Secretarial: There's only one Sweetpea

I Work For... Sweetpea Slight is pa to Thelma Holt, independent theatre producer
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The Independent Culture
I used to be called Jane, but Thelma nicknamed me "Sweetpea" from the start, and eventually I changed it to Sweetpea by deed poll. I was fresh from school, working unpaid for the marketing and press departments at the Theatre of Comedy, when Thelma stole me. I was 18 and planning to study drama; it took five minutes with Thelma for me to change my mind.

I first saw her while I was operating the switchboard. She was wearing a parachute suit with poppers and rushed back from the loo with all her poppers undone, bosoms flying about. One day she threw me her keys and said, "The cats need feeding this weekend. Here's my address, there's food in the fridge." The food turned out to be a bottle of vodka, an egg and a chopped sausage and pea salad. I thought she was completely mad.

Thelma made sure that I was given some money to live on, and clothed me in her hand-me-downs. I became her shadow. The actor Colin Blakely once said to me, "you're lucky - it's the best way you can learn." Once she asked me to go into a room and write down everything "that woman in there" wanted. "That woman" was Vanessa Redgrave, who reeled off all the things she needed for her one-off performance of Chekhov's women - programmes, posters, calls, etc. Thelma was unfazed and so was I. If I ever got anything wrong she would direct some ghastly obscenity at me, but oddly I was never daunted.

Six months on, Thelma moved to the National Theatre and I turned back into Cinderella and returned to the switchboard. When she called and said, "Darling, the money's terrible but you start on Monday", I asked, "Where?" She replied, "The National, you idiot." She later said that at a board meeting she was told that she couldn't possibly have someone completely inexperienced, called Sweetpea, working for her. But she's irascible and gets what she wants, and from then on anyone who didn't like my name was deemed to be unreliable. She does have an amazing belief in the young, and I suppose she just saw something in me that she wanted to promote and encourage.

I took to the National like a duck to water. Being the youngest person was a great advantage because I could innocently sit back, watch and learn without being noticed. However I did once hear someone say, "Oh my God, it's a nightmare. Thelma's got a clone, only it's younger."

Our department was responsible for sending huge productions abroad and it was my job to make sure everyone got there. There were, of course, terrible moments, but because I was so young I just found them funny. For example, for our production of Animal Farm I had to fix special travel permits for the armourer, as he was travelling with ammunition. Thelma called me in one day and said, "Don't worry about the armourer's transport; he's dead." We were so busy, I didn't even ask her how he'd died. On another occasion a fork-lift truck wrote off the set for The Duchess of Malfi.

Sir Peter Hall sussed that Thelma might be getting a little bored and urged her to mount an international season, which featured Ingmar Bergman, Peter Stein, the Mayakovsky Company and the Ninagawa Company from Tokyo. It was the most fantastic thing to be involved in. She went on to become executive producer for Sir Peter's own theatre company, finally becoming an independent producer herself in 1988.

We spend 90 per cent of our lives working together, including social occasions. We fall into things without really noticing it; for example, Thelma is just about to leave for Japan with the Ninagawa Company's King Lear. When we initially worked with the Japanese there were massive cultural differences; today we don't notice them. There was one occasion when an actor, too ashamed to ask for a copy of the room key he had lost, tried to reach his room by scaling the walls, and fell and broke both his legs.

Thelma sent me off to visit him in hospital, but I gave chocolates to the wrong man, having mistaken a Japanese jaundice sufferer for our actor.

During a party when we were doing The Merchant of Venice with Dustin Hoffman, Thelma called out "Sweetpea", and Dustin appeared at her side. He told her Sweetpea was his childhood nickname, but Thelma replied, "Not any more; you will have to be Sweetpea Two because", pointing at me, "she's Sweetpea One".

I could never step into Thelma's shoes, but I can wear the ones she's helped me to make. I know that when I want to go it alone she will give me all the help and support I need. She may be the most eccentric person I've met, but she's also the sanest - but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

Interview by Katie Sampson

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