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Who Do I Think I Am (Part 1)?

I

wasn't born in a trunk at the side of a stage - that would be foolish and unhygienic. I was a full month old before I found myself backstage at a theatre and this fact is thanks pretty much entirely to my mother. She developed a love of amateur dramatics in her early twenties and imprinted a similar enthusiasm upon me as I grew up, never once giving me less than total support in my efforts to develop this hobby into a professional career, not just as an actor but as a writer, despite my tendency to indulge in long, rambling sentences that seemed as though they might go on forever (like this one).

Gillian Rosemary Smith was born in May 1947, to Albert and Emma Smith, the youngest of a gaggle of six sisters, kicked off by Doreen in 1927 and swelled at varying intervals by Margaret, Audrey, Marion, Jacqueline and finally Gill. The age gap between oldest and youngest sisters meant my mother became an auntie at the age of three, an achievement I always regarded as being extremely cool.

Growing up, Mum recalls developing a love of words and poetry, instilled in her by her mother, who I knew as Nan and who possessed a similar passion for verse, not entirely usual for a working-class girl from Gloucester. Nan was able to recite Robert Browning's ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin' from memory, as well as Longfellow's Hiawatha and passages from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Her bookshelves were filled with poetry books and also included a Complete Works of Shakespeare, inscribed by my grandfather: To My Beloved Pem - 1st May 1926.

With six children and a household to run, Nan's love of poetry never extended beyond the bookshelves but she passed it on to her daughters, particularly Marion who demonstrated a talent for acting and joined a renowned local drama group in Quedgley, Gloucestershire, run by the RAF for whom she worked. Mum would go to see Marion perform in various plays as well as sit and listen to her read poetry at home. Marion may have even harboured a desire to attend drama school herself and probably would have done so had life not taken her elsewhere. Still, her influence on her youngest sister was powerful. To this day, Mum can remember the words to various Kipling poems favoured by the young Marion, and recalls being inspired to follow in her footsteps by participating in devised pantomimes at Sunday school and musical numbers at her school concert.

However, when Marion married, her dramatic activities ceased and twelve-year-old Gill's main influence disappeared. It was not until after she had met my father that she found herself being drawn back towards the theatre, or at least a large ice-cream and sausage manufacturing facility on Gloucester's Eastern Avenue. For reasons now forgotten, although presumably because of Dad's involvement in the local music scene (which I'll come to in a bit), my soon-to-be parents got involved with a production staged by a drama group at the local Wall's factory. Here, Mum discovered she had an aptitude for dance and was encouraged by a professional choreographer who had been hired to work on the show. She threw herself into things with a boundless enthusiasm that would one day result in her breaking both her elbows while executing a crazy dance move that nobody else in her drama group would try. That wouldn't happen for sixteen years though, and at this point, no amount of plaster of Paris would have held her back.



By 1968, John and Gill had married and moved into a bungalow in Churchdown, Gloucester, where they befriended Jim and Jackie Rendell, the couple who lived opposite. Jim and Jackie were members of a well-known local drama group called the Gloucester Operatic and Dramatic Society, or GODS (a far more austere abbreviation than their neighbour, Cheltenham's CODS, and infinitely preferable to the Stroud Operatic and Dramatic Society, who decided not to go with an acronym). As well as various smaller productions at their home theatre, aptly named Olympus, the GODS would mount an annual large-scale musical production, which would be performed at the ABC theatre on St Aldate Street in Gloucester, some five or so doors down from the music shop my parents would buy a few years later.

This particular production, to be performed in early 1969 (amateur drama requires a far lengthier rehearsal process than professional theatre since the participants all have proper jobs), was My Fair Lady. The GODS were an extremely respected organisation and their annual production would inevitably play to sell-out crowds and always make the front pages of local newspapers, The Gloucester Journal and the Citizen. (The latter would eventually receive a nod in our cop comedy Hot Fuzz, renamed the Sandford Citizen for the film's fictional Gloucestershire village setting.) There was, however, a slight deficit of male society members at the time, so Jim and Jackie cajoled my father into coming along and bolstering the ranks of men in the chorus. The ladies' chorus quotient was perfectly acceptable, and since my mother's participation would have effectively cancelled out my father's, she decided to assist backstage, dressing the actress playing Eliza Doolittle, with whom she became lifelong friends. Mum immediately fell in love with amateur theatre and decided she wanted to become an active member of the GODS. The following year, the annual musical production was to be Lionel Bart's classic, Oliver!. I'm sure Mum would have made a wonderful Nancy, had she not been heavily pregnant with me.

By the time the production went on, I was a month old and no doubt enjoyed the quiet excitement one always feels backstage at an active theatre on a matinee afternoon. I can't help thinking this would be a great ESTB moment, if not for me, then for my mother. It would be cool to step out of a crackle of fizzing electricity and point to the bundle in her arms, proclaiming that that baby was in fact me and would grow up to be a successful actor (and time traveller), although I fear with that proclamation, I might only serve to confirm the fears of Marty McFly: that in the future, we all turn into assholes.

Later that year and with me being a helpful baby and sleeping through the night, Mum was able to participate in her first play, Anthony Kimmins's The Amorous Prawn. It was a perfect hobby for her as a young mum, since she was able to put me to bed and then head out to the theatre, without me even realising she was gone. In this respect she was able to have her baby-cake and eat it: balancing her social and domestic lives. She appeared in many productions over the years. My first memory of seeing her onstage was in a 1976 production of Brigadoon, the musical about a magical Scottish village that appears every two hundred years. By the mid-seventies, the ABC theatre had been converted into a three-screen cinema and the annual GODS musical had been transferred to the Cambridge Theatre, a large auditorium at the Gloucester Leisure Centre. It was here that I stood on my seat as the actors took their bows and shouted ‘That's my mum' at the crowd of pensioners surrounding me, including my grandfather's beloved Pem, who chuckled next to me, glowing with pride for her daughter and to a lesser extent her hysterical grandson.

Mum went on to become a leading light at the GODS, receiving rave reviews for her performances from the local papers, describing her ‘marvellous timing and use of facial expression' and labelling her ‘an undoubted show-stealer'. I have little doubt that had she been afforded the same opportunities, encouragement and dumb luck as me, she might have found herself working as a professional actress. In her more reflective moments, she will say as much. Never in such a way as to convey regret or resentment but more assurance to herself that though she did not choose to follow that path, it was a path she was more than capable of taking. Whether she followed her dream or not, I still have the same feelings of childish pride when I consider her achievements, not just theatrically but as a mother and a human being. ‘Without you, I wouldn't be here' doesn't really cover it.

 


Date: 2015-12-17; view: 265


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