Secrets of a Savoyard
FRIENDS ON AND OFF THE STAGE.
Lessons to the Prince on the Bagpipes - A Charming and Lovable Personality - Queen Alexandra's Compliment - An Afternoon with Fisher - Stories of the Great Seaman - George Edwardes and His Genius for Stagecraft - His Successes on the Turf - "Honest Frank" Cellier - A Model Conductor - Traditions of the Savoy - Rutland Barrington - An Admiral in Disguise - Fred Billington - A Strange Premonition - Our War-Time Experiences - Caught in the Toils of the Dublin Rebellion.
IT was my great privilege and pleasure, when we were at Oxford on one occasion, to be introduced to the Prince of Wales, who was then in residence at Magdalen. Nothing impressed me more than his sunny nature and the wonderful knack he had of putting everybody at their ease immediately. Since then it has been just those qualities which have made him so immensely popular in his tours of the Empire.
Our first meeting was in His Royal Highness's own rooms, where he was attended by his tutor, Mr. H. P. Hansell. I remember that as I was speaking to him the members of a college team were brought in to be presented. "Ah!" exclaimed the Prince, "that's the best of being a celebrity, Lytton. I could not draw a muster like this." It was just a little pleasantry, this suggestion that it was myself who was the attraction, but it was an example of his happy knack of putting everybody at their ease immediately. I recall, too, that the Prince at that time was learning the chanter, from which one proceeds to the full glory of playing the bagpipes. Greatly to his surprise, I took the chanter and proceeded to give him a lesson, to which he listened most attentively, and then played a skirl, with which he was delighted. It so happens that, although I am no musician, I do know how to handle the bagpipes, and once a group of Scottish yokels who were listening to me stood open-mouthed with astonishment that such skill should be possessed by a trousered Englishman. This was when I visited my old colleague Durward Lely's place in the Highlands. The Scotties were enjoying a homely dance in a barn, and as the piper had been hard at it and seemed tired, I volunteered to act as his deputy. 1 don't want to be boastful, but my performance was regarded as a tour de force, at least for a Saxon.
The Prince came to the theatre frequently during our stay, and one night he came round to our dressing-room, where once more one fell irresistibly under the spell of his lovable and attractive personality. He invariably addressed me as "Ko-Ko." The Prince told me then, as he had done on other occasions, how really delightful he thought the operas were, and he said he looked forward to seeing them again and again. Then he asked to be introduced to a member who, in more than one sense, is one of the stalwarts of the choristers, Joe Ruff. Seeing that Joe had been with us so many years, I thought this special "recognition" was particularly happy, and it was a very great pleasure to me to be allowed to introduce my colleague to the Heir-Apparent.
From time to time, both during my connection with D'Oyly Carte and when temporarily away from the company, I have played before Royalty. Especially do I recall a night when Queen Alexandra occupied a box at the Savoy. It was in "The Yeomen of the Guard" revivals and my rôle was Shadbolt. Her Majesty was kind enough to send Sir Arthur Sullivan to my dressing-room to compliment me on the clearness of my enunciation, and I need hardly say how gratifying such praise was to me.
Seldom was "H.M.S. Pinafore" staged during the 1920 season without Lord Fisher coming to chuckle over Gilbert's clever satire on the "ruler of the Queen's Navee." He revelled in that opera. It was not only, I think, that it smacked of the sea, but he loved the gibes at the politicians and the hearty loyalty of the honest salt who, "in spite of all temptation," firmly resolves to "remain an Englishman." It was after he had seen me several times as Sir Joseph Porter that he invited me to bring a few of my colleagues and spend an afternoon with him at his home in London. I reproduce his very typical letter on another page. My recollections of that afternoon are very delightful. Lord Fisher was a wonderful veteran, and it was difficult afterwards to realise that a fortnight later he was stricken down with his last illness, to which he succumbed in the following July.
I remember that we did not have to do much of the talking. Lord Fisher walked up and down, up and down the room as if it were the quarter-deck, and he was telling us all the while such capital stories that we forgot that we, too, were still standing up! Of his yarns there were two that were very typical of the man and his ways.
"One day," he began, "I was walking through Trafalgar Square, and as I always do, I looked up at the statue of the greatest man that ever lived. Then a woman who was munching a bun came along. 'Here, master,' she said, 'who's 'e?' 'That's Lord Nelson,' I answered. 'Is it?' she returned, 'and who's 'e?' Fancy! Never heard of Nelson! Such ignorance! 'Well,' I said, 'if it had not been for him, that bun would have cost you, not a halfpenny, but fourpence. Good day!' And I walked on. I suppose she thought she had been talking to a lunatic."
Then Lord Fisher spoke of the exertion needed in our dances on the stage. "Energy! Energy! That's what we want," he declared. "Why, I was fed by my mother until I was quite a big baby. I refused to be weaned - I was so determined even in those days! You must have good natural food when you are born. It means everything. It gives you stamina - it makes a man of you."
From that interview I brought away a signed portrait of the great seaman. "I'm an ugly blighter, aren't I?" he reflected, sadly, as he handed it to me, "but I'm good." Candour would have compelled one to admit that he was anything but strikingly handsome, but in that small, intensely sallow face there was, after all, something that was extraordinarily kindly and strong. In that sense his face was the faithful mirror of his character.
"Jackie Fisher's" candour reminds me of a frank admission made to me by a statesman who still wields a leading influence in present-day politics. I think I had better not mention his name although he is numbered amongst my friends, and he has often been exceedingly kind in his appreciation of my work on the stage. He told me he once met a lady whom he had not seen for several years, and having cordially greeted her, he said, "I'm so delighted to see you, Sybil." That he should have remembered her, and still more, that he should have remembered her first name, pleased the lady immensely. She said she was charmed that he had not forgotten her name. "Oh," responded the statesman, with the best of intentions, "I've a remarkable memory for trifles." The next moment he realised he had committed an awful faux pas. What was more, he saw that he, though a politician, could not explain it away.
Not many people remember now that Mr. George Edwardes, who created the vogue for musical comedies as we now know them, and who made a fortune out of his connection with the Gaiety and Daly's, was in his early days Mr. D'Oyly Carte's manager at the Savoy. When he became a producer his flair for stage effect amounted to genius. He could decide in a moment to make the most revolutionary changes in a production. For instance, I have heard him give orders that the first act should be made the second one and the second the first, because he saw that it would better work up the interest in the play. He would transpose a certain scene from here to there because he knew instinctively that there was its proper place. "I don't like that man singing that song," he said once, just before a new comedy was due to have its first performance, and when even the dress rehearsals were almost complete. "We'll give it to a lady." "But," it was objected, "it's a man's song - a military song." "Never mind," he answered in that familiar drawling voice of his, "we'll dress her in a red coat, and we'll bring the chorus on as soldiers too." And his judgment was absolutely right. That girl's soldier song was the great hit of the piece.
George Edwardes was a generous, kindly-natured man, accessible to everybody, and a splendid companion. Keenly interested as he was in his theatrical ventures, he never made these his sole and only preoccupation. Upon the Turf, as every sportsman knows, he was a shining light, and many horses from his stables won the biggest prizes of their year. He often invited me to join him at the races, and never failed to tell me the winners - "well, hardly ever." One day he gave me three running. Just then I was arranging to play under his management for a term of three years, and he said those three winners proved that we could make money together both on and off the stage, and that we must sign up the contract, which we did the next day.
One of my closest friends was Francois Cellier, of whom it would be literally true to say that he devoted his life, his talents and all his enthusiasm to the operas at the Savoy. For thirty-five years he served them as conductor, to the exclusion of all the fame he might have won in a wider field, for he was a musician of surpassing accomplishments. He was the younger brother of Alfred Cellier, who was the composer, amongst other delightful comedies, of "Dorothy." Both men were Bohemians, and both of them might have been the architects of their own fortunes if they had put only their own goal in front of them, and pursued it steadily.
Francois Cellier - Honest Frank they called him, and the name suited him well - was a prince of good fellows and a most charming and helpful companion. I can never tell the debt I owe to him for all the advice he gave to me regarding our performances. He knew Gilbert's and Sullivan's ideas to the minutest detail, and, with all his love of the operas, he wanted those ideas carried through exactly on the stage. Even with the audiences he had a magnetic personality. Unlike most conductors, who feel they must allow just as many encores as the audience demands, he could indicate by some strange method to those behind him that an encore would be unreasonable or inconsiderate, and immediately the applause would subside and the play would proceed.
Cellier had his heart and soul in every performance, and what that means is known only to those who work on the stage, and who do sometimes become dull and listless because of their very familiarity with the parts they are playing or because the audience cannot easily be aroused to "concert pitch." What brightness they may give to their acting is of a superficial and mechanical kind that can give them no pleasure. It is at just such times as these that a real conductor is worth his weight in gold. Notwithstanding that he may have seen the piece hundreds of times - and might with reason be more bored than the principals themselves - he comes to each new performance with an enthusiasm which shakes the company out of themselves and makes everything go with a will.
Some conductors I have known have shown so little interest in their work that they did not even attempt to conceal their boredom. This is very unfair to the players. Can anyone expect there to be any spirit in the singing of a chorus when the conductor is just listlessly waving his baton, or when he shows such little respect for the artistes that, during their dialogues, he either yawns sleepily or leans over for a chat with the strings? Cellier was never guilty of that discourtesy. From the time he picked up his baton for the first bar of the overture the "play was the thing." During a chorus you would see him alert and awake and stirring on the company to give their best, and during your own solos or dialogues you would see him listening intently so that, like a friendly critic, he could afterwards praise you for what you had done well or give you hints where there was cause for improvement. It is a great thing to the artistes to see a genial face at the conductor's desk, and the operas go with a great spirit and verve whenever the conductor, seconded by the orchestra, is doing everything to help us along. Our company's record has been a very fortunate one in this respect.
Everybody who plays in Gilbert and Sullivan makes it a point of honour to do his or her best to preserve what we call the traditions of the Savoy. If I were asked to name the secret of the charm of these operas, I should have to answer that there was not one secret, but many, but that one of the chief is their sense of "repose." Gilbert, like the master playwright he was, would never have two situations running together. If, that is to say, the leading character was going to offer his hand to the heroine, the whole company must look on eagerly and expectantly. It would never do for them to be indifferent and uninterested. Still less would it do for subsidiary characters to do something that might attract the audience's eye to them in some other part of the stage. Everything must be focussed on the central incident, and to this end every member of the company must think first and all the time of the play, and not indulge in those hateful individual touches of "pantomime."
What I mean is best seen in what happens quite frequently in ordinary plays. Nearly every minor actor and actress seems to take, or is allowed to take, licence to put in a little bit of "business" on his or her own account, and so draw kudos to himself or herself by being supposed to be "funny." It is really only "supposed." Generally it is not funny at all, and it mars the effect of the play by making the entire atmosphere restless and perplexed. Eyes are strained here, there and everywhere, and the poor audience in trying to catch this, that and the other point, is probably missing what is the chief point of the play. Well, if refinement is not the keynote of a production, this may possibly not matter so much, but it is certainly foreign to the tranquil atmosphere of Gilbert and Sullivan.
No one I think, could have done more by his example on the stage to encourage refinement in these operas than my good friend, Rutland Barrington. During his playing career - now at an end, unhappily - he was an artiste to his finger tips. He had also a great asset in his fine presence and personality. Our friendship has been of the closest, and I call to mind an incident when we were at Portsmouth and when there was something important occurring at the Royal Dockyard. "We can't get in without a pass," I said to him, but he only smiled and said that, at all events, we could try. "Watch me," he commanded. Straightening himself up, he walked to the gates as if to the manner born, took the salute from the sentries, and entered the yard. It looked ridiculously easy. So I decided to follow suit. The sentries would not let me through. "Can't come in without a pass," I was told, and let me through they would not on any account, however much I tried to "flatter, cajole and persuade." Barrington always did have "a way with him." I imagine the sentries were impressed by his bearing, or it may be that they had mistaken him for his brother, Admiral Fleet.
This naval reference serves to recall a most interesting story bearing on the subject of "make-up." Now, "make-up" has always been a fascinating study to me, and many kind friends tell me that I have a special gift for it, instancing how completely I transform my appearance for parts so different, for example, as the hunchback King Gama and the martial old General Stanley. Certainly I do spend more time than most actors do over the arts and deceptions of the dressing-room. For King Gama the make-up of the face alone takes an hour, apart from all the physical deformities that have to be contrived when playing this ugly, ungainly character in "Princess Ida." But all this by the way. What I was going to write about was an incident when a worried young naval lieutenant came to see me at the close of our show at the Savoy. He was at the romantic age then, a trifle oblivious to the passing of time when there was a charming lady at his side, and at the theatre he overlooked that by a certain hour he should have been back at the Naval College at Greenwich. Lieutenant X came round to see me in a terrible state. What was he to do? If he went back, he told me, he would be stopped at the gates by the sentries and he would have to give explanations, of which none he could think of would be adequate. If, on the other hand, he did not return there would be a court-martial, and he would be dismissed from the Service. Before him, whichever way he turned, was the blank ruin of his career and he disgraced in the eyes of his family. Well, I don't know which of us actually suggested it, but it occurred to us that if only he could be disguised as an Admiral, he might easily get into the college! An Admiral had to keep no strict hours when absent from duty, and if only he could look and act the part, the sentries would let him pass and ask no awkward questions. So in a very few minutes I was busy treating him with all the arts of "make-up." Certainly the addition of a pointed beard made a most effective disguise, and it answered splendidly, for at Greenwich he marched boldly through the gates to the dutiful salutes of the sentries. The situation was saved. For my own part I felt that I had done something to save a career, and as it happens, the romantic young friend of those days is now a real Admiral, and a very well-known and popular one, in His Majesty's Navy.
Numerous are the stories told about my friend and colleague for so many years - Fred Billington. In temperament and character we were entirely opposites, but there was scarcely one disagreement throughout our long companionship, during which we played together almost continuously. He was a Yorkshireman, and before he joined the company, with which he remained for thirty-seven years, he was in the office of the Water Board at Huddersfield. The whole of his stage career was spent with these operas.
It was not everybody who understood Billington. Sometimes he could be uncommonly moody and gruff, and if he did not feel in the mood to talk, he would make it clear that he wanted no introductions to one's own acquaintances. But under the rugged surface he was a fine-hearted fellow, who lived life heartily and lived it well, and nothing pleased him better, apart from a game of golf, than to sit and gossip with those whose society he liked.
One day he invited three of us to a round of golf, and it being a cold morning, he told us that he was ordering "a good beef-steak and kidney pudding." Well, when we had finished the game and returned to the club-house, in came that steaming pudding. Billington looked at it long and earnestly. "It won't do, for four," he reflected. Then a pause. "It would make a poor meal for three. There's scarcely enough for two. I'll tell you what. I'll have it - and you three can have chops." And that is just what we did.
Billington had a gift of robust eloquence, and unless one was accustomed to it, the freedom with which it flowed from his tongue was most embarrassing. He was playing a clergyman one day at golf. The cleric, whenever he made a bad shot, invariably relieved his feelings by exclaiming, "Oh, Pickles! Pickles!" Language of this kind in Billington's ears was exceedingly trying, and as if determined to give the parson a lesson, he came out with a string of oaths of the richest and most vivid description. "Thank you very much, Mr. Billington," said the clergyman, smilingly, "thank you very much!" Evidently those were the sort of words which, but for respect for his cloth, he wanted to say!
One day he went out for a match with a bishop. The club officials, knowing how exuberant his language could be, were on tenterhooks of anxiety all the time they were out, and on their return the secretary hastened to take the episcopal visitor apart. "Mr. Billington, the actor, you know, my lord," he explained. "I hope his language didn't shock you." "Oh,no!" responded the bishop, diplomatically, "he did once call on the Almighty, but otherwise his language was beyond reproach."
Dear old Billington! Earlier in life he had been with the company on a South African tour, and the wide spaces, the ample life and the boundless opportunities of that vast country appealed to him irresistibly. South Africa had a "call" for him, and he had ambitions, when the time came for him to retire, to settle there. That ambition was never realised. Only the night before he died, while we were in our dressing-room, he surprised me with the question, "How would you like to die, Harry?"
From a man so little inclined to brood on the morbid the question was strange. I told him I didn't know. I had never, I told him, thought it out, and didn't intend to, either.
"But if you had to die," he insisted, "how would you prefer to go?"
"Oh! I don't know," I retorted. "Anyhow, we're not going to die just yet."
"Well," was his answer, "if I had my way, it would be a good dinner, a bottle of wine, a good cigar, a good joke, and - pop-off!"
It must have been a premonition. The very next day, while still apparently in perfect health, he left Cambridge to keep a luncheon engagement with Mr. Rupert D'Oyly Carte at the Great Eastern Hotel, London. The intention was that he should be back for the night performance. With the lunch they had a bottle of wine, and afterwards, over cigars, they talked with many a hearty joke in between. Then he went out into the foyer - and collapsed. It was at least good to think that the passing of my dear old friend was free from pain or suffering.
Fred Billington's end must have been hastened by a sequence of events during the war. Strangely enough, when we were at Sheffield, the town was raided by a Zeppelin, and there was another attack when we were at Hull, a third when we were at Kennington, and a fourth when we were at Wimbledon. Billington's nerves, naturally enough, were very upset. Wherever we went the Zepps seemed to be after us. "Do you know, Harry," he said, at last, " I believe that bally Kaiser has got our tour." What he meant, of course, was that our list of bookings had got into the hands of the All-Highest, and that he thought, apparently, that if he could wipe out the Gilbert and Sullivan operas he would be able to break the spirit of England. Looked at in that way, the attention paid to us, whether intentional or not, was certainly flattering.
Worse than those raids, however, was the Dublin rebellion, into which we ran at Easter 1916. We should have opened there on the Bank Holiday. In point of fact we did not play one single night. Fred and I were at the Gresham Hotel. The very first day we were not allowed out at all, for we were in the very centre of hostilities, and no one could go into the street except at his peril. Chafing under the restraint, I did at last attempt to venture out, though feeling that there were too many bullets about for things to be healthy. Opposite the Gresham, at the door of the Irish Club, I saw the well-known figure of the Dublin Coroner, Mr. Friery. I rushed across to him, and it was because I spoke to him, I believe, that I was ever able to get back alive. Mr. Friery, with his top hat and frock-coat, was an easily distinguished citizen, and neither the military nor the rebels would have been likely to fire at him deliberately. "You ought never to have come across," he told me, and as it happened, the very same thought had occured to me.
Conditions in the hotel itself were the reverse of pleasant, what with the noise of the firing outside and bullets shooting through our own windows, though these were shuttered and protected as far as possible. Our food stocks commenced to run low - by the end of the week's siege we had only biscuits and ham - and the strain on the larder was added to by the arrival of scores of visitors who had been turned out of the Metropole Hotel. They had been told to take their valuables with them, and it was remarkable how, in the fright of such an emergency, men would grasp the first thing that came into their hands and leave their real treasures behind. One man rushed over clutching two dirty collars, while another had a bath-towel which he had picked up, it seemed, instead of a dressing-gown. English jockeys who were there for the race week hurried over holding a saddle case.
Our anxieties were increased in the meanwhile by the systematic operations of the military around Eden Quay. One by one the houses were being demolished by shell-fire, and in one of the threatened houses, as we knew, were many of the ladies of the company. To get to them was impossible. Luckily for them a sergeant on signalling duty heard their cries, and at once rushed to their help. "Who are you?" he shouted. "What are you doing here?" "We're the D'Oyly Carte," they answered. The D'Oyly Carte name worked like magic. Signalling to the gunners to cease fire, the sergeant hurried them out and through the streets, where sniping was going on at every corner, and took them to a police-station for safety.
All the other members of the company had more or less miraculous escapes. Leicester Tunks, Frederick Hobbs, Leo Sheffield, and several others lost all their luggage, but fortunately none sustained any more serious mishap. >From the good people of Dublin we received every possible kindness, but as you will imagine, we were thankful when we heard that there were berths on a boat to take us back to Holyhead. I have not, of course, told all my experiences of that awful week, though in memory these still linger vividly. But one of the things I remember best of all was a quaint remark of Billington's. Outside there was still the noise of the fighting, and most persistent of all was the crack! crack! crack! of a sniper somewhere near our own building. "Oh! Harry," said poor Fred, in utter weariness, "I do wish that bally wood-pecker would chuck it!"
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