Proscenium archness

Prompted by Gyles Brandreth’s book of theatrical anecdotes, Stephen Griffin dredges his memory to add a few others

Thursday, 11th February 2021 — By Stephen Griffin

Gyles Brandreth

Gyles Brandreth

“CHRIST! There’s two of them!”

A Glasgow Empire audience member’s reaction to Bernie Winters joining his brother Mike on stage is surely one of the best known (and succinct) theatrical anecdotes.

And who wouldn’t cherish the memory of Spike Milligan literally weeping with laughter on hearing a fellow TV panellist recalling a theatrical landlady’s note that read: “Once used, do not replace the chamber pot underneath the bed as the steam rusts the bed springs.”?

I’ve no idea why but there’s something particularly enjoyable about stage tales, they cry out to be reported, repeated and collated. And that’s just what we have here.

Oh, but he’s a shrewd one, that Gyles Brandreth. In explaining that he cannot include some of the best stories in his exhaustive Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes because he’s been unable to check their provenance, he’s cannily included them in his introduction. And I’m so pleased he did as they’re among the best.

On the subject of attribution, of course, unless you were actually there and saw or heard the anecdotes yourself, who knows how true they are? Let’s not forget we’re dealing with theatricals here and doubtless each retelling adds further levels of embellishment.

However, I’d love it if Dame Edith Evans tersely admonishing an enthusiastic, inexperienced young director with “Oh do sit down. I’ll find something for you to do in a minute” is true.

Maggie Smith

Maybe a Brighton audience member was there when Sir Ralph Richardson, grappling with Joe Orton’s singular dialogue, broke off to ask: “Is there a doctor in the house?” And then when a medic made himself known, added: “Doctor, isn’t this a terrible play?” before ploughing on.

Personally, I don’t care if they’re true. I don’t care whether or not it was the bibulous Wilfred Lawson who struck up a friendship with a fellow drinker in a West End pub and invited him to see a play at a nearby theatre. Well into the production, Lawson (or whoever) apparently nudged his new companion, adding: “This is a good bit. It’s where I come on.”

As is his wont – he’s also editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations – Brandreth’s introduction concentrates on the amusing. However, the book as a whole often veers more towards the profound, the stories culled from various theatrical biographies, features and interviews. Concentrating primarily on the English stage, the book stretches from the Bard and Henry Irving to Helen Mirren and Dustin Hoffman.

Surprisingly, given his friendship with Kenneth Williams, Brandreth has included remarkably few examples of the celebrated raconteur’s theatrical tales… maybe because the Carry On stalwart was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Charles Gray

Missing from the book, two of Williams’ most beloved stories are prime examples of actors’ insularity, their complete inability to see a world beyond the footlights.

Take the Australian ballet dancer and sometime Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Child Catcher, Robert Helpmann. For some unaccountable reason he once found himself having to prepare for a performance in a bleak football changing room. Perched on a chair near a bare lightbulb to apply an elaborate eye makeup, he was heard to mutter: “God knows how these footballers manage.”

Also in a world of his own was the distinguished Scottish actor Duncan Macrae, who was holidaying on a remote Hebridean island when a friend came to visit. He met his guest off the boat dressed in a cape, fedora and carrying a silver-topped cane. “We’ve been here a few days now,” he explained to his friend, “and we’ve blended in seamlessly.”

Of course actors are actors so we can never be sure whether that apparent otherworldliness is an act.

Take, for example, the story of violinist Yehudi Menuhin visiting Noel Coward backstage. After knocking Coward’s dressing room door, the Master enquired: “Who is it?”

Coral Browne


“Yehudi who?”

Omitted too is Coral Browne’s famous reaction to the giant phallus that stood centre stage in Peter Brooks’ production of Oedipus Rex. “Well,” she’s alleged to have drawled to her companion, “it’s no one we know.”

Among those I’ve heard named as her companion was fellow thespian Charles Gray. A notorious scuttlebutt, erstwhile Bond villain Gray once rushed down the steps of the Brompton oratory to share a no doubt salacious tidbit with Coral, who had just been to mass.

“Not now Charles,” she reportedly said, “can’t you see I’m in a state of f***ing grace?”

Perhaps you have to know Coral Browne to really appreciate those stories. Equally, knowing about their fractious relationship helps you understand that only Maggie Smith could stick her head round Laurence Olivier’s dressing room door while he was applying his Othello makeup and enunciate perfectly: “How now, brown cow.”

Those of us who inhaled Robert Morley’s endlessly entertaining memoirs or watched the likes of David Niven and Peter Ustinov on Parkinson will find many of the anecdotes familiar but that’s no bad thing – it’s useful to have them packaged, sorry curated, for us.

This, of course, is not a book to read from cover to cover – it’s one to dip into as and when the mood takes you. I heartily recommend you take the plunge.

  • The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes. By Gyles Brandreth, Oxford University Press, £20

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