Heidi - BBC Television - 1974
They had seen over 200 girls. Not one had been “right” for the part of Heidi for the new BBC television series being planned for 1974. My aunt June, who was to direct it, was at her wits’ end. So was the Producer, John McRae. Having ransacked all the stage schools, they still had not found a clearly-spoken child. Barbara Speake, a famous stage school at the time, had been nicknamed Barbara Can’t Speake by the Casting Director, and all but two children from The Corona School (Chloë Franks who was to play the wheelchair-bound Clara, and a very young Nicholas Lyndhurst who had been cast as Peter the goat boy) had been turned down. Flopping down on the sofa in my aunt’s office, John brooded over cup of plastic coffee from the vending machine to discuss the possibility of trying some local private schools.
The year before, my mother, having saved up her wages from her part-time job at Victor’s, had taken me and my brother to Fuschl in Austria. My father was filming, so could not accompany us. Instead, little 17-year-old Angela Taub, who also worked at Victor’s, and with whom my mother could talk perfumes and potions, took his place. On a day trip to Feldkirch, Mummy bought me a plastic nodding cow, and a traditional Austrian outfit. On her BBC Television Centre desk, my aunt June had placed a picture of me wearing it. Noticing it, John grabbed the picture off her desk and demanded to know who the child in the picture was.
“My niece, Emma. It was taken when she was on holiday with my sister in...”
“How old is she?”
“Bring her in.” Ordered John.
My aunt demurred. “Well, she’s only done one episode of ‘Kate’ for Yorkshire Television when she was six...” she began.
“I don’t care if she can act, if she is anything like the rest of her family, at least she will be able to speak properly!”
John, a tough New Zealander, was acutely aware of accents. His Heidi was not going to have a cockney twang. He wanted a child who spoke “the Queen’s English”.
I had not the faintest idea what I sounded like. I was aware that some of the other children at my north London primary school spoke differently to me, but not that it had anything to do with class, or money, or background. Neither did it dawn on me that classmates with different coloured skin were anything other than kids whose mothers made fabulously different party food.
Being short and stocky, the only differences I noticed, and that I considered to be unfair, were in terms of height and build. Later, at Bush House, sitting next to two tall, elegant girls from the Elmhurst Ballet School, I was jaded enough to know I was going to be expected to read something from the script. I just hoped they wouldn’t want me to dance.
My mother was dressed in hippy separates from Biba, sitting calmly the other side of me, oversized sunglasses hooked into the flap of her bag. Though she dressed for the times, she did not follow trends, she set them. I was always proud to be seen with my mother. She was beautiful and groovy and always smelled gorgeous. Once, after filling a taxi with the scent of Guerlain’s Mitsouko, the cabbie refused to take her fare, saying “for making my cab smell so wonderful, I ain’t charging you...”
When my name was called, I took one last look at her and she gave me her special ‘cwtch, cwtch’ smile. To ‘cwtch’ in Wales is to cuddle. I caught it, and walked in with the air of a kid who was simply used to this sort of thing.
I was introduced to John McRae who smiled and said he knew my father well. My aunt June was there - with her professional face on. Her eyes told a different story of course, and I took heart from the encouragement I found there. I had to read a passage I found fairly daft. Something about being thrilled to be spending “all day with the goats” and Peter the goat lad. If they had been horses we were talking about, I felt I might have been able to give it a little more oomph, but I did my best.
I was thanked and dismissed. My aunt winked at me as I left the room.
A few months later, I found myself rehearsing at Acton studios. The BBC had wanted to pay me just £25 per episode. My mother had stormed up to Langham Place and negotiated what they grudgingly agreed to call a “special high” of £30 an episode for me, due to my “experience” with Yorkshire Television 4 years before. I was to rehearse at Acton, record at Television Centre, and film in Switzerland. My mother was officially booked to be my ‘chaperone’.
Often, when I was trapped doing my scenes on the make-shift rehearsal set, the 13 year old Nick Lyndhurst would amuse himself by pulling the heads off my dolls and hiding them in boxes around the room. Mummy did her best to keep peace between us, knowing of my tendency to settle arguments with my brother by using my hard little fists – or my feet. She told me to be kind and understanding, explaining that little boys often showed they wanted to be friends with you by being horrible. I went from hating his guts on sight to falling madly in love with him overnight. Nick, however, was only interested in the grown-up actresses, Myra Frances and Paddy Frost. An ash blonde and redhead respectively, they were almost as groovy as my mother, and I adored them too, but not in the same way as Nick did. There was a world of difference between 9 and 13, and I was doomed never to be put in the same category as Myra or Paddy by Nick, but he probably should get the credit for my later interest in ‘unconventional’ looking men.
It wasn’t the only disappointment. One day following rehearsals as we were leaving to catch the tube back to Baker Street, I was slightly aghast to see Basil Brush casually tossed onto the back-seat of his master’s jalopy in the car park. The television rehearsal rooms at Acton were not the place to be if you wanted to hold on to childhood fantasy.
Once we were ready, we went to the BBC Television Centre to record the interior stuff. I was given my own dressing room, and Teddy, the black and white cat who starred in the bakery scene, was allowed to share with me. Not being a slick stage school kid, my mother coached me with my lines, talking me through ‘motivation’ and how to approximate moods and emotions on my face for the camera.
|Emma Blake as "Heidi" - BBC Television, 1974|
My mother was a Trooper too. She missed my father and my brother appallingly, spending her coins calling home every night just to hear my father’s chocolatey tones. Unsurprisingly enough, my mother was the most admired woman on set. Deliciously posh but divinely down to earth, she was a favourite with the crew, and had the entire unit falling at her feet, but whilst there were untold shenanigans going on in every other hotel room, she closed her eyes to all of it and ignored all entreaties to go for drinks, preferring instead, to walk with me in the twilight in the little village, practising her curiously Bavarian accented German on the natives, and teaching me how to greet people in the strange local dialect (Romanche).
|Sally, with Harrods bag, in costume as an 'extra' for the church scene...|
My mother’s first love had been an Austrian boy. His name was Herbert Millbacher and he was the image of a young James Dean. She had gone on a skiing trip with her school when she was just 16, and he had been the instructor appointed to teach them the finer points. All the girls had fallen instantly for him, and mewed beneath his hotel window, virtually curling around his legs at every opportunity, but my mother had dismissed the blonde beauty as “full of himself.”
Naturally enough, her complete indifference was a powerful aphrodisiac and she was the only one that interested him. When they were all due to fly home, he begged her to let him write to her. In time, her feelings for him grew. He was eventually invited to stay with her family in Wales, and following her 18th birthday, they were talking of marriage. Then Herbert went silent. For over a year. My mother wrote and cried and wrote again. She believed it was over. Her sister June had gone up to RADA, and so she threw herself into acting. She joined a repertory company. She met my father, she got engaged, and the week before the wedding, Herbert reappeared. He had been in South Africa, sorting out a house for them and arranging their wedding. They agreed to meet. My mother planned with my father that he should ‘rescue’ her at a certain appointed time. They met at Herbert’s London hotel. She told him it was too late. She told him she was getting married. He flushed beetroot from his toes to his hair-roots. They both cried. My father arrived. My mother said years later she wanted nothing more than to tell him to go away, but the next day, because she had promised she would, she married him.
Herbert went back to Feldkirch. She never got over her love for him, or for Austria, its language, its food, its people and its wonderfully laid-back culture. During our time in Switzerland, with Austria just a matter of miles away, she became what could only be described as “misty”.
“Your wife was the best looking woman on that trip” renowned Ken later told my father. I never heard what the response was.
|L-R: Chloe Franks, Judy Campbell, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Emma Blake, Hans Meyer|
In the autumn, “Heidi” hit the nation’s screens. I was stopped on the street wherever I went and asked for my autograph. I received sackfuls of fan mail. Little boys in Japan wrote to me to ask me if I would marry them when they were old enough. I went back to school a star. I was bullied senseless. Kickings. Punchings. Hair pulled out in handfuls. My father went up to my school and reverting to his old East End roots for a moment, offered to rearrange the face of the next kid who picked on me. He then taught me how to throw a punch properly. Mummy wanted me sent away to boarding school. Daddy said no.
Terry Nation, who had been the brains behind Doctor Who called my father and asked him if he would direct his next show, all about a bunch of people who survive a genetically engineered virus outbreak. It was going to be shot on location in Herefordshire. Terry also asked if I could play the part of the little girl in the show. My father said no. He didn’t want to be accused of nepotism. The part went to the scriptwriter’s daughter instead.
I went back to school. Mummy went back to being a Director’s wife. I immersed myself in horses, riding every Sunday in Hyde Park, and mucking out and tack cleaning every Saturday. Mummy threw herself into PTA work for my brother’s school.
And then our world blew apart.