Remembering Linda

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When my friend Linda Stephens visited us at Ty Isaf in the late summer of 2014, she was already frail from the illness that would take her life in December that year. The visit was a surprise for her from her husband Jonathan, who had been secretly arranging it with me in e-mails. It was plain that much would depend on how Linda was feeling on the day, but the plan was they’d set out from their Usk home in the camper-van, and head for a short break away in west Wales. Jonathan had booked a night on the small campsite of a farm just a minute up the lane from Ty Isaf, but as Linda and I had long been out of touch and she had only a haziest notion of where I lived, she was completely taken in by his subterfuge. It turned out she was taken in too by the ‘driver error’ that brought them ‘accidentally’ in the wrong direction along the lane and up the drive to Ty Isaf, and the penny only dropped for her when I walked out with my terrier Jack to greet her.

In the 1960s Linda and I had been members of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre, and our time there forged a significantly close friendship between us. In the way of youngsters we fantasised about and ‘planned’ our career trajectories. She would be a great actress and I would be her director. No doubts. We felt invincible and energised and capable of fulfilling our every dream. But teenage years are ones of flux. Linda’s and my paths diverged, and there followed the inevitable falling away of ties. Linda, a few years older than me, went to the Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, while I moved to London to attend the Italia Conti Stage School.

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No mobile phones back then, and moreover our circles of friends changed. She started dating, and that signalled a drift between us that I recognised meant we were no longer as close. Our worlds were opening up. She was maturing into a young woman exploring and pursuing her dreams, and I was absorbed in my career as an actor, dancer and later a choreographer. Linda met and married Jonathan and settled to having a family of three sons. Our lives, once so tightly enmeshed, went their separate ways.

It was a lovely day we had together at Ty Isaf. I’d prepared lunch, and though Linda ate very little she was very clearly having a wonderful time. We talked and talked and talked. So much that I’d forgotten came flooding back, nudged out of the shadows by her stories. Her memories were incredibly immediate, and I realised that precipitated by her failing health, she’d been poring over the past. She spoke of things we’d done together, and I wondered how on earth she’d retained such freshness about what had happened so long ago. But as I’ve recently discovered, she had a key that may have kept the past alive and present for her, though back when we were talking on that glorious August day in 2014, I just thought she had an almost supernaturally good memory.

It turns out that Linda safeguarded her memories in tangible form. In recent months, Jonathon has made files of material meticulously ordered and stored by her, available to Stephen Lyons, who is making an archive of the history of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre. Back when I was a teenager I didn’t have a camera of my own, and I didn’t take photographs of the world around me in the way that people do these days on their phones. Although I imagine I must have kept a few mementos of my time with MYPT, in the professional life of globe-trotting and changing addresses that followed, I travelled light. I have no theatre programmes, no photographs, no scripts and no notes of my time with MYPT. Nothing at all. Linda by contrast, kept everything, and now it’s all coming into the light to be examined. With every MYPT-related discovery emerging from her papers, memories come hurtling back to me. I don’t understand the mechanics. How can I have forgotten things so completely, only for a saved slip of paper scrawled in biro, or a snapshot to bring them all back?  I hadn’t a single photograph of Linda. Now I do.

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Above: neat folders of material that Linda Henderson – as she was then – kept from her years with Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre

One of the MYPT productions Linda and I had worked on was Maurice Maerterlinck’s The Bluebird. She played several roles. I danced with her in a scene in which we played characters identified in the cast-list as ‘The Lovers’. (The other performers in the photograph are, standing at the back, Stella Wells as Light, and sitting behind Linda, Gaynor Miles as Mytyl.)

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I designed and made the many masks and headdresses for the cast, and I executed the more specialised make-ups. Linda played the dual role of the Fairy Bérylune and ‘Night’, and backstage during the performance I had to transform her from a hag to a haughty beauty. Staggering to see the photograph of her as Night all these years on. Linda was an enthusiastic collaborator and fantastically game for anything, letting me loose to create this Kabuki/Garbo/Caligari mash-up! She was thrilled with the look, and headed for the stage shimmering with hauteur and confidence.

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To my complete and utter astonishment, among the mementoes she’d squirrelled away nearly five decades ago, was the grotesque nose, made by me out of mortician’s wax, now shrivelled and rock-hard but bearing vestiges of the greasepaint I used as a base for her Fairy Bérylune  makeup.

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Opening up the distant past has made even more abundantly clear just what I lost five years ago when Linda, having come back into my life, in short order left again, this time forever. Sadness wells up for a friendship that while it didn’t exactly die for want of oxygen, certainly wasn’t nourished the way it might have been had we stayed in touch. Life, as they say, gets in the way. The days, weeks, years fill with the many consumers of our time. I know from what she said to me that summer’s afternoon in 2014, that Linda regretted we hadn’t tried harder. Moreover she roundly chastised me for not commemorating my time at MYPT in the ‘biographical’ chapter of the monograph about my life as an artist, published by Lund Humpries in 2011. She said that proud of me though she was, it was a great sadness to her that I’d edited out what she knew had been important to both of us. She was right. But I’d forgotten. I’d just forgotten.

Time to remember.

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The Unsung Mentors: Part 2

 

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An extraordinary little memory-bearing time-capsule from a black and white past. This from my friend Gaynor Miles Clark, a snapshot of a group of tutors and alumni of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre, dating, from the 1960s.

Mollie Wanklyn sits sideways on the bench, her body turned to the camera. It’s so like her to have intuitively balanced herself in the composition to the three tutors to her immediate left. She was a woman of graceful angles held in opposition, legs always immaculately crossed and sloped, insteps arched. (Her body language was similar to that of the actor Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s film of ‘The Birds’, all gleaming hose and pencil-line skirts in artfully arranged repose.) Mollie was the chief tutor and director with the company. Her influence on me was, though lightly scattered, nevertheless deeply sown. Her voice was rich and nuanced. She smoked cigarettes with elan and was always dressed beautifully, though subtly.

Centre is Marcia Griffin, who taught dance and who we all called affectionately, ‘Bunny’. While Mollie was somewhat daunting because she was such a presence, Bunny was a bottle of pop, and her enthusiasms and skills were myriad, coupled to enormous warmth and empathy.

Patricia Flowers, at the right, was I think the youngest tutor during my time, and she became a friend who I saw socially. Much later in life I tried to contact her. But though I was able to send a letter to an address I was given, I never heard back. There were half-lost memories of my time at MYPT that I thought she might help me recollect. Perhaps she didn’t receive my letter, or it was from a past she’d set aside and didn’t want to return to. Either way I was sorry. I was as fickle as any fourteen year old at the time we’d known each other, and I probably dropped out of her life as my own became more exciting. No reason at all why, therefore, she should have picked up the threads when I returned as an adult, full of questions.

Julia Hibbard’s head can be seen between Marcia’s and Pat’s. She was the niece of my ballet teacher, Myra Silcox. I think that her teaching came after my time at MYPT, as I don’t recall being in her classes.

Of the men I recognise only Robert Page on the right. He was among the generation of older students who went on to teach with MYPT. I knew him from the beginning, when we’d both been in a production of Henry V with the company. He was a magnificent, hearty youth, forever laughing and with a ripened actor’s delivery way beyond his years, all wrapped in the marvellously musical inflections of the south Wales coal fields. He was kind to me, joshing and ribald and tender, when I was as frozen and frightened as a kitten on a motorway!

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The Unsung Mentors

Encouraged by writer, Giovanna Congdon, who asked me respond to a fairly detailed Q & A about my life at her blog, I’ve been casting my mind back. The full version will be hers to post, but here’s a taster. This about experiences not previously shared, so all credit to Giovanna for prompting me.

Giovanna:

‘Is there a mentor in your past? I am thinking of historical characters that inspire, as well as feet on the ground…’

Clive:

‘Mentors. There have been many and various throughout my life. I’ll confine myself here to those who, on reflection, had the most impact in the early days, though at the time I was too young to understand or value the extent of their kindnesses.

Mel Thomas and Mollie Wanklyn at Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre. Mel was the Drama Officer for the county, and he took me to MYPT when my parents confided to him that they were worried about me. Mollie was the main tutor and director, and she enthralled me with her ‘actress’s’ voice and her inspiring classes in choral verse speaking, which hit me like revelatory lightning. Myra Silcox, my fearsomely waspish but encouraging ballet teacher, and ‘Bunny’ (Marcia) Griffiths, who cast and choreographed me in the MYPT production of Peter and the Wolf, and showed me how shyness could vanish when I inhabited another character.

Mollie Wanklyn with me and Linda Henderson, backstage during a performance of Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird

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Later, in London at vocational school, my headmistress, Miss Brierly, once paid out of her own pocket for a small group of pupils to attend a performance with Gemma Jones as Shaw’s Saint Joan. We sat in a box and it was another revelatory moment. I’ve watched Gemma Jones on stage and in films all my life, most recently in the film God’s Own Country. Boy and man I’ve loved her work, all unknown to her. She is everything I most admire in an actor. Her eyes can tell you all you need to know about her character, her life, her dreams, her joy, her despair. Joan Brierly opened the door to all that for me, with the gift of a ticket to a play in which a gifted actor gave a luminous performance that became a gold standard for me as I felt my way toward a career as a director. In my teens, after I’d left the school, a letter came in which she enquired what the results of my O levels had been. She wrote, joshingly, “You children can be so ungrateful You never think we’d like to know!” And I lived up to that summation, because I didn’t reply. Awkward and unformed as I was, her words then didn’t strike me with the force they do today. Now, I wish, I wish….. but of course it’s too late.’