Letters from a stage manager from the 1930s

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My mother was Rose Temple, born in 1909 in Darjeeling in India. She was one of five children. Her father, Frederick Temple, was a civil engineer. His father, Rose’s grandfather, also named Frederick, had been Archbishop of Canterbury. Extraordinarily, her father’s brother, William, with whom Rose was very close, was also later to be Archbishop of Canterbury, probably the only father/son occupancy of the See of Canterbury in history. My mother, as was the custom in those days, was sent home to England for her education and only returned to India at the age of 18. She came back to England in around 1932-33, and in September 1933 she enrolled as a student at The Old Vic Dramatic School. Her parents were not that keen on her theatrical ambitions, but William Temple (quite a performer as an Archbishop himself) encouraged her.

Upon graduation, she used to tell us that disappointingly she did not achieve the level of acting ability that would guarantee a thespian career. But she loved the theatre so much that she chose to stay at The Old Vic to work in various guises, as an understudy, a prompter, and as an Assistant Stage Manager. My sister, Libby, remembers her telling us that, despite recognising that she fell short in her overall acting ability, she had a fine line in dramatic fainting on stage, the authenticity of which – she claimed – was ‘hugely acclaimed’. Among the other actors with whom she came in touch was one particular girl, who had joined The Old Vic from repertory, but who no-one thought could overcome her unattractive looks to be a successful actress. Her name? Flora Robson. Another famous acting name with whom Rose came into contact was Felix Aylmer, who acted in two plays with which Rose was involved, The Voysey Inheritance at Sadler’s Wells and Shaw’s St Joan at The Old Vic.

What I particularly remember of my mother as we were growing up (she died in 1993) was her extraordinary memory for poetry and for many Shakespearean plays. She could quote long passages by heart, a skill undoubtedly drummed into her at school but one very much honed at The Old Vic and at Sadler’s Wells under Lilian Baylis. Throughout her life Rose retained a very dramatic side, often demonstratively theatrical – something that my wife, Virginia, used to remark upon. At any rate, she went on from The Old Vic in late 1936 to join the BBC, then a newly developing organisation, where she used the elocution she had learned to help head up the new Children’s Hour under ‘Uncle Mac’, in the guise of ‘Aunt Rose’, and as such became a much-loved on-air figure for the children of England. She left all that in 1939, just as War started, to return to India to marry the man who was to become our father.

Following her death, I sorted through copious piles of letters and documents left behind. Among them were half a dozen 1934 letters sent to her parents about her life in London and in particular about her time at The Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells. It is clear that she revelled in the life and the challenges. Her letters reveal her admiration for Lilian Baylis, and her concerns to strive for perfection in managing the productions in which she was involved. She treasured a good luck note signed and sent to her by Miss Baylis. She quails at the recollection of the time when she raised the curtain at the wrong time. She has fond memories of some of the other stage managers. She recalls the crotchety visits of George Bernard Shaw to watch rehearsals of his play Saint Joan. And she helps arrange press visits to interview and photograph students related to famous people, herself included because of her Uncle William, the then Archbishop of York.

Throughout her life she retained enormous fondness for The Old Vic and she would be more than proud to know that her memories, recaptured through her contemporary letters of 80 years ago, might one day form part of a treasure trove of archival material to help mark the 200th Anniversary of one of London’s most loved theatres.

Hugh Davies, with input from Rose’s other children.

Rose’s letters

April 1934

My darlingest Mum –

Thank you so much for your letter & the cheque for £4. I didn’t write to thank for the gold sooner as I wasn’t sure if I would find you at Salisbury or not.

I do hope you & Freddy have enjoyed your jaunt & that all has gone well.

Today has been too perfect for words – & I have longed so much to be at Damerel. Since church I have sat out in the garden all day darning stockings. I was cold in church, even with a warm coat on but I was hot sitting in the garden with no coat at all.

How heavenly Damerel must be looking now with everything just beginning to come out. If only I had the car up here I would have had a marvellous day with Tiny Face. And after all this – I won’t be coming home at the beginning of May after all, because I got the job!!

When I got to the Theatre on Wednesday night I found a letter from Miss Baylis saying that they had decided to put on The Voysey Inheritance by Granville Barker at Sadler’s Wells for two weeks, & possibly three, from May 1st. And that they would like me to be ‘connected with the Stage management of the play’ – & offering me £5 for ‘the run of the play, up to three weeks’. (Which means about 33/- a week if it runs 3 weeks, – & £2/10 if it runs two!)

Granville Barker himself is going to produce & has rewritten a good deal of the play, – it ought to be frightfully interesting. Miss Wilson says that Granville Barker is one of the greatest producers England has known – he is fairly old now & has really given up doing anything, so it is rather an achievement to have got him.

They are going to charge West End prices in the hop of raising money for the building debt. Isn’t it rather fun to have been offered the job?! Rather good to be able to go into something straight away, – & I hope that perhaps it bodes well for next season. Two other girl students are to be in it – each playing a maid (two lines each!) & understudying a principal & they are getting 30/- a week each. So I do better than them in that line.

May Trench & Jane came to watch Macbeth one night – I went round & talked to them during the intervals & showed them round the Stage afterwards.

I have a very small part in The Rose without a Thorn & that is all, -& such as it is I can’t do it at all.

Masses of love,

Your own loving Rose

April 1934

My darlingest Mum,

How bad I have been about writing to you lately. I am so sorry but life has been fairly hectic with rehearsals for The Voysey Inheritance.

Monday was Shakespeare’s Birthday Festival at The Old Vic. A hectic evening when all the people who have ever acted at The Old Vic come back & do scenes from various plays. Arranging the programme must be a vile job as many of the people are acting in plays in the West End & have to be fitted at the Vic according to what time they get off their own theatres!

I arrived at the Vic about 6pm, having been at a Voysey rehearsal until then – & was greeted by Frank with a pile of 6 or 7 books & the request that ‘being the most reliable person he knew’ I would prompt! Prompting was no joke, – most of the scenes had only been rehearsed twice at the most & no one was sure of their words, & I knew nothing about most of the scenes. However, we got through all right.

The company did the last Act of Measure for Measure, – & I prompted that from the Stage!

Tomorrow is the last night of the season at The Old Vic. And on Thursday we open at Sadler’s Wells with The Voysey Inheritance – & my name will be on all the programmes as Assistant Stage Manager! It is to run until Wednesday 23rd, – so I hope to come down to Damerel about 24th or 25th.

Masses of love,

Rose

October 1934

Darlingest Mum and Daddy,

Thank you so much for your letters. What a dear little thought of Mothering’s about getting Vandyke to photograph me for the sake of Publicity! As a matter of fact, I had letters from two photographs asking if I would give them sittings ‘for press purposes’, but so far I haven’t had time to avail myself of either of them. And now this play ends on Saturday and I have got no part in the next, so that perhaps it is not worth while going now. I will have to think about it after we have got through the flurry of getting Richard II on, and I have had a chance to get my hair done.

As a matter of fact, for several days now I have been coming to the Vic at 10.30 and not getting away until after the show, which ends 11pm.

I have forgotten to bring my diary with me today and so I don’t think I will be able to remember much of what has happened this last week. But I think it was here all day last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Sunday I didn’t wake till 12 o’clock.

Yesterday morning I began by wandering round London trying to find props for Richard. I got here at 11.30 feeling somewhat shattered and then spent the next ¾ hour trying to ring up for other props. The rest of the morning and afternoon I spent making things. And then about 4pm we started on a lighting rehearsal of Richard. That eventually had to end at midnight in order that the electrician might catch his last train home, and we had only done the first two Acts. When we are going to light the last Act goodness knows.

This morning I had to be here for an Orchestra rehearsal. I am going to be on the Board and so have to mark in all the cues in red and blue pencil, – most complicated.

We have now finished the matinee and I must stop soon and get some food before the evening show.

Tomorrow and Friday we have got dress rehearsals of Richard. They will keep us fairly occupied all day, – but they will have to finish about 6pm, in order to strike the Richard sets and set up the Cleopatra ones again.

What a dull letter this is, – I am so sorry, but what can I do. I haven’t done anything else to tell you about.

Must fly and feed.

Masses of love, you very loving Rose.

October 1934

My darlingest Mum and Daddy,

We have just finished our first proper matinee of Richard II and I am writing in the dressing room, – I think I will make a habit of doing this during the season, it saves so much time instead of going home to write.

Life has been fairly hectic since I last wrote. On Thursday I had to be here at 9.30 for a rehearsal of the cut version of Richard (performed by the understudies) for the benefit of the LCC school children. Then at 11.45 we embarked on a proper dress rehearsal. I was in a state of complete panic, being on the board and doing all the stage management. There were several bad mistakes and tempers got somewhat frayed towards the end of the day. At 5.45 I at last managed to get away and have some food (the first bite I had had since 8.30 that morning! U had been hard at it ever since I got to the Vic and hadn’t had a chance of getting any food before that). That is one of the snags of stage management – it is so very much a whole time job. The actors can go away between their entrances and get food or a spot of rest, but the stage manager has to be on the job the whole time.

However, we had a stop at 5.30 in order to set the stage again for Cleopatra that night. And I had a bit of a lie down in the dressing room before the evening show.

On Friday I was here again at 10am to go through the Prompt Book with Mr Cass to take notes about the mistakes which had happened in Thursday’s Rehearsal. At 12 we embarked on our second dress rehearsal, – it went a great deal better than the first and I didn’t make any glaring mistakes, though I wasn’t nearly quick enough on the music and light queues (or cues?).

That rehearsal ended at 4 and I had tea in the bar with Mr Cass while he gave me some further notes, – I had been brought some food during rehearsal by Frank that day, so I didn’t do at all badly. I had a good long rest before the evening show.

On Friday we had a word rehearsal in the rehearsal room of Richard during the morning. A matinee of Cleopatra, – Goose came to that and came round after for a moment or two. Then while we had tea Frank and I tried to work out the cuts for the LCC Matinee and get them properly entered in the prompt book. I had rather a blow that night, during the show, when Frank told me that he is going off Stage Management, and is going to do nothing but act in future, for the rest of this season. Things have been frightfully difficult over these two shows, both the designer and the producer keep on making alterations right up to (and after) the final dress rehearsals and then poor Frank has to bear the brunt when things, rather naturally, go wrong. He and Mr Cass very nearly had a row on Friday during the rehearsal, and Frank said that it was impossible for him to go on working under those conditions so he went to Miss Baylis and has got himself taken off the stage management.

It is very wretched, as he has been so very delightful to work with. They are now trying to find someone else to take over his job, – won’t it be awful if the new man takes an instantaneous dislike of me, or if I can’t beat the sight of him! Anyway I am afraid this rings the knell of my doing any more acting for the rest of the season, – I have a feeling that I will now be relegated to stage management pure and simple, with no little reliefs in the way of parts.

On Monday I came here at 10.30 and went through a word rehearsal in the rehearsal room. Then we had a setting and lighting rehearsal on the stage, and then I helped the scene painters to paint the stage cloth, and even so I was left with about 2 and a half hours to fill in before the evening show. I have never in my life been so sick with fright and nerves as I was all Monday, – I should think being a bit tired had something to do with it, but I was in such a state that when anyone talked to me or even looked at me I was on the verge of bursting into tears. It was simply frightful, I didn’t know what to do with myself I was in such a state of dither. There is something so utterly irrevocable about taking up the curtain, – whatever happens after that one has got to flounder through somehow. And I knew that if I mucked things up (and it is only a question of switching on the wrong light our of 24, for something to go wrong!!) it didn’t only affect me but the whole company.

However, everything did go off all right, – I didn’t make any mistakes, and the play had a madly enthusiastic reception and very good notices in Tuesday’s papers.

Yesterday morning I had to be here at 10 for an LCC matinee rehearsal. The matinee had to being at 2 and finish at 4. It was somewhat shattering going straight into the cut version of the play just after coping with the strain of a First Night, – we made one mistake right at the beginning (in a place where there was no cut!) and Mr Cass came hurrying round in a flurry and proceeded to roar at everyone, but we managed to sort the thing out, and I don’t suppose the school children knew there was anything wrong. However, in that short time Mr Cass managed to get the other ASM all het up, and during the course of the afternoon Malcolm said to me ‘I’m going off the stage management too, – I’m not going to stand here and be treated like a stage hand.’ So that it that. And I wonder how long Mr Cass will go making the new stage manager walk out on him!!!!

Yesterday’s matinee finished at 4 and I at last got a chance to do a spot of shopping. I went off to Evans who were having a stocking sale, and indulged in six pairs of Wolsey Prelude (you see them advertised a lot in Vogue).

This morning we embarked on Much Ado About Nothing, and at present I seem to be the only person who is having anything to do with the stage management of it! I wonder when they will get the new man.

I am afraid this all must be very dull for you, – anyhow I must stop now. I want to hammer out a line or two and there isn’t much time left if I am to get any food before the evening show.

Masses of love to you both,

Your very loving Rose.

November 1934

Darlingest Mum and Daddy,

I am so very sorry I missed a letter to you last week. Actually I began to write one here on Thursday morning (having got up specially early to do it!) but it seemed such a very short and sketchy effort by the time I had to leave here, that I decided to lug a typewriter to the Vic and write some more during lunch time. It was a fatal mistake, as we were rehearsing Much Ado and didn’t stop until about 5.30, and not till then did I remember it earlier I would have posted it just as it was. Anyhow I will know for another time, and will know that it is better to get off a scrap than to send nothing at all.

On Saturday morning the new stage manager arrived and I spent a good deal of time showing him over the place and introducing him to the stage hands. He is a dear little fellow, rather quiet and like a church mouse, and his very appropriate name is ELF Stevens!! But in spite of his quiet and mouse-like demeanour he has a very good firm method with the producer during dress rehearsals and insists on knowing EXACTLY what is to happen in the various scenes, even when the Producer has said ‘Let’s get on, we can’t bother with that now’, – Elf just shouts back across the footlights, ‘We can’t leave it yet, I MUST know what I am supposed to do.’

Thursday was a very hectic day, with a dress rehearsal going on in the rehearsal room, while there was a lighting and setting rehearsal going on on the stage. As soon as the rehearsal finished, which was about 5.45 (in order for them to set again for the evening performance of Richard II), I had to help Elf to make a lighting plot for the electrician to work by.

On Friday we had our first proper dress rehearsal, on the stage and with the orchestra. It was very triumphant from the stage management point of view, and nearly all the hold ups were caused by actors, and not, as usually happens, by the stage not being set.

On Saturday morning we rehearsed bits and pieces. After the matinee I lay down in the dressing room and managed to get a spot of sleep before the evening show.

Monday I was at the theatre all day doing various jobs – we had a lighting rehearsal in the morning which involved helping Elf to remake the plot during the afternoon.

The first night of Much Ado went off very successfully from our point of view, although the production and the acting haven’t had very good notices. It is such a joy to have got on to a short show at last, – both Cleopatra and Richard never ended before 11pm, but this one is over before 10.30!

Yesterday morning I went to the Vic at 11 and we began on the very first rehearsal of Saint Joan. I am sure Mum will be interested to hear that Felix Aylmer is playing Warwick. He was old Mr Voysey in The Voysey Inheritance, the one you thought so very good.

After lunch we had the fifth of the LCC Matiness, – it was rather an effort switching back to Richard just after the first night of Much Ado, however we managed to get through with no mistakes.

Must stop, – masses of love to you all,

Your very loving Rose

November 1934

Darlingest Mum and Daddy,

We have been busy all the last week with rehearsals of Saint Joan.  They have been slightly complicated by the fact that Bernard Shaw  now comes in every morning and has altered a good deal of what has been rehearsed during the past weeks!

But of course it makes it awfully interesting hearing him speaking about his own play, – he is very amusing too.  But it must be rather infuriating for Mr Cass, the production has really been almost entirely taken out of his hands and yet his name will go down on the programme as Producer.  Elf Stevens (the stage manager) has said to me he is going to put on the programme, – ‘Produced by Henry Cass under Divine patronage’! which I think is rather neat!  My Lady Mother may be rather shocked to hear that G.B.S. is commonly referred to as ‘God’. And one hears remarks such as ‘Has God come yet?’ ‘Yes, he’s sitting in the Stalls’, and ‘What has happened to God’s notebook?’

He first put in an appearance last Thursday morning, and it so happened that day that the press representative had got a photographer here that morning as she was going to take a photo of the students with ‘well-known parents’, – I had had to go round and collect them for her.  When she came I said ‘I have got all the people you want.  But Shaw himself is here and is taking the rehearsal’.  At the first opportunity she rushed up to him on the stage and said ‘I am the press representative’, to which he answered ‘Then you have no business to be allowed in during the rehearsals’, and when she went on to say that quite by accident she had got a photographer here and it would be such a good advertisement for the play if she could have a photo of Shaw taken during a rehearsal, he became very firm and quite angry.  He said he knew all about those sort of accidents (which was rather unreasonable as he had told no-one that he was coming that morning and had just turned up out of the blue).  However, he flatly refused to be photographed on the stage.  He said ‘That is the trouble with the theatre now-a-days, too many people are getting behind the scenes and know what is going on and all the illusion is lost’.  However, at last he said he would allow himself to be taken coming out of the stage door with Mary Newcombe and they went off to have it done.  But I don’t know what sort of a photo the man managed to get, as Shaw didn’t stand still for one second, he just clapped on his hat and marched straight out of the door without stopping!

It is already after 7pm and I must stop now.

Your very loving Rose

Do you have an Old Vic story to share in the countdown to our bicentenary? We’d love to hear from you

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