Simon Russell Beale – as you've never seen 'her' before

Privates on Parade, the National Service comedy with its famous drag acts, is revived next week, giving one of Britain's biggest stage stars the cross-dressing challenge. Its author, Peter Nichols, recalls the real army revue that inspired the play

Unlike novels, plays are cryogenic. Novels are taken from their shelves, browsed in, read or reread. Most plays remain frozen in archives and libraries, awaiting the kiss of life.

Three of mine that have lain dormant for a dozen years are now being thawed out: Privates on Parade is in rehearsal to open Michael Grandage's season at the Noel Coward theatre, previews from 1 December; when this closes in March, Passion Play opens 50 yards down the road at The Duke of York's; at the same time A Day in the Death of Joe Egg will be performed in Liverpool then Kingston, a motorway pile-up of stuff done between the 1960s and 1980s.

At rehearsals of the first one, I spoke for 15 minutes on the background to the "musical", which it has almost become thanks to the tunes' composer Denis King. The cast (mostly in their twenties) must have wondered who this grey codger was, — myopic, deaf-aided, not even wearing trainers, who during the reading laughed more than anyone else at jokes he had himself written (or, in some cases, stolen). His talk, interspersed with readings from his memoir Feeling You're Behind, tried to explain the background and what the Malayan Emergency was, even what Malaya was.

He didn't dodge the question of whether the play at all resembles his dimly remembered reality but said he'd been there in 1947, in CSE, a pan-services outfit formed to entertain teenage troops who longed only to get home and start their adult lives. The Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) ended with the war and ours took its place: Every Night Something Awful became Chaos Succeeds ENSA.

Among those who escaped the tedium of poorly paid national service, with its guard and cookhouse duties, by singing, dancing and trying to be funny, were the future stars Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams and the film director John Schlesinger, at this time a conjuror. In order not to be "returned to unit", we contrived a revue that became in time the basis of Privates.

The first departure from reality was that we weren't privates but were all given the rank of acting sergeant, in the military sense, that allowed us to be entertained in NCOs' messes up-country and in Hong Kong. But the present title was too good a double entendre to miss. I'd first named it "Jungle Jamboree" but Lady Antonia Fraser said she much preferred the other. Stanley Baxter went to see its first production fearing I'd commit some actionable slander. He came away disappointed, saying, "It was nothing like the truth." It's a mish-mash or collage gathered from my two and a half years in the RAF before, during and after the period in question. The showbiz unit lasted only eight months of my 85 years but in my memoir, the chapter describing it, "My University", is more than 40 pages long. This, too, was meant to be accurate but is also a pack of lies thereby resembling the entire nostalgia industry of which it could be said to be a small part.

I hardly knew but studiously observed Barri Chatt, the drag queen who is to be embodied by Simon Russell Beale. He was a civilian performer who had, in his words, "signed on for sun and fun". The one scene that's practically verbatim is at a dress-rehearsal where Terri/Barri opposes the corrupt and criminal sergeant-major, whose future suicide and military funeral – in a billet watched by several other men – became a hilarious party piece for both Kenneth and Stanley, an event since embroidered out of all recognition. "I am not I," wrote Evelyn Waugh at the end of Brideshead Revisited, "thou art not he or she; they are not they." And Private Flowers isn't I either, though like him I blossomed during those months, not (regrettably) through the tuition of a beautiful Eurasian dancer as in Privates. It was in my previous years in Calcutta that I observed the real-life person who inspired her character and the Madame Butterfly-like story of her love for a British soldier. I didn't meet the person who inspired Eric Young-Love, whose fate is to keep on conjuring even when the lights go out, till my last months of service in a billet at Changi, the notorious Japanese prison-camp. Kenneth and Stanley don't appear in the show at all but are its unacknowledged co-authors.

After I'd talked to the cast for 15 minutes, Michael Grandage told me I'd delighted them long enough. Perhaps a better metaphor than cryogenic for my appearance that day would be as one of the un-dead. I had in fact once played the bloodthirsty Count Dracula on the stage of the present home of Scottish Opera.

Now in my eighties, it often feels that I'm half-alive among the gone-before. Kenneth and John are no more; Stanley survives. From the original show of 1976, Denise Quilley and Nigella Hawthorne have only just been joined by Joanna Melia at that great audition in the sky, as Terri would put it. I Imagine their long silence before the sonorous voice from a dark auditorium: "We'll let you know."

In 1948, before the real Emergency began, we had sun, beaches, an exotic city and land to explore; but still we mostly longed for our drizzley northern homes, as the show's final song affirms: "And when we're there we'll never more roam/ From the heart of home sweet home."

'Privates on Parade', the first in a five-play season by the Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, London WC2 (0844 482 5141; michaelgrandagecompany.com) to 2 March

What a drag: How Simon Russell Beale becomes Carmen Miranda

Simon Russell Beale who plays Captain Terri Dennis has three major drag numbers as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and the Brazilian film star and singer Carmen Miranda. Even when he goes off stage to transform into a woman, it only takes a couple of minutes for the make-up team to stick on his eyelashes and stick on some lipstick.

He already has basic make up on anyway and he wears a male corset under his shorts and top to keep him trim throughout the show. His arms, legs and chest have been waxed, his hair dyed and his eyebrows plucked – he has been given an all-over fake body tan. For his change into Carmen Miranda, he wears a bodice with inbuilt breasts, a wraparound skirt and platform shoes specially made for his large feet. The turban and headpiece is all one piece – covered in beads and fruit. He wears a wig and a bra for the other numbers.

After the Dietrich scene, he changes on stage. He removes the hat, the wig and make up, then he takes off the dress and the breasts. He is left there in his corset and his stockings when a young soldier knocks on his door. We watch him put on his sailor outfit for another number.

Charlotte Cripps

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders