Spring 2005, Mission Viejo, California
I was at work, struggling with some pesky design problem and the phone rang. A plummy English voice inquired whether we are interested in developing web sites for automobile dealerships. We’ve been referred by someone, the Englishman intoned as if addressing the House of Lords. As he was also in the web business, selling something or other to car dealers, he was looking for someone to work with. We were meant to be just the right people. He was a very good, silver-tongued salesman. Cautiously, I requested more information, he promised to email it and we would take it from there. I missed the name, but I caught that was calling from Santa Monica, California.
As we wrapped up, I asked where he learned to speak so nicely, Queen's English, no less, does he play a couple of chukkas of polo on Saturdays or is it cricket these days. We bantered back and forth a bit and we narrowed down his place of origin to Edinburgh, Scotland, not the city itself, but the outskirts thereof. He was an ex-military man and I could sense the barrel chest over the phone, Sah!. He mentioned some army base, a familiar place that I remembered from my Edinburgh days. I told him that I knew the base in question; visited there once on an invitation from some officer, a Captain...
….there was a long pause...
Spring 1975, Edinburgh, Scotland
I have the grand title of Stage Manager in the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. It is a fascinating job that often requires long hours for very little money. The Director gives the play life and I, as the Stage Manager, make it work. I am in charge of the technical as opposed to artistic aspects of the production. This means making sure that scenery, costumes, props, sound, lighting and also actors, actresses and stage staff are all in the right place at the right time, doing the right stuff. I am a facilitator, organizer, enabler, cajoler. I boost fragile egos, referee actress' catfights and soothe actors rendered speechless by anxiety attacks. Sometimes the problems are technical, such as tracking a period piece of furniture or developing special effects and props.
For example, one production included a violent bar fight scene that is broken up by MPs subduing the fighting soldiers using batons or truncheons. We were in a relatively small theatre that seated only about 750 people so everyone was quite close to the stage and making the fight appear realistic was quite a challenge. High contrast lighting would help, but ultimately someone will have to appear to be hit by a baton on the head. How do you make a working baton that appears realistic but does not cause injury? That was a question I put to our Prop Mistress, Cecilia. Cecilia was a former sword swallower and fire eater and she always wore long skirts to hide the terrible scars from burns she received while casually strolling barefoot on hot coals. But she was a very good and respected propmaker. As I mentioned the batons, her eyes lit up and she assured me she knew what to do and would have a sample ready in a few days. I was glad to be able to tick off that problem as solved.
A few days later, Cecilia proudly presented me with a two foot long, two inch diameter black object. It looked like a massive dildo on steroids.
"A bit heavy, Cecilia", I said, barely able to lift the thing with one hand.
"Don't worry about that", Cecilia replied, "it's perfectly safe."
This prop baton had a core of half inch tempered Sheffield steel with solid latex formed around it. It was heavier and more lethal than regular wooden police batons. I mentioned to Cecilia that perhaps the baton was more suited for SWAT forces, deadly as the thing appeared to be.
She said: "Hit me with it". I tapped her on the shoulder. "Harder", she said. So, I smacked at her bit more. "No, hit me on the head". I beaned her, but not too hard. "Hit me as hard as you can". Maybe there was some magic to this after all. So I hit her with the baton really hard on the head and she just stood there grinning at me.
I decided to further test the baton so I hit myself on the head with it, not too hard...and knocked myself out cold. When Cecilia revived me using some acetone she had handy, I politely asked that the baton be redesigned using balsa wood and polystyrene foam. Without the tempered steel core, preferably, thank you very much.
But it was actually another incident that placed Cecilia firmly in the theatrical lore. While preparing for a September production with a lot of specialty props, Cecilia had to come in on a hot Sunday afternoon to finish up a couple of prop coffins. She was alone in the large scenery workshop and there was very little ventilation. As she worked on the coffins she got hotter and hotter and being a free spirit, she gradually removed all of her clothes, confident that she'd hear if anyone came in and would have time to cover herself. But after a while, Cecilia was tired and in need of a break, so she climbed into one of the comfortable, cosy coffins to rest...and promptly fell fast asleep.
At twilight, the Master Carpenter stopped by to pick someting up from his office. As he walked through the dimly lit and quiet workshop, he was horrified to see a ghostly white apparition, a tad on the podgy side, totally nude with pendulous breasts and flowing black hair, rising slowly from a coffin in the middle of the workshop and brandishing a claw hammer.
The Master Carpenter was put on sick leave for two weeks afterwards, but he was not the same man when he returned.
Just about everything that happens with a production, passes through my hands. I have three assistants, my English is by now passable and I am a ripe 24 years old.
The Royal Lyceum is pretty prestigious. There's a persistent rumor that, soon, it'll become The Scottish National Theatre, which ultimately does not happen. Ever. But this year, there's an ambitious plan to put on a major, groundbreaking production as part of the Edinburgh Festival. This is a big deal and the cream of Scottish actors are cast in this ensemble piece about the Scottish army and one man's rebellion against it.
This dramatic opus has it all: the stuffy major with a libidinous wife, a hairy-arsed jock who has an epiphany and realizes life is more than spit and boot polish, the whisky-sodden ghost of an old army chaplain. It is collection of stereotypes placed in a bleak fortress-like setting complete with watchtowers and rowing searchlights. The somber mood is reinforced by sporadic gunfire and theatrical fog, but there is some full frontal nudity for light relief. The play is called "How Mad Tulloch Was Taken Away".
I know next to nothing of the Scottish army life beyond the usual myths: the Scots were brave beyond reason, bagpipes were loud and when a Scottish regiment marched be-kilted into battle, the enemy invariably ran in blind terror screaming: "THE BLOODY WIMMIN ARE COMIN'!".
As part of my research, I need to separate the myth from reality and see if I can scrounge some equipment from the Army; a few rifles, a light cannon, a tank or two, some uniforms and so on. Stuff we might need.
So I call the nearest barracks, the home of the Black Watch Regiment, and speak to a friendly Captain. All I am after is a visit to the barracks and a loan of some materiel. Instead, I receive an invitation to a luncheon in the Officers Mess. Fine.
On the appointed day, we - a couple of female stage managers wanted to come along - meet at the theatre, I call the captain and confirm that we'll be arriving just before noon by taxi.
The Captain replies:
"Good, the press will be waiting".
"Ehm, what PRESS?!".
"Well, we have reporters from The Times, The Guardian, The Scotsman, The
Daily Mirror, The Sun, The Jewish Chronicle, The Daily Telegraph, BBC,
STV, and so on...".
I'm in a panic - obviously there is some confusion, a terrible mistake. I scramble, even try to think of some celebrity to take along, to deflect the press. Barbara Windsor, a squeaky, pint-sized, Cockney comedienne with big tits is in town, so I try to reach her in her hotel, but she's too hung over to face the public. The Theatre Director wisely refuses to help..."this is your mess, Karel…", he hisses.
So, off we go, piling into an Austin cab and 20 minutes later, we're facing a tableau straight from a shortcake box lid. A lone bagpiper, mounted on a pure white horse, in full regimental regalia, playing a lament in our honor just outside the barrack gates. It is way cool! But behind the piper are the hyperactive members of the press, jockeying for position, waiting to see ...someone, anyone famous, show a leg, fall on their face, offer them a drink...whatever. Instead, they get us. Four scruffy techs, crawling out of a cab, self-consciously straightening ties and adjusting hair. The Captain, also in full dress plumage, is there. Eventually, someone has to tell the press that this is it. So, I mosey over and tell them they've wasted their time. They react with the usual restraint: "Oh, shit! Fuck this! Whaaat?! No tits?! Where's Rod Stewart?" They climb into their jalopies and unceremoniously bugger off in search of real stories.
And that is that. We tour the barracks filled with red-haired jocks polishing their boots and dutifully saying what a great life they have in the army and we even get a loan of some stuff, not the weaponry, but useful things all the same. The promised and eagerly anticipated luncheon follows. The Officers Mess is actually a nice bungalow on the barrack grounds. There is quite a crowd that day; the full contingent of regular officers and a few Canadian officers who are visiting. The food is served on regimental silver by a small army of waiters, who are all, traditionally from the days when the Sun did not set on the British Empire, coal black, and wear white gloves.
Everything is quite civilized until the toasts start. We drink to Her Majesty the Queen, we drink to her Majesty's corgies, to Pierre Trudeau, to Pierre Trudeau’s wild wife, to Bonnie Prince Charlie, - and we drink and drink. Mostly port that came with the Stilton cheese. Potent stuff, that port. We all get tired and very emotional.
Eventually, goodbyes are slurred, transportation procured. We have a show to do that evening and we stumble through it on autopilot fueled by another bottle of the deadly port that the Captain generously liberated for us from the regimental wine cellar.
Thirty Years Later, California
...after the long pause, I heard on the phone:
"That was me, that officer was me! I am Captain Devon"
We met later in the week for dinner by the ocean and I took a bottle of port with me. Just in case we wanted to toast Her Majesty. Again.
A couple of footnotes
• Cecilia the Prop Mistress
As I mentioned, Cecilia, was a fire eater and evidently she was a bit older than I thought. After I posted this article, I googled "Cecilia" (not her real name) and an article dating back to 1957 came up. At that time, Britain had a fuel rationing system in place following the Suez crisis. The rationing lasted only a few months, but Cecilia needed gasoline for her fire eating act. So she applied to the appropriate ministry and requested that she is assigned a volume of gasoline to perform her act. She was assessed as being capable of producing 1/2 horsepower and was given the corresponding volume of gasoline per month.
• Andy Phillips - "Tulloch" Lighting Designer
Andy was a legendary figure at the time for a couple of reasons. Andy NEVER used color in his lighting design, only pure white light. It's a bit like cooking without salt, pepper or spices. He was a minimalist and somehow it worked for him. Andy was also known to have a on/off relationship with Glenda Jackson, a popular actress at the time and later a successful politician. I did not know him well at all, but I met him once in a Bennets Bar in Edinburgh in the early seventies. He was sporting a Pulsar digital watch, that cost hundreds of pounds and was very cool. That was my very first introduction to the digital world.