Tag Archives: theatre

drama queen

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – May 2021)

Noel Coward’s advice to avoid putting your daughter on the stage should have rang alarm bells for me the summer I  left school in 1978. With Grade E  ‘A’ Levels in English and History, Mom was ecstatic that I had two paper certificates – heedless of the fact that they meant Jack.

Career’s Advice suggested I might try my hand in retail: “You could become a Buyer in Ladies’s Wear by the time you’re thirty-five.”

Thirty-five? I’d be an old woman by then!

Having trod the boards at school, I decided to give acting a serious whirl and enrolled at drama evening classes as I began the round of auditions to study drama full time. My teacher said I “should have been a blonde” because I was so “dizzy”. High praise indeed. 

With my new curly perm, a dash of Wild Musk and a lot of bravado, I headed for the ‘Big Smoke’ – London – where my eldest brother David met me at Euston Station and guided me across the city on the underground. I was scared to death!

I auditioned at all of London’s top drama schools as Blanche Dubois from Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’

Her character has a famous monologue, “He was a boy, just a boy. when I was a very young girl…” which I thought I had down pat. Despite an authentic Southern Belle accent, I had the distinction of being turned down by them all. Not before though, witnessing some spectacular feats of self-promotion from other hopefuls – including one guy who auditioned as Hamlet, wearing a gorilla suit. 

He got in.

I gave up in London.

As my dad once said to me, “Honey – I’m proud of you. If you’re going to fail – really fail!”

Closer to home, in March 1979, I received an invitation to audition at a drama school in the midlands. 

Living up to my ‘dizzy’ moniker, I turned up exactly one calendar month late for my audition and let myself into the office of a Miss Meade, who had been principal of the acting school in the year dot.

Her dark, cramped office in the basement was piled floor to ceiling with dusty old play scripts and seemingly hundreds of cats which peered down at me from a great height. Naturally Miss Meade was not expecting me.

I stared at old black and white photos of great Thespians which lined the high walls and suddenly felt very small – the bravado gone. Should I cough to announce I was here? Suddenly the door swung open and in bustled Miss Meade – an elderly lady with grey hair tied back in a bun, carrying a walking stick. We scared each other.

“ARGH!” 

“Good gracious Ducky! Who are you?” 

“I’m Andrea Scarboro. I’ve come to audition.” (I felt like saying, “I’m Dorothy Gale, from Kansas.”)

Miss Meade pored over her diary on her large, cluttered, desk with a lot of tutting.

“Well, well Ducky, wait here and I’ll see what I can do.” 

Miss Meade disappeared through a door, leaving me nervously stroking my Blanche Dubois. She finally reappeared with an elderly gentleman in an elegant, faded suit, marvelous set of whiskers and an old fashioned ear trumpet.

“This young lady has turned up for an AUDITION, one month LATE! Heh! Shall we SEE her?”

“WHAT? AUDITION? MOST IRREGULAR! I suppose so – why NOT?” shouted the bewhiskered gentleman. 

I was led into a small rehearsal room where a rostrum was hastily arranged in a far corner. Miss Meade pulled up two chairs, where she and the elderly gentleman sat side by side. She tapped her cane on the floor to command my attention.

“What are you going to perform for us Ducky?”

“Blanche Dubois…”

“Ahh, Tennessee Williams. Bold choice Ducky. When you’re ready…”

 I got through the piece as Miss Meade and the suited gentleman nodded and whispered to one another.

 “I’d like to look at your deportment, Ducky,” signalling to me to mount the rostrum with her cane. She gave me a book to balance on my head. 

(Not Andrea!)

“Walk around the stage, Ducky, let’s have a good look at you.” She nodded at the old gentleman, who clamped the trumpet tightly of his ear.

“Shall we see her WALK WITH A LIMP?” 

“A LIMP? Why NOT?” Miss Meade handed me her cane and told me to walk around the rostrum with it,.

“…as if you’ve broken your left leg Ducky.” 

I took the cane from her, trying to remember my left from my right. Propped up on the stick, I began to ‘limp’ around the stage. 

 “That’s it Ducky – clockwise.”Miss Meade and the old gentleman exchanged approving looks. 

Concentrating on limping on the correct foot, I failed to notice the edge of the rostrum and launched off the stage, landing spread-eagle on the floor at Miss Meade’s feet. Trying to maintain some semblance of dignity, I gathered myself up to my full height, dusted down my ruffled hem, picked up the cane and book  and hopped back up onto the little stage with the intention of ‘carrying on’. Instead, I got the giggles and turned to Miss Meade and the gentleman. 

“Well, that’s torn it! Now, where was I?” 

I resumed my limp around the rostrum, on the wrong foot now, but with head held high and book perfectly balanced. (“If you’re going to fail, really fail.”).  Miss Meade leaned towards the bewhiskered elderly gent and shouted: 

“I like the SPIRIT of the GEL – shall we TAKE her?” 

“Take WHAT?” shouted the old chap, leaning into his ear trumpet.

“Take the GEL!” Miss Meade banged her cane emphatically on the floor.

 “Do you KNOW – I think we SHALL!” shouted the bewhiskered one, allowing himself a wry smile. 

I bowed, jumped off the little platform and shook their hands.  Miss Meade offered  me a place at her drama school to commence the following September. How thrilling! 

However, a place at drama school didn’t cut any ice as far as the  Education Authority was concerned; I would have to audition for a grant and they only gave two discretionary grants per year. Over the next three years I auditioned for a little grey man in a grey suit in a stuffy office; we were almost on first name terms. Each year I pulled out my Blanche De Bois and the following conversation ensued

“Thank you Miss Scarboro; an interesting interpretation but you don’t have Maths ‘O’ Level, do you? So you can never teach drama, can you?” 

“Oh I’m never going to teach; I’m going to act, so it doesn’t matter, does it?” 

“Well, I’m afraid that you can’t have a grant because you live at home, so you won’t need any living expenses.”

You get the gist. 

After this third rejection, my mother  – now divorced from my dad – took matters into her own hands and arranged an extraordinary meeting with the man in the grey suit, accompanying me to his office.

Andrea and her mother, 1979.

In a scene reminiscent of ‘Gone With The Wind’ – when Scarlett visits Rhett in jail all dressed up in Miss Ellen’s green velvet drapes, to try and wheedle three hundred dollars out of him to pay the taxes on Tara – Mother looked stunning in a large brimmed, black straw hat with black lace veil, long black gloves and  black dress. She leaned seductively across the large desk between her and the little grey man; picking at the fingertips of her gloves with head bowed as she simpered in her languid Southern drawl: 

“Oh kind Sir, have pity! I am but a poor divorcée;” (fluttering her eyelashes with the back of her hand across her furrowed brow.) “I cannot support my daughter, livin’ on my own as I do. I beg you to give her this chayance – she is so talented.”

The man in the suit remained unmoved, so with huge regret I had to give up my place at the drama school. 

Undeterred, I whipped out Blanche Dubois for a final time – along with my two ‘A’ Level Certificates – when I auditioned at Polytechnic; where I was taught the following invaluable life lesson:

“Men lead from the crotch, women lead from the tits.” (Remember, this was the sexist 1970s)

I also managed to get a full grant and gained a BA Honours Degree in Performing Arts.

Mom purred, “You see honey? There’s more than one way to skin a cat!”

Andrea & fellow student Elle, on stage at Polytechnic.

(Copyright: Andrea Burn May 1st 2021)

the ‘sick form.’

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – February 2021)

      Disclaimer

This is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents in this post are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. 

The attitudes and events represented in this post do not reflect the author’s own views, but are a reflection of some of the historical social mores of the 1970s.

Saying farewell to the golden summer of ’76 and the God Awful School, my Dad – being Head of History in one of Birmingham’s grammar schools – pulled some academic strings to secure an interview for me at one of the same to enter the Sixth Form. I was disappointed as I found the appeal of a Sixth Form College, where I could wear jeans and smoke, far more alluring.

  And so it came to pass, one bright September morning, I found myself sitting on a straight backed chair in a Head Mistress’s office; arms folded across my denim jacket with smiley badges and an Indian cotton bandana tied around my long hair. A portrait of the Head Mistress stared at me from behind a large oak desk. There was no escape.  As I nonchalantly chewed a stick of gum, it struck me that the oak pannelled walls lent the occasion an air of authority and reverence which the 1950s Secondary Modern had singularly lacked.  I fiddled nervously with a string of Love Beads on my wrist in an effort to avoid eye contact contact with the portrait, which felt unnerving. The deep turn-ups on my jeans hid a pair of white cowgirl boots with Cuban heels, which I dug into the polished, parquet floor as I tried to feign interest. Mother sat at my side in her mink stole with a determined smile.  The Head Mistress, Miss Millicent, bore down at me through her horn-rimmed glasses.

“We do not allow are gels to wear denhem trousers here.” 

I could only focus on the gold pendant watch which hung from her academic gown and her stout, heavily perfumed bosom. This was a whole new ball game.

The formalities completed, I entered the ‘Sick’ Form in what was affectionately known as the ‘Brothel on the Hill’ in September 1976.   Miss Millicent had a slight speech impediment, which, in those far-off pre-politically correct days of the 1970s, caused great mirth amongst the ‘gels’, who would wait for it in assembly: 

“The Sick Form will congregate in the fwayaye after Retheption.” 

A ripple of giggles passed through the hall like a Mexican wave. There was a very grave matter: 

 “It hath come to my attenthion, that there is deficathion on the Eatht Wing Lavatory walls.  Those who are rethponthible know who they are. Ath no-one hath come forward, I shall have no recourth but to call an exthrodinary athembly at four o’clock.”          

The school duly assembled at four o’clock. Nobody owned up and we sat in silent ‘detenthion’ for half an hour.  It was rumoured that Edith Smyth in the Lower Fourth was the culprit.  Edith Smyth – with her rosy cheeks and pigtails! 

It was at ‘The Brothel on the Hill’ that I began to tread the boards. Playing the legendary Music Hall star of the Edwardian era, Marie Lloyd in ‘Oh! What a Lovely War,’

I was showered with ten pence pieces as I belted out, ’I’ll Make a Man Out of Every One of You!’ to the assembled Boys’ School next door, with whom the ‘gels’ collaborated.  (They not only collaborated on certain creative projects, but also in the study bays in the sixth form block, where a ‘lookout’ was posted.)

Amongst the cast was a very bright, talented and amusing young lad who went on to become a famous fiction crime writer.  He wrote a review of the play in the school magazine, showcasing his obvious skills as a writer and complimenting my ‘verve’.  The smell of the greasepaint and roar of the crowd lit a fuse and I set my heart on becoming an actress.

Andrea in a school production of ‘Oh! What a Lovely War.

**********

It was at “The Brothel on the Hill” that I made friends with Rachel Sadler, whose blonde Farrah Fawcett flicks and wedge sandals I found most impressive; especially considering that our uniforms were measured periodically by Miss Millicant with a ruler through those horn-rims:

   “Two inches above or below the knee gels – two inches!”

Emboldened by Rachel’s bravado, I sneaked into school one hot day in a pair of peep-toe cork sandals. The Games Mistress — a statuesque Scottish blonde with ruddy cheeks — hauled me up in the corridor bellowing:

“Scarboro — where are your tights? The school would be a very smelly place indeed if all the gels went about without tights!” 

“But surely the school would be even smellier in this heat if all the girls did wear their tights?” I protested.

Detention. 

 I begged Rachel – the netball captain and Head of Warwick House –  not to include me in the inter-house match; but as Deputy Head of Warwick I had no choice. I hated netball and knew I would let the side down. With her ‘flicks’ sprayed into position, Rachel was formidable on court — one of those sporty, outdoor types. I was lousy.  Within the first two minutes of play, I knocked Rachel to the ground whereupon she scraped all the skin off both knees. She was stretchered off and I was sent off. The Games Mistress stopped play with her whistle and demanded an explanation from me,

“Well, Scarboro?”

“I told you not to make me play!” 

Detention.

 And lastly it was here that I fell asleep in A Level History, sprawled across my desk under Miss Spinks’ nose during a lecture on James the First. She left me alone until the end of the lesson, when she asked me to summarise to the class, the effects of ‘The Great Contract of 1610’ on the Commons. I sat up and yawned.

Detention. 

Friday morning assemblies were refreshing. They were entirely devoted to ‘singing’ (I say this loosely) and the ‘gels’ were allowed to choose three songs from a limited repertoire. This included the ‘School Song’ , ‘Morning Has Broken’ as well as my particular favourite, “The Lavender Cowboy.” 

Our Music teacher, Miss Petal, took charge of these assemblies with great flourish. A physically slight woman of indeterminate years, jewelled glasses on a chain and an Iron Lady hairstyle, she had devoted her life to the school. She would appear Stage Right and strike a dramatic chord on the piano. She had our full attention. Clasping two castanets, she crossed the stage in towering heels as she led the school with her thin, strained soprano voice in “The Lavender Cowboy”. Having finished the song, Miss Petal would disappear off stage behind a heavy velvet curtain and re-emerge Stage Left, pretending to ‘haul’ a heavy rope over her shoulder as she bent forward almost to the floor (a feat in itself in those heels).

 As she ‘hauled’ she sang ‘The Volga Boatsong’; throwing her voice into a sudden and surprising deep baritone:

“Yo Heave Ho!

  Yo Heave Ho!” 

Three hundred girls held their collective breath; fighting fits of giggles as Miss Petal brandished her castanets with a  ‘click, click, clack’.

“Come along girls, Yo Heave Ho!”

The Upper ‘Sick’ Form were in hysterics in our privileged seats in the balcony; trying hard to stifle grunts as we slid to the floor  helpless with laughter. Miss Millicent shot us a glance from her carved podiam. 

 I looked forward to Friday mornings and Gave Thanks for Miss Petal in the closing prayer. 

**********

I managed to come out of ‘The Brothel on the Hill’ with two E’s in A Level History and English. Mum was thrilled that I had at least completed  a rudimentary education.  Dad still maintained that I would make a great nurse.

As the other girls collected their A Level certificates from Miss Millicent with a  pat on the back and a “Well done gels!”  as they headed for Oxbridge, I set my sights on the theatre – not too difficult a task for a drama queen.

(Copyright: Andrea Burn  March 12th 2021)