John, I see you were born in London in 1932 and attended Watford Grammar School. Given that you started working for the BBC in 1944 you must have planned to be an actor from a very early age. Was that always your ambition? Did you have early training?
Three nos. I had no plan to be an actor, no ambition, and no training. When I went to Kings Langley’s Rudolph Steiner school (locally known as the “do as you like” school), at the age of ten, I was cast in the annual school play, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed outdoors in the garden. But that was it, and I hated doing it, it seemed kind of gay; I was not turned on to acting, and had no thoughts along those lines.
Your first show on BBC radio was The Will Hay Programme in 1944 where you acted as D’Arcy Minor, the swot of St. Michael’s. How did that come about? And was it fun working with Will Hay?
My family lived in Chipperfield, Herts, in those days, and I was coming home on the bus after school one day in August, when a man came up to me who I recognized, for he lived down the road. His name was Alick Hayes, and he asked me if I was a good reader. I told him yes, and he said could I come over later, meet his wife Zillah, have a cup of tea, and read him something out of the Evening Standard, so after supper I did. He tested me for fluency, to see if I could read without stumbling, and he was pleased that I could. He then explained that he was a BBC producer, and was about to start a new BBC radio comedy series, but the young actor he was going to use had just got sick, and he had an emergency, and maybe I could help out.
The show was The Will Hay Programme (The Diary of a Schoolmaster) and the part was that of a very clever young swot who said very long multi-syllabic words instead of shorter ones whenever he answered the schoolmaster’s questions. Mr Hayes wanted me to play it, just the first show, and he said it would save him from having to find another actor quickly from an acting academy. It was going out live in front of an audience from the Paris Cinema, a basement BBC studio off Piccadilly Circus, in just three days’ time.
I raced home, told my parents, said please let me do it, it sounds like fun, and it pays money. So my mother took me up to London next day, and that is where I met Will Hay and the rest of the cast – one schoolmaster and three students, so-called. Smart was the cheeky one (played by the very professional actor Charles Hawtrey), Beckett the dumb one (Billy Nicholls, on his day off from the RAF), and D’Arcy Minor, the studious swot (me). The joke was that I was the only real schoolboy (eleven years old). Will Hay was repeating the same schoolmaster act he had done in several of his films (Good Morning Boys, 1937, etc). It will be remembered that the comedy came out of the fact that he was a hopeless teacher, and the students took over.
That first day I remember well. After we finished reading the show, Mr. Hayes and Mr. Hay sat back smiling with a satisfied air. They looked around, and asked, “Well, what do you think?” Awkward silence. I finally spoke up, and said helpfully “Don’t you think Beckett should have more to say?” I felt sorry for him. I think his only line was “Excuse me, sir” which he repeated several times before being asked what he wanted, and with a pained voice replied that he needed to go to the bathroom.
Mr. Hayes told me later that I almost lost the job right there. Hay took Hayes aside, and said “Are we going to have trouble with this kid?” Alick smoothed it over, and then there was a discussion about the schoolmaster’s name, something that could be turned into a disrespectful nickname. Dr. Muffin was agreed on, so the boys could call him “old crumpet” behind his back.
I can’t say that I remember Will Hay as being fun to work with; he hardly ever spoke in my direction. It seems he was only there on the show itself, then for me he became a real person. My funny moments were quite unintentional. One time my line was “I’m afraid you’ve been misled, sir,” but I said in rehearsal “I’m afraid you’ve been mizzled, sir.” Since I wanted to get it right and was not corrected, I said it live on the air evoking a huge laugh which he milked with his famous double take. It went on and on. He then turned to Smart and began a game of conkers. But he was awesome, and I absorbed forever his sense of timing. In America, for that alone, he would be compared to Jack Benny.
He had a life outside showbusiness too, being famous for his other pursuits. He was a serious amateur astronomer (he had his own observatory in his garden at Hendon, and is said to have discovered a white spot on the planet Saturn.) He spoke several languages including Latin and Afrikaans, which made him what’s called a polyglot, and was a keen aeroplane pilot, giving Amy Johnson her first lessons. He had a strange skill he’d show to groups of friends. He’d write strange meaningless squiggles on a blackboard very fast, then turn it upside down to triumphantly reveal a normally written sentence in English, and of course we’d applaud him.
As airtime approached, I went up on to Lower Regent Street to watch the cars go by, with an empty, sinking feeling in my stomach. I wondered how people could possibly be driving their cars oblivious to the fact that I was about to be facing, live, hundreds of thousands of His Majesty’s forces fighting the war in Europe, a few million people at home with their radios on, and an impatient audience sitting in front waiting to laugh! It was August 15, 1944.
I met Glenn Miller that first show, he was just packing up his band who’d been broadcasting before us, and I got his autograph. He was lost over the Channel some time later, flying to Paris. Stanley Black was our bandleader, and he taught me to play In The Mood by ear. I still do it!
I see the show was done on the stage too, and also performed in Windsor before the Royal Family in May 1945. How did that come about? Were the princesses there? Take us there.
Well, they kept me on, and the show ran for about four months, and I later came to understand that eventually Will Hay had problems with the BBC over scripts, and decided to end the series.
He was asked to headline the show Salute to Variety at the Victoria Palace after Christmas of 1944, and so an act, The Last Day of Term was put together, and we performed into March. This was of course during the V1 and V2 scares over London, with the Luftwaffe doing their best to put us all out of business.
I had trouble with the new visual medium. I knew I was good at reading lines, and making them sound reasonably believable, but learning lines was something else. I found that only by going over the page hiding my speeches with the back of an envelope could I memorize them by picturing the page in my mind. And I would get memory blocks in some places. One time, I “went up” on a particular cue. I knew it was my turn to speak, and was hanged if I could remember the line. Hay turned to me and sniffed “D’Arcy, did you say something?” I blurted some false starts, and he said “Yes?” and again “Yes?” Then he looked straight out at the audience and said “I think you’ve forgotten it!” I was so embarrassed. I stuck it on my desktop for the rest of the run.
It was in April that we were asked to be part of a special variety performance for the Life Guards at their barracks in Windsor. This wasn’t a Command Performance, but rumours spread that there was a possibility the Royal Family might attend. The date was for May 4th, and peace talks were rife. Hitler was on the run, and at 8 o’clock curtain time, we were ready, but told to hold the curtain. Maybe they were too busy, and wouldn’t come. Then as the midnight hour struck, there was considerable activity in the hall, and suddenly there they were, all of them. The Royal Family!
Some of Britain’s greatest kings of comedy performed; I remember especially Tommy Trinder, Ted Ray, Max Miller, Tommy Handley (he signed my book with “You say longer words than I do, but I think I beat you for speed!”), Arthur Askey, Sid Field and Stainless Stephen, who’d been on the bill with us. Afterwards, an informal party was held in a large private room. It was full of important politicians, be-medalled military high-ups, chandeliers, military chamber music, sandwiches and scones. And there were the two princesses, wearing utility dresses of course, in line for us to shake their hand and shyly chat. I told my mother she had to sit in the corridor outside because she wasn’t allowed in. (Untrue, and shame on me!)
After a while I was summoned to a corner where the King and Queen wanted to talk to me. The Queen wanted to know how I could possibly remember all the long words I had to speak. I told her it wasn’t easy, but I had rehearsed them a lot. I forget what the King said to me, but I do know he didn’t stutter!
That was a glittering head-spinning evening, and proved to be the high point of my entire acting career! It was of course a celebration in advance of VE day, which was declared exactly four days later.
Did this show lead you to being selected as Just William?
Indeed it did. Little did I know that I would inhabit William’s being for the next three years, and that he gave shape to my philosophy for the rest of my life, perhaps with a push from Will Hay. Here’s what happened:
After all the excitement calmed down, Alick Hayes told me that his next project was going to be a radio series about William Brown, to be called “Just William”. Was I familiar with the stories? he asked, and I had to confess that I was not, my reading being restricted to The Wizard where I could follow the adventures of my 3-minute mile fictional hero in The Truth About Wilson who had the same birthday as me (November 1st, All Saint’s Day). He felt that I was just right to play William, and told my mother, who happily went up and down the street to tell the neighbours. I hated that kind of thing from her. There was nothing certain at that point, but the day did come when it was set to go.
Gordon McLeod was to play my father, and Betty Bowden my mother. My sister was Rosamund Barnes, my brother Harry Locke, Charles Hawtrey was cast as Hubert Lane, and then of course Ginger, played by Tony Stockman, and Violet Elizabeth Bott, played by Olive Kirby.
Alick was the instigator, creator, and main writer for the show, and so was in complete charge. He was also the director (we called them producers in those days), and I remember his one and only direction he ever gave me. “Get the thought right, and it will come out right.” To this day, I think that is the best single advice any actor could get.
We know that there were two series, the first from 30 October 1945 to 25 June 1946 and the second from 24 September 1946 to 18 March 1947. Did you meet Richmal? She must have turned up when the show aired.
We used to broadcast the show from the BBC studios in Maida Vale, but not before an audience. I do remember Richmal Crompton coming in one day and meeting her. She was very nice, and we chatted a bit. I remember asking her how it was that William’s socks hung around his ankles in the illustrations, and she explained that Mrs. Brown, a keen knitter, had never learned how to turn the heal. She sent me a signed leather-bound book of More William with my name engraved on the cover, and apologized that she couldn’t find a copy of Just William. I did get to collect and read all of them.
Richmal did not usually show up on production day, preferring to stay in the background. But I’d like to add that I wish I had been able to have a discussion about William’s character, to hear her explain what drove him. All I ever got from Alick, was “stick out your bottom lip, that’s William.” There was little talk in those days of character exploration for actors, you were just expected to get on with it, and not talk shop.
We understand that Richmal did not always agree with Alick – for example that she did not like the Egbert Huggins character. Were you aware of any such problems?
No, I was never aware of anything that went on behind the scenes. Huggins was an invention of Alick’s, I think, because Charles Hawtrey left the show.
Of course, a signature opening was all important. Alick Hayes, being a canny businessman, must have based some of his decisions on the fact that there was a famous radio series in America called Henry Aldrich, which began in 1939, and was still running. The teen-aged hero starred Ezra Stone, then 21. That show began with his mother calling “Henreeeeee?” in a split octave, and him answering “Coming mother” as a cadence. Well, wouldn’t you know, our show began with Mrs. Brown calling “Williaaaaaam?” and my answering “Coming mother” in exactly the same way. Perhaps Alick was hoping to catch the attention of the thousands of U.S. military still stationed on our shores. The music was written by Leighton Lucas, and he very kindly wrote the introduction out for me as a memento, and I still have it.
I see they went out in the early evening, a time presumably designed for adults as well as children. Did they go out live, or were they recorded? Did you have rehearsals? Are there any recordings still around to your knowledge? Could you describe a typical recording day?
It started with a day off from school, by this time Watford Grammar. Tuesdays. Mr MacMillan arrived early in a car to pick up mother and me to take us to Maida Vale for 10 a.m. Then an immediate break because there was no script. What they had of it needed work. We kids would break to the rec room, and play ping-pong until called a couple of hours later. I got rather good at table tennis. Rehearsals would begin, with much hurried editing and new writing. That’s where I learned to always use a pencil, never ink. New lines would be written with scrawled arrows pointing to transposed and sliced up speeches, sometimes leading to the back of the page.
By the second series, Olive Kirby was out, and Violet Elizabeth was now played by a girl called Jacqueline Boyer, about my age and a trained acrobatic dancer, whose father was very rich and a director of Chelsea Football Club. Her mother was a fashionably dressed, sophisticated, and quite sexy lady with French/Swiss connections by the name of Leila Grafton. She claimed to have led her Grafton Girls, a Tiller Girls knock-off I guess, at the Palladium. My mother, in utter contrast, was a down-to-earth Danish farmer’s daughter from Jutland, with an attitude.
She and mother hit it off at first, for their one passion was poker. They’d play in great earnest in a corner of the studio for real money. On one occasion, a recording take had to be stopped because of the noise from the clink of coins. Alick, angry but with great patience, came out from the control room, and wordlessly scooped up the entire pot from the table and put it in his pocket. Say no more! In another corner would be Betty Bowden, busy sewing together another pair of knickers from parachute silk. Between scenes, I’d usually be playing chess with Jackie, who’d taught me the rudiments of the game, or be playing endlessly In The Mood on the studio piano, to other people’s annoyance I’m sure.
Talk about the need to be adept at reading. I remember in the middle of one show, live, Alick came out of the control room, put his left arm around my shoulder, and wrote a new speech on the bottom of the page while I emoted from the top. He patted my shoulder for encouragement, and went back into the booth. I had no idea what it was, and prayed that when I got to it, I’d be able to make it out.
Do any recordings exist to this day? I believe no! The short-sighted BBC was notorious for destroying the history of their old shows, usually just to save the silver from film, or the aluminium in the 15″ recording disks to help the war effort. But they were the keepers of our legacy! I think they finally learned though, and with the advent of DVDs, they now make good money from it. Alick gave me some out-takes, which I still have, somewhere.
We know that the shows were a huge success. You must have got masses of fan mail. How did you deal with it?
They went out on the BBC Light Programme. I guess we had what today would be called a family sitcom, perhaps a first for England. And yes, I got masses of fan mail. So much, in fact, that my mother arranged for me to advertise Hercules Bicycles in return for a hundred pounds, my picture on a Hercules, and their taking on the task of organizing and posting my fan mail. And running my fan club.
You must have been still at school at this time. What was the reaction of your classmates?
During the radio show, I was still at Watford Grammar. I took off every Tuesday, as I said. I was always very good at schoolwork, and usually came third in class. But missing a day a week, my work began to suffer. I’ll not forget when end of term came, and I had to miss a day of exams. It was the chemistry test and I got to see the questions. And guess what, I came in 17th! Just goes to show, doesn’t it, school is a serious business.
The other kids were either admiring or envious, and were not always nice. Once I got into a fist-fight with a particularly nasty boy. It was then I realized that becoming a celebrity removes one from regular society, and distorts normal relationships. The day came when I was taken out, and thenceforth it was, uggh, Private Tuition.
How did you get on with your fellow actors? You must have had a lot of fun. What were your hobbies?
I don’t recollect “fun” being a part of my life at that time. And for some reason there was no socializing between us, no home visits, no parties that I remember. I do recollect work and boredom, and not getting enough respect as a person who was required to do adult things. My mother always hung close, and I didn’t want that, but had to put up with it. Part of it was that I still suffered from enuresis, a holdover from my early wartime days as an evacuee. I was always very polite, gave up my seat to adults, and so on.
I missed sports and had no close male companions. I used to go out and practice golf by myself, and my special hobby which was billiards at the nearest YMCA (in – off, middle pocket, up and back to baulk, over and over and over). I actually got to meet Joe Davis the world’s No. 1 snooker champion, when I was guest star on Ronnie Waldman’s Monday Night at Eight, one of my two wishes. The other was to talk to a captain in the cockpit of a passenger plane on the air live, while he was in the air, a tricky technical achievement in those days! I played in the Junior billiards championships at Leicester Square Hall, and later, playing tennis when I was 17, got to play at the Wimbledon Juniors tournament in 1949 and 1950.
The show made it to TV, we know. Were you the first William on TV?
Yes. It was broadcast live over Christmas 1946 from the Granville Theatre, Walham Green, Fulham. (Why the Granville? The theatre was owned by Jack Boyer – which answered the question as to why we didn’t play the West End). In those days, TV plays had not yet come into their own. Theatre plays only tended to be what was shown on TV, not even edited for the medium. The day came when the BBC came to install their cameras in front and microphones in the window frames and doorways on the set, and so our play went out live.
Given the shows were on radio, were you recognised in public?
No, you could walk down the street unrecognized. And because the BBC paid so poorly (I got four guineas a show, one line or title role, didn’t matter), it became inevitable that live theatrical versions would get put together. It wasn’t long before the reason behind the presence of Jack Boyer, and the casting of his daughter Jackie as Violet Elizabeth, became clear. Boyer was the money man, and financed a tour of the play which went out on the huge Moss Empire circuit.
The big enticement for audiences was that they could actually come and see their favourite stars IN PERSON! (or so shouted the posters). And you could get paid a decent wage. On stage, I got a hundred pounds a week!
The stage tour took place during 1946 and 1947. Can you tell us more about the places you visited? Where did you stay, and what happened to your schoolwork?
We opened in Birmingham and played all over England and Scotland, each city for one week, breaking house records wherever we went. These records were ours because the gallery was always filled to overflowing. I remember playing the King’s Theatre, Southsea. The previous record holder was Ivor Novello, and down came his picture in the lobby, and up went mine!
My mother accompanied me everywhere, and we stayed at posh hotels. Not for us theatrical “digs”, that was more for supporting cast members. As part of the job, a show’s star has to deal with the press, do interviews in the dressing-room, or hotel lobby or bar, and help promote the show. I often had to visit hospitals and schools and boys’ clubs, open a fête, and occasionally I’d get to tour a factory. I remember being shown over the Rolls Royce aero-engine plant in Derby, and another time watch how fine china was made when touring the Potteries. Sometimes it meant being photographed with other stars for publicity. Sir Harry Lauder, when playing Glasgow, comes to mind, with a picture of us playing a game of snooker. Not forgetting the fact that there were eight shows a week, including two matinees. And Sunday was moving day, to pack up and travel by train to the next date, often through Crewe. Yes, it was a lot of work.
Schooling was not provided then, no space, although I think there are now measures to ensure that child actors continue their education while working on the road. For me, when working from home, it was always catch-up time, with masses of private tuition. My mother always told me that if I wasn’t going to make it as an actor, she hoped I’d become important as a businessman, and therefore my education was of prime importance. She bought a series of small wooden reproductions of the shields representing all of the colleges of Oxbridge universities, and hung them around the dining-room for decoration, and next to my door she put a framed copy of Rudyard Kipling’s intimidating poem If. I’m not surprised I took off for places unknown when I got older!
You thus became the first stage William. We believe Alick Hayes wrote it. Can you tell us something about the play?
It began with a curtain raiser. “Magini, Master of Magic” is dazzling the audience with his tricks. A big black box is brought on, and he needs assistance from someone in the audience to be the disappearing “victim” into his box. Of course, it’s William, sitting there with his parents, who’s called up on the stage to help. Without meaning to, he somehow gets it wrong, and next thing Magini has disappeared, and yells for rescue from inside the box, to be revealed hanging upsidedown. The curtain has to be hurriedly lowered.
Then the show proper starts, set in the Brown’s living room. It’s a “whodunit” with a wedding party, stolen jewellery, robbers, detectives, a coal cellar, and William emerging at the end, scruffy, and as always, jus’ tryin’ to help. Alick wrote and directed it.
And presumably touring meant you met a lot more fans.
Yes, at the stage door! After each show there would be a crowd of mostly grubby kids, pushing and shoving and waving scraps of paper for autographs, which my mother would (quite rightly) insist I sign. One day I secretly got a rubber stamp made, and took their pieces of paper and went back to my dressing room, and rapidly stamped my signature. My mother caught me at it, and was quite angry. She made me stop the practice.
It sounds to me that you had quite the stage mother.
You bet! And she took care of my interests all right, just as Jackie’s mother took care of hers and of Jack Boyer, her producer husband. While Jackie and I never had any personal disputes, quite the opposite in fact, that wasn’t true of our mothers, and sometimes it would break out into open war. A story in itself! I shall always remember the time, with a shudder, when the printed theatre programmes were delivered for the opening night. I think it was when arriving to play Liverpool’s Empire Theatre. Mother checked them out, and there was Jackie’s picture featured on the front instead of mine! The impression was that she was the star of the show. Mother immediately informed management that I would not be performing again until the entire programme was reprinted and my picture restored. There was much yelling and screaming, but it was done by curtain time, just. Then a couple of dates later, we found that the star’s number one dressing room was assigned to Jackie, and I got the number two. Similar corrective action. But what was funny was that the week after that, the number one dressing room was a tiny hole in the wall next to the backstage lavatory, and the large number two was beautifully decorated, and obviously intended for the star. Mother told me to grin and bear it, and after that things went along more smoothly.
Did you have an understudy?
That’s an interesting question. The answer is no, I did not. Management felt my personal appearance is what they (them, and the audience) paid for, and I’d just better never be off sick. And I do believe that the tradition of “the show must go on” is well founded.
So I was never “off”, never! Except for this once. It was at the Granville, which wound up the tour. I had a severe case of either whooping cough or mumps, I forget which. I’d done the Saturday matinee, laid down, and feeling extremely sick, felt I could not get through the second show, even though I was going to try. The half-hour was called by the stage manager, Doreen Buckley. She looked in on my dressing room, and said I looked awful, and I groaned “I don’t know if I can finish the show”, and she said “Quick, give me your clothes, I’ll put them on, and you go home, I think I know the part.” She was on the book as part of her job, in the prompt corner. I said sure, go ahead.
Thereupon, she stripped and so did I. I had to loan her my clothes, including the clean Fauntleroy costume under which I wore the coal-blackened costume. We were the same size fortunately, they fit, so I put on my own clothes, wished her well, and staggered off home to bed, with two days to recover. She went on, and surprised everybody, I heard, with an excellent performance. Good thing it wasn’t the Christmas show broadcast by the BBC!
Then on to films?
After the show closed at the Granville, it was time to move on. Type-casting was, and is, a big fear to a career, and I wanted to try new things. I played Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island at the St James’s that year, but I wanted to grow as an actor, especially into films. Due to my having played the lead as father and son in a BBC radio four-part miniseries of F. Anstey’s Vice Versa, the obvious chance came to audition for Peter Ustinov’s movie version. I went to Denham to be screen tested with Petula Clark, and was overjoyed when I landed the role. And it came with a seven year Rank contract! The dawn of something completely different! So I was all prepared for stardom on the Silver Screen, a change of direction, and rarin’ to go.
I may never have forgiven those responsible for what happened next. My agent, H. Saxon Snell, informed my mother that he hadn’t noticed what’s called an “option” clause in my Just William contract. Boyer picked it up, and caused me to do another year’s tour of Just William, thinking people would pay more money to see it a second time. Same cities and a few new ones. I was legally bound.
My role in Vice Versa went to an unknown youth, fresh out of the Italia Conti Theatre Academy. His name was, er…er…let me think, er…..umm…..Anthony Newley. Of course he never looked back. But I did, and I was hopping mad! But off we went, houses were not good, I got exhausted and fed up, and finally it was over.
You would have been nearly 15 by now – was this the reason you did not continue playing the 11 year old boy, and get to appear in the William film?
I do know that with Alick’s sense of entitlement, he wanted to be the one to make the movie, which was obviously the next step. But Richmal wasn’t having any, she was the rights holder after all, and she went off and made a deal with United Artists and Val Guest. They co-wrote the screenplay for “Just William’s Luck”, released December 17, 1947, directed by Guest. They abandoned our cast and the new William was William Graham.
Poor old Alick. He got sent off to Manchester by the BBC. Years later, when I was married to Lynn Redgrave, we went to the Earl’s Court Sportsman’s show, and there, to my amazement, was Alick, demonstrating fly fishing up on a platform. We went up to him, and he was hugely delighted to see us. Sometime later, we were touring a play up in Manchester, and heard that his beloved wife Zillah had died. At the church service, I watched him as he insisted that her coffin be loaded into his station-wagon, so that he could drive her around their favourite places for one last look. After that I lost track of him, but I now see he continued into old age, as a character actor.
As for my continuing to play William, I had to stop anyway, because my voice broke! I had become a teenager, with all that that entails, and no steady work in sight.
Did you meet any of these other Williams? Did you see the most recent TV series that the BBC put out in 2011?
He certainly lives on, doesn’t he, but no, I’m afraid I never met any of them or saw any of them. Remember, I left England in 1950 for good, (except for a five year period when I was first married to Lynn and returned to live in London.) My only contact with someone connected to William was here in Hollywood when I was introduced to Martin Jarvis, who has narrated many of the William stories. Hey, I thought, I could have done that! Martin was startled to meet me, and very, very nice, like he knew that too!
You seemed to have continued as a juvenile actor in radio plays such as Worzel Gummidge and Vice Versa as well as Treasure Island on the stage. You also, unlike many other child actors (and indeed other Williams) have had a successful acting career as an adult. Did you find the transition to adult acting difficult?
In radio, fitted in with my William duties, I had become the unofficial resident juvenile at the BBC, performing with most of the members of the then BBC Radio Repertory Company (including Philip Wade, Gladys Young, Norman Shelley, Mabel Constanduras, and Marjorie Westbury) and for Uncle Mac of Children’s Hour. Men were still being demobilized, and their children had not yet come online. So I had a parallel career in radio, and on stage. Movies, however, were to elude me. The chance did not come again.
The transition? Not so much from the acting standpoint, but from the audience acceptance standpoint. As a teenage actor, post William, I would travel around England as a “guest star” doing one-offs for various rep companies in West End plays featuring juveniles. I went to companies in Warrington, Oldham, Sheffield, Weston-Super-Mare, Horsham, Aylesbury, Eastbourne, Margate and Windsor. Love In Idleness, The Guinea Pig, The Winslow Boy, Years Ago, Master of Arts, Whiteoaks, and Kiss and Tell come to mind. I even ventured into producing a play for me and my sister. The play was All Rights Reserved by N. C. Hunter, a sophisticated sex romp in the style of Noel Coward, and we opened at the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green in 1950, and then played the Oxford Playhouse. It did not do well, and I was not a draw!
I did not find the transition difficult, but I had yet to examine the craft, and learn what good acting was all about. I now teach what I’ve learned.
Was this transition made any more difficult by the fact you took a break, with three years in the Merchant Navy and then went to Canada? What happened?
Call it a “forced break” destroying the momentum of many budding careers. Two years National Service in the military!? But I did not wish to join the army tagged as a celebrity doing my duty. However, there were three alternatives offered by the government, allowances for those who wished to start a career in what they called “essential services”. They were Farming (agriculture), Mining, and the Merchant Navy. And it meant eight years instead of two, to make sure you were career minded and serious about it. Hmm, what to do…
Post-war England was a very gloomy and depressing place under the guidance of Clement Atlee’s Labour party. I especially remember the government’s edict that the colour of fire engines was to be changed thenceforth from bright red to dark green. That said it all for me!
Now, I wanted to be just a regular person. I needed to find out where I stood in society without the so-called benefit of celebrity, and, let’s face it, the expectations of my mother. I needed to find out who I was, not who other people thought I was. I wanted to reclaim my childhood, which I’d missed since being plucked off a bus, and I wanted to enjoy myself, and later reenter the business as a new person.
The answer came out of the blue. I had a girlfriend then, whose brother was a sea-going deck officer on leave, and the way he casually tossed off references to Singapore, Seattle and Sydney enthralled me. At his suggestion, I went up to Leadenhall Street on the back of his motorbike, and made the rounds of scores of freight and tanker shipping companies for two days, only to find that his outfit Ellerman Lines, or Cunard, Blue Funnel, P & O, Shell and others didn’t want me as I was too old and had not been educated at Worcester or Pangbourne. Dejected, I headed for home, and just before reaching Liverpool Street station, noticed a small plaque on a door which said SILVER LINE. I went in.
This time, their personnel manager welcomed me with open arms! He was at his wit’s end because he was having difficulty crewing a ship in Los Angeles, he said, and “Would you be interested?” (Me: “Keep talking!”)
“But be warned, nobody wants to sail on our ships, because they don’t ever come to England. We tramp around the world, general cargo. The term would be four years as an apprentice, then you can sit for your ticket. The food is excellent, by the way!”
It took me about four seconds to make up my mind. “Be ready to leave in one week” was his parting shot as I hurried out the door.
My parents were flabbergasted to put it mildly, and at first my dad refused to sign the indentures, which were required because I was still only seventeen. But he did do it, finally, and they saw me off at Southampton headed for New York on the Mauretania – Cabin Class.
And that is how I went to sea as the junior apprentice officer, with the prospect of sailing in anonymous obscurity on the trampships Silverwalnut and Silvertarn, from the West Coast of the United States, and never a word about my past career.
Two weeks later I arrived at what was to be my nomadic new home. Ironically, the ship was based in San Pedro, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. I had a couple of days before sailing, and took the Red Line so I could stand outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to watch John Wayne heading the Santa Claus parade. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1950. A glance at the picture of Robert Wagner on the cover of Photoplay, and I was sorely tempted to jump ship before I got on it, but common sense prevailed.
First port of call was Coos Bay, a logging town up the coast. I went ashore to a nightclub hoping to meet a lumberjack, and capture the true flavour of a real blue collar American. Who came out on stage but Tessie O’Shea, backed up by the entire black-tied orchestra from London’s Dorchester Hotel! I knew Tessie, and went backstage to see her in my smart new moleskin uniform. She nearly fell over! Then it was back on the ship to change into working gear and clean out bilges, under the critical eye of our Malayan bosun.
So it was that I joined three other intrepid cadets, me seeking identity and adventure, others seeking careers, while we tramped around the globe very slowly learning all manner of skills, which were to prove useful years later as a do-it-yourselfer and organizer around the house and office. And I was not to be disappointed in the derring-do department, for we certainly had our diversions, and impressions were engraved on my brain for all time, from places, cultures, things, and especially the men of the ship’s crew, a veritable United Nations of Malayans, Chinese, Filipinos and Indians. In other words, I grew up!
William memories didn’t stop there though. Nostalgia was always in the air. One windy night I was on the bridge pinned at the steering wheel on the lonely middle watch, dodging other vessels in the busy shipping lanes of the Malacca Straits, and had to listen to the first mate who was on the wing keeping an eye out for traffic, while chattering on about how he missed BBC radio comedy. The subject of Just William came up, and he annoyed me with his description of the show, and his negative assessment of the guy who played William (thanks a lot).
Then, outrageously, he made fun of William’s sex life, and I shouted out that if he’d read the books as I had, he would find that William was too young for that, and that the author had left it up to his siblings. But I did allow that he was probably curious, and quickly changed the subject to a discussion about the lack of decent girl friends available to sailors around the world, for I had by now gone the distance beyond curious.
The early end came after three years, when I found that my mother wanted to divorce my father. Compassionate leave was granted, and I left the ship in New York, first revealing to my shipmates my true identity – because being human I just couldn’t resist it – and returned to England again on the Mauretania to talk my parents out of it, which I did.
Call-up was still lurking, and having decided that I did not wish to become Captain Clark, I emigrated to Canada, where there was no call-up, and I could hopefully restart my life in the showbiz.
Did the Canadians have any appreciation of your days as William? Did your experience as William help in any way?
None whatsoever. I was completely unknown there, and my acting resumé did not help. But I got into rep in Ottawa, married the older character actress, and hosted my own television interview show Junior Magazine for the CBC for five years, networked out of Toronto.
Later you also pursued a successful and distinguished career in the U.S. on Broadway and in Hollywood. We know that is the one country in the world never to appreciate William, so that your early success playing him would not have registered much there either. Are we right?
Yes you are so right. Because I was over the age of 26, I could work there and not be due for their draft. I’d done my bit; survived the Korean War, sailed in hostile waters around China while its civil war was raging, and had no stomach for Vietnam. The period in Canada turned out to be just a sojourn, a way to pass the time until I could re-emigrate to the States, my first choice. Fast forward to starting a whole new career again!
John, you are now 80 years old. Do you ever tell your children/grandchildren about your early days as William? Have any of them read the books? How does it fit in with your life now?
At home there was little appreciation of my childhood, my William days, or in fact any of my past professional life as a performer. Which is why I was so pleased to discover you people; you actually do care!
As far as I know, my kids did not read the books. They became quite American, and showed little interest. I’m afraid that my life was totally hijacked by the neediness of the Redgrave family, a devotion to Lynn’s career, and the steering of their requirements rather than mine. Not that I’m complaining. Because of her, I became a director, learned how to doctor a script, write a screenplay, negotiate and draft a contract, wield a camera professionally, run a house, shoot film and digital, drive a tractor, cook, build things, use a computer, design a website, fly a plane, play the stock market, be generally helpful, and dispense with the services of those we called the “middle people”, the lawyers, managers, agents and publicists, who came to not like us a whole lot. Oh, and how to keep lovers at bay, and let people find themselves. In short, I was the ideal turn-the-other cheek look-the-other-way husband for a celebrity. The only thing I refused to do was yell at directors if she didn’t have her way. Or sue members of my family. Unfortunately, someone lost the rulebook. Hence my website.
The kids did not follow us into the business. Benjy has become the Captain that I didn’t – flying jets internationally for Delta. Kelly, my avowed lesbian daughter, changed her name and became a Buddhist nun and then a mother (that’s another story), and Annabel became a photographer, married a Cuban, and just had a baby, I’m told. Due to multiple unforeseen circumstances which I won’t go into here, the dream of the beautiful ranch home in Topanga Canyon by the Pacific I built for us all to enjoy, a liberal open-minded marriage, and a happy and free independent existence, came to an end. I’ve returned to acting and teaching, while completing my memoirs, now that Lynn, her brother, her parents, her niece, my parents and my sister have passed on. I’m thinking of calling it My Soap Opera Life, in and out of Showbiz. I’m looking for a publisher. [Update: It’s first going to be a hopefully entertaining play to be called THE MIDDLE WATCH!, for 2014.]
I have managed to outlive most of my peers, so far at least. Despite heart problems, a pacemaker, a dodgy prostate, and a scare with colon cancer, I’m a survivor, and I’m still here, and I’m still able to say that, while touching wood.
Whatever happened to some of the people you remember?
I’d kept up with Violet Elizabeth. When we worked together as 12 year olds, we’d become very fond of each other. I had even bought her a heart shaped golden locket which she wore around her neck with my picture in it, in contrast to our relationship onstage. (I think her mother encouraged this.) After I became a sailor, we stayed in touch through letters, and she asked me to mail her flimsies from overseas, nylons and naughty things.
In fact, right after my sea-going days were over, home on a long overdue leave in England, we had a romantic fling. It was an inevitable consummation, really; I like to think it was William pursuing his curiosity, against Violet Elizabeth who thought she had landed him. She had grown into a very sexy young lady, and I think she got that from Mrs. Bott, just as Jackie did from her mother. Well anyway, the missing decent young girlfriend in my life she did become, and I go further into that in my book, but this interview has a “U” certificate, right?
Our affair had to end with the call-up papers about to arrive, and my hurried departure for Canada, and Jackie went on to become Timothy West’s first wife. He writes about her developing wonkiness in his memoir A Moment Towards the End of the Play. Timothy is about my age, and we recently exchanged correspondence. I told him how a great many years later I had visited her in the mountains of Wales, where she was married to a bartender in a coal-mining town, trapped in a wheelchair, and was about to succumb to the ravages of Rheumatoid Arthritis. So very sad, seeing this now broken creature. Her father, the overweight Jack Boyer, had had a heart attack while swimming in the ocean off Broadstairs. That was soon after he increased his fortune with “Just William”, but as he will have found out, you can’t take it with you.
I know that Rosamund Barnes got married and moved to the States. Michael Allinson, who played my brother Robert on the stage, went on to understudy Rex Harrison in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. He later took over the part, and we were friends in New York, where he recently died.
Charles Hawtrey starred in the Carry On films, as everybody knows. Oddly, it wasn’t his real name, he had borrowed it from the famous British farceur from another age, Sir Charles Hawtrey. And even more oddly, my first actress wife was from that same old English family, Kay Hawtrey. My uncle in the stage play at the Granville was John Le Mesurier, who became famous in the Dad’s Army series.
One of my special friends from the old days is Rosemary Harris, fresh out of R.A.D.A and with whom I worked in rep at Eastbourne in Kiss And Tell all those years ago. She has remained my true friend and supporter, and also made her home in the States, where she is a big Broadway star.
It was later, much later, that I married for the second time, and learned that I’d become a Redgrave! For 33 years. Which reminds me that attending one of the late Roddy McDowall’s soirees (another U.S. based child actor from England), I asked him to tell me of his memories when he played Ginger in the 1940 Just William film with the William of Dicky Lupino. Roddy pre-dated me, even. He’d worked twice in Will Hay films, and once in a Just William! His brief answer, while he was busy pouring drinks, was that he didn’t get drafted, and remembered little before he became friends with Elizabeth Taylor. And at dinner, he sat me opposite Bette Davis and between Anthony Newley and Christine Jorgensen. But that’s another one for the book.
Well my friends, that kind of wraps things up.
Thanks for taking me on the journey, you’ve made me feel anchored, shall we say. It’s been fun remembering (I think), and connecting my dots.
Any final thoughts?
Just one, an ironic one really. I explained earlier how I got into William, his character I mean. Well, many of my friends conclude that he got into me! Looking back, I do think that I took over William’s destiny, and that his inquiring and helpful spirit has always dwelt within me. Of course, there’s an upside to this. I can blame William for everything that went wrong, while pointing out that, as always, he meant well!
And he had to grow up somewhere.