NOTHING became Valery Hovenden like her gusto. It seemed wholly altruistic. Other actress-directors might rent rooms and crypts, attics and basements, in which to put on plays starring themselves: in the 1950s it was easily done, as long as you called it a theatre club.
Her concern as a former tutor at RADA was for her ex-pupils. How could they find anything worthwhile to act without professional experience, and how could they get professional experience? They might hope that the leading theatrical producer of the day, Hugh (Binkie) Beaumont of HM Tennent, would put them under contract as understudies in one of the dozen or so shows he had running in the West End or the provinces. Or a vacancy might crop up at the Bristol Old Vic or the Liverpool or Birmingham Reps for a beginner; and of course there was the chance of crowd work at the film studios (neither television nor the subsidised theatre had yet got properly started).
To Valery Hovenden all these notions were trash. What young people out of drama school needed was full-blooded drama, something to stretch their talents straightaway. Testing their technique at all levels and giving them something to bite on before (as was to happen to so many), they settled for cosy, everyday roles in everyday serials on television and queued up to do voices over.
The Hovenden prescription was the classics pure and seldom simple: Moliere, Yeats, Byron, Masefield, Browning, Chapman, Aphra Behn, the Duke of Buckingham, Nicholas Rowe, even David Garrick (in honour of her club's new premises in Garrick Yard off St Martin's Lane).
It could hardly be more central, just round the corner and well out of sight of the famous actors' club where Sir Donald Wolfit still loomed and growled as if he had inherited the mantle of Sir Henry Irving, and well out of mind of most playgoers for whom the Hovenden style of not paying her actors but demanding from them two shillings and sixpence a year for the privilege of acting before an audience that paid seven shillings and sixpence a year to drop in whenever they fancied for play readings, rehearsals, first nights or just refreshments and a chat, seemed just a bit too cosy.
But it gave young players and their necessarily small audiences something neither could find elsewhere. Not that Hovenden denied herself the chance to act as well as direct. In a crisis she was everyone's understudy.
Besides, she had acted in the 1920s when she horrified her upper-middle-class family by expressing professional ambitions. In humble capacities she had worked for the Cassons, for Nigel Playfair and Peter Godfrey until one mad day during a round of the agencies she ran into Kay Hammond and Margaret Rawlings, also seeking work; and the three of them swept off on a rumour to Tilbury, there to appear in an early British talkie about the sinking of the Titanic, EA Dupont's The Atlantic (1929).
The work for extras was so exciting, arduous, wet but exhilarating that only when it was over did Valery Hovenden remember that she had forgotten to tell her husband where she had been. John Henry Woulfe Flanagan, an Irish engineer, promptly called a halt to all her acting, though 20 years later he fell in gracefully with her West End mission for beginners for whom under the name of Dionysius McDuffy he would translate the Greek classics.
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