Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sins for Breakfast

Of course, by the time my mother was negotiating with the Russians, my father was long gone. From the marriage, anyway.

Gerald Blake hadn’t got to where he got by being sentimental. He had a ruthless streak that made him into one of the BBC’s most consistently employed freelance Directors for more than 25 years. If something in his life wasn’t working for him, he deadheaded it, like a rose.

And yet it was never done with malice aforethought. Thanks in part to being evacuated as a child during WW2, at a crucial stage in his emotional development, he was able to discard people with no more thought than one might chuck an empty milk carton in the bin. He was far better with animals than with humans. Out on walks, cats would cross the street and jump off gate posts to chirrup over to him. If one of our felines brought in a bird or a mouse, my father would be the only one of us who could deal with it. He would get it off them and nurse it back to life. Yet he managed to choose my 13th birthday to walk out on us. I watched him go. The goodbyes at the door. The suitcase. The promises to keep in touch. The whole commercial. The thing is, though, he didn’t pick that day on purpose. He wasn’t trying to hurt me, he just wasn’t thinking about me. He wasn’t thinking of any of us. He could only think about how he had to get away from the constant rows at home.

Possibly the greatest of my mother’s failings was a total inability to let anything go. Marlene Dietrich once famously said that the first rule of marriage was that one should “never serve a man his sins for breakfast”. But my mother’s legal brain demanded satisfaction. Over and over again, she would drag up my father’s affair with Anne Ronder, even when he was convalescing after his first heart-attack. He had moved into our spare room in the old servant’s quarters, but again and again she demanded to rake over old details into the night. Dates, times, places, lies. She worked to expose them all. In her mind, she was just trying to get a clear picture: where she was at the time, what we were doing as a family, what plans were being made that he had no intention of following through – such as buying us our own home. Weekend trips to view beautiful houses in the country had been a sham. What money he earned on shows like Doctor Who, Z-Cars, and The Onedin Line had been spent in the BBC Club on round after round for cast and crew. He drank Vodka to try to prevent detection, but my mother knew what drinkers looked like, and she knew what someone coming home and drinking glass after glass of water at the sink meant.
My father, Gerald Blake (with sunglasses on head) directing Peter Gilmore in The Onedin Line

To my father though, it was like living with Torquemada. He made arrangements to bunk down at a friend’s flat, but within two weeks, he was saying that he couldn’t bear to live with the guy a minute longer, and he was moving into Jill Gascoine’s house in Streatham. Jill had worked with him on The Onedin Line, playing the no nonsense House Keeper, Letty Gaunt, who melts widower James (Peter Gilmore) Onedin’s heart. She had a funny, clenched teeth way of speaking, and my brother and I would impersonate her at the kitchen table whilst my father would chuckle and scold and tell us to be kind. When he arrived on her doorstep, the legend went that they began an affair that same evening.

Of course, the suspicion was that this had actually been the plan all along, and that poor old Michael Bartlett had only ever been a smoke-screen to facilitate the getaway. The papers got involved. Jill was riding high. She’d moved on to play Maggie Forbes in The Gentle Touch. Again, directed by my father. Three years after ‘Heidi’, I was still relatively well-known, so Fleet Street took more than a passing interest in our situation. Jill gave interview after interview, talking happily of her new love and how he was a wonderful father to her two sons, whilst photographers hid in the bushes outside Hanover Gate, trying to take pictures of me on my way to school. My mother stopped them. She disarmed them with coffee and biscuits. When one asked her why I was “acting funny” with them, she looked him straight in the eye, and said: “She’s afraid of you.” Her dead-eyed gaze carried the unspoken coda: “...make you feel good?” Clearly it didn’t make the bloke feel too good about himself at all, because even though she had answered the door in housecoat and curlers and they could have annihilated her, they took no pictures at all.

At school, I started getting into trouble. I was angry with my politically obsessed teachers who seemed to care more for indoctrinating a generation into Marxism than actually making sure that generation stood a chance of rising above their poor backgrounds and making something of themselves, and I was angry with the constant jeering and bullying from other kids about my situation. Kids who felt that a posh middle class tv star like me who went riding at weekends had no business at a school like Quintin Kynaston. The teachers joined in. “You shouldn’t be here” said one. “You should be at Benenden or Heathfield.” When I said we couldn’t afford such places, I was jeered at even more, so I smashed up a few classrooms. Started daubing Orwellian graffiti on the walls, and stuck a sign on the Headmaster’s door that read simply “Room 101”.

When I was finally caught methodically attempting to flood out the basement having opened the taps and stuffed up the plugs and drains, I was referred to the Tavistock Clinic. My mother came with me as I attended my appointment. Calmly, I explained my situation to the psychologist assigned to me. I was signed out as a perfectly rational and angry young adult. No further treatment was recommended. The school was left to seethe. When I was sent to summer camp in Surrey, I left after two days. My period had arrived, and what with the bullying from my form tutor, and drama teacher, Mr Cleland, who roared at me in front of the entire class that I was “not special”, prompting some of my old bullies to actually take my side against him, I had had enough. I packed, and walked out at 5am. I found a bus to the nearest town, asked my way to the station, and got a train back to London. As soon as I got home, I went straight to the loo to sort myself out. Mummy was outside the door.

“Is that you darling? Are you alright?” I will never forget the terror in her poor dear voice. I unlocked the door, expecting a lamming. Instead she cuddled me and asked me to tell her exactly what had being going down there.

The school called. I was suspended. We were to wait to hear when I was to present myself. Eventually, we were called up to school. If they were expecting chagrin or remorse, they were sorely disappointed. In the presence of the Head and his Deputy, and my form tutor, Mr Cleland, my mother tore them all to absolute pieces.

Mrs Pressman, the Deputy Head, had wanted to know how I had the funds to get myself home when were all only supposed to have £2 spending money (I had been given £5 “just in case”). My mother rounded on her and asked why that was her only concern, and not that a 13 year old girl was made so miserable she ran away? Then she turned to Cleland.

“And you...” She began. I saw his eyes widen in fear, as this tiny raven-haired tigress literally started to sharpen her claws on his soul. “You tell my daughter she’s not special in front of a full class? How many of your other charges have to deal with their father and his mistress in the papers every day of their lives? How many of your other kids have to deal with that? Have you tried and failed to be an actor, Cleland, is that what this is about..?” Using psychology, and legal insinuations as to how we would actually be in a position to sue the school for negligence, she literally tore them all ‘new ones’. I have never been so proud.

By the end of the meeting, I was allowed back to school. Not that I wanted to be there, but at least I became a rebel hero among my classmates for a while. The posh kid who kicked ass. Nobody messed with me after that.

My father was less impressed. Something about having left us made him try harder to be the Papa. It didn’t work. I told him to get lost. I told him that if he didn’t tell his girlfriend to stop blabbing to the press, he could forget he had a daughter. I was 13 years old and acting like Michael Corleone.

After about 5 years, the divorce papers came through. My father wanted to be free to marry Jill. I remember them arriving in the post. My mother opened the envelope and began to shake and sweat. Although she hadn’t set foot in a church for years, the shame of divorce ran deep. “WE don’t” she had always been told. Divorce was not something families like ours “did”. The solicitors my father had engaged were one of Jill’s recommendations. Harbottle & Lewis. Society and Showbiz a speciality. They charged a fortune. My mother was on Legal Aid. She was assigned “a lovely man in The Temple”. He helped my mother to succeed in getting Jill Gascoine named on the petition as co-respondent. Jill fought tooth and nail against it, but my mother won.

Eventually, my parents’ 27 year marriage was dissolved at The Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand. My mother attended, dressed to kill. She said the weary Judge pulled his mothy gown into place and sat up straight when she entered on a cloud of Guerlain. My father did not attend.

Then Jill went into the West End to play Frenchie in a theatre adaptation of Destry Rides Again. Playing Destry was the 29 year old Alfred Molina. He and the 44 year old Jill fell madly in love, and my father found himself out on his ear.

On another of Jill’s recommendations, he got himself a little flat at The White House Hotel. In time, as the bitterness subsided and life fell into a groove again, it was nice to have him so close by. He discovered the gadget shops on Tottenham Court Road, and bought himself a little car. He started dropping ‘round on Saturday mornings for coffee. By this time, Mummy had managed to get a job at Buckingham Palace, showing people around the Queen’s Gallery, explaining the pictures to visitors, and selling them catalogues. She sometimes worked Saturdays, sometimes Sundays. My father would come over on Saturdays anyway. If she was there, great, if she wasn’t, he would settle for me.

It was on one such Saturday, when my mother was at the Palace, that Dad showed up as usual, but I was on my way out to Church Street Market to buy some smart trousers to go job-hunting. I explained that I needed to get to the market, so how about he come with me, and we could grab a coffee at Alfie’s Antiques Market when I had got the pants?

He looked unconvinced, but eventually agreed. We trudged up Rossmore Hill to Church Street, chatting on the way. We had become great friends, and I loved spending time with him. When we reached the market, I made a bee-line for the stall I knew had the trousers I wanted, picked out a pair in black and another in navy, paid for them, and returned to his side.
“Ok, then, let’s get that coffee.” I said.
He looked confused.
“Don’t you want to look around some more?”
“Nope.” I shook my head.
“Don’t you want to wander about looking at all the other stalls, and stuff?”
I shook my head again.
“Nope. Come on, let’s get a table in there before everyone else gets the same idea.”
My father shook his head and smiled.
“Wow...” He said, putting his arm around me. “You know, if your mother had ever been able to shop like that.... we might still be married!”

Emma Blake
July 2014 

At Alfie’s Antiques Market that day, my father picked out a beautiful little ruby and diamond ring, and put it on his Amex card.
“I never bought your mother an engagement ring,” he said. “We were so poor..."
He turned it over in his hands, gazing as it sparkled under the light.
“Do you think it will fit?”
I was very thin at the time, but I tried it on my biggest finger.
“Should be ok. She can always have it resized. It’s lovely, Daddy.” I said.
My mother never wore it. Not even on her right hand.
“Too little, too late” she said.
I felt she was being churlish, and my heart ached for my father’s disappointment that his lovely gift was so poorly received, but I had to accept there were things about human relationships I had yet to learn: – such as how sometimes, when trust is gone, and the hurt is too much, no amount of time, or distance, or pretty things, will make it better.

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