The story of Hans Christian Andersen as told by class 4a in Marlborough School, 1964. “Oh wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen,” they sang – we sang – in a very animated approximation of Danny Kaye in the film of the time. Our last year of school – we seemed to be in constant rehearsal, and everyone was very excited by this production of productions. Mrs Washington organised everything, from the parts to the script to the music – and her kindest words to me were, “I won’t give you a part, Barbara, because I know you won’t want to do it.”
“Thank you,” I whispered – and then the agony began. I was terribly shy, it is true, so I didn’t really want to do it. But something inside me craved a leading role, and as I prompted and watched and helped in the background I was really jealous. I wanted the praise, the clapping, the kudos – even fifty odd years later I remember that feeling of wishing I could.
I carried this feeling throughout my secondary school too. I was never in a school play, though I helped to produce several little shows, and at university I even joined a drama club thinking I would finally be discovered – but no – all I discovered that group gropes were not my thing, and my only relationship with drama and the stage was going to be purely cerebral.
I eventually came to terms with my lack of acting prowess and discovered that I could teach drama without actually being able to model it. Then a few years ago I went on a course at the National Theatre where I had to learn a couple of lines of Shakespeare and present them to a very supportive group of fellow students, using some of the techniques we had learnt on the two day course. I’d really enjoyed myself on this course and was able to do everything they taught me. But this was a killer. I couldn’t learn my lines. Just two. Ridiculous. But my mind doesn’t seem to work sequentially word after word. I went outside ready to make my grand entrance. Suddenly the door handle grew out of all proportion. I was unable to turn it. I couldn’t bring myself to push the door open back into the room. The stage.
Memories of primary school welled up inside me. Mrs Washington. Copenhagen.
I didn’t know what to do. Tears sprang to my eyes – always a sure sign of supreme embarrassment.
Deep breath. Decision made – I’ll go in and tell them I can’t do it. Decision changed – I’ll have a go.
I burst the door open and gabbled my first line. And that was it. I was exhausted. No techniques, no thought, no acting. Just ten out of the twenty words.
The group was stunned. They were supposed to give me some positive feedback on my performance. Obviously that was impossible, so they all hugged me instead. I think that did more for my self-esteem than anything else.
It was only after a few months that I realised that I had actually learnt a lot on this course. I still can’t remember lines – but I don’t mind any more. I can use the practical techniques in many other ways. And my moments of stage glory finally came in Cambridge School where all the staff had to be in the pantomimes. No acting or memory required. We all had scripts in our hands and the producer read the line and said what we had to do. We did the act, repeated the line and the whole effect was entirely suitable – and hilarious. The jokes went above the kids’ heads – and that is exactly as it should be.
What prompted this discourse? – Well, I went to Copenhagen for the first time a couple of weeks ago for the weekend. I did not feel prompted to sing the Danny Kaye special. I did not see the Little Mermaid but I did go to the Tivoli Gardens.
It was nice but not extraordinary – yet prompted a lot of memories. As you can see.