The Way I Was: The past is such a strange place: Beryl Bainbridge tells Nicholas Roe about her early days as an actress in rep (CORRECTED)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 22 MAY 1993) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

IF YOU were born in the provinces in those days, all you wanted to do was get away from home because it was so restrictive. It wasn't like now: I wasn't even allowed to use the telephone, and if someone rang me up my mother would go on about it for hours. 'What a cheek, ringing you up like that. . . .'

I went at 16 to become an actress. They took me on at Liverpool Repertory Company and I went more or less straight from there to Dundee Rep, which is where this picture was taken in about 1950. I'm on my knees, gazing up at my 'mother', an actress called Joan White, who's dead now. It's from The Beaver Coat, which was translated from the German into Lancashire and shown to Scottish audiences who didn't understand a word. The director, Gerald Cross - dead now - had already done another translated play, from the French, then another and then this one, which was the straw that broke the camel's back. Everyone was incensed both by the fact that they couldn't understand any of them and because Joan White couldn't remember any of her lines, ever.

Gerald was dismissed and it became a time of high drama. Another actor and I had been with Gerald at Liverpool and he had brought us up to Dundee - we were his friends, you see, and we were outraged at him being given the push. It had been a lovely time. I can remember this garret-like room where they lit a fire for me every night. I could sit and read poetry. One was young and excited about things.

There were parties, and a lovely art gallery where I used to sit and sketch, or pretend to sketch. I suppose a lot of the time one was playing a part. . . . When Gerald was sacked there were mutterings in corners, while he walked around white- faced. Then he said something like, 'Make a protest. Say if I go, you'll go as well.' So two of us did and they said, 'Bye bye.'

We had no money to get home, so all three of us holed up in a bungalow on the banks of the river Tay, underneath the bridge, desperate and destitute, while Equity fought our case. We didn't like to show ourselves because we were supposed to have gone off in a huff, with a 'keep your flaming job'. So we just stayed there, sulking and listening to the radio, for about three weeks.

We lived on cocoa and bread and butter and we didn't have any coal, which was dreadful, so we wore our coats all the time. Gerald tried to get me to sell mine, which I refused to do because it was so bitterly cold. No, it was terribly funny. We laughed like drains all the time, though I was disappointed because the next play was going to be The Constant Nymph and I was due to play the lead.

I think I wrote home for money in the end, or we all chipped together or got some money from somewhere. I will always remember that my mother used to tell me that I arrived back home with about 15 carrier bags - I had no suitcase - which she was furious about because it was letting the side down. I don't think I'd ever laughed so much in my life as I did in Dundee. I suppose if one were shot back there now one would realise how broke one was and how the future was so uncertain. But there was a tremendous amount of optimism after the war, a feeling that things would be wonderful. Looking at this, I feel I've been terribly lucky. But it's all such a blur. The past is such a strange place.

CORRECTION

In our 24 April edition we incorrectly reported that the actress

Joan White was dead. In fact, she is, thankfully, very much alive and well and is currently directing a new play for the Chelsea festival. We apologise to her for our error.

(Photograph omitted)

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