“Have you heard …?”

Well, (previous post), I was in a ticket queue at Stratford when I heard of a death that made international news, Robert Kennedy’s. Other such bombshells I learned about in various ways, and often of course you learn in passing, so to speak. Perhaps literally, in passing a newspaper placard. Though when notable people die suddenly, existing headlines can seem trivial till the media catch up.

I had heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination from Barry Ashton, the Barry in an earlier post of mine who had understudied so much.

Then in 1997 I was weeding in the garden on a Sunday morning, our daughter Jo — just in her teens — was watching television in the living room. Diana’s romance with Dodi Fayed had been all over the news, after the British press had discovered it. Jo appeared at the back door. “Dad” she said, “Diana’s dead!”. My first reaction was to wonder whether, for whatever reason, the poor woman had killed herself. Of course the details came thick and fast that day and subsequently — a strange period publicly, as it had been after John Kennedy’s death.

A couple of times I have really felt that the Reaper had crept in when I was looking the other way. One was when I was in the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead in 1974. Another patient referred in conversation to “Mama Cass [Elliot] dying.” “Dying?” I responded. So far as I knew that distinctive performer, from the Mamas and the Papas, was having a high profile solo run at the London Palladium. It turned out that she had died suddenly immediately after the run finished.

A later instance was when my friend the actress Dorothy Lane spoke of “Thea dying.” “Dying?” Thea Holme was an actress and writer (particularly known for dramatising classic novels). I had talked with her not long before.

Both those times, I felt like the Governess in “The Turn of the Screw”, who replies “Died?” with the blankness of pure shock to what she is told about Peter Quint.

Which, I suppose, is just me dramatising my rather simple reaction to a fact about us all. In the midst of life …

Then there’s the old actors’ joke: “My agent died”, to which the answer is not “How did you hear?” but “How can you tell?”

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Roger Sansom

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