The Best of Times: It was Alec Guinness. I had to hide: Tony Warren talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
We went to Blackpool every summer because it was near and because there were a lot of shows, and if we went somewhere there weren't shows, I was murder.

As a young boy I was totally, totally stagestruck. I would hang around outside the stage door at the North Pier, asking everyone for autographs. I can remember overhearing the stage manager saying one stormy afternoon: 'One strong wind, and this whole theatre could float to the Isle of Man', because, you see the theatre was on a pier, and I thought, 'How magical if it did, I wouldn't have to go home to tea.'

The season I was eight, there was a huge, glittering variety show called On with the Show, which starred a comedian called Dave Morris.

Two comedians called Collinson and Dream were in it. I can still remember their routine. One was tall and played a sergeant major, while the other, who was a midget, played a private, and said in this high, peeping, shrill voice: 'All put your plates out for pudding.' And there was a soprano called Sylvia Cecil who sang, for some reason that I never quite understood, 'I'm in love with a girl in a crinoline gown . . .'

One afternoon I was out on the pier as usual when I heard someone calling out: 'Little boy, come here.' Tied to the railing of the pier was a young woman with her face painted bright orange and feathers in her hair. It was one of the chorus girls who had fallen out with some of the others, and they had tied her to the railings so that she would miss the grand finale and be fined.

She first of all said: 'Untie me', which I very happily did, then she grabbed me by the hand and said: 'You are coming with me.' She propelled me through the stage door, where I was questioned closely by the stage manager as to where I had found this young woman, and whether her story of having been tied up was true. And I bore it out.

While I was telling my story, I was looking all around me: it was like being taken to heaven, because this was the one place I wanted to be more than anywhere.

There were people streaming towards me with faces painted bright orange, and they smelt amazing, a kind of cross between lemon furniture polish and carbolic soap: of course I was smelling my future, it was greasepaint, and I'd never been that near to it before. I felt completely at home. All I then wanted was a shirt with an orange collar, like the men wore, smudged by the make-up.

They were all very noisy and demonstrative. They said 'darling' a lot, which very much intrigued me; they greeted one another affectionately, and fell into each other's arms. Somehow I understood that their affection had a great deal to do with just surviving in this business, and that the 'darlings' were probably to make a world warm that could be very cold indeed.

It was a moment of enormous truth for me, and I thought, whether I like it or not, I am going to be one of those people.

Consequently, the chorus adopted me for that summer. They were entertained and amused with this boy who was totally stagestruck, and constantly asking questions. They were tolerant and they were nice . . . like always recognises like.

I went back the following summer, expecting in my navety that there would be exactly the same chorus girls - I had lived for it. And of course they were all different girls, and not long after that, rather snobbishly, I shifted my allegiance to the straight theatre.

I began to hang around outside the Opera House stage door in Manchester. On one occasion the production was Twelfth Night, which starred Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Robert Eddison, and was directed by Alec Guinness.

One night the two girls who had played Olivia's ladies-in-waiting came out of the stage door. They had just left theatre school, and were thrilled to be asked for their autographs; in fact they were so thrilled they took me to tea at Duncan and Foster's tearooms.

I asked if I could possibly go backstage, and they said: 'Yes, of course, nothing could be easier.' So they took me into their dressing room and, just as we heard the callboy call the half, there was a knock on the door and Alec Guinness's voice said: 'May I come in?'

They hid me under the dressing table, so I only saw Alec Guinness's shoes, but I heard him give them a piece of direction, and when that was over, they hurried me out, relieved not to have been found out. Fortunately, they pushed me out through the pass door into the theatre, so I was able to see the show for nothing.

At 12 years old, I was at the local grammar school in Eccles. I decided I didn't like what they were teaching me, so I resolved to educate myself. And instead of going to school, I went to the library, where I read a thousand plays, and every theatrical autobiography I could lay my hands on. For a year I forged notes, and rang the school secretary, doing an imitation of my mother's voice. To me, the central reference library in St Peter's Square was the most enchanting building in the world.

What is more, in the bowels of the building there was a theatre, the Library Theatre it was called, and I haunted that theatre like the stage-door cat.

Mrs Taylor was the cloakroom woman who sat behind a long counter; on either side of her were two doors that led backstage. And I used to stand and talk to Mrs Taylor by the hour, and watch all the people coming and going - people like Diane Cilento and Tony Britton.

No one in the library questioned me, that's the extraordinary thing, no one ever asked why I wasn't at school. I even wore school uniform, a green blazer with a golden yellow crest - after that I couldn't bear green and yellow for 40 years. Eventually, my father became deadly curious about my school activities, and he rang the headmaster and asked, 'Just what is going on?'

The school thought about expelling me, but they didn't. But I had to take this awful form to every single class, and each master had to sign it to prove I'd been present, and, not only that, they had to grade the amount of attention I had paid.

But I was very glad I went back, because that year we had an English teacher called Miss Baker. Miss Baker rode to school on a motorbike and always wore the same dress for school parties - it was dark orange with seagulls appliqued across the bosom. She was a very good teacher, and everything I learnt about English structure in that year has stood me in good stead.

I still go to Blackpool. I go to recharge my batteries. And I love to sit in Harry Ramsden's fish and chip shop on the front, and look through the window, because through the window I have a perfect view of the North Pier and the theatre, and I know I'm where I belong.

Tony Warren created 'Coronation Street' in 1960, and wrote all the early episodes. 'Foot of the Rainbow' is his second novel, published by Century.

(Photograph omitted)

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