May 4, 1944
For me, I started my acting career backwards. Famous to begin with far too early, so you might say, as a performer, downhill ever since.
This event for me was not likely to be surpassed for the rest of my life.
It was the Royal Command Performance late on the night of May 4, 1945. I was twelve years old. Working with headmaster Will Hay as one of his pupils in his famous classroom sketch as the headline act at the Victoria Palace since mid 1944, during the time of the V1 and then the V2 enemy missiles, we’d been closed a few weeks, but then were asked to perform for the Royal Life Guards at their barracks. We would have to relearn our lines, a task that I dreaded, and there was a rumor that the Royal Family might be attending. There were rumors all around that the war in Europe was about to end, and if that happened on that night, obviously the performance would be cancelled. Unfortunately, I cannot verify the facts because the scrapbook which my mother kept for me has gone, gone with so much of my stuff after my eviction. But memory will serve here I hope.
On the bill that night would be the cream of the British music hall of the day, and would include Tommy Trinder, Arthur Askey, Stainless Stephen, Max Miller, Old Mother Riley, Tommy Handley, Flanagan and Allan and a lot more.
8 o’clock in the evening arrived, and no sign. Were we to begin for the military audience, or would we all wait? It was decided that we should wait and hope, and then, at shortly before midnight, they arrived. All of them. King George, and his Queen Elizabeth, and the daughters.
Everyone was in the mood for a good laugh, the excitement of impending victory was foremost, and the show went off without any hitches. I even remembered all my lines, which for my part of a young schoolboy swot who only spoke multi-syllabic words, and hadn’t spoken any for at least 5 months, was for me a miracle.
After the show, we were all to be herded into the main hall to meet the Royal Family, and I did something I have been ashamed of ever since.
My mother, my dear old mother, epitome of a stage mother, out for my interests and forever sticking close, had watched the show and eagerly awaited the reception. I told her she would not be allowed into it, and would have to sit outside in the corridor. It seemed a reasonable thing to do, I just didn’t want her embarrassing me in front of the king and queen. So outside she sat, and saw nothing of what she would have given her eye teeth to see.
At the reception, first lined up after the generals and other military and political notables, none of whom I remember, were, in order, Princess Margaret, then all of 13 years old, and then her sister Elizabeth, then 18, and both wearing what were known as their “utility dresses”, meaning special clothes made in the very simplest and plainest of ways to help win the war. Then came the Queen mother Queen Mary, then Queen Elizabeth, then King George VI.
Soon after, when the lineup dispersed, I found myself, as the only youngster in the throng, brought before the King and Queen to chat with them. And I remember Queen Elizabeth asking me how it was that I could possibly remember all those words which were surely totally incomprehensible to me. I admitted to her that I did have great trouble with the lines, and no, I didn’t know all of what they meant. And so I shyly dealt with the conversation, and noticed that the king did not seem to have a stammer at all.
And then it was home in the car, and me telling my mother what she’d missed and how sorry I was she’d missed it.
And a mere 4 days later, victory came, in Europe anyway.