Stephanie Cole is one of our best-loved actresses. She is currently on tour with THIS MAY HURT A BIT which is at the Bristol Old Vic from 29th April.
Best known for her work on television in series like Tenko and Waiting for God she is never happier than working on stage. After graduating from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School more than fifty years ago she started out in provincial rep. I asked her what she remembered about the good old days.
‘They were extraordinary times. One of the things that strikes me now is remembering the unbelievably basic conditions in which we worked. At Lincoln Theatre Royal there was no hot water, it was all cold and I remember having to virtually crawl under the stage if I had an entrance on the far side of the stage and couldn’t get round the back. On one occasion I was struggling up the stone steps when I came face to face with an enormous bloody cockroach. I had a similar experience when I was doing The Hostage at Lincoln. I was on stage with Penelope Keith and Bridget Forsyth. I had a bit of business with a crate of beer bottles. My character was sitting there drunk with a bottle of Guinness. I went to drain the dregs from the bottle and to my horror, as I brought it to my lips, I looked down and saw cockroach inside the bottle staring out at me.’
And how did you get started in the business? What made you want to become an actress?
‘I was born in Solihull but we had moved down to north Devon during the war. We often visited relatives in the Birmingham area and at the age of three, in 1944, I was taken to the Birmingham Alexandra Theatre, run by Derek Salberg. I can’t remember what the pantomime was but our family was in a box and G.H. Elliot, whose bill matter was The Chocolate Coloured Coon, came on and I showed considerable political correctness by screaming the house down and having to be taken out.’ For those who don’t remember, G.H. Elliot was a white variety artist who blacked up like Al Jolson. He always dressed in white and his famous songs were Sue, Sue, What’s a Coon to Do? and Lily of Laguna. A class act.
‘Because we were in north Devon we didn’t really have access to any live theatre but I do remember at the age of five wanting to be in a Disney cartoon. I wanted to be Donald Duck. When I was about eight we moved to a village between Bristol and Bath. My mother loved plays and opera and my step father loved variety. We didn’t have two brass farthings to rub together, but when we did my mother would take me to sit in the gods at either the Bristol Old Vic or the Bath Theatre Royal. So I saw a huge amount of theatre and when I was about thirteen or fourteen I would go by myself or with friends to see things. The whole thing was magic to me. I still believe the best phrase in the English language is “once upon a time” because that’s what theatre is about. I don’t remember a time when I wanted to do anything else.
‘The Old Vic at Bristol was wonderful because in the company at that time were people like Leonard Rossiter, June Jago and Josephine Tewson. I can remember Alan Badel coming to do something and a very young Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins, so I was watching people who became great actors. It was the most amazing kind of schooling. I was offered a second year at Bristol by the director who was then John Hale; Val May was just about to take over. I’d already written round everywhere and had been offered a job at Lincoln so I went to the general manager, Nat Jenner, who was a truly great man of the theatre, to ask what I should do. He said I should go to Lincoln and play all the parts. So that’s what I did and I found myself aged 18 or nineteen playing all the great big female parts alongside Penelope Keith.’
You were at Lincoln the season before me. Do you remember how every second week we would take our play to one on the theatres near-by for a week? The whole company would travel there and back each night in a coach.
‘I remember the first time I went out to Scunthorpe on the bus from Lincoln. I have a memory, I’m sure it’s wrong, of the town consisting of one long street with a steel works at one end and a steel works at the other. But anyway, it was rather grim and as we drove in we passed this butcher. And they use to write on the window in white paint what they had on offer and I remember this shop said in large white letters “Tripe de Luxe”. We arrived at the theatre and us newcomers were told that on no account should we flush the loo or run water during the show. The cold water tank was actually above the auditorium and if a tap was turned on or the loo flushed the only thing the audience could here was gurgling and splashing. We had to be terribly careful but I do remember doing The Cat and the Canary there once and the character Mammy, who was this sort of psychic, had to go into a trance. There was no such thing as PC in those days so she was blacked up and she had this line, “Tell me the name, tell me the name,” and somebody backstage pulled the loo chain and drowned out the answer.
‘Audiences in those days were very loyal. They would come week after week. Rep encouraged that sort of loyalty. There were theatre-goers club where you’d meet the cast after the first night. People were interested. Rae Hammond, who was manager at both Salisbury and Cheltenham reps, had a page in each programme saying where former members of the company were, when they were on telly and the audience were interested. Without that sort of loyalty and continuing interest, which you can never get in a touring house, of course you have to do lots of marketing and publicity. You have to find a new audience for every show virtually.’
Click here to read our review of This May Hurt a Bit
Stephanie Cole was talking exclusively to Michael Hasted
Text and photos © Michael Hasted 2014. All rights reserved. No reproduction in part or whole without express prior agreement.
This interview was first published in the April 2014 edition of The Cheltonian www.thecheltonian.com