th June to tell us about this life in the theatre. He never wanted to be an actor and has always been a man behind the scenes. In his time, he has been involved with production, writing, lighting, stage design and in particular stage management. Working his way up from back stage at the London Palladium he had several theatrical summers as a Redcoat at Butlins and over the years has been involved with classic plays as well as opera, ballet, musicals and stand-up comedy. Along the way he has met many famous actors and performers.

He had many stories to tell about life in the exciting and often pressurised world of theatre. He told us of the many actors and actresses that he admired but conceded that sometimes an actor can become too pleased with himself by half. One such refused point blank to appear until his name was placed above all others in the publicity. The audience awaited the performance until this was achieved: an appalling breach of contract, Brian told us. Harry Secombe was a lovely generous man who was always a pleasure to deal with. He told the story of his young son asking him why he always dressed up in a suit when he went to work: “Because you always come home with a headache!”

Ballet dancers are amazing how they can push their bodies beyond breaking point. Brian has seen a lead dancer come off stage to resounding applause and spend the next minutes in a state of apparent collapse before, on cue, bounding back on stage to pirouette and leap all over again. ‘Doctor Theatre’ is well known as the cure-all; Brian has seen how many an actor and actress, seemingly ill or exhausted, has rallied to the occasion and performed brilliantly as soon as the lights go up.

Everything is carefully planned ahead and minutely organised but inevitably things can go wrong. The male chorus in a serious opera found themselves sliding helplessly about on a sloping stage whose gripping surface had been cleaned away by an overzealous cleaner. The audience was reduced to equally helpless laughter. The famous critic Bernard Levin was there to see all this; he took it in good part and wrote the evening up as high farce. A production of the pantomime Cinderella in St. Andrews demanded rabbits to run around as the heroine wandered through a woodland scene. There were to be two different rabbits on alternating night until the first bunny in no way cooperated and ran swiftly away from poor Cinders as she sang her alluring refrain. A vet was summoned - and diagnosed “Stage fright”! The understudy was required to perform throughout. Goats also gave their problems when used in an ambitious production of Robinson Crusoe. Brian acquired two goats from Chipperfields, who assured him that goats are “untrainable.” He discovered that goats, whatever else, will always climb up anything. He organised that they should climb up great mounds of furniture disguised as hillocks and this proved a great success.

Full circle was made when Brian toured China with the London Festival Ballet where he was able at last to use the Mandarin he had learned long ago in Bristol. This was only the second company to visit the country after the Cultural Revolution; there were no cars and everyone was still wearing blue cloth Mao costumes. People were intrigued by the different western faces and audiences were entranced at the sight of classical dancing.

Brian was asked by the audience about ferocious landladies and agreed that these were about when he first went on tour around the country. Nowadays there are Premier Inns and Travelodges, so touring companies don’t have to contend with these perils any more. In the bad old days, Errol Flynn is reputed to have carried his lady friends up to his rooms over his shoulders so that his landlady did not hear two sets of feet climbing her stairs. Brian himself had a landlady whose conversation never ceased, following him enthusiastically from the breakfast room to the closed door of the lavatory. Arthur Askey knew that the landlady sipped his bottles of drink when he was out each day. He filled them up again each night with ingenious alternative liquid…. only to discover that she had used them in her cooking. With these and other racy tales Brian kept the audience laughing happily and he was thanked enthusiastically for his interesting and humorous insights into life on the other side of the footlights.