Chapter 8

8
A Club for Tiny Show-Offs

When I was six years old, my parents enrolled me in Bessie Webley’s School of Acting. Whilst the ‘School’ moniker may imply an academy where youngsters were coached, Fame-style in dramatic arts alongside their Geography and Science, essentially this was a Saturday morning club for tiny show-offs.

Mom, wheeling newborn Spencer in his pram and tugging at Sophie’s podgy hand, would walk me every week up to that minuscule room above the Happy Shopper. I’d hounded her to let me attend ever since I first spotted the yellowing stencilled sign in the upstairs window advertising Miss Webley’s illustrious class.

It grabbed me, that sign. Even framed as it was by a moth-eaten net curtain, blu-tacked on to glass that hadn’t seen Windolene in a generation, it spoke of glamour; fascination; escapism. I can still picture it now. The tipsy stencilling, the black capitals, spaced reasonably evenly at the start of each line, then squished at the ends where the writer had underestimated the word lengths. The endearing chaos of it all still makes me smile.

From virtually the time I could talk, I would ‘entertain’ my poor family, who were a captive audience every Christmas to my living room monologues and re-enactment of scenes from Crossroads or The Sooty Show. I expanded into impersonations of Shirley Temple and subsequently Lena Zavaroni. I even added to my repertoire the clipped tones of the young Mary Berry, who I’d seen making fish pie on an afternoon cookery show when I was off with chicken pox. Who knew then what a renaissance she would enjoy via The Great British Bake Off forty years later?

So my parents sent me to Miss Webley’s in the probable hope I’d exorcise performing from my system and take up a more gainful, genteel hobby like tennis by the time I was ten. At that point there was no supposition that I’d pursue a thespian career.

Miss W herself seemed about 103 (she was probably in her sixties). She twined her beautiful powdery grey hair up into a French pleat, sported a vivid gash of coral lipstick, and teetered on a walking stick while recounting spurious anecdotes that usually featured Basil Rathbone. I cared not a fig whether they were true; I was rapt.

I idolised that lady. She could have told me to stand on my head and pretend to be a bottle of milk, and I’d have joyfully obliged. Which is a good job, because she once did just that. She launched me on to the stage, in my first ever role: the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland.

She later cast me as the title role in Anne of Green Gables at the local guide hut (Brown Owl let us use their stage). I practically expired from the total bliss of it all. I was a controversial choice, not possessing Anne’s trademark red hair, but I was fitted with a nice wig. That book was, and has remained, a favourite of mine.

In the early years, at least, the blissful Saturday routine was rounded off with kippers and Angel Delight for tea. Some evenings, Nan and Granddad came over, Granddad bringing one of his James Last records, to which I would often devise a dance routine loosely based around an exercise from that day’s class.

Granddad’s eyes would spill and he’d say, ‘Ah, Michelle, me babby, yer gunna be a star.’

******

When it came to casting junior school plays, my extracurricular acting experience counted for naught. Andrea Clamp remained the queen of that little stage. Rumours persisted that Miss Beresford, our headmistress, was terrified of Andrea’s mother, who had no teeth and possessed two bulldogs named Ronnie and Reggie.

On one infamous occasion, Andrea and two of her thugette sidekicks suspended me over the toilet in a headlock.

It was break time after the Nativity dress rehearsal during which I’d been fitted into my sheep costume for the first time, while Andrea had modelled the pious tea towel to characterise the Virgin Mary. A low point in my youth, it’s fair to say.

‘Bet yow’m disappointed not to get Mary, eh, snob! Think yow can get all the parts just coz yow go to that poncy acting class! My mom won’t let me go there coz she reckons that old bat who runs it’s a dirty lezzer. Know what that means, Crabb Stick?’

‘Yeah, course,’ I yelped. ‘I’ve seen Sister George.’

‘Who’s that, her girlfriend?’

‘Yeah, probably.’ I’d learned at a very young age to use humour to deflect threat. Being in a drama group set me apart. I could assume a kind of nonchalant worldliness most little girls didn’t possess at the time. In modern terms, I was good at winging it. In truth it was hard to imagine the ancient Miss Webley indulging in sexual relations with anyone of either gender.

One of the little harpies sniggered, seeming to forget she was my antagonist then stifled it with an apologetic cough when it earned her a glare from Andrea.

‘Yeah, well,’ Andrea slackened her grip on my neck and shrugged, ‘whatever. I reckon she’s a man, like that Danny La Rue.’

‘Come on, girls – back to class!’ A pair of clapping hands and a perm visible over the tiny cubicle door announced the arrival of a dinnerlady to break up the little party.

******

I continued at Bessie Webley’s until I was fifteen, by which time I was twice the age of most of my classmates, but I didn’t care.

Other kids went to the cinema or shoplifted on a Saturday morning, but without fail I was to be found emoting and doing improv above that tiny general store.

I began to adopt a kind of unofficial ‘uniform’ for my Saturdays at Bessie’s: a mustard polyester blouse with bell sleeves and a collar you could toboggan down, worn under a cropped black woollen tank top, with black flared jeans. Well I thought I looked stylish anyway, and the ensemble was a jazzy departure from my weekday uniform of grey and royal blue.

We actors are a superstitious bunch, and the wearing of my ‘lucky’ outfit became a Saturday prerequisite, to the extent that if one element was absent (i.e. in the wash) I swear I performed under par.

Andrea’s accusations of snobbery were unfounded. I was never destined for Cambridge Footlights. There was absolutely nothing privileged about my background (in terms of wealth, I mean – as I’ve already covered, I was more than blessed in terms of love and affection). For all her grand stories, Miss Webley’s ‘school’ was one resolutely rooted in the working class.

I once overheard Dad say to Mom, ‘If she really is old Sherlock’s floozie, what’s she doing teaching a rabble of kids above a shop in Lichfield?’

‘Floozie’ was a new word to me then.

When we’d been good children, Miss W would dispatch one of us (usually me, as the oldest) down to the store to buy us each a Fab ice lolly.

Mr Hubbold the shopkeeper once thrust a clanking carrier bag into my hand, with a wink and sotto voce instructions to convey ‘Bessie’s special medicine’ up to her. His subterfuge was pointless; the two green bottles and their Gordon’s labels were plainly visible through the thin polythene. It wasn’t easy juggling them and the lollies, I can tell you.

I feebly started counting out the hot coins Bessie had pressed into my hand, as though I could magic enough to cover the cost, but Mr H assured me, with another wink, that the bottles were ‘on the house.’ He’d be shut down nowadays, using a minor as a courier in such a fashion.

Miss Webley patted my cheek and called me a ‘dear young soul.’ Alan Duckhouse – who sported permanent snot streaks, and was rumoured to be dumped at Miss Webley’s just so his parents could spend every Saturday in the King’s Head – told me he saw her finish one of the bottles by the time school was out for the day. I didn’t believe him. How was she still standing up if that was the case? A ‘functioning alcoholic’ was an alien notion at that tender age.

******

As I progressed through secondary school, I developed a hatred of the institution where I was obliged to receive my formal education, and retreated even further into the fantasy world of Bessie Webley’s creation.

I finally ‘came out’ to my parents about my latent ambition to go to drama school. For the 1970s Midlands, this was an avant-garde aspiration. ‘Bloody theatricals’ was a muttered epithet I began to hear with frequency. Where I grew up, ‘a bit theatrical’ was a tag, usually illustrated by a limp wrist gesture, levelled at the likes of John Inman or Larry Grayson. Female ‘theatricals’ slotted into the categories of political (Vanessa Redgrave), eccentric (Beryl Reid/Bessie Webley), posh (Penelope Keith), or slut (Sylvia Kristel).

My parents accepted my announcement with remarkable grace. Mom only cried once. I think they knew in their hearts I was never destined for a housewifely role or a safe, office-based career.

The prospect of a place at the illustrious Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts, with its entry requirement of three A-levels, was my only spur to stop on at school and acquire qualifications.

I loathed Mondays especially. That four o’clock Sunday stomach swoop, that sense I was hurtling towards the dreaded curtailing of my freedom, was a weekly feature of my entire school life. I am fortunate to have not really had a convention nine-to-give occupation, and thus such pre-Monday dread did not have to continue into adulthood.

PE was certainly purgatory. Andrea and her cronies would snigger at my ineptitude on the hockey pitch or netball court, even though they were far too languid and breathless – due to chain-smoking – to demonstrate any sporty prowess themselves.

Our monstrous PE teacher, Miss Finton, would bark insults at me across the boggy pitch, turn a convenient blind eye and deaf ear to Andrea’s abuse, and watch us girls in the showers with disturbing attentiveness.

At parents’ evenings Mom and Dad would come home from meetings with ferocious Finton wondering why their otherwise healthy daughter developed so many illnesses on PE day.

Feigning migraines or killer period pains to skive off Physical Education became an early test of my acting skills. Devising schemes to evade PE was a game far more rewarding than hockey or rounders. I began to love and shamelessly capitalise on the fuss I earned from the motherly dinnerladies who always unquestioningly believed me and ensconced me on the sick room couch before I could say ‘hypochondriac.’

They would offer to phone my mom and invite her to fetch me; usually I would tell them, with a little Orphan Annie snivel, that she was ‘out shopping.’ Being born in the era pre-answer machines and mobile phones was a boon to the experienced skiver – if Mom was out, it automatically meant she was unreachable.

Usually I would make a miraculous recovery after the lesson had ended, and would skip happily off to English, or whatever. Sometimes I attempted realism by varying the routine, so instead of feigning a recovery I submissively accepted the dinnerlady’s offer to call Mom. She administered foul medicine, which I swallowed without complaint to maintain the pretence of being so poorly I would gamely accept any remedy that might save my fragile little life.

Ironically, I acquired in early adulthood a love for fitness, engendered via the pre-breakfast exercise routines of Mad Lizzie on TV-am. I once smashed a jar of Coffee Mate by swiping it on to the lino while overenthusiastically attempting a ‘spotty dog’ move. I was swept along by the aerobics craze and owned numerous pairs of legwarmers, as so many of us did, in every conceivable colour. Nelson, Mel and I used to pool our collections and coordinate each morning, because woe betide if we ever left the flat in clashing shades.

I’m an active gym member to this day, having long been converted to the fun aspects and health benefits of sport, which schools seem to bafflingly ignore. At my old comp it was all about ‘playing for the house,’ and winning sports day. I must admit team games still leave me cold.

******

In my later school years, Andrea tended to leave me alone more, mainly by virtue of the fact she was suspended or skiving more than she was actually there.

Over thirty years later, I happened to spot Andrea Clamp in the audience on The Jeremy Kyle Show, cheering on her daughter Zola. A DNA test was involved (isn’t it always!), and it seemed half the men in South Staffordshire were likely candidates for the paternity of baby Rylan.

I could only decipher intermittent words because every other one was censored by the beep. I also don’t claim to be a body language expert, but I could tell by her animated mannerisms that young Zola harboured a great deal of anger towards the seemingly constant flow of toothless, hoodie-clad lads who poured forth from backstage.

******

My O-Level year was pivotal for two other reasons, namely that two very special people passed away.

Firstly my beloved Granddad, who had prophesied I would someday become a star.

Then Miss Webley, who apparently expired peacefully in her armchair, wearing a cerise kimono, clutching her ever-present gin glass. Her carpet, by all accounts, bore no spillages, implying the drink was entirely consumed with not a drop wasted. For some reason, this facet of the story has always given me a shot of pleasure.

Like Zena, she died a solitary but supposedly serene, glamorous death.

Mom and Dad allowed me the morning off to attend the funeral, even though school took a dim view of absences during such a crucial year. Ironically, it clashed with PE. Finally, after all those excuses to avoid bitch Finton, I had a legitimate one and was too distraught to feel any triumph.

Basil Rathbone was not in attendance, on account of having passed away himself in 1967. In fact, the brief little service at Sutton Coldfield Crematorium was notable for its lack of any well-known faces from the thespian world, despite Bessie’s alleged roll-call of acquaintances.

It was a surprisingly austere affair for such a flamboyant personality. Just her nephew, niece, Mr Hubbold from the shop, and a few parents of other kids from the club. Not an old thesp in a dickie bow in sight.

There were very few flowers too; the spray on the coffin was disappointingly spartan. I wanted to yell: ‘Did you really know her; the essence of her?’ But that would hardly have been dignified. Maybe they were actually the ones who knew the real Bessie Webley, and she was acting a part in the presence of us, her pint-sized protégées? She was a drama coach, after all. Were we all of us, at the end of the day, acting a part?

I wore a black pinafore dress for the occasion, and tied my hair back in a prim plait. I chose a pale grey eyeshadow that lent me a suitably gaunt, dignified air. I have to confess I rather admired my slim, adult reflection. We theatricals! Forever on show, projecting to an audience.

Every moment was a rehearsal for some tragedy. One never stopped emoting, dahling. I would practise expressions, gaits, gestures, looks, delivery, stance, and store them all up in my actor’s memory, my bank of techniques to draw upon for future roles.

I admit there is a streak of pretension in many actors, writers, creative types collectively. There’s a tendency to consider ourselves too otherworldly for the banalities of real life. Being a creative/theatrical, I spent a good deal of time daydreaming at my desk about a world away from the inkwell and blackboard.

This time, though, the bereft sensation, the icy emptiness in my tummy, was utterly genuine. I would later recall these emotions when directions called for me to cry on command.

My mom ran me a bath that evening, pouring in a blob of the Badedas bubble bath that was usually rationed. Soph lent me her Girl magazine to read in bed, ‘because you’re sad, even though we’re all still grieving for Granddad. But I want the John Travolta poster back, coz I promised it to my friend Majella.’

Majella’s a nice name, I thought.

******

Nobody took over the drama club. I detested my newly idle, dismal Saturdays. The poky rooms were converted back to a flat. It was a long, long time before I could walk past that Happy Shopper store again.

When I finally faced taking that route home, I looked up at the window and gamely swallowed a sob as I saw the faint mark left by the sugar-paper sign that for so many years bore Miss Webley’s stencilled phone number. The yellowed oblong stood out against the grey of the net curtain that had been retained by the flat’s new occupants.

I took some pride in my adult acceptance of Miss W’s departure. I dabbed my eyes with a hanky, took a deep breath, pulled up the collar of my bomber jacket, bowled into the shop and bought a Lyon’s Fab from Mr Hubbold. It was hardly lolly weather, but that was my idea of a tribute to Bessie. As my teeth jumped at the cloying chill of the unseasonal icy sweet, I was conscious I had reached a Turning Point in my life. I vowed to give the audition of my life for BAPA, and win Oscar after Oscar in her honour.

I applied myself zealously to my theatrical studies, and did enough revision in my other subjects to scrape the passes I needed to bag a place in sixth form. I achieved an A in my O-Level Drama, and stopped on to take Drama, English and General Studies for A-Level. When I auditioned for BAPA, I delivered a scene from Anne of Green Gables as one of my pieces.

The selection panel – a trio of androgynous robots in mime-artist black – were entirely impassive, but I clearly impressed them because, in amongst the bills and free newspapers, my glorious letter of acceptance plopped through the letterbox three weeks later. I was pogoing around the kitchen that day.

Mom and Dad were fairly muted initially; I suppose they were coming to terms with this actually happening, their eldest daughter becoming one of those (gasp!) theatricals. There had always been that possibility that I might fail the audition and be obliged to settle into an office career or a sensible degree (History, Business Studies or the like).

To their credit, however, they uttered not a word of dissent. I came home one day to find a beautiful new white suitcase standing in my room, and a pile of leotards folded skilfully on my bed. My dear Mom!

I suspected, though the sentiment was never voiced within my earshot, that their being blessed with a pair of more conventional offspring softened the blow. Spencer topped the class in Maths and later, when it was added to the curriculum, Computer Science; Soph’s fortes were German and Typing.

I’m certainly not aware my siblings ever sported leotards. I did on a rotating basis during my spell at BAPA (it’s the blue one, must be Wednesday), though could never fold them as adroitly as my mother. They always looked creased around the crotch, so I resembled a tortoise at an aerobics class.

At that audition, in classes, and in any studio or theatre I’ve ever worked in, I am mentally in that little room above the Happy Shopper that smelt of tea and Pledge. I’m the wide-eyed little girl in the dressing-up box; the teenager in the lucky garish yellow blouse.

******

As I towed my new suitcase up to the third floor of the halls of residence (I didn’t move to the flat on Bristol Road until my second year), I thought: This is all for you, Miss W.

When I was sixteen I’d honoured her memory with a Fab ice lolly. Now I was an adult, and fully fledged student, I sank several enormous gins in homage.

I awoke fully clothed on top of my mauve candlewick cover, with a brutal hangover and the phone number of a dark-eyed young musician called Gareth crushed into my hand. My palm was so clammy, the ink had run, imprinting the digits back to front on my skin. I was scouring away with the Avon soap (part of my going-away supplies from Mom) for ages.

I’ve pondered the different course my life might have taken had I not gone out that night. If I wanted to get deep, I could say my temporary tattoo was symbolic of the way Gareth would become so imprinted on my psyche.

I collected the first of many letters from Mom from my pigeonhole at nine that morning. She’d posted it the day before (mail was speedy in those days, and always delivered before breakfast).

‘We’re already missing you,’ she wrote. ‘We’re watching Juliet Bravo. Maybe one day we’ll be watching you in it? I think you’d be better than this Juliet.’ Bless her, she always thought that was the character’s name.

‘Granddad and Bessie would have been so proud of you,’ she went on to say, which I must admit choked me.

I never thought my parents had much time for Bessie, much less deem her capable of opinions. They dismissed her as a daft old thesp; a doddery fantasist. I’d developed a defensive instinct towards her. After Bessie’s funeral, I’d repressed my grief. Granddad’s passing still overshadowed us a family; hers felt almost peripheral It was like ‘Let’s indulge Michelle her sad moment because she’s lost her Saturday drama club, before we focus on the weightier concerns – sorting out Granddad’s pensions, organising a headstone, and caring for Nan.’

Therefore the simple coupling of Granddad and Bessie in a sentence, my parents’ blessing to my aspirations, meant the world.

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3 Comments

  1. February 27, 2017 at 12:50 am

    Lol @ ‘old Sherlock’, and also people who thought Juliet Bravo was the name of the character!

    Very well written, and moving to, with the description of the ‘old thespian’ who awakened Majella’s desire for an acting career. Also we got to know where the Majella name came from – and also how the Gareth thing started!

    Fits in neatly with the rest of the work!

    • leighm123 said,

      February 28, 2017 at 8:42 am

      Thank you Sam. Glad somebody is still reading this, and that the disjointed chapters are making some kind of sense! I used to think Juliet Bravo was the character’s name when I was a kid!


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