My earliest days were in Kent and my first memories are of Broadstairs, where we lived. It was a wonderful place for a child. I have fond memories of it and regard it as home. We were not a conventional family. My mother and father were both in the theatre and were married during a run of “Joy Bells”, a highly successful musical starring George Robey, which ran for two years. The arrival of the “Talkies” and the depression meant fewer lavish musicals. Dad was forced to find other work. After various selling jobs, he found regular work at Manston airport but the money was poor. He supplemented this by playing piano in a dance band, working as a Tote clerk at dog races and extra waiting at odd functions (not to mention the occasional appearance at the Bohemia Theatre, Broadstairs).
Living at the seaside makes one enormously popular with the family and friends. We had a continuous supply of both. This kept my Mother, a beautiful and dainty woman, very busy. However, she thrived on hard work. When four members of the seasonal repertory company knocked at the door looking for accommodation, she couldn’t say no and took them in. In the middle of the season the company went bust. They left owing hundreds to my mother, who took it all in her stride. She paid for return fares to London for our house guests.
My first school was the Holy Trinity school in Broadstairs. I was not a willing scholar. If there was a marching band to follow or a circus to watch, I’d be there. And there was always Uncle Mac and his minstrel show on the beach. All this came to an abrupt halt when my uncle John caught me taking part in a children’s talent show. I sang “Lets have a basinful of briney” and won. But when my mother found out, I was given a basinful of something else. I was not a bright pupil. I was too much of a daydreamer but I always enjoyed the music lessons. My brother Duncan, four years my senior, was the bright one, excelling in just about every subject, as well as speaking several languages. Duncan was my principal educator. From him, I learnt to love Shakespeare. To know the works of the bard is an education in itself.
Early theatrical experiences
When I left school, I had a little over a year to go before conscription. I was desperate to get into the theatre and after a few attempts I was lucky enough to join one of the better repertory theatres at the time: The White Rose Players at Harrogate. A vacancy had been created by the departure of Brian Rix now Lord Rix who had been called up to serve his time as a Bevan Boy working in the coal mines. It was a weekly rep. And I didnt have a week out in the year I spent there. Apart from a few exceptions the parts were not too demanding. I had always had the ability to learn lines quickly and the whole experience was great.
The time went all too quickly when I received my call up papers. I was to join the Army and report To Fort George Barracks in Inverness for Infantry training. I spent a fortnight with my family, then living in Carlisle, and in one of the worst winters in living memory caught the train to Inverness -it took two days -the snow drifts had blocked the track in many parts and had to be cleared. Fort George was bleak, to say the least, but the Inverness scenery breathtaking, surprisingly enough, in spite of the spartan and rigorous routine, I enjoyed the experience. By the time I had finished training the signs of peace were there and in fact the war had only a couple of months to go.
“Stars in Battledress”
With the need of infantry trained personnel diminishing, I was invited to apply for a posting to the Central Pool of Artists, popularly known as “Stars in Battledress”. I was successful and reported in time to my new HQ at Upper Grosvenor Street, W1. After the hardships of Fort George this was too good to be true. I was found a billet in Cadogan Square and the only problem was an acute shortage of cash as I was on five shillings a day at the time. I sent a third of that to my Mother.However, we were all in the same boat and life was good. During my service with C.P.A, I did five productions, the first being White Cargo imagine playing that to the squaddies although they loved Tondelayo played by the lovely girl Anita Lander. The wolf whistles went on for half an hour. Then we did a revue called Happy Weekend in which a young Benny Hill took the comedy lead. Both these we played all over the country and Germany and France. The comedy Yes and No we took to the Middle East and I spent a whole year in Egypt which I loved. A short list of some of the luminaries who Stars in Battledress its name is:Michael Dennison, Brian Forbes, Terry Thomas, Benny Hill, Charlie Chester, Faith Brook, Tommy Cooper and many, many more including my cousins John and Norman MacLeod of Maple Leaf Four fame. Happy Days !
Early television work
My first television appearances were with the B.B.C in the late forties. I had a small part in the George More O’Farrell production of “Othello”, for which I received the princely fee of 18 guineas to include all rehearsals and transmission. This worked out at 6 guineas a week. I also worked for Dennis Vance in a series, but didn’t get beyond episode two, in which I was shot. This work, combined with some freelance B.B.C Light Radio and various other work (in the West End Theatre “Affairs of State” at the Cambridge and “Simon and Laura” at the Aldwych) kept me marginally below the poverty line until 1955.
September 1955 saw the launch of Commercial Television. Associated-Rediffusion was the weekday contractor and Lew Grade and A.T.V looked after the weekend. I had been offered a contract with Associated-Rediffusion 3 months before launch date and started right away to prepare for the big day. We used the old Marconi studios near Olympia in South Kensington. It was an exciting time as we went through endless dummy runs to prepare technicians, directors and presenters for the real thing.