If you are interested in buying this book, see further information at: “Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth” by Jean Collen
THE EAST LONDON PRODUCTION OF THE MIKADO
Although Anne had told me to write to let them know how I was getting on in England, she had never replied to any of my letters, but Webster and I had corresponded regularly via Poste Restante while they were in Jo’burg. After they moved to Knysna in the middle of 1967 there were no more letters from Webster.
On my return to Johannesburg in August of 1968, Margaret Masterton and I spent an evening at Martin Croesser and Natie Weinstein’s’ Hillbrow flat with Dudley. Dudley had recently been on a visit to Knysna and told me that when he and Webster were in the kitchen washing the dishes, Webster had asked him if he had any recent news of me. He wondered if I was still in England or whether I had returned to South Africa. At least he had not forgotten me.
My friend Pearl Hodgman, was living with her Mother on their farm just outside of East London on the Eastern Cape coast. I had met her on board the SA Oranje, and while she was living in Johannesburg she introduced me to her cousin Errol Collen. Pearl was the first person I had met since Ruth’s death with whom I developed a comfortable and close friendship. Errol and I were married in 1970, and in 1973 we moved from Johannesburg to East London, where I had obtained a music teaching post at Selborne College.
Whilst we were still in Johannesburg, Pearl wrote to tell me that Webster was to produce The Mikado at the Guild Theatre for The East London Light Operatic Society and the Hebrew Order of David.
Webster had held auditions for principal parts towards the end of 1972 and one of his decisions caused some commotion before the production even went into rehearsal.
Pam Emslie had appeared in earlier East London productions in which they had starred in the nineteen-fifties, but she had laryngitis at the time of the auditions and could not sing. On the strength of what he remembered of her singing he gave her the part of Yum Yum in preference to those who sang at the audition. A local East London singing teacher and some of her pupils had taken umbrage at this decision and refused to play any further part in the show.
I had worked in professional theatre in Johannesburg and the UK, but I was very keen to take part in this show because of Webster’s involvement in it. Pearl spoke on my behalf to the musical director Jean Fowler, who had taught her piano when she was a child. Mrs Fowler agreed that I could join the chorus, provided I learnt all the music before I arrived.
After my first rehearsal Mrs Fowler asked me to sing soprano, although I was far from being one, because the soprano chorus line was rather weak – so much for learning all the alto lines by heart! I had over a month of singing rehearsals before Webster flew down from Knysna to produce the show. I did not tell anyone in the show that I had known him, nor what I had been doing in Johannesburg and the UK. I was not quite sure what Webster’s reaction to me might be.
I had not seen Webster for seven years and at the age of twenty-nine, seven years is a long time and I had seen many changes in my own life. But when he appeared at his first production rehearsal he looked much as I remembered him. At the time he was seventy-one, a few months older than my father.
After the rehearsal I joined a sizeable queue of people eager to talk to him. When it came to my turn I stood in front of him without saying anything, realising that I had probably changed more than he had done in those seven years. Perhaps he might not even recognise me! I was thinner, and my teased manicured coiffure of the mid-sixties had given way to a mane of long dark hair. He looked at me silently for a long time, peeling away the years like layers of onion skin. To everyone’s surprise he kissed me warmly and said, “Bless your face.”
He was staying at the King’s Hotel on the beach front and he invited me to tea the following afternoon. I felt rather shy at seeing him on his own, but it did not take long before we were getting on as well as we had ever done, filling in the gaps of the years since our last meeting, when I had bade him a tearful farewell before leaving for the UK.
He told me about being the musical director for the panto Anne had produced in Port Elizabeth the previous December, and how he had opted for a small ensemble with an organ, rather than an orchestra to accompany the singers. He confessed that he was rather nervous about producing The Mikado on his own as this would be the first show he had produced without Anne being there to assist him. After the production Anne was going to England for five weeks to do a TV show in London, and to spend some time with her friend Babs Wilson-Hill (Marie Thompson) – first in Portugal and then in Colwyn Bay and London.
He told me that their life in Knysna had degenerated into a constant round of housekeeping, party-going and dog-walking. They had hoped to move to Port Elizabeth but so far they had been unable to sell their house.
He also told me about their trip to England in 1969. The Inland Revenue had not flung them into jail the moment they stepped on to British soil as they had once feared. It looked as though the tax they owed had been written off, and they might be able to return to the UK if they could afford the cost of living there. His sisters were old-age pensioners now, struggling to make ends meet on their meagre pensions.
The Mikado rehearsals continued. There were some competent performers amongst the principals. I was particularly impressed with Jimmy Nicholas as Ko Ko, Irené McCarthy as Katisha and Bernie Lee as Pooh Bah. I became friendly with June Evans, Rose Atherton, Brenda Robinson, Louise Forrester, Zena Wolk and Cecile Sole. One of my matric music students from Selborne College, Stephen Smith, was playing the oboe in the orchestra, along with Commandant Hugh Hewartson, my music teaching colleague, on the clarinet.
I was used to the tight discipline of professional productions, so the laissez-faire attitude of some of the chorus surprised me. I was also accustomed to being shouted at; being manhandled by irate producers; and working till all hours of the morning to get some small detail absolutely right. But people in this show took offence at Webster’s mildest reprimand.
There was some tension between Jean Fowler and Webster. On one occasion he suggested that the tempo of a piece could be taken at a slightly faster pace. In front of the entire company she shouted, “Mind your own business. I’m the musical director and I’ll be the one to decide what tempo to use.”
At one particular rehearsal he lost his temper completely and shouted at the top of his voice, bringing all his vocal technique into play. When he drove me home after this stormy rehearsal he apologised for his bad mood, but told me that their attitude made him sick to the stomach, and he was in despair about the entire production. I was sad that at an age when most other people were taking things easy, he had to suffer such anguish and be treated with such disrespect by people who could never hope to achieve a fraction of what he had achieved in his own career.
Between rehearsals Webster was in a more relaxed mood when we met for tea, or for lunch in the Red Rooster Restaurant in the basement of the King’s Hotel, or for drinks with Errol one evening.
On several occasions we went to Marina Glen across the road from the beachfront, where we had tea and homemade cream scones. On the day after Noel Coward died we sat at Marina Glen, watching the ships sailing to and from East London harbour, while he reminisced about various meetings with Noel Coward, and the Noel Coward duets he and Anne had sung over the years.
Errol and I had been in the UK during December where I had found a book called The Wireless Stars, which included photographs of people they had worked with at the BBC, and a photograph of Anne and Webster themselves leaning over the railing of the ship as she set sail for South Africa. He was fascinated with my book, but alarmed to realise how few people they had known in those days were still alive. Apart from them, Arthur Askey, Elsie and Doris Waters and Jack Warner, everyone else was dead.
During one of our meetings he told me that they had written to Hugo Rignold when he came out to South Africa to conduct and had been hurt not to receive a reply. In the days before Hugo Rignold became a famous conductor, he had played the violin in the Fred Hartley Quintet. Webster had broadcast regularly with the Quintet in the nineteen-thirties and had been great friends with Hugo Rignold. He was convinced that Hugo would have contacted them had he actually seen the letter and wondered whether it had been kept from him.
Anne came to East London for the last week of production. She had driven herself and Silva, their Cairn terrier, from Knysna in the Vauxhall Viva station wagon. The car broke down in Humansdorp and she had to wait for several hours to have the car fixed. She was eager to reach East London before dark and consequently received a speeding ticket for R19 (nineteen rands) on her way through Grahamstown.
I felt rather apprehensive about meeting her again, but I need not have worried. She kissed me warmly when I met her at her first rehearsal. Although she looked a bit older she was as sweet to me as when I had first met her.
Silva, the little Cairn terrier pup Anne had brought to our house in 1963 at the time of their Silver Wedding, was ten years old now, and was delighted to see me also. Anne told everyone in the cast how I had been the first person to see Silva – or Squillie – as they called her. She told me of the recent death of Lemon, their beloved Maltese, and how Webster had been in tears for days after Lemmy died. Lemon had always adored him and had followed him everywhere.
There was more trouble over the production. The stage manager cancelled one of the principal rehearsals without any notice, saying he could not work on the sets unless he had the theatre entirely free. Webster had been furious and walked out in disgust. I told Anne that I would not have blamed him had he walked out ages before, for some people in the company had treated him very badly.
The animosity against them both was almost palpable. At one rehearsal I sat next to Anne, fondling Silva. When things went wrong on stage she made disgusted comments to me under her breath. She turned to Webster and told him to write down all the mistakes so that he could point them out after the rehearsal. For some reason he did not want to do this, so she said, “All right then; bugger it all up.”
By this time everyone knew that I was friendly with Anne and Webster and some took pleasure in making disparaging remarks about them to me. I suggested that the show might improve if they actually listened to what he had to say. When I went to fetch water for Squillie, people were even criticising the poor dog, saying that she was far too fat!
But, as the opening night approached, the atmosphere seemed to lighten. Webster was more relaxed – or resigned – about the show. At the dress rehearsal he appeared onstage just before the girls’ chorus of Braid the Raven Hair in Act II. He stopped, looked into my eyes for a moment, and put his fist on my nose in a playful gesture.
At the end of the dress rehearsal Anne told everyone encouragingly that the show was going well. She had written to Freda Boyce in Knysna on 30 March:
“The show is not nearly as bad as Leslie thinks – the costumes are lovely – the sets are appalling – but are being completely repainted by a new crew! So I think if they can remember their dialogue it will be a very good show. Yum Yum is very good and so is Nanki-Poo – in fact they are all very competent.”
At the opening night Webster wore his evening suit and Anne looked as beautiful as always in her red evening dress and mink stole. At interval Webster came backstage and patted my face, saying that the show was going very smoothly.
After the finalé Webster came on stage to make his witty producer’s speech to great audience applause and laughter. I had to steel myself not to weep. Despite the rows and ructions between Webster and some of the company, it had been lovely to see them. I would miss them when they returned to Knysna.
When the curtain came down, some of the cast, earlier differences forgotten for a moment, went forward to shake hands with him and congratulate him on the production. When I appeared he took hold of my hand, kissed me and told me to phone them in Knysna.
On my way out they were standing together, ready to leave for the party with the powers-that-be and the principals, to which the chorus was not invited. Anne called me over to kiss me goodbye. I told her how lovely it had been to have seen her again, and that I hoped we would meet at some future date. Webster took my hand and kissed me yet again, saying, “Goodbye, darling. Take care.”
There had been a suggestion that Webster might return for the last-night party, to which the chorus had been invited, but he did not appear. Instead, a gentleman, whose name I cannot remember, made a speech about how wonderful the show had been apart from being marred by “professional tantrums”. A token gift of a pen, embossed with the title and date of the show, was given to each member of the chorus, but I was so incensed by this slur that I refused to collect my pen when my name was called.