The Jessie P. Knight Academy of Dramatic Art
God soon came up with an answer. Five days after my failed RADA notification, I received a curious letter. It read:
‘Of the students who failed at RADA, we have selected a number to audition for our new drama school in Northampton.’
The letter was headed: The Jessie P. Knight Academy of Dramatic Art, Harpole Hall, Harpole, Northampton and enclosed was a prospectus listing various tutors, all of whom looked very prestigious.
The Head of Acting was Noel Iliff, who had taught Voice and Radio Technique for many years at RADA, as well as being a member of the BBC Radio Drama rep between 1935 and 1962.
Simone Pakenham was the Theatre History tutor and author of several books. (She was one of the rich Pakenham family who lived at a very posh address in Islington.)
Then there was the Movement tutor, Molly Kenny and the Singing tutor, Andrew Downie, both of whom had taught at RADA. In fact, it turned out that all these people had been on the staff at RADA up until the time that Hugh Crutwell took over as Principal. When Crutwell had apparently sacked them, they all got together, and under the headship of Jessie P. Knight, they’d formed a drama school in Northampton. And they were now auditioning for their very first student cohort!
I looked at the prospectus and saw ‘RADA, RADA, RADA’ on the faculty CVs. ‘Wow!’, I thought. ‘This is pretty good!’ Added to which it was only £110 per term including board and lodging, whereas the fees alone at RADA had been £110. I instantly phoned Jock (at 2 shillings and sixpence) and said, ‘There’s this place called Harpole Hall. And, Dad, it’s got everybody who’s been at RADA, and it’s only £110 a term including food and accommodation.’
‘Well, send me the prospectus,’ Jock replied, ‘and I’ll have a look.’
So I sent him the prospectus and I waited with bated breath. Jock phoned Graham Sutherland to suss it out with him. (Though what did Graham Sutherland know about drama schools? He was a furrier, for goodness sake!) Graham perused the prospectus and approved of what he saw. So, Jock agreed that if I got in he would pay for my course. With that assurance, I decided to go along to the audition.
Lo and behold, that December I passed the audition, at which point Jock wrote to me asking for the full details so that he could arrange what was called the Exchange Control. ‘It’s jolly good to be a pioneer student at what may turn out to be a very good institution,’ he encouraged. Only time would tell.
Little by little things were getting better financially for my mum and dad, though politically things were pretty tough in Rhodesia. Shortly after my arrival in England, Dad had been badgered into starting some opposition party against Ian Smith, but he didn’t really want to go into politics. And in November, Daph had written to tell me how her friend Aileen had been arrested on Independence Day. She’d been wearing a black sash and carrying a banner saying ‘Ban censorship’ outside the Dutch Reform Church where G.O.S. (‘Good Old Smithy’) was in attendance. (As it was, Aileen Sawyer was beaten up yet again in the summer of 2007, this time outside the Harare Law Courts, this time by Mugabe’s CIO. She was in her 80s, but clearly age had not withered her courage, God bless her!) In December, Jock wrote to say that ‘Smith seems to have cooked our goose for all time and there will no doubt be a gradual decline in the economy.’ The end for Rhodesia had begun.
Meanwhile, Jock was working hard to complete a huge tender for LONRHO by December 30th, which meant that there was no point me going out to Africa for Christmas and no chance of my parents coming over to England. So it was decided that I would spend the festive season with the Sutherlands. A suitably festive time was had by all, and then, at the beginning of January 1967, Graham and Dare Sutherland took me up to Northampton to begin my time at the Jessie P. Knight Academy of Dramatic Art.
I was allocated a bedroom with the only other boys in the newly opened school, Martin Proctor and Rick James – who, lo and behold, was a black man!
‘Wow! Hey! What part of Africa are you from, my friend?’
‘I’m not. I’m from Antigua.’
I was delighted! A black man! Rick James had the most beautiful smile and absolutely shocking white teeth. He looked like a young black Rod Steiger with a jet black crew-cut, and he used to wear American college gear – white track shoes, loafers, and those UCLA-type big blue blazers. He was the coolest dude around. There were three of us boys to ten girls in that first year at the Jessie P. Knight Academy of Dramatic Art. There was Judy Hepburn, whom I fell for. She was half-Jamaican, very pretty, and she laughed a lot. She used to flirt with me hugely. Not that she’d really have had anything to do with me, but she was the first girl I’d ever met who ‘gave me the eye’. There was a girl called Ruth, who later transferred to RADA. Then there was Debbie Dallas, Susie Littler and Mary-Jane Someone-or-other, Anne Keaveney, Katie Flower, Miriam Khalvati and two other debutantes, whose names now escape me.
In addition to our dorm-like bedrooms, we had a billiards room and two sitting rooms – one for ‘noise’ and one for ‘study’. (‘I presume you spend most of your time in the latter, ‘wrote my father. And yes actually, I did.)
And there I was at Harpole Hall, Northampton, run by this extraordinary woman called Jessie P. Knight.
For years and years, Jessie had run the Harpole Amateur Dramatic Society, but what she really wanted to do was run a proper drama school. She’d loved actors ever since she’d dated the super-charming Errol Flynn when he was starring at Northampton Rep. (She wasn’t too keen on actresses, but she loved actors.) Her parents had been very wealthy and her father had owned this huge hall, with a big wing where all the students were now housed, and an enormous barn, which had been converted into a complete theatre.
Jessie was a large lady with a wart on the end of her tongue, at which she used to nibble in moments of intense concentration. She sported a grey wig which looked like something out of the Restoration, the kind that the flunkies wear in pantomimes when they bring on Cinderella’s coach. Indeed, it was the most extraordinary thing, and when the wind was up, she used to walk with her hands on top of her head to keep her wig from flying off. She wore large, shapeless garments with buttons all the way down her enormous frame, over which she wrapped a big grey cloak with a maroon lining. In this garb, she would sail into classes and interrupt the tutors – because she loved watching what we were up to. After all, it was her school and it was a brand new adventure, and she thrived on the excitement.
I loved Jessie P. Knight. She was like a grandmother to me – and she loved me. She loved Rick too, but Rick didn’t indulge her as much, though he could charm the pants off anyone, and Jessie was very susceptible to charm.
During the first term, our acting classes were focused on Chekhov. Noel Iliff adored Chekhov, so from morning to night we did Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard. (We never made it to The Seagull.) And Chekhov was quite a challenge for us three boys –because we had to play all the male parts. Rick James always got the best roles because he was black. Well, he couldn’t be black in the Vanya family, could he? Not in those days, anyway. So Rick James got to play Astrov, the lucky bugger. And I played Vanya, Serabriakov and Waffles. (Those were bloody quick changes.) Martin Proctor usually doubled with me.
Noel Iliff’s actor-training classes were based as much on story-telling as any formal system and one of the actors whom he held in great reverence was Ion Swinley. Ion Swinley had been an actor in the ’20s and ’30s and he was renowned for being able to ad lib Shakespeare. He was also renowned for gargling a glass of port before each appearance on stage and swallowing the contents; he could get through an entire bottle of port during a show. It was ‘good for his vocal cords’ apparently, but as the show went on, he’d become more and more drunk. During certain long tours when several scripts were played in rep, Swinley was famed for jumping from one play to another, happily skipping from Richard III to Henry VI in mid sentence. The whole company were so familiar with the plays that they’d carry on regardless. Suddenly there’d be a whole scene of Richard III half way through Henry VI – and the funny thing was, the audience didn’t seem to notice.
We loved the tales that Noel Iliff told us under the guise of acting ‘strategies’, especially the story of Swinley playing Mark Anthony opposite Cecil Trouncer’s Julius Caesar. One matinee, when all the other characters had left the stage for Mark Anthony’s oration, a deathly hush suddenly fell on stage. Instead of ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen…’ there was absolute silence. In the wings, the actor playing Metullus Cimber said to one of the cast members, ‘I’m going to go out and see what’s wrong with Ion.’ Out he strode onto the stage and there was Swinley, facing the audience absolutely impassively. Metullus Cimber walked up to Mark Anthony and raised his toga to his face so that the audience couldn’t see, and whispered, ‘What the hell is going on?’ To which Swinley boomed in perfect iambic pentameter:
‘My teeth are in the coffin with Caesar
And I must pause till they come back to me.’
Metullus Cimber looked down and saw the top set of Swinley’s teeth. They had fallen out of his mouth and were now lying on Cecil Tranter’s heavingly laughing body.
Yes, that first term at Jessie P. Knight’s Academy of Dramatic Art was a truly wonderful – if eccentric – time. Especially at the weekend. Harpole Hall sat in the middle of extensive grounds with a big lake and on a Sunday morning, we’d go out in a punt. Mrs Jones would cook us all Sunday roast, and if it was sunny we’d sit out on the lawns or just fart-arse about – they were balmy days.
From time to time, Mum would send juicy updates on her political activities. She once wrote, telling me of an evening when their local MP was due to attend a meeting with his constituency. Twenty women turned up including my mum, and they all sat on the front row, adopting various ‘nuisance tactics’:
‘Marise dropped her handbag for a start, scattering everything all over the floor whilst all and sundry climbed under chairs groping for her lipstick, eyebrow tweezers, letters, etc. Then Mary Meyers sat and took notes with a pencil that badly needed sharpening and it seemed to make a deafening noise, whilst Nola threw in a few “Nonsenses”, “Rubbish”, “Tripe”, etc. Roseanne next to me yawned, stretched her arms above her head and then dozed off as I just sat there like a fascinated rabbit trying to make sense of what was being said… Now we are having a large advertising campaign warring against the dangers of gossip but they who are the past masters (what reason did they give about Dad leaving the army?) are the only ones who need to be reminded of the evils of gossip.’
While Daph and her friends were wreaking gentle acts of sabotage, Dad wrote to me of his own attitude towards the Smith regime:
‘We don’t seem to be any nearer to reaching a political solution on Rhodesia and I think mandatory sanctions are going to make things pretty difficult although it will be some months before they are really felt.’
I wonder what he’d have made of Zimbabwe today.
* * * * *
Since my arrival in England, the Yeo family had remained my constant friends, and I would often go and visit them of a weekend in East Sussex. Cathy had grown into a real beauty with her peaches-and-cream complexion and her beautiful, blonde hair.
One weekend I went to her older sister, Sue’s 21st birthday party. It turned out to be quite an exhausting party, thriving late into the night, but I needed to head back to Harpole early on the Sunday monring. So at 10am, they put me on a train from Wadhurst back to Charing Cross Station in London, where I promptly fell asleep. When I eventually woke up, all the people in the carriage had changed. It was really quite disconcerting. I thought, ‘Jesus, it’s completely different.’ And I looked at my watch. It was four hours later, now 2 o’clock in the afternoon. ‘This is just crazy,’ I thought. ‘Why is it taking so long to get to Charing Cross?’
‘Excuse me,’ I said to the man sitting opposite me.’ I hope you don’t think I’m drunk or stupid, but we don’t happen...by any chance...to be going to Charing Cross, London, do we?’
‘Good God, no!’ he snorted. ‘We’re going to Hastings.’
‘Hastings?’ I thought. ‘Where the bloody hell is Hastings?’ (I’d only been in England about seven months and my geography wasn’t great.) ‘Oh, my! We must have shot straight through Charing Cross and be heading north towards Hastings.’
I stopped for a moment. Is there a railway line that goes north over the Strand from Charing Cross? I don’t know of any trains that go over the Strand. And where do they go? I can’t imagine. Do they go underground and then come up again on the other side?
Then the penny dropped. My History was better than my Geography. ‘No, no, no! William the Conqueror! 1066! Hasting is south!’ It was only then that I realised I’d been asleep on the train the whole way. The train had pulled into Charing Cross. Loaded up with passengers again. And pulled out again.
The next thing I knew the train had arrived in Hastings. I got off the train and walked over the bridge, where the British Rail man asked me for my ticket.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I haven’t got to where I’m supposed to be. I’m meant to be going to London.’
The British Rail guard shrugged wearily and let me off. I got back onto the Hastings-London train and set off again.
After a while, the train pulled into Wadhurst where all the rest of the party-goers from Sue Yeo’s 21st party were just getting on the train. It was now 4 o’clock in the afternoon and they’d all seen me off at 10 o’clock that morning. Sue, Cathy and the others piled onto a carriage further down from where I was sitting. I waited till the train chugged off and then I wandered into their carriage smiling, as their jaws all fell open at once.
‘What are you doing here?’ they asked in astonishment.
‘I went to sleep on the train and I’ve just come back.’
When we got to London, Cathy took me all the way to Victoria coach station, where she put me on a coach to Northampton. Where would I have been without Cathy Yeo?
* * * *
Just before the first term finished, Jessie P. K. (as I came to call her, much to the delight of my mother, for whom ‘P. K.’ stood for ‘Picanninny Kias’ – ‘little houses’, in other words ‘lavatories’) asked me, ‘What are you going to do over Easter?’ Because Jock had to go to Madagascar and Durban on business for LONRHO, it had already been decided by my parents that I should spend the Easter holidays in England.
‘I’ve got to get a job and find somewhere to stay,’ I replied, ‘because I can’t go back to Africa and my Dad will only pay my living expenses during the term-time.’
‘Well,’ said Jessie, ‘I can’t offer you any money, but you can stay here during the vacation and you can prune fruit trees and garden for me. I’ll feed you, too, as long as you do some work.’
‘That’s very generous of you,’ I beamed. ‘I’d love to.’
Up until then, all the students had been in the wing of the Hall, while Jessie was in the main house. But with my extended visit, she suddenly decided to move us boys into the main house: she liked having the boys around. Unlike the girls, with whom she was very forceful. She would walk into the girls’ room, yelling, ‘You people are disgusting, you live like pigs. I don’t know where you’ve come from, but do not live like this here, because Mrs Jones is the housekeeper and she tries her hardest and the least you can do is try your hardest! Now start cleaning up this place!’ Whereas we boys – we never abused the rules, we just got on with life and charmed her.
* * * *
The second term – the summer term – at Jessie P. Knight’s was just as madcap and eccentric as the first, and as the end approached, I knew that Jessie’s Academy wasn’t the place for me. It was too small, and in my heart of hearts, I was determined to go to RADA. We’d been chatting in the Common Room and someone had said, ‘Oh, So-and-So’s auditioning for Central’ or ‘So-and-so’s auditioning for RADA.’ I thought, ‘What the heck? I'm going to audition for RADA.’ So I prepared the piece, which had been in the back of my mind ever since that afternoon in Salisbury Central Library. It was the meeting with the lion from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion.
Androcles is a great part, a great exercise in acting. The piece is a kids’ play really – an excellent children’s play. I’d tried out Androcles in class a few weeks earlier and my fellow classmates had been falling all over the floor with laughter – because it’s such a physical play, it’s real psycho-physical theatre. A bloody great lion comes straight out of the bush, and Androcles almost cart-wheels backward, yelping, ‘Whoah!’ Every time I performed the speech, it was completely different, all depending on where my imagination was going on each occasion.
As for the classical piece, Rick James advised me, ‘Don’t do a piece that everybody knows. Don’t do Hamlet. They’ve heard a hundred Hamlets, maybe 400 Hamlets.’ So I read Cymbeline and I found this character called Posthumus Leonatus who has a speech all about jealousy. Now I knew about jealousy, because I was pretty jealous of anybody who spoke to Judy Hepburn and she had many adoring friends who came up from London to visit her. So I liked the emotion of the Cymbeline piece and could find a certain link with it.
I phoned up RADA, and I said, ‘Could I speak to the Registrar, please?’ By this time, of course, I knew there was a thing called a ‘Registrar’. The first time, I’d just gone up to the door and said, ‘Excuse me. My name’s Miles Anderson. I’ve come over from Rhodesia to audition for RADA and here’s my cheque.’ This time, I phoned up Richard O’Donaghue and I said, ‘It’s Miles Anderson here. I’m at the Jessie P. Knight Academy of Dramatic Art and I’d really like to audition for RADA. Can you tell me when the next auditions are, please?’
And he said, ‘Ah…well…we’re actually holding auditions at the moment. Did you apply?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I didn’t apply, but is there a chance ...?’
‘Hang on…just a moment… We’ve got a free place on Monday at 10.45. Can you come down for that?’
‘Yes, Sir. Absolutely!’
I got the Monday off classes and on the Sunday night, I boarded the mail train, the latest train, and ended up at King’s Cross station in the early hours of the following morning. On my first audition, I’d worn a suit. This time, I was wearing a big blue 1960’s jersey that my Mum had knitted me in royal navy blue, a tie and a light pair of blue jeans. I had a pair of Veldschoen shoes on, and my hair was down to my shoulders.
I found my way to RADA, and I did my audition. I gave my Posthumous Leonatus, and I knew it must’ve gone well because they said, ‘And what modern piece have you got?’ My ears pricked up; I hadn’t heard that one last time! I’d been told, ‘Stop. That’s enough. Thank you!’ (Hugh Crutwell, the Principle of RADA later told me that he’d actually said to his stage manager, ‘Get him off! Get him off!’ ‘Miles,’ he said, ‘you were straight from the middle of Rhodesia, you knew nothing.’) I did my very physical, cartwheeling version of Androcles, which also seemed to go okay, albeit somewhat unexpected for the auditioners. Then I left RADA and I caught the train back to Harpole Hall. Less than a week later, I received a letter with a London postmark. With a certain trepidation, I tore it open:
‘Dear Mr Anderson,
I am very glad to be able to offer you a place on the Acting Course beginning on 2nd October 1967. If you are able to accept please let me know by return of post.’
I raced to the Post Office and sent a telegram to my parents: ‘ACCEPTED INTO RADA. MILES.’
I was absolutely delighted. I knew now my career was headed on its true course.
* * * * *
The rest of my second term at Jessie P. K.’s continued with a certain joy and the summer holidays loomed up. Towards the end of that final term, Martin Proctor and I took a rather fateful trip to Dartington Hall in Devon one weekend.
Dartington Hall was a strange and magical place, where people spent the summer doing all sorts of courses – plays and music and dance. So we went down for a weekend and – honest to God – I’d never experienced anything like it in my entire life. The freedom was unbelievable: people were kissing and fondling each other underneath the trees, and doing things in public. (‘You don’t do that!’ I thought, my Presbyterian grandfather coming out in me.) But this was the mid-’60s. And there they all were, smoking weird substances and dinging a lot of finger cymbals and sitting around on the lawn and generally being hippy.
I can’t remember her name, but her father was the Minister of Information in Guyana. She was doing music...or maybe it was homeopathy…and I think her name was Claire. And somehow on that first night, we ended up in bed together. (This was my only sexual experience since Beverley in Beira.)
The next morning, I woke up feeling as awful as hell, and I spent the day trying to avoid her. Martin Proctor came up to me mid-morning and said, ‘Claire is looking for you.’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’
‘Why would she be doing that? What did you get up to last night, squire, hm?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Why? What are you saying?’
By this time I felt truly guilty. For some reason, sex and guilt went hand in hand in my book, and I had this picture of this big white-bearded man in my head, standing over me with moral indignation.
On the second night, there was a party. I happened to be talking to another girl, when Claire marched up to me and grabbed me by the arm.
‘Come here!’ she said and hauled me out of the room.
‘What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?’
‘What the fuck am I doing? You think you can just take me to bed and that’s it? Is that how little you think of me?’
I looked at her and she glared at me, and I realised there was only one way to rectify the situation.
We ended up under the piano in the music room.
I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning. Crept downstairs with my bags. Left a note for Martin, saying, ‘I think I’ll head back.’ (There was no way I could survive another moment of this pleasure-sodden, guilt-ridden place.) Got out onto the main road and began to hitch-hike my way back to Harpole Hall, all the way from Devon to Northamptonshire.
Pretty soon a truck picked me up and the journey quickly turned into the voyage from hell. The Devon scrumpy cider had turned my bowels to jelly. I tried to break wind as surreptitiously as I could, easing my farts through the seats of the truck.
‘Scrumpy, eh?’ said the driver, looking across at me and smirking.
I knew I smelt of scrumpy and sex.
By the time I reached Harpole Hall, it was 2 o’clock the next morning. I’d been on the road for 22 hours. (Stonehenge had been the highlight of the journey, a sunrise glimpse of the ancient monolith.) I snuck into Harpole Hall through the billiard room window and crept up the stairs. Jessie’s door was wide open with the light on. She was lying fully-clothed on her bed, with her cloak and shoes on. (She used to watch television in her room and fall asleep when the test card came on.) She had taken her wig off and laid it on her chest. She woke with a start and grabbed her wig, slapping it completely skew-whiff with half of it covering her face. She looked at me aghast and then came to her senses.
‘Oh, it’s only Miles. Hello,’ she said. ‘Where have you been?’
‘I’ve been down to Dartington Hall in Devon, Jessie, but I’ve come back early.’
‘Oh, yes,’ she said, ‘I remember. What’s the time now?’
‘Goodness. Do you want breakfast in the morning?’
‘Yes, thanks, Jessie. Night-night, see you tomorrow.’
And she fell back into a deep, snoring sleep.
* * * * *
Jessie P. K. actually produced some very good actors in that first year of her Academy. Susie Littler went to the National Theatre where she played many a juvenile lead. (Sadly, she died not long afterwards of cancer. She would have been a major, major, major star by now because she’d really started to make it in television.)
Two terms later in the spring of 1967, the Jessie P. Knight Academy of Dramatic Art was taken over by a man called Robert Henderson. Jessie had quarrelled with Noel Iliff and replaced him as Head of Acting with this smooth-talking American, Henderson. Like most men, Henderson charmed Jessie at first, but before long he began to terrorise her. It was almost as if he wanted her to die of a heart attack so that he could take her money and run the place himself. He was an ambitious man and he destroyed the school. Before long, he left to go back to London and start up a studio in a big church in Maida Vale. After he left, the Academy fell apart as Jessie herself had no real idea how to run a drama school. The school was closed and the property was sold off. Harpole Hall itself is still there, but it’s surrounded by a housing estate now.
There’s no question, I’d learned some wonderful things at Jessie P. K.’s: Simone Pakenham had worked hard on my voice and my accent, and Molly Kenny taught me everything I wanted to know about the basics of the body. More importantly, I got a sense that I could actually do it. When I left, Noel Iliff wrote me a reference saying, ‘You know how to work and, because you really are an actor, you’ll probably succeed...’ Thanks to Jessie P. K. and her eccentric entourage, I absolutely got a sense that: Yes, I can be an actor. I may not be the best yet, but I’m certainly not the worst.