Having recently celebrated a milestone birthday – fifty years since graduating from drama school – I can’t help reflecting that according to my reckoning, I’m on my fifth major re-invention of myself. Of course, as a jobbing actor, there were also a selection of ‘inbetween-jobs’ jobs – shop assistant in the lingerie department of Barker’s High Street Ken, waitress at the Toasted Cushion on Fleet Street, painter and decorator, office temp, wedding cake maker, knitter, teacher, researcher and medical secretary – but these brief interludes aside – everything I have done in my working life has been related to, and connected with my childhood ambition – to be an actor!
Re-inventing yourself from time to time leads to a fulfilling and continuing working life. It’s easy for actors and voice actors – and I guess for artists of all kinds – to get stuck in a rut and just repeat and rehash whatever has brought you success, to play safe and to concentrate on whatever brings in the pennies. But experimenting in new areas of work, changing your perspective or finding new outlets for your abilities, is something I have found to be rewarding emotionally and professionally and also to be lucrative. You change – your skills develop – and if you have the ability to be flexible, to accept and build, to continue developing new threads and honing your craft, you realise that all of the skills you have picked up along the way help you to stay relevant and employable – even in a young industry such as audiobooks.
My first visit to the theatre was a Christmas treat in 1954. The play was ‘Toad Of Toad Hall’ (designed by Voytek I know now) at the old Nottingham Playhouse in Goldsmith Street – with Michael Hordern playing Toad. It was magical. I left the theatre on a cloud and announced to my astonished parents ‘that is what I am going to do when I grow up!’, and really, I never wavered from that ambition – and I still haven’t. Every job I have ever had of any meaning has been connected to that one desire. To be an actor, to interpret language and emotion, to bring words to life.
It wasn’t an easy journey to begin with. My father was of the impression that being an ‘actress’ was akin to walking the streets! He insisted that I went to secretarial college before drama school – and though I hated every moment of it, the touch typing has come in very handy! Fortunately, I won a scholarship to Guildhall, and got a grant as well, so with the financial burden out of the way, and the unwavering support of my half-sister and my mother, he was eventually persuaded that I was actually going to drama school, not into some den of iniquity! So – at the age of eighteen I headed for London and the start of the greatest adventure of my life.
At about the same time, my oldest friend, whom I first met at primary school at the age of seven was also embarking on a career in the theatre. She had a similar passion and though our journeys were different, our careers ran a parallel path – these paths crossing surprisingly often during a friendship spanning more than sixty years. We did drama classes together as children, were in numerous plays together, did public speaking and poetry exams. We both went to a summer school at Rose Bruford college when we were fourteen – and we were both bitten by the acting bug. I went to college, she joined the local repertory theatre as an student acting ASM, then after I graduated from Guildhall, we both ended up in the same repertory company at Nottingham Playhouse for several seasons. When she was pregnant, I stepped into her role in Stuart Burge’s production of ‘Sons and Lovers’ for the BBC, when I was pregnant, she was my maternity cover at Central television – and when I returned from maternity leave, she and I worked together at Central for several years. We both had young families by this time, so when Central stopped in vision live continuity, our options were a little limited – going back to treading the boards wasn’t really viable for either of us, but we both found a way to use our skills in different ways and we stayed in touch, meeting when we could. I went into television production, she retrained as a drama teacher (some years later, I directed a student production at the school where she was head of drama). Latterly she travelled the world as a LAMDA examiner – I got into audiobooks and voiceover – and so it continues.
We have re-invented ourselves yet again. Both returning to our roots!
The day after my birthday – we went to our monthly ‘Speakeasy’ voice and accent class at our local theatre. We are years older than the vast majority of participants, two silver haired women with a few creaking joints – both of us once again jobbing actors – quoting passages from Shakespeare to each other (from memory I may add) loving what we do, supporting each other and enjoying ourselves while continuing to explore and discover. My pal Evadne Fisher and I, developing our skills, honing and practising our craft – and acknowledging that re-inventing yourself every now and then is a really good idea – and that we are both very lucky!