By Phyllida Law
It started with a corduroy jacket and a kiss in the back of a bus… in an extract from her new book actress PHYLLIDA LAW recounts how she and her late husband, The Magic Roundabout narrator Eric Thompson, finally said ‘I do’
It must have been when my brother James had his motor accident that Cupid lit a very long fuse. The news came when I was playing Julia in The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic (in 1956).
There was no way I could leave to see James in hospital in London and there were no details about his injuries, except that they were serious. Mother was in Glasgow getting dire, inaccurate details on the phone. Everyone else was somewhere else.
Even though I hadn’t seen him for months, it was Eric Thompson, known as Tom, that I thought of. I rang him. It wasn’t a long call: he didn’t need any details. He just went. He was the mate who had met every train to Exmouth from Bristol when we were touring.
Even now I remember how when an actress fainted in her dressing room, Tom asked for a window to be opened and just picked her up in his arms and carried her there. I found myself wishing it was me.
I knew he watched me if I played the piano and we’d had a snog in the back seat of a touring bus, but I was 23 and most of the time rather taken with an older man. It’s a phase.
Then there was his jacket. He always wore an old corduroy jacket, pin cord it was called, and it had aged beautifully. I always said the jacket was the clincher. A comfort blanket. If I took his arm and he was wearing the jacket, I felt at home.
We found ourselves together again in the pantomime at Bristol. We had the Christmas party at the ballet school and on Boxing night I was clearing up the detritus of a wild evening in the dance studio when I found a figure crouching in the half-light cast by a large Christmas tree decorated with candles. Tom.
He was staring at the floor with an empty glass in his hand. As I took it from him he said, ‘Will you marry me, Philly?’ I thought he was drunk. We remained strangely silent, those last few days of the year.
I heard him telling someone that we were, apparently, not talking to each other. He didn’t look at me much. He wasn’t sulking, he just didn’t look at me much. It was dismal. And New Year’s Eve can be rather challenging in circumstances like that, can’t it?
I was snivelling in my dressing room and washing my feet in the basin. It’s difficult. Good balance is required and weeping is not recommended. Some people can create atmosphere by themselves.
Mr Thompson did. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him doing the crossword with a baby on his lap. Any old baby. Or to have seen him playing bridge and playing with the baby, smoking Gauloises, with a mug of PG Tips – very strong, two sugars please.
‘Ask him,’ I said to Fred, the assistant stage manager, ‘if he’ll ask the question again.’ Fred came back rather swiftly and said, ‘He said, “What question?”’ I went dripping out of my dressing room and found him. ‘You asked me to marry you, can you ask again?’
He didn’t answer. He walked calmly down the stairs to the orchestra pit. Then there was a huge eruption from the drumming department. I scrubbed my face with a hankie and went to watch from the stage.
He saw me. He really saw me. It was the sort of look one would share when arriving at a station or an airport, having been away from home for far too long. We moved into a condemned attic, up a condemned staircase, with not even a bannister rail, in a condemned house.
Tom banged nails into things, I made gingham curtains – I think there might even have been a geranium in a pot. Very La Bohème. We used the loo downstairs because there was a note pinned to ours: ‘No Solids From This Facility Please.’ I took to cooking.
My first effort was a queen of puddings, which went so wrong I hid it in the wardrobe and made another. Tom took to cooking. He stuffed a mackerel with gooseberries and stitched it up with pink thread.
His signature dish was fried cheese: strong cheddar grated on to a tin plate and put on the gas. Absolutely delicious. He washed up, too.
I don’t remember that he had many irritating habits. The worst was that he wouldn’t pass on messages. If someone left a message on the telephone he would always say, ‘Of course I’ll pass it on.
Thanks very much. Bye.’ I never heard a word. His golfing gear was simply hideous. He had a terrible terracotta towelling top with a white zip. Frightful. And the worst, I think, was when he ate ripe pears. He made the most disgusting squelchy noises.
The most remarkable thing about him, things about him, were his eyes. Two of them. They were huge and black. An American colleague passed him in rehearsal and said, ‘His eyes are very far apart. Can he see?’ Fortunately, his younger child has inherited them. His eyes. Both of them.
We didn’t shout much, I don’t think. But we did throw things. Tom once asked what my interests were. I threw a meringue at him. So I never got a proper proposal of marriage.
We just evolved. We didn’t kiss in the street, we never held hands in the street. My mother would have so approved. But our roots were six years deep. Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Old? Tom? A new wedding ring was out of the question: they were eight guineas, more than a week’s wages.
So we bought a beautiful rose-gold keeper ring, delicately engraved and it was only 35 shillings. The lady behind the counter said, ‘Shall I wrap it or will you wear it now?’ I still wear it.
Something new was my dress. I bought it in Country Casuals on Park Street in Bristol. It was made of oyster pink grosgrain and fitted me nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. The less said about it the better.
Borrowed. I borrowed Ma’s little marcasite earrings, but I have them still so that’s wrong. Then during the service, I wept sweet tears and Tom quietly handed me a perfectly laundered white hankie from the top pocket of his suit.
Blue. Something blue. Then I remembered that I was blue. I’d been blue for weeks as Titania – I spent quite a lot of my married life blue because little scraps of my costume persistently hung behind my ears and round my toes. As I say, it lasted well into my married life.
With the church we had found the charming Canon Gaye, neat and merry in his leather-belted frock, offering us lunch after the ceremony, should we need it. He gave a poetic dissertation on marriage that I barely heard as my nose was running.
‘The habit of love,’ he said, ‘takes root, enriches your life and the lives of those around you.’ That lovely actor Jack Allen turned to his neighbour, tears streaming down his cheeks and said, ‘He’s so wrong.’ My mother, enchanted, blew a kiss to Canon Gaye. He said it was a first.
The following Sunday we took the train to London to look for work. ‘Did you cash that cheque?’ I asked Tom. ‘What cheque?’ I’d had a cheque for 30 quid for a set design I’d made for Dartington Hall.
I meant it to go to Hungary – it was 1956 (the year of the revolution). I had to concede that the cash would be needed for digs and unforeseen dramatic circumstances, so I shut up.
Tom had said, ‘We need it for London,’ and he patted his pockets like men do – that quasi-religious ritual of spectacles, testicles, watch and wallet. Otherwise all he seemed to have were his fags and a fishing rod.
I had a sewing machine, plus: earplugs, Dr Collis Browne’s Mixture, Senokot, Askit Powders, aspirin, Germolene, herbal calming pills, Gold Spot for bad breath and a packet of wine gums.
A cab at Euston was easy: two guys from dressing room 11 (actor friends from London’s Old Vic) were on the platform in peaked caps, acting ‘being porters’.
They whisked us to the rank and fixed a large ‘Just Married’ to the taxi’s bumpers, plus several tin cans. We lost them by Marble Arch. I had thought we were on our way to our favourite greasy spoon to eat, but Mr Thompson had booked a bed for the night upstairs in an old-fashioned restaurant that had been patronised by my aunts throughout the war.
I never knew there were beds involved. We saw some frightful places, but in the end we found 25 Royal Crescent. There was a small kitchen but if you wanted to have a bath, you had to attach a hose to the kitchen hot tap and place it carefully over a small, ineffectual wall and fill the bath like that. I don’t remember having a bath.
We were always out of work. Mr Thompson very often wrote a short story for the BBC. It was 15 quid. Saved our lives. The first story, I remember, was about the deeds for Piccadilly Circus. Someone wanted to build something posh there and found out that Piccadilly Circus was owned, from way back, by this elderly lady. Good idea.
Then Tom got a job at Sadler’s Wells with a friend, moving scenery from opera to opera. And so we began. Mr and Mrs Thompson. Mr and Mrs Eric Thompson. I had a husband. He had a wife. Ridiculous.
This is an edited extract from Dead Now Of Course by Phyllida Law, to be published by Fourth Estate on Thursday, price £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £9.74 until 10 August, go to you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.