I thought, well, if I die, I die ...
The time: November 1970 The place: Convent of the Sacred He art, Woldingham, Surrey The woman: Dillie Keane, actress and songwriter
Tuesday 21 January 1997
We used to have dances with boys from Worth School, and I'd organised the school dance, and the next day they came and took us out. I thought we had permission. Turned out we didn't, because all one of the girls had done was leave a note for Sister Wilson, the headmistress.
We went to London, and saw Fellini's Satyricon, and I hated it so much, I was so nauseated by it, that I threw up. We got back to school terribly late, because we lost the way back from London. It was pitch dark, raining, absolutely lashing down, and I didn't know the way. It was about quarter to 10 by the time I finally got back. I went and faced the music, and Sister Wilson was unspeakably unpleasant to me, and told me I was lying; that I had known the way back.
She told me I was expelled. I would go the next morning; they were going to ring my mother. I didn't know what to do, and I was panicked, because my parents were quite strict, and I didn't see any way out. I thought, now my mother will make me go to secretarial college and my life is over, because I wanted to study music in Dublin at Trinity. It was a stupid idea, because it was a very poor faculty, but I just wanted to put a stretch of water between me and everything. I'd heard Dublin was fun, and I was determined to go to a university with a good track record for university players. I really wanted to go on the stage, but there was absolutely no way anyone would countenance sending me to drama school - for a good Irish Catholic family, upper-middle class, it was just not on.
I thought, well I've lost the support of the school, and they knew what difficulties I was having with my folks, persuading them that I could make an artistic career. I was hugely musical, but they wanted me to do what my sisters had done, and go to secretarial school.
So I sat in my room, expelled, and thought, oh well, I might as well take an overdose and see where that gets me.
I was fairly fatalistic; I thought, well, if I die, I die, and if I don't, I don't. At least it's some act of rebellion that is incontrovertible, that says, I want some control over my life, I didn't choose to be born, I didn't choose to go to this horrible school.
It had given me a fairly good education but it couldn't cope with somebody like me. I played the piano, I wrote songs and set poems to music. I remember setting a version of "The Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon", which was actually fab. The teacher was staggered. She said: "That's awfully good, Dillie." And we played the old version, and I thought mine was better.
I was very insecure at school and profoundly unhappy. It was the most horrible place, filled with horrible snobs - that's why I do so much about class in the show, it's given me fodder for life, so I'm profoundly grateful. Me and my best friend, my cousin Ruth, developed a language nobody else could understand; we were constantly giggling.
We were frightfully pugnacious and made ourselves so unpopular with the teachers that one day Mother Grant, who was mistress of discipline - a phrase very hard to explain to people who weren't at the Sacred Heart - got up at assembly, and said, "There are two girls, in the Lower Fifth, old Hove girls, and in the Main House" - that narrowed it down to Ruth and me - "We don't like them; we don't like their behaviour; we don't really want them in the school."
God I hated it, but I've kept some good friends from school; nobody, not even me, is as poisonous outside as they are at school - Woldingham brought out the worst in all of us.
So that night I took a mixture of aspirin and iron which, as I was a doctor's daughter, I knew was a fairly serious mixture. It was a pretty feeble overdose, because I immediately told someone, who ran and got various nuns. I was carted off to Reigate General, and my poor old parents were rung in the middle of the night and had a terrible time. They were distraught. I remember being angry and a bit frightened, but more angry.
Sister Wilson came into hospital to see me and said, "Oh, you are a silly girl". My parents arrived and were miserable. I've painted an unfair picture, but they just didn't understand this extremely eccentric and off-beat kid they had. I've got two sisters and one brother, who are essentially much straighter than I am, and really very nice people. I think having this rather foul daughter with a strange knack for knocking out tunes and performing was really very bewildering for them.
That day my life started to change. I realised I could do what I wanted; it made me incredibly focused. An overdose gives you a little bit of leverage, and that's what I needed. I said to my parents, "I cannot fulfil this plan you have for me, I cannot go to a secretarial school. If I do, I will die; I will be utterly miserable. I cannot see the point of going on living if that's what it is. So therefore I have to do this. I burn to perform."
And they said, "Well what do you want to do?" And I said, "I'm going to do songs, and perform, and I want a career like Noel Coward's, or Peter Ustinov's. I want something like that. I can't define it." And they said, "But you can't; you're a girl, you've got marriage and children." But I'm never going to marry; I'm never going to have children.
My parents completely gave in. They were great. They supported me completely. They realised how important it was, that it was fundamental to me. I didn't even go back to school to pack. My mother had to do it, which was terribly humiliating for her, and they were horrible to her, I think. Mother Oakshott said to her, "You'll always have trouble with that girl".
It made me very, very determined. I did my interview to get in to university, and they said I had to get two more A-levels because my sociology didn't count, and Latin O-level.
I got all three in four months, and I got really good grades, as well. I wouldn't see anybody, I wouldn't go out with anybody, I just worked and worked; I would get up and have this incredibly drilled and disciplined life. It was great for me because I discovered that I had this amazing self-discipline, as long as I'm doing what I want, which is completely selfish. Before that I'd been terribly scattered.
So I did three years at Trinity, a music degree, and then I did three years at drama school, because I realised I'd been at the wrong place all along.
I'll never be a proper composer; what I can do is write quite fetching tunes in the style of - who's that guy who used to forge pictures? - Tom Keating. They're forgeries, my tunes, good forgeries, but that's all they are. I don't have any personal merit. That's why the lyrics are more important in a way; the tunes are just vehicles.
I haven't quite got Noel Coward's career, but it's not bad.
Dillie Keane appears with Adele Anderson and Issy van Randwyck in the latest Fascinating Aida show, 'It, Wit, Don't Give a Shit Girls', at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2, from 22 January to 15 February.
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