Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Book Review • FROM FRANGÇON-DAVIES TO FLEETWOOD • 2004

Still from a YouTube video

Still of Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies from a YouTube video © Sarah Vernon

At the Theatre Book Prize presentation in May, the display of books entered for the prize was a very useful way of finding out about books published in 2003, ones which rarely pop up in your local book store that you might otherwise never know about. Not on the shortlist but of particular interest, perhaps, to theatre professionals, were a number of biographies and autobiographies, which came from smaller publishing houses.

Once a Dancer by Patrick McIntyre (Memoir Club)

Patrick McIntyre was born in Winnipeg, ‘Gateway to the Canadian Prairies’, and got hooked on ballet when his mother took him to a dance class after a teacher suggested he should “do something connected with the arts”. At eight years old he was enthralled and decided there and then that this was what he wanted to be. Well, lots of us get the theatre bug when very young, but I’m amazed at boys’ ballet class existing in deepest Canada in 1944. In no time, schoolboy Patrick was appearing in ballets and musicals, undaunted by the fact that Ninette de Valois said he’d grow too tall, and playing in summer stock in Vancouver. By the time he was 21 he had acquired a wife and two children and moved from being a soloist with Winnipeg Ballet to joining the prestigious American Ballet Theatre on tour in Hollywood.

ABT brought Paddy McIntyre to Europe and then he decided to come to England and go commercial. A telephone call to fellow Canadian Paddy Stone got him into a West End musical; he was a choreographer with Irving Davies, and a succession of jobs in musicals, television and films followed, before he moved increasingly into direction and management. This included a stint of thirteen years as House Manager at the Old Vic. Even in so-called ‘retirement’, he is an assessor for the Arts Council and for Trinity College London and a specialist inspector for OFSTED so he has continued an active engagement in the world of theatre and dance.

Paddy recounts all this in a relaxed and friendly way. I wish he had told us much more detail about the work, about the conditions of touring, and about the differences when you move to the other side of the footlights. It is a book he wrote at the insistence of friends and in some ways it’s a book for friends to read — perhaps he took it for granted that they already knew all that stuff. What he has written pays as much attention to his personal as his professional life. It is a short book that makes no great claims to literary style but it is an engaging read that exactly expresses Paddy’s own personality.

Forever Juliet: the Life and Letters of Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies 1891-1992 by Martial Rose (Larks Press)

This book came about when the author, hearing that the nieces of the famous actress had a collection of her letters, expressed an interest in seeing them and in consequence was asked if he might be interested in writing a biography. It is constructed largely from that correspondence and the reminiscences of some of her surviving friends. Martial Rose has taught English and Drama and had seen Ffangcon-Davies perform more than 60 years ago but he does not come to the material from a professional background nor does he claim this as a definitive account.

I wish he had pursued his research more deeply and widely to present a more rounded picture of the theatre world in which the actress spent her career. However, this book gives us a considerable amount of information about her private life and relationships, and her interaction with professional colleagues such as Sir John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Irene Worth and many other well known names in a career that began as a singing fairy in Beerbohm Tree’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, included Barry Jackson’s Birmingham Rep and the bestowing of a CBE in 1991.

In Good Company: Sixty Years with the Royal Ballet by Leslie Edwards (Dance Books)

Leslie Edwards first appeared on stage in 1933 at Covent Garden at a gala and gave his last performance at the Royal Opera House in 1993. As a little boy he was already caught up in performing with a toy theatre and dancing classes, and as a teenager he skipped sports to go to a tap-dancing class in Waterloo. Soon he was being auditioned by Marie Rambert and working with her company and Ninette de Valois’ Vic-Wells Ballet, the beginning of a long association with what eventually became the Royal Ballet.

Dancer, Ballet Master to the Royal Opera, teacher at the Royal Ballet School, and leader of the Royal Ballet’s Choreographic Group, he has been at the heart of British ballet from its earliest days, knowing its many personalities and well versed in its repertoire. This book offers a personal story and an insider’s view of life with the Royal Ballet. Much-loved by his colleagues and seemingly always seeing the best in people, he speaks well of almost everyone, muted in his criticism, even to those who treated him less than kindly.

This is not a book for relishing the private scandals and company rows that inevitably occur in sixty years of life in theatre but it is a record that encompasses the growth of British ballet, including the company’s dramatic escape from Europe as the German Army advanced in 1940, their many successful tours, the creation of their repertoire and his close friendship with Margot Fonteyn. Glimpses of a sharp and critical wit are sometimes evident but one often wishes he were more acerbic. It is clear that Edwards himself was ‘good company’ and perhaps more so than the colleagues in whom he took such great delight.

A Lass Unparalleled: a Portrait of Susan Fleetwood by Keith Connelly (Woodfield)

Susan Fleetwood could be a splendid actress and was (usually) a warm and much liked person. This uncritical book, based mainly on press cuttings and conversations with Fleetwood’s friends and colleagues, unashamedly describes itself as a tribute. It offers a record of her work that sometimes suffers from the lack of direct personal knowledge but is a fond reminder of her contribution to our theatre, especially through her work with the Liverpool Everyman, the RSC and the National Theatre, and captures a personality that is sorely missed by those who loved her.

Hearing the Light by Francis Reid (Entertainment Technology Press)

Francis Reid is one of our leading experts on stage lighting with an impressive career as lighting designer and teacher. He has already shared his expertise through his guides to lighting practice but here he tells his own life story which encompasses not only the life of the theatre electrician and lighting designer but a period running the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. This is theatre life and history that gives a different perspective from that of most showbusiness autobiographies and marks a new departure for an imprint that has previously concentrated on strictly technical publishing.

Tom Howard © 2004

Originally published n R&V 31-07-04

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