Chapter 25: 'Thou shalt not lie'
It was 1970 and my first season at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’d already been rehearsing a play called London Assurance for a number of weeks, when the other half of the company came back from a tour of Australia and now they were going to play their season in London.
Sadly one of the actors had died while they were out in Australia, and various people were being recast, including myself. So, now I find myself playing some quite nice parts at the RSC - one of which is the Officer of The Court in Trevor Nunn’s production of A Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.
I was married to my first wife, Fiona, at the time and we were living in Brimpton, a little hamlet about ninety minutes from London. It was the first day of rehearsals of A Winter’s Tale and I had to get from Brimpton to the rehearsal rooms in Covent Garden. I’ve missed the train, so I run all the way from the tube station, but I’m now nearly an hour late.
I pitch up at the rehearsal room and as I walk towards the door, the Stage Manager, Ruth Atkinson, strides out of the room and in hushed tones screeches at me:
‘What on earth do you think you are doing? An hour late for your first day of rehearsals for A Winter’s Tale with Trevor Nunn! The Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company! What is your excuse?’
I don’t know what on earth prompted me, but I said, ‘I’m awfully, awfully sorry - but...my mother has just died.’
Ruth’s face whitens.
‘Oh my God. I am so, so sorry. Oh my God. Just wait there...Wait Just There.’
‘No, it’s alright, Ruth, I’ll come in with you.’
‘No, please’ she insists, ‘you just stay there.’
So Ruth goes back into the rehearsal room. And through the glass window in the door, I see her go up to Trevor, who’s talking to the assembled company about the design concept or something, and interrupt him. As she whispers in his ear, I see him cringe his shoulders and scrunch up his face and bend over a little in his chair.
He turns quietly towards the company and says, ‘Just a minute, please...’
There’s a collective look on the company’s face of: ‘What the hell’s going on?’
And Trevor walks towards me, opens the door and greets me in the corridor.
‘Oh Miles.....oh Miles, I am so so sorry ’
‘It’s quite alright, Sir,’ (I called every Director ‘Sir’ in those days). ‘It’s quite alright.’
‘Was it sudden?’
‘Well.....yes, yes it was...’ (Well, it certainly was!)
‘Oh my God, what an awful shock…’ (‘Awful shock!’ I thought. ‘It’ll be an awful shock for Daph! Jesus, God! How do I get out of this now?’ I can’t just say, ‘No, actually, I just missed the train.’ I just think, ‘Stay with it…stay with it…stay with it…’)
Trevor puts his arm around my shoulder.
‘Would you like to go and have a cup of tea, Miles?’
‘No, it’s quite alright, thank you, Sir. I’ll just sneak in the back.’
I came into the room and Trevor followed me in, and I could see the company thinking, ‘What on earth…?’
Of course, word got round pretty quickly, so that within a matter of hours, most people had heard that my mother had died. After Trevor had finished the company chat, actors kept coming up to me and sympathetically putting their arms round my shoulder, ‘Hello, Miles… Are you alright?’ (That palled expression that actors give you. It’s the same expression they give you when you’ve had terribly bad notices. I remember it well after my Macbeth at Stratford in 1989, when I’d had awful notices. As I came into the theatre the next morning, everyone had gone, ‘Hi…are you okay?’ smiling sympathetically. And I’d thought, ‘What’s the matter? What’s the matter? Why are they all asking if I’m alright?’ And then I’d realised the notices had come out and ‘Miles Anderson’s demented Stan Laurel…’ as Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail had called it, was there for all to see.)
As I’ve said Judi Dench was in the company playing Hermione and Perdita. She was like a great mum for the company. She took on everyone else’s problems, and she came up to me and she was most sympathetic. And I wanted to say to her, ‘Judi, it’s not true! My mother didn’t die, I just made it all up because I missed the train…’ But I just couldn’t. I knew I just had to go on with the lie. And I thought, ‘God Almighty, what am I going to do?’
As soon as we broke for coffee, I rushed to the phone and called my mum in Suffolk.
‘Hello, Miles, how are you?’
‘Daph, I’ve got something terrible to tell you…’
‘I was terribly late for my first rehearsal today –’
‘Oh no. What did you say?’
‘Well, you’re not going to like this, Daph…but I told them you were dead!’
‘I said, I told them you were dead!’
‘What! Couldn’t you just’ve said I’d broken a leg or something?’
‘No, Mum, this is the Royal Shakespeare Companuy. A broken leg wouldn’t have done. It had to be death, it couldn’t be anything less!’
‘Oh, my God,, what are you going to tell them when I come and see the play?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m hoping they’ll have forgotten by the time you come to see the show…’
Not that it was that much longer, it was only about three or four weeks, not long enough for people to forget such a close bereavement.
And of course, who should pitch up on the first night of A Winter’s Tale but my mother. And she decided to come back stage. And who should appear but Judi Dench?
And she said, ‘Hello, Miles.’
And I said, ‘Hello, Judi.’
And she said, ‘Who’s this?’
And I said, ‘This is my mother…’
Judi took a close look at Daph and said, ‘I thought you were dead.’
Without a pause for breath, Daph replied, ‘I’ve made a rapid recovery.’
I don’t think Judi talked to me for a long time afterwards. I don’t think Trevor Nunn ever found out, mercifully.