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Love Story

I want to tell you a story. A story about, well …stories. But first I have a confession to make …I can’t sleep!

Don’t be alarmed. This always happens to me when I find a great story. And let’s face it, what greater story is there than the story of stories? My personal best (or worst) is three nights without a moment’s shut-eye. And it was entirely my father’s fault. He’d given me a book to read, telling me it was ‘bloody brilliant’, but I was, quite frankly, more than a little suspicious. This scepticism sprang not from dynastic antagonisms (this was no Game of Thrones or Succession) or Oedipal conflict (another great story) but rather my father’s oddball criteria for selecting literature: the type-setting and quality of paper. Twice, three times a week, he would take my sister and I to the Fulham Public Library to get more books, more stories, to fill our less-than-storybook lives with. I went back there recently. To the library and, by association, my childhood. Half a century had passed, and apart from a bank of PCs the place hadn’t changed at all. But back to the story. My father’s library book that had occasioned chronic insomnia. The paper was nice to the touch. The font was easy on the eye. And it did have that, well, frankly arousing aroma familiar to all but the most prudish of bibliophiles. So it wouldn’t hurt to read a page. Or two. Then, what do you know, it turns out to be the single most amazing story I had ever encountered! And I had uncovered more than my fair share by that point. For a biblical seven years I had ‘read’ for the story departments of film and television companies. Warner Brothers, The Ladd Company, Goldcrest. Twenty-five quid per script, thirty per novel or non-fiction book. Two or three scripts or books a week (on a good week). And the best weeks were when Stanley Kubrick was looking for a story. Boxes of books arrived at Wardour Street every week. As many as we could carry, both physically and mentally. Then disaster struck. Stanley Kubrick decided what his next film would be ...and my radio broke. On exactly the same day. No more boxes of books to keep me in the manner to which I’d become accustomed. No faithful little Roberts radio to populate my tiny Notting Hill bedsit with ‘The Afternoon Play’ and The Archers. After three days (and very long nights) of unbearable silence I walked to Earls Court and the 'Empress' Telephone Exchange where my father worked and asked him to fix the radio. Forty years on and I can't remember if he did actually fix it or not. Because in a scene reminiscent of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Chapter One in the story of Christianity) as I strode back down the Warwick Road a shaft of rare spring sunshine struck the window of the Jobcentre. "Commissionaire Wanted. New London Theatre." That night I ironed my one good (secondhand) suit. The next morning I overslept and spent my last fiver on a taxi. "New London Theatre?? Never heard of it, Mate," the Cabbie was baffled. And then he dived deep into his database: "Isn't that where there they have the snooker? And 'This Is Your Life?' I was late for my interview. The Manager was not impressed, but the next day I was called back to Parker Street. "Tell them a joke, give them free coffee while they wait, wrestle them to the ground if you have to, but nobody leaves this box office without buying a ticket." It was kind of ironic that the first show I worked on didn’t have a story; it was bound together by music, dance, production design (light and sound) and, most importantly, sheer physical energy. But that doesn’t mean that I went cold turkey on my story addiction. On the contrary, everywhere I looked there were larger than life characters and events to feed my habit. Like being summoned to the Dress Circle to confront an ‘intruder’ and being greeted by a bearded giant who could easily have snapped my spine between thumb and forefinger. “Can I help you, Sir?” I’d asked gingerly.

“Don’t you recognize me, my child?”

“Uh, not exactly, Sir?”

“I am the risen Lord Jesus Christ, The One True God.”

There was a hundred foot drop below. I took him by the hand and led him back down the stairs to the foyer, where he promptly decided that he wanted to ascend in glory once again. Hand-in-giant-hand we climbed back up the stairs, back to the hundred-foot drop. And once again I persuaded him to walk back down again. By this time the police had arrived, and my companion, who had been as gentle as Jesus (Praise be to God!) for the previous half hour suddenly saw red (or more likely it was the blue of their uniforms) and charged. It took four policemen to pin him to the floor, one holding down each flailing limb.

And it took a further two hours before my heartbeat returned to anything like normal.

Back then we had our own Giant-In-Residence in Brian Blessed. As elder Statesman it fell to our Old Deuteronomy/man-mountain mountaineer to make the speech in the band-room when Steve Tate (our first Gus) left for ‘Blondel.’ Brian then lifted a brightly wrapped shirt-box aloft with the line: “I hope it fits,” and only the keenest eye could detect the tiniest tremors of his rock-hewn forearms. Steve obviously didn’t see them, because he stepped forward to take the present and immediately fell flat on his back (the shirt-box disguising a complete weight-lifting set).

Brian loved remaining on stage to talk to the children during the Interval, so fur was bound to fly when it was suggested that, by coming out of character, he was undermining the power of both his role and the show itself. His response, rumour has it, was not out of character: “I quite understand, Old Chap. That’s a very valid point, and I am grateful to you for pointing it out to me. But I should also point out, that if you did decide to stop me talking to the audience …then I will tear your theatre down brick by brick.”

A third giant to cross our threshold was a young athlete and newly crowned British Heavyweight Champion, Frank Bruno, who was en-route to the Weigh-In at The London Rooms (located below the New London Auditorium).

“Excuse me, Mate, I’m looking for the weigh-in?”

“You’ve just come through it,” I replied.

“Sorry???” “It’s the way-in, and the way-out.”

“No, no I need the weigh-in.” “Ah, the ‘WEIGH-IN’. Oh that’s up here, follow me.”

“What is this place?” Frank asked as I led him across the New London Foyer.

“It’s a theatre,” I told him and he nodded uncertainly, little realizing that he would eventually spend more of his career on the stage than on the canvas. And then the doctor emerged who had been booked to weigh the opponents. “Where have you been?” he snarled angrily, “You’re late.” And then, to my utter amazement, he hit Frank on the arm. And I couldn’t help wonder if this other gentle giant, smiling back good-naturedly, was really cut out for the fight game.

But the biggest giant I had the very great good fortune to meet was the Theatre-Going Public. And the stories they could tell me. It was quite a different animal back then. Monday night was ‘Fur Coat Night’ as ‘real’ theatregoers shunned weekend performances over-run with the hoi polloi, commonly referred to as ‘coachloads of Wigan Housewives.’ For many of these ‘real’ theatregoers, theatre was more of a social identity than a cultural pursuit, but hey they paid the bills (plus £5 per Persian Lamb when I was on cloakroom duty, and Mondays we had a flock of Persian Lambs). Then there was their habit of charging through the doors with a fiver in their fists (not realizing that the bars were four floors up) so there were often fallen banknotes to be swept up after the Incoming. The audiences changed rapidly, as the new wave of British Musicals broadened the spectrum of theatregoers both Domestically and Internationally. And they had so many different stories that it seemed important to me to try and make sense of them. Find out where they were coming from, and why? For this I needed a computer (only the firm didn’t think so back in those far distant days). Fortunately, my old Film School was located in Covent Garden and I could ‘borrow’ one of their PCs before school opened each morning. Collecting data from the box offices wasn’t easy and involved a lot of manual transfer. Collecting ‘third party’ data could also be challenging. The Professor running the Office of National Statistics was baffled as why I should want to know how many passengers were flying into London each week, by day of the week and country of origin. “I’m not being obstructive,” he assured me, “it’s just that no-one has asked before.” The mountain of data grew rapidly from the five or six shows we had running most weeks back then. Analysing it was also far from easy (the firm wouldn’t fork out £150 for a sales forecasting program so I manually deseansonalized the data for three of our shows to find the true trends and where the shows might be in their life-cycles). Every month I would present the data, and my usually eerily-accurate forecasts, for circulation to the Show Administrators and Board. But as one of our number, now an internationally acknowledged master in his own field, observed “These are very pretty, David, but does anyone really look at them?” In fact they did. When time allowed. But I cannot remember a time when time wasn’t the enemy. And it did take time (even when I had my own computer, and colleagues to help with the data-collection) to distil the real juice from the numbers, the stories, and follow each twist and turn of the myriad interconnected tales of the theatre-going public, through the seasons, and recessions, General Elections, Olympics and bombing campaigns… But it was worth the effort. And never more than one December afternoon when I was summoned back to the office from the SOBOM Christmas Lunch (an event rightly celebrated for its liberal attitude to alcohol consumption). Here I was informed that my colleagues in accounts had been crunching their numbers and had concluded that one of our long-running shows would have to close. Emboldened by a considerable amount of Christmas cheer, I replied (somewhat stroppily) that they were looking at the wrong numbers, and out of context. The long runner, I insisted, had many more years to run, and adding that it was our latest offering that was on the downwards trajectory (in spite of a world-record-breaking advance). I then offered to provide the data (collected over many years) to substantiate my claim, whilst adding, rather too loudly to my boss: “And if you don’t believe me, come to the show with me this evening. And if half the audience isn’t younger than the show, take the ****ing thing off.” Fortunately he did believe me, and the show should see in its fortieth birthday quite comfortably. But, as predicted, the new show didn’t have legs, and my analyses subsequently became the basis for the West End’s first yield management strategy (which he also backed, fair play). Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the stories of many theatregoers (both Domestically and Internationally) are certain to change considerably, and our success as an Industry will, I believe, depend on how carefully we listen to these stories, and how diligently we respond to what they tell us.

Whilst live theatre suffered tremendously as a result of the Coronavirus restrictions, UK film and television made a swift adjustment to allow work to continue safely. And with good reason. At the start of the first lockdown, there were reportedly productions to the value of £16 billion underway on these shores, and a tsunami of demand coming down the line. As the range of physical mobility (and proximity) was restricted by law, a different law was in evidence, reflecting an unequal but opposite reaction; the flight into ‘story-space,’ made possible by the streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon.

But where did the story of stories begin? What marked the first step on this very human journey? For a long time it was believed that stories emerged as an early technology to encapsulate important information that could then be shared socially, geographically and across time. First orally, and then recorded in pictures or words. Which made sense to me. Until I heard the remarkable story of a young Anthropologist who’d spent several months living with, and studying, a remote tribe whose way of life had not changed since the Stone Age. Perhaps not surprisingly, the tribe spent a huge amount of time making stone tools (the clues in the title, I guess) but when the Anthropologist attempted to video one of tribe elders actually flint-knapping he hit upon a problem. And here I paraphrase (wildly!).

“I can’t do it on my own,” the elder replied, “We all have to do it together.”

The Anthropologist was intrigued. Did this mean that there was some kind of primitive production line with each tribesman contributing to the finished product? Far from it.

“It takes ages to hone a tool,” the elder explained. “And it is really boring chipping away for months on end. For years. So the only way we can keep at it, work through the monotony, is by telling stories to each other.”

Stories keep our wonderful human brains firing when there’s not that much going on in the real world. Or when that real world gets scary and we need to escape to somewhere safer. We even do it in our sleep. It is only the ability to dream that allows this ever-restless species to shut-down activity for six-to-eight hours at a stretch and recharge. We don’t ‘sleep perchance to dream,’ sorry Will, so much as ‘dream perchance to sleep.’

And when our own, personal, biographies reach that final full stop, what will we carry with us into eternity if not stories? They’re the only bits of us that the worms don’t get to feast on. Or as Kurt Vonnegut far more eloquently puts it, during the Bokononist funeral rites in his super-sardonic sci-fi novel Cats Cradle:

“God made mud. God got lonesome. So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!" "See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars." And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud. I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done. Nice going, God. Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have. I feel very unimportant compared to You. The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and look around. I got so much, and most mud got so little. Thank you for the honour! Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep. What memories for mud to have! What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met! I loved everything I saw! Good night.’

They say you can’t take it with you. But here I have another confession to make. That book that kept me awake is no longer in Fulham Public Library. And if its theft means a black mark in that other book, the Book of Judgement, and I don’t make it through those Pearly Turnstiles, well, frankly, you can keep your harps and halos …I’d rather keep the story any day!

Copyright David Thomas 2022


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