THE FORTUNES OF SALLY FORTH
“I didn’t know what to wear” I glance down at my jeans and wrap top.
“Evidently not” says Rose who’s looking effortlessly elegant in navy silk shirt and tailored trousers. “But at least I’ve been spared one of those hideous Christmas jumpers. Clothes aren’t really your thing, Sally”
They aren’t? When I’d first decamped from London, just a few months ago, and found myself in the country living next door to Rose, I’d assumed that I’d trailed a little big-city sophistication with me…. but clearly not… however, there is no time to think about this now as Rose is still talking and I’m keeping an eye out for the turn off.
“Some actresses develop a sense of style as their career progresses. I, had it all along”
And really, she has. At over seventy, with her white hair pulled back in a loose bun, emphasising the still lovely lines of her face, she is undeniably glamorous.
“So, is this visit a Boxing Day tradition?” I ask, slowing down and swinging a left.
“It’s become one” she admits “And they are always simply thrilled to see me”
“And you them?”
“Naturally” her tone is brisk. “Ah, here we are”
I pull in to a small parking area set between a pair of elm trees, their branches bare of leaves but studded with frost. Behind us the snow-capped hills curve and rise to meet a steely blue sky.
“Well, what do you think?” Rose asks as she gets out of the car.
“It’s a beautiful spot. And the house… its magnificent”
“Georgian” says Rose with satisfaction “Part of Johnny’s estate. He’d made an absolute packet from that dreadful TV series”
“Johnny?” I ask, “And what TV series?”
“John Buckland. And it was The Fothergills. Surely you remember it? It ran for nearly a decade. Highly sensationalised melodrama set above and below stairs in 1920’s London. Darling Johnny wasn’t awfully convincing as The Duke – he’d been born and bred in Pinner – but he did have a remarkable set of eyebrows that he could raise haughtily before every-ad break and I think that’s what got him through. Not the only thing he could raise at will, as I recall…”
Always fascinated by stories of Rose’s old lovers, I’m about to press for details when we reach the front door. No sooner has Rose given one light ring on the bell when it is flung open and we are greeted effusively by a short elderly man with bright dark eyes and what little hair he still possesses dyed an improbable shade of brown.
“Come in immediately, dear ladies, come in out of the cold dark night” It’s only a little after eleven in the morning, but I appreciate the sentiment and so step inside.
“Immediately?” queries Rose, offering her cheek to be kissed.
The man raises himself to his tiptoes and places a light peck on her cheekbone.
“I may command where I adore, may I not?”
Rose turns to me “Roger was Malvolio to my Olivia”
My confusion must be apparent as she explains
“Twelfth Night Sally, do keep up”
Roger gestures to the pair of bright yellow socks into which his trousers had been tucked.
“I thought I’d look them out in your honour, Rose”
“Nonsense” rings out a clear voice from somewhere behind us “He wears them at least once a week. So sad to have to keep replaying one’s glory days, I always think”
Bearing down upon us is a lady somewhere in her mid-eighties wearing what once must have been a beautiful brocade jacket over a crumpled A-line skirt and an expression of undisguised exasperation.
“I at least have some to replay” retorts Roger “You, Charlotte, never made it to the West End, now did you?”
The woman’s eyes flash in annoyance
“You know perfectly well that I starred as Maggie in that revival of “Hobson’s Choice”
“The Bush is in W12 and, as everyone knows, that’s practically Fringe” He shudders “Not the same thing at all”
A slight sigh escapes Rose and she whispers to me “Prepare yourself for what may prove to be a long day”
Lunch is taken at a walnut table set with silver, candles and white flowers in a formal dining room where the paintings on the walls depict theatrical scenes.
“That’s a William Hogarth above the fireplace” says the slight woman in a pair of over-large spectacles on my right “A reproduction of course. Isn’t it marvellous?”
“It is” I squint across “What exactly is it of?”
“The Beggar’s Opera. It’s the climactic scene. The highway man, Macheath, that’s him in the chains and the three-cornered hat, stands between his two loves, the jailer’s daughter Lucy Lochit and the lawyer’s daughter Polly Peacham”
“Awkward” I say.
“Oh it was…on and off stage. I played Polly and so I should know. That bastard Brian was sleeping with the both of us and the assistant stage manager”
And she re-focuses her attention to peer suspiciously down in to her smoked salmon.
“It’s lovely to have the table at full capacity again” remarks the benign looking gentleman with silvery hair and a paisley cravat on my left. “There used to be twenty of us residents but poor Ella Brighthouse died six weeks ago. You’ll know Ella of course? She was marvellous in Mame, toured for years. And old Eddie Forrester kicked the bucket a few weeks before that. It was his heart. I put it down to his only ever playing the straight man to all those bad-tempered and depressed comedians. It took it out of him”
“What did?” I ask
“Never getting to have the punch-line. It can’t be healthy having to repress a good come-back, now can it?”
“I suppose not” I agree “Couldn’t he have slipped the odd one in now and again?”
The gentleman strokes his cravat “Oh, he did, my dear, he did. Eddie simply couldn’t resist a quick one-liner but alas he paid dearly for it”
I’m tempted to ask how but decide against it “And so, everyone here was once in show-biz?” I ask, as he pours me a glass of wine.
“We don’t use that expression. It’s American and so naturally it won’t do. But yes, we are all actors, all poor players who fret and strut our hour upon the stage… and have been lucky enough to retire here. Good old Jonny Buckland. He put this place in trust for us and our fellow thespians”
He clinks my glass with his own “And I, like the others around this table, will leave what little I have, what paltry sums I have made in a life time of treading the boards, to the Trust in my will so that the next wave of cast members, the next wave of the Great Ensemble, can be as lucky in their twilight years as we have been”
I realise then that Rose who is sitting across from us has been listening to our conversation, for she raises her glass and says with an earnestness most unlike her
“I’ll drink to that”
After lunch we are all ushered into a sitting room where a traditionally dressed Christmas tree looks somewhat incongruous set against a back drop of knives, swords and daggers that bristle upon the walls.
“From Johnny’s 1964 production of Hamlet” says Rose at my elbow, indicating a scull decorated with tinsel sitting upon a console table. “And the collection of weaponry” adds Roger, coming to join us “Has been used in everything from the Battle of Bosworth to Agincourt”
“Oh, I get it” I say “And the fake donkey’s head in the corner with his big furry ears hung with baubles must be from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream? And those?” I point to a set of ancient weighing scales spilling over with satsumas “What were they used in… or for?”
“To measure out a pound of flesh” says Rose. “Obviously”
Obviously? I think. Right then. Silly me.
“They were Ronald’s” continues Rose “Well, strictly speaking they were the property of the Old Vic but they’re Ronald’s now. That’s him over there… yes, him in the muffler. His Shylock was a sensation in 86”
“And sitting next to Ronald” Roger cuts in eagerly “is Peggy Harper. Her Tamora, Queen of the Goths, combined a serpent like sensuality with bloodthirsty barbarism, in quite the goriest production of Titus Andronicus that it has ever been my privilege to witness”
I study a mild faced elderly lady wearing pearls across the room with interest. “She’s not looking in the least bloodthirsty now. In fact, I think she’s nodding off”
“You’d be surprised.” continues Roger darkly “She’d insisted on displaying the bloodied shrouds of her two murdered sons across the serving-hatch in the dining room along with a giant pie dish but we had to take them down. Lovers of the Bard we may be but some of us do draw the line at cannibalism over breakfast”
Chairs are rearranged to form a semi-circle and we all take our places. Rose had told me that regular entertainments are put on by the residents but with a strict rotation of performers so that everyone gets their turn in the limelight and that these events generate a great deal of excitement, in-fighting and some serious up-staging.
“I hope that you enjoy our little show” confides a large woman sitting next to me. Draped in a layered tunic of cream and gold, she’s wearing the most extraordinary straw-coloured wig fashioned into plaits.
“It’s a simple affair, just thrown together at the last minute”
“I’m sure I’ll love it” I say and looking her up and down add “And that’s a fabulous costume. When are you on?”
The woman sniffs, gives her plaits a plaintive tug and turns away.
“She isn’t” hisses Charlotte from her seat directly behind me. “And she’s not too pleased about it I can tell you” She brushes an imaginary crumb from the lapel of her her brocade jacket “Her Brunnhilde… you know?… in Wagner’s Ring Cycle… was highly acclaimed, the critics loved her. She had three seasons at La Scala, but she just can’t let it go. Even wears the breast-plate sometimes. Oh look, it’s about to start…”
I don’t know what I expected…but not this. At the curtain call I’m on my feet, clapping until my hands smart, witness to startling talent undiminished by age or infirmity. Pure and strong and life-enhancing it shines through scenes of high drama to high comedy and moves me in a way that I am not prepared for. And Rose… Rose, at the insistence of her fellow actors, steps out upon the makeshift stage and delivers in her beautiful lyrical voice:
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
After we have said our goodbyes and make our way through the gathering darkness to the car we turn simultaneously and look back.
“You were breathtakingly good” I say “And thank you for inviting me. It’s been a truly memorable Boxing day”
Rose’s smile wavers for an instant and then throwing out her arms as if embracing the house and all its occupants, she says
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep…” and then turning to me
“But not yet Sally… not just yet, I hope. So, for now let’s go home and get utterly bombed shall we?”
This episode in the Fortunes of Sally Forth is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Ann Dyson, 1939 -2005.