The Vanishing: Part One

I don’t very often share anything on this blog about my distant past. The Artlog has essentially been an informal platform where I show my work and share my day-to-day life in the studio. Occasionally I profile the work of artists I admire, or offer accounts of influences on my creative life, such as the three-part paean to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête. There have been the Artlog ‘Open Exhibitions’, of which the recent Puppet Challenge has been the biggest. (Of course there is much of puppetry on the Artlog, because I’ve long been fascinated by it as a performing art.) I have even been persuaded by Artloggers to write about what I did before my career as a painter, and there are posts here, if you if you dig deep enough, on design work for long-forgotten stage-productions of Robin Hood and Little Shop of Horrors.

However, what I write today touches on quite another matter, and I’ve hesitated a long time over posting it because there can be many reasons why people drop out of sight, and sometimes it’s because they simply don’t want to be found. That may be the case here, and I need to apologise now if writing about it is something that the person concerned wouldn’t want. Our lives intersected relatively briefly, but she made an impression on me that is as intense today as it was at the time. I liked her enormously.

Lynne Sue Moon was a pupil at the Italia Conti Stage School in the mid nineteen-sixties, as was I. We weren’t in the same classroom. I was in the class called Stratford, and I don’t remember which one she was in. That said she seemed infrequently at lessons, though absence wasn’t unusual at a stage-school that also ran as a child-actor agency, because many of us were out working a lot of the time.

In the mid-sixties Italia Conti wasn’t a big school. It operated out of Avondale Hall, Landor Rd, not far from Clapham North station, and the headmistress was the wonderful… if daunting… Ruth Conti. It was Ruth Conti who announced quite early in my time there that I mustn’t hope for a career playing ‘robust, outdoorsmen type roles’, but she could see me doing quite well in parts that required ‘inner torment’, such as… say… the consumptive son of a famous violinist. (She plucked this notional role from the air above her head with a sense of triumph!) I was fourteen at the time.

Above: Ruth Conti

The academic classrooms were crammed up under the eaves, small, chalk-dusty and interestingly-shaped rooms reached by a single, narrow staircase. The school was not known for its academic successes, and there was a sense that we were all biding our time while we waited to launch careers at the Royal Shakespeare Company! It felt quite cosy up there in the attics of Avondale Hall, and quiet, apart from the faint sounds of the rehearsal pianos below. I enjoyed my time studying. The teachers, who in my day were all women, were rather interesting. Unlike at my previous school in Newport… a huge comprehensive which I’d hated, along with the too-many obnoxious teachers there… I recall a complete absence of scorn in the Italia Conti classroom staff. They may occasionally have become exasperated with their inattentive pupils, but there was always an underlying kindness and concern for our well-being.

I knew Lynne from around the school. We attended some of the same dance classes. You couldn’t miss her. She was the only anglo-asian at Italia Conti, and as a glance at the photographs here will show, she was beautiful. I remember her as small, incredibly shy, and with a walk like no-one else I knew. A soft, slightly sashaying dancer’s gait, and a physical grace that was mesmerising. There was a delicacy about her, not just in the sense that she was quietly spoken and elusive, but because she appeared to be self-effacing in a way that most of the girls at the school were not. Always with Lynne the head would be dipped, turned aside, veiled in a curtain of hair as she slipped by on soundless feet. I never heard her voice raised. She came and went like a shadow. But her smile, when offered, was mischievous, and I made it my job to elicit it whenever I could, even if I had to turn myself into a clown to see it.

Lynne Sue Moon

I don’t know how we came to know each other. I’m pretty certain I must have approached her, because she wasn’t a girl to make overtures. By the time we met, she’d already appeared in 55 Days in Peking. I’d seen it, but hadn’t made the connection between the girl in the film and the one in dance-class, until she told me she’d been in it, and I realised with a thud of embarrassment where I’d seen her before. Lynne laughed. She didn’t expect to be recognised. The film was what in those days came billed as an ‘epic’, and was lavish on a scale that included even its length, requiring an ‘interval’ when playing. (Remember those?) It starred Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven. Looking at the film today there is little to recommend in it, with clunking dialogue and western character actors cast in the key Chinese roles. (Flora Robson as Dowager Empress Yzu-Hsi, Leo Genn as General Jung-Lu, and Robert Helpmann mugging unforgivably as Prince Tuan.) But Lynne is wonderful, memorable in her role as the mixed-race, orphaned daughter of a soldier, and her big scene with Charlton Heston is heart-wrenching. She’s pitch-perfect against the seasoned Hollywood veteran.

55 Days at Peking: 1963

I never met Lynne outside school. She lived at home, and I lodged with an uncle and aunt in Dulwich. In fact I very rarely met up with any of my friends from school outside of school hours. That’s just the way things seemed to be. Most of the pupils at Italia Conti were from London, and weekends for them were taken up with their families. Though my weekends were pretty solitary, I’d take myself off to London’s museums, my favourites being The British Museum and the V&A. To this day I make for the British Museum to soothe the troubled breast. I love the place.

Lynne and I were never bosom buddies. We never swopped addresses or telephone numbers. We just liked each others company, and shy though we both were, we’d often meet and talk in the school’s hallways and rehearsal rooms, and occasionally in the canteen… over what laughingly passed for lunch in that grim cellar. (The delights included grey boiled-mince, fish fingers and watery, unseasoned mashed potatoes!) At some point we were both more absent from school than present, probably because we were both working (films for her and mostly tv for me) and it was some months after I’d left the school for good, that I realised I hadn’t seen Lynne to say goodbye. No-one I knew had a contact for her. I should probably have just asked in the school office, but I didn’t.  I figured that I’d run into her somewhere, sometime. I really believed that our paths would cross again.

Part Two, tomorrow,

10 thoughts on “The Vanishing: Part One

  1. Did you ever find out anything more about Lynn Sue Moon? She was certainly intrigiing in a special way. Seems a shame she walked away from a budding film career.

  2. Great story ! Your quite right , Ms Moon is unforgettable . The scene when Heston takes her away at the end always makes me cry Happy Tears !!! I dream of her too . Again great piece . Thanks for writing down your memories !!! – Kenny Ford age 45 , Baltimore MD

  3. I just watched To Sir With Love . I have seen the film numerous times. Lynne Sue Moon always catches my eye. I thought she was a very pretty girl when I first saw the movie and I’m sure she’s a lovely lady now. Her quiet manner and shyness drew my attention as most of the other actors and actresses were quite the opposite. I haven’t seen her other films but I will make a point to see them.

  4. I can’t wait for tomorrow . This is a beautiful story… I knew you wrote well, but this is great. I hope you have many many more memories, real and imaginary and that you choose to publish them.
    And thank you so much for bringing this to us.

    María

    • Maria, I’ve hesitated about writing this piece for the longest time. I’m still not entirely easy about it. People have a right to privacy, and I knew Lynne so long ago that it can’t be thought that I have any more right to know what happened to her than anyone else, if it’s the case that she wanted to vanish. But my mind turns the story over and over, and I thought to lay the ghost here.

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