Tuesday 10 December 2019

The Tallest Girl on the English Stage

by  Robin Wrigley,

gin and tonic


Christmas week at school was always the most exciting not the least the thought of being home with our families but also the knowledge that we were halfway through the period of short days and dark mornings.
       In that week was the excitement of the annual cross-country run which every boy with two legs was obliged to enter and on the last night the Christmas pantomime. For me the run was simply something one endured. Not being particularly good at distance running and being the kind of boy who felt that if I couldn’t win there was little point exhausting one’s self when having fun mucking around with the tail-enders was available.
     The ‘panto’ was different thing altogether and I and several other boys coached by Mr Mays one of the three house masters, spent many a long evening learning lines and painting the flats for the show. Mrs Clarke the matron also helped in the advice and sewing of various costumes and make-up.
     Mr Mays always provided the script and then everyone in the Drama Group spent time editing it to be topical for our school, in particular lines which would poke fun of various teachers and staff. These lines would always bring the house down, our headmaster Mr G.A.F.Clarke naturally nicknamed ‘Gaffer’ and no relation to matron, came in for considerable ‘Mick-taking’ as did the youngest housemaster Mr.Basil Smith Bart.
     For the group that last afternoon was a complete buzz of activity. Getting the scenery in place; swotting on lines and eventually make up and then dressing into our costumes. Charlie Woollard and I were cast as the ‘ugly sisters’
     First on stage was Ronald Blick cast as the Fairy Godmother who acted as narrator in between scenes. Poor lad, when the whole show was over he discovered the lipstick kindly donated by matron was the ‘kiss-proof’ type which no amount of rubbing would remove it. The next day he was forced to travel home with these lovely bright red lips and take enormous of amounts of ribbing that morning at breakfast, particularly from the ‘first-years.’
     The opening scene was designed to set the mood of the audience and ensure that everyone was in for an evening of belly laughs. It did not fail. It was a beach scene and Charlie and I would enter from stage left wearing bikinis. The pair of us was pretty skinny and being dressed in fairly skimpy bikinis did much to emphasise this. No doubt we looked more like camp entertainers in a prisoner of war camp than a school panto. The audience were delighted and the laughter and applause almost shattered the windows. I think we both found it quite difficult not to react to our reception and keep a straight face.
     But the next couple of steps we made are what really brought the house down and very nearly stopped the entire show. Charlie accidentally stepped on a drawing-pin that sent him howling and clutching his foot nearly knocking over the nearest scenery flat.
     The house loved it mistakenly thinking it was all part of the show. But just like true professionals we quickly recovered. The offending tack was removed from Charlie’s heel a quick wipe with a hankie and we were back on to the script and the audience were totally ignorant of the mishap.
 It was my part in that last pantomime before I left school that caused the Deputy Head to write in my final report later that summer, ‘The tallest girl on the English stage?’ He followed it up by dubbing me ‘A charming flâneur’ which sent me rushing to the library and a dictionary. Mr Boyd-Roberts knew a thing or two.

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