Getting Started!

I have a bee in my bonnet recently about non-actors misquoting theatre situations (after a staggering misunderstanding of my own recollections). So of course I noticed Paul McKenna the hypnotist and behaviourist reporting a memory from Roger Moore, which seemed to make Sir Roger a work-seeking actor at the same time he had just become a drama student. To be fair to McKenna, it’s probably only his phrase “from that day onwards” that produces the contradiction. And people often move things closer together to sharpen up their anecdote. “I worked with So-and-So and they died straight after that show” I have sometimes heard, knowing the concertina-ing of dates involved!

Anyway, McKenna’s story is that a teacher of drama asked the young Moore “How tall are you?” “Six foot one” he replied. “So why don’t you stand as though you are six foot one?” And thereafter he did, “from that day onwards getting more work.”.

Well, I had an almost identical exchange when I was a drama student, with the elderly and passionately committed actress Fabia Drake. “Six foot two, Miss Drake” was my reply. “Well — it’s lovely to be six foot two” was her strong response. (It is.) She had just seen me display the opposite impression in scenes from “All’s Well That Ends Well” which she witnessed as a visiting assessor at RADA.

There was more to it than that, and it takes me a good deal of self-discipline to admit my own silliness. I was simply a very silly boy, and nearly sixty years later I feel entitled to say so. I had come from nowhere and been accepted for the course without knowing the first thing about acting. I had left school only recently and my parents were right to conclude that I was flitting from one thing to another without settling down. Because of that they refused to — what was it? — to support my application for a grant for my RADA course, as they didn’t think I would stick at it. It was something like that.

All was not well at RADA. You often don’t know when you are in on the end of something, but the Pricipal’s days were numbered. Elements on the Board of Governors wanted to oust John Fernald, and succeeded straight after that. I used to know more of the ramifications, which I think involved Peter O’Toole on the one hand and Sir Felix Aylmer, of an older generation, on the other. I have somewhere an article from ‘The Stage’ newspaper which goes into this schism.

The insecurity — which to an extent the Academy encouraged as paralleling the profession — worked it way down to us students. It was impressed on us that our place on the course was never safer than the next satisfactorily assessed performance.

Meanwhile, I had itchy feet. I am mortified to say I had now turned against acting. I wanted — don’t laugh, anyone who knows me — to be a school teacher in East London. Following a friend’s example. This latest change of tack was fed by the lack of stability where I was, and I actively came to willingness to be culled. Oh God. I had actually “thrown” the performance of Bertram in “All’s Well” to force myself into the decision I saw myself making. My slouch as Bertram was partly my crass form of teenage rebellion.

Well, they obliged, and culled me. John Fernald spoke to me quite thoughtfully — not I think after “All’s Well” but after “Cherry Orchard”; as I say, one often tends to concertina events. He did not see me as an actor.

More than half the class I was in got the chop. It had not happened in that wholesale way before, and I never heard that it did again. Fernald himself soon followed us out of the door.

I did go and teach at the lowest level of a secondary school in Dagenham, East London. I was terrible at it. I lasted just a few weeks. The friend whose example I had followed had a long and most successful career in education,

Well, there’s a cautionary tale about a (just) eighteen-year-old bloody fool. Of course I was an actor. I should have told Fernald that that was my identity and my destiny. I’d probably have made myself even more silly. I wish I’d said it, though. It’s taken me sixty years to compose that speech.

I never met Fernald again. I used to vote for him as an Equity councillor in later years. My older friend Robert, who had taught at RADA (not under Fernald), seemed amazed that I should do so. He thought I’d had quite a raw deal as a student. I didn’t see it that way. I was just a young fool. And I certainly wouldn’t let the past influence my union vote. Later I was in a play with Fernald’s actress daughter Karin. “I believe you knew my Dad” she said when we were introduced. I don’t know what I replied.

I have only seen “All’s Well That Ends Well” a couple of times. I always know exactly what scenes I played so badly before Fabia Drake. I am not suggesting for a moment that my “throwing” the part was the only reason I lost my place on the course — there were many! But I genuinely wanted out, while playing those scenes. And of course Bertram’s lines from them stick permanently in my mind.

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Roger Sansom

Roger is an actor, and lives with his family in Greater London