Thursday, 8 May 2014

Perfume and Theatre

When my mother first met my father, Gerald Blake, at Burnham-on-Sea repertory company, she thought he was the world’s most repellent man.

Six months later, they were married.

Their snowy February nuptials took place at the imposing Marylebone Register Office on the Marylebone Road with just two witnesses: Hugh Johnson , the man who was later to become my Godfather (younger brother of the actor Richard Johnson, and something to do with the Twinings Tea family – so I was told); and my father’s best friend, another actor, Frederick Hall, who acted as Best Man. Due to my mother’s young age (21), the whirlwind nature of the romance, and to the couple’s disparate backgrounds, there was not a little opposition – from both families - to the match.
"Oh Bobby...." Sally Blake with Don Avison in "As Long as They're Happy", c.1955

My father had fallen in love with Sally the moment he saw her. A tiny (4'11") welsh creature with raven hair, and a biting wit, enveloped in a cloud of Chanel No 22, he won her with poetry, chocolate, Thurber cartoons, and cats. Always cats. They moved into a former monastic building opposite Francis Holland School called Dorset Chambers (now Chagford House), and Alfred Jingle, a local short-haired black and white feline gentleman of no fixed abode, but with an eye for the main chance, moved in shortly afterwards. He gave the young newlyweds the full commercial: ‘bad’ leg (bit of a limp), huge eyes, sucked in cheeks, and mewing piteously on the flat roof outside. With hardly enough to feed themselves, they took him in. Interestingly, Jingle’s leg dramatically improved when my father brought home a borrowed cat basket in which to take him to the vet.

From Dorset Chambers, they moved on to Lincoln, when my father landed a job as Director of the Theatre Royal there. My mother, pregnant with my brother, starred as Clucklecrop, the magic hen, in their production of Jack and the Beanstalk. The crew cleared the wings every night for her to rush off to be sick between scenes. My brother was born some time during the run, and later, the city showed its appreciation for the little theatre group by giving my parents special permission to dip their baby son in the font of Kings at Lincoln Cathedral, for his baptism. My brother spent his own particular after show party crawling about in his lacy Victorian robe, polishing off the dregs of as many discarded champagne glasses as he could reach.

Shortly afterwards, my father won a training contract on the Directors’ course at the BBC, and the little family came back to London, moving into a garden flat in Fairhazel Gardens, West Hampstead. My father’s talent as a Director soon showed itself, and the shows started mounting up on his CV... Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Z-Cars, Doctor Who... all topped off with a moderate Pools win that bought him a car, a cine-camera, and for my mother, a black and white ‘humbug’ striped PVC mac, a red silk umbrella with a red and white spotted lining, and a bottle of L’Air du Temps.

When Fairhazel Gardens was good, it was very very good, but when it was bad, it flooded. Up to waist height. The old Roman drains had never been replaced, and simply couldn’t cope. By this time, I had arrived, and the summer routine of passing the baby out of the window to be taken to friends on higher ground was beginning to pall.

In 1967, my father went on a recce to find us a new home, and secured a tenancy on a palatial flat in Regent’s Park. With two grand reception rooms, entrance hall, servants’ quarters and 3 main bedrooms, 1 Hanover Gate Mansions on Park Road had been the former residence of the Swedish Ambassador to London, but by the time my father found it, it was in a state of disrepair and the rent asked for it, just £12 a week.

To help pay for it, Sally went to work for Victor Wagner’s cosmetics shop next door, between Hugo’s the Hairdresser, and Coulthard’s the Newsagent’s. Victor was our upstairs neighbour. A shrewd, but lovely East End businessman, his pouting French wife made it clear she felt she had married beneath her, but enjoyed spending his money well enough – and the freebies from the shop.

It was at Victor’s that my mother got to indulge her perfume passion to her heart’s content. Not only that, but whenever Victor had finished with display material, he let her help herself to any or all of it. So it was that to my father’s mounting unease, our gracious flat became filled with racks and glass shelves, and display stands, including a gigantic Mary Quant daisy you could actually sit inside – and I did, playing at being in a car. Often, she would have to take me with her to work, as I was still too young for school. I loved to play in the basement among all the samples and shelving, stacked high with lotions and potions and bottles and lipsticks and powder and swansdown puffs in unfeasible colours.

One day, my mother came home with two cranberry velvet Hermès Calèche[1] display stands. One enormous, one slightly less so. Placing them carefully on the kitchen table, she demonstrated how they lit up with a little strip light, hidden behind a panel. The light cast a magical glow onto the golden plastic relief of a horse and carriage, alongside a tall, golden rose, made of some sort of raffia material. Generously, she let me have the smaller one, and set it up for me in my room.

Later that evening, we all went across the road and into the park to see some friends of my father’s in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the  Open Air Theatre. Lights were laced through the trees, and everything was greens, and browns, and earth and mystery. As my parents knew the actors, they “went ‘round” afterwards, meaning they went to the stage door and then on to the bar to drink and smoke and chat until the early hours. My brother and I were given free reign to play on the stage in the semi darkness, until our parents were ready to take us home.

Some days later, my mother found me with my bedroom curtains closed, with the Calèche stand illuminated, and several dolls lined up upon it. Another couple were sat on an old lipstick display stand to the side.

“What are you playing?” She asked, curiously.

“Midsummer’s Nights Dreams...” I said.

To my annoyance, she laughed.

“Oh dear. My poor child...” She said, and left me to it.

Of course now, I realise what she was laughing at.

Perfume and theatre.

No. I suppose I didn’t really stand a chance.

Emma Blake
May 2014

[1] Created by Guy Robert - 1961

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