Blog: Chi and I… Part 3

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Front cover of 1963 Season Brochure

Extracts from Chi and I by acclaimed actor, director and playwright, David Wood : Part 3, Life off stage – 1963

Our dressing room was a small hut behind the theatre, also used as a store for crates of beer bottles, and also the headquarters of the wig department.  We had regular enjoyable conversations with Rosemary Harris, who had taken over from Joan Greenwood in Uncle Vanya, which had proved so successful in the first season that Olivier revived it.

Few people realised at this time that Olivier was using, in the nicest possible way, Chichester to prepare for his subsequent directorship of the National Theatre.  Apart from the major stars he attracted to Chichester were younger actors who were to become the nucleus of his National company.  Derek Jacobi, Robert Lang and Robert Stephens were playing relatively small roles at Chichester, but would become stars of the Old Vic and eventually the brand new complex on the South Bank.  To be amongst this rich array of talent, as well as familiar faces from television, was the most exciting experience I could have wished for.  Being an extra was a magical opportunity to see these people working, and to feel part of it all.  Even our costume fittings felt special, supervised by Ivan Alderman and his chief cutter Stephen Skaptason, who later both ran the National Theatre wardrobe.

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Derek Jacobi and Robert Lang, understudies for Olivier and Redgrave in the Season Brochure

Laurier Lister, Sir Laurence’s assistant director, made a point of chatting to me when our paths crossed.  One day he invited me to see an understudy run-through of Uncle Vanya.   He knew I loved this production and had several times arranged for me to creep in and watch.  Seeing the understudies proved just as awe-inspiring as the actual cast.  Robert Lang and Derek Jacobi understudied Olivier and Redgrave.  Jeanne Hepple and Rowena Cooper covered Joan Plowright and Rosemary Harris.  They were brilliant.

One afternoon, an hour or so before the matinee of Uncle Vanya, I saw a group of people outside the stage door.  They were waiting for the arrival of Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson.  I decided to wait, too.  Very soon they appeared and spent at least 20 minutes standing chatting animatedly with their fans.  Considering that Dame Sybil was 80 and Sir Lewis was 88, their generosity was remarkable.  And I witnessed it personally a couple of years later, when they came to Oxford to appear in a play.  They graciously invited me to tea one afternoon at the Randolph Hotel.  Dame Sybil spoke more than Sir Lewis.  Her eyes sparkled as she asked me about the student productions I was involved in.  A truly astounding couple.

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An inscription from Sybil Thorndike to David following their meeting in Oxford

After leaving school shortly before the season started, I had managed to find another job at another theatre.  The Theatre Royal in Bognor Regis had been a cinema for many years, although its compact stage was still intact.  The new co-owner and manager, Victor Freeman, decided to offer Bingo on two nights a week.  With the confidence of youth I applied for the job of Bingo caller and got it.  I had always enjoyed playing prize Bingo in the amusement arcades on the seafront, so felt able to run the theatre proceedings.  I was even allowed the luxury of an organist, Jimmy Berry, in the pit, and used to perform a short show before the bingo started.  Vic doubted my ability to attract an audience, who, in his opinion, only came for the Bingo, but, singing songs, doing magic and using audience participation, I had a ball and saw myself as Bognor’s answer to Bruce Forsyth comparing Sunday Night at the London Palladium.  I was billed as the youngest Bingo caller on the South Coast!

Remarkably, because the Festival Theatre performances were played in repertoire, I was able to fit them around my Bingo commitments.  However, on a few occasions, I had to dash offstage at the end of my soldier’s appearance in Saint Joan, strip off my armour, put on a dressing gown, jump into a taxi and, while being driven to Bognor, change into my dinner jacket and bow tie.  Still wearing my tanned soldier make up, I would leap out of the taxi, dash through the Theatre Royal stage door and run onto the stage, announcing, ‘Welcome to Bognor’s Biggest Bingo!’

All images from the D Wood collection