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Fit Up

Although I had started my career as a boy actor at the age of fourteen in 1946 it wasn't until I'd completed my two years National Service in 1952 that I embarked seriously upon my chosen career.

On throwing aside a my Lance Corporal's uniform I very soon realised that all the contacts I'd made whilst playing child's role in "the Winslow Boy", "The Years Between" and "Life With Father" were now of little use to me. I'd lost my child-like innocence (among other things!) whilst in the army and had developed into neither a matinee idol nor a character actor - just an ordinary looking young fellow worth seemingly as little going for him as hundreds of other hopeful actors embarking on their career.

I was not of the temperament (nor am I now) to hang around waiting for something to happens so, latter giving the various theatrical agents a day or two to make me an offer, I decided to buy a copy of the weekly journal, The Stage.

In 1952 the back pages of The Stage were filled with advertisements under the 'Artistes Wanted' column. Today, the requirements of the depleted arena of weekly repertory companies are sufficient only to fill half a column. In the days of Harry Hanson and Frank J. Fortescue the 'Artistes Wanted' columns would frequently fill half a page in The Stage.

However, I very soon learnt that it was not going to be easy to join a weekly repertory company, however far from London I was prepared to travel. The rejection letters came from Leeds, Bristol, Leicester, Edinburgh, Norwich, Worthing and all theatres North, South, east and West. The new glossy photographs showing Ray Cooney in his various poses-sultry, despairing cheeky, gay (1952 version of the word) debonair, cruel etc. - which I was sending out with the resume of my 'extensive' boy actor's career were cutting no ice with various Artistic Directors.

After a month of answering every conceivable advertisement in The Stage. I finally struck lucky. A repertory company in Cardiff was looking for an experienced 'juvenile character' actor and my reply had provoked a telephone call from the Manager of the company to my parents' home in Southend-on-Sea. My mother had clearly persuaded the Manager of 'Midlands Productions' that I was a cross between Laurence Olivier and Gary Grant because within a couple of days I received a letter from Midlands Productions offering me four pounds ten shillings per week to play 'as cast' in their repertory company. I was thrilled beyond belief! My first role was to be a supporting part in 'Johnny Belinda" and I was to present myself for rehearsal the following Monday. It didn't worry me one iota that the following Monday was Christmas Eve and that I would be celebrate Christmas without my beloved parents and in the cold climate of Cardiff - I was a real working actor embarking on my first real job.

The trip to Cardiff was miserable. I'd experienced a tearful farewell at Paddington with my parents convinced they'd never see me again and the journey took a painstaking and foodless eight hours.

When I arrived at Cardiff it was as bleak a winter's evening as could be imaged and nobody had heard of Midland Productions Repertory Company. I took out the letter offering me the engagement and showed the address to the Station Master. He pointed out that the address was 'Cwmdare, Cardiff' (which I had taken to be an area of Cardiff). Cwmdare, it transpired, was a village about ten miles outside Cardiff. My heart began to sink - I couldn't quite understand what a repertory company was doing ten miles outside of Cardiff.

At six o'clock at night on Christmas Eve, as anyone would imagine no trains are due to depart from Cardiff to Cwmdare. In fact, trains go to and from Cwmdare only once a day. The only way to get to Cwmdare was by taxi.

With my two heavy suitcases - Midlands Productions required me to supply one dinner jacket, one evening tails, one morning suit, three suits, two pairs grey flannels, one pair white flannels, two sport jackets, one blazer, one riding jacket, one raincoat, one overcoat, four pairs of shoes, various shirts, ties, socks - I finally emerged from a taxi at ten pm with snow blowing in my face. The taxi driver asked for ten shillings, but settled for five.

Cwndare was not 'on the outskirts' of Cardiff. Cwmdare was an isolated very small Welsh village consisting of half-a-dozen houses, a pub and a village hall.

I was met with blank bemusement by the ‘locals' in the pub in answer to my query as to the whereabouts of Midlands Productions. Nobody had heard of a repertory company nor even a 'theatrical' company. It was suggested that the porter at the village hall might be able to assist me.

Once more, with a blizzard now raging round me, I set forth. The porter, who lived in a small house attached to the village hall, was extremely helpful. He had indeed heard of Midlands Productions and they had booked the hall for four weeks commencing the following Monday. It immediately became clear to me that Midlands Productions was, in fact, a touring repertory company. I wasn't sure whether this was a happy discovery or not.

The porter was unable to help me regarding accommodation booked on my behalf by Midlands Productions, as the limit of his involvement with that company was a £5 deposit paid to secure the hall. I trudged back to the pub and explained my predicament to the landlord who, fortunately, was able to provide me with a bed for the night. I rang my parents to let them know I had arrived safely and lied through my teeth as I said that everything was 'fabulous'.

I spent a weird Christmas in and around the pub at Cwmdare just filling in time waiting for the following Monday to arrive and with it the company known as Midlands Productions. Several times I nearly packed my bags and returned to the comfort of home and Southend-on-Sea. Although I knew in my heart that nothing would make me walk out on this opportunity however miserably it had begun.

Monday morning saw me sitting on one of my suitcases outside the village hall in Cwmdare. Sometime after midday, when I was beginning to think it was all a bad dream, Midlands Productions arrived.

Midlands Productions arrived in two very large cattle trucks. the rear doors opened and half-a-dozen scruffy-looking tired actors and actresses appeared from amongst the tightly-packed stage flats and theatrical baskets.

The Manager of Midlands Productions introduced himself and indicated that I should immediately assist in 'unloading'. The next two hours were taken up with carrying the entire theatrical existence of Midlands Productions from the two huge cattle lorries into the village hall.

When the job was done I was exhausted but happy. It might not be Harry Hanson or Frank H Fortescue but it was the 'theatre'. It wasn't until I noticed the Manager fixing the poster to the exterior of the village hall that my happiness faded somewhat. There were six plays announced on the 'bill' and beside the plays were Monday - Tuesday - Wednesday - Thursday - Friday - Saturday. A different play every night! I had joined the last of the touring 'fit-up' companies.

The working day for an actor in 'fit-up' was: Morning:- Erect the set and light. Afternoon:- Rehearse the play to be performed that night. Evening:- Perform the play. Sometime between the evening performance and the morning, one had actually to learn the words of the role.

We stayed an average of three weeks in each Welsh village. We had a basic repertoire of seventy plays for the occasions on which our stay in any village was extended by 'popular demand'.

I enjoyed it all so much and learnt so much that I stayed with Midlands Productions for two years. Nothing since then has seemed like hard work.

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