Friday, May 5th 
Awoke aged 29. It was sad that the early May sunshine had vanished – to be replaced with grey drizzle. I broke my dietary controls on breakfast and ate eggs and bacon and toast.
We drove on to the rehearsals at the new BBC Rehearsal Rooms in North Acton. Although in a drably industrial area, with a view from the window as depressing as that from the old London Weekend Rehearsal Rooms in Stonebridge Park – the block is well equipped and still smart. There are all you favourite telly faces Dr Who, John Paul from Doomwatch, Harry Worth, etc,etc. For the footballers amongst us, there is a spacious, soft-rubber covered floor, ideal for indoor footy. Eric is going to buy a ball.
Barrie was the first AFM to do a mark-up at TRR. He was working on a Brian
Rix Farce which according to him was the first show to rehearse at TRR. It was
Prod/Dir by Douglas Wallace for O.B. Ents. It rehearsed at Acton but was recorded
on location at the Garrick Theatre.
Douglas Wallace used to put chairs in his planned camera positions for a scene. He would attach a system of cue lights connected to a mixer to the chairs so that when the scene was run he could cut between the cue lights as he would the cameras. Presumably so that Brian Rix was aware which camera he would need to play to. Wallace of course might just have been eccentric!
I associate doing mark-ups with Sundays. There was something about being in
the building [TRR] on your own apart from the security man at reception and
looking out at the gathering mist around Acton Cemetery that made it strangely
unforgettable. It became even more so if it was a particularly big mark-up and
the designer had made the sets just that little bit too complicated. One of
my grander colleagues informed me that if the set was very complicated the A.F.M.
could insist on the Design Assistant being there with them. I somehow never
got any of the Design Assistants I worked with to agree to that one. It could
however be quite a creatively satisfying way to spend a Sunday afternoon until
it went wrong and you found that somewhere around the kitchen ( there was always
a kitchen ) you had made some terrible miscalculation.
The disadvantage of external rehearsal rooms was that your rehearsal was not the only thing going on in the room. So quite often you would have to clear everything away at the end of each day. Things could go badly wrong too if the booking for the evening was basket ball or barn dancing etc. You could arrive the next morning to find your mark up had been torn to ribbons.
St James Church Hall Lancaster Gate was used occasionally for auditions by
Light Entertainment. I believe these auditions were held merely to clear the
backlog of letters from ambitious mothers about their talented daughters and
I doubt whether any real work ever came out of them. The chap in charge was
a retired AFM called Billy Gray. He phoned our office one day with a problem
about the hall - I can’t remember what it was - and I went there to sort
it out. I think Billy was getting a bit bored with the auditions by this time
- it was all kids - and he probably was in a mood for a bit of mischief so he
insisted that I sit in and watch for a while. He led me to a chair right beside
him at the table, prime position, and without a word of explanation went on
with the auditions. Of course none of the kids or their mothers, especially
their mothers, had any idea who I was but they came to the conclusion that I
was someone and from then on they focused their all on me. I’ve never
felt so important in my life before - or more of a fraud.
Interestingly a couple of the little girls with their stage mothers egging them on sang “Let Me Entertain You”, the number from “Gypsy”, the show about the stage mother from Hell. The irony was wasted on them but not on me.
I soon found that the rhythm of rehearsing and recording Dad's Army was not unlike The Army Game, but without the stress of a live transmission. The whole programme was recorded within half an hour, but any necessary retakes were done at the end. At first, rehearsals took place in various church halls, or the dreaded boys clubs that seemed to retain the odour of stale sweat left behind by those who had used it the night before. We eventually moved to the high-rise block soon to be known as the Acton Hilton. This was a building that had two or three rehearsal rooms on each floor. Soon most of the BBC shows rehearsed there, and it was not unusual to bump into Morecambe and Wise or the two Ronnies in the lift on the way up or down.
I remember one occasion when a sitcom was being rehearsed during one of those rare summer heatwaves. The TRR were stiflingly hot - all the windows open and no aircon. I stood close in front of the 'set', notes in hand. There was a very low sofa in the centre of the acting area and the actors - a man and attractive young woman - moved round the room, eventually the short-skirted actress flinging herself down onto the sofa. She had clearly made her own arrangements to keep cool in the hot weather so I was unexpectedly treated to a spectacular 'Sharon Stone' view as I looked down at her whilst franticly pretending to make copious notes. I think I just about avoided snapping my pencil. Hopefully my flushed face was put down to the hot weather by the other people in the room, who sadly for them were not in the line of fire, so to speak.
Sir Ralph Richardson was rehearsing at TRR. During the lunch break one day
the fare proffered by the canteen evidently did not take his fancy. When it
came to his turn in the queue to be served Sir Ralph stopped with tray in hand
and said to the canteen lady;
“I wonder could you do me a jam omelette.”
The canteen lady who had no idea who he was eyed Sir Ralph with deep suspicion.
“I’ll ask chef” was her reply.
She ambled off to the kitchen to consult. Meanwhile the queue was building up behind the great man. Several minutes passed. Eventually the canteen lady emerged from the kitchen and ambled back towards to Sir Ralph.
“Chef, says no “, was all she had to say.
“Ah pity “, replied the actor knight.
It was spoken in a tone of voice which although without malice suggested a certain hurt.
This small incident in a way reflects the unique world of the Television Rehearsal Rooms indeed of much of the BBC. It was a world where the bohemian and the bureaucratic were brought together and out which came some wonderful things.
We used to call the rehearsal rooms the Acton Hilton. You had such an input of talent in that place! On any day you might have the Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise, Cilla Black there. I saw Sean Connery one day, trying to find a seat in the canteen with his tray of goodies. There were six or seven floors in all, with reception on the ground and floors 1 to 5 given over to rehearsal rooms. Each floor had three large rehearsal rooms, and at the time I was working there every single one was full. The talent which would at one time wander around there! And then on the top floor was the self-service restaurant. I remember lovely Ruby, with the red hair, and the first aid lady who was always coming up to me and asking about my bruises [sustained from falls and stunts in the course of making the show]! Fulton Mackay would be there doing Porridge. Everyone wanted to be on the Doctor Who table, 'cos we had so much fun! I was in the queue one day waiting to pay when Ronnie Barker came up to me and said,'Oh god, haven't they killed you off yet!'
The laughter of the technicians at a sitcom rehearsal is very important, it
will normally be the first time the show has been performed in front of anyone
other than writer and production team.
I remember the first tech run of a new series of Keeping Up Appearances where the producer/director Harold Snoad cornered the technical team on arrival and asked us if we would make a point of laughing particularly loudly at Hyacinth Bucket's clowning action while on the telephone. He had been trying to persuade her to do it but she was very reluctant. We all duly laughed and it became part of her character and the series.
... I do remember the days up at the 'Acton Hilton' in the mid-seventies – you could see everybody from John Gielgud and other actors down there, all rehearsing and doing Plays for Today or whatever; I can't remember what they were all called now, but wonderful one-off dramas. They used to do a classic, at least one classic in the series going on, plus very good things like the thing I was in called The Brothers, something called Wings, Dad's Army. We all used to rehearse in the same building up at North Acton and all congregate at the lunch break in the canteen at the top and it was fun and you'd meet all sorts of mates. And you were inspired by it because you would see so many good actors around and you weren't just thinking, I am in a drama series; you thought it was good.
There was always a moment of trepidation as we parked in the car park wondering what ‘sound’ challenges lay ahead during the Tech Runs that were about to be performed for us but this special place soon totally enveloped us in its own cocoon. The rehearsal rooms were a world apart where all reality could be suspended. We have watched sweating gelignite being carefully unloaded from a wooden crate on the back of a lorry, holding our breath, standing perfectly still in absolute silence until it was safe to move (six short lengths of wooden dowel in a cardboard box on a table). Full production numbers have sparkled with glamour, glitz and excitement with dancers dressed in tatty jogging bottoms and T shirts and music from a wowing cassette player. Day to day lives were forgotten when we were carried on waves of laughter whilst watching the very best entertainers of our time. A world of equals where Bob Monkhouse would introduce himself in the canteen and thank us for coming to his rehearsal. We were all very blest to be part of this special place.
(When you were writing the series, did you have a favourite character to write
Yes, The Major. He was so great, he was such a lovely fellow, Ballard Berkeley, and he'd been a big star in the 30s 40s and 50s and then he'd got older, people still knew who he was..... but then suddenly right at the end of his career he had this lovely new stardom, he was the sweetest man.
He was absolutely nuts about cricket. We would be upstairs in the building they call the BBC Hilton, I'd be rehearsing a scene with Pru Scales and Ballard would be in the background waving his arm with four fingers extended to tell me that we'd just got four of the Australians out! He was absolutely insane for cricket!
The first time I remember going to the rehearsal rooms at Acton, I was in Prometheus:
The Life of Balzac, I was one of Balzac's many lovers, but what really lifted
my spirits was travelling in the lift with Eric Morecambe. It happened when
we arrived at the building on the first day, again when we broke for lunch,
in fact every time I moved between floors he was there! He laughed about it
and I swiftly realised that he wasn't one of those performers who has to switch
on the humour, he was just genuinely a funny man. The others in the cast would
catch me smiling and say "Have you been stalking Eric again?"
Another time, I think I was a patient in Angels, this time my lift chum was Les Dawson. He was visiting our floor for a production meeting in another room. He'd just got back from something in Munich, and he spent some time talking to me about how he'd been demonstrating his act to a German producer He must have taken a shine to me because I was privileged to get a demonstration of his mime of a road-sweeper, who finds he has some rubbish left in the kerb, with his barrow too far away, so he lifts the kerbstone like a carpet, and sweeps the dust underneath. The German executive, completely unamused, had laboriously explained to Les, "In Germany it is not possible to lift zee kerbstones!"
My favourite external room was probably the Chiswick Labour Club, so conveniently near my home! I can remember rehearsing several Playschool weeks there, with Derek Griffiths, their regular presenter.
The scene is a rehearsal room high up in the BBC rehearsal block in Acton.
The wind is howling and the building is swaying slightly. Apparently this is
as it should be and is in fact a safety feature.
There are lines of tape all over the floor. These represent the walls, doors, stairs, etc of the sets for the various sketches in the show. This is where rehearsals will take place. They are not taking place at the moment.
It's later in the week. Outside the traffic is snaking slowly along the A40. Inside, the Two Ronnies are at work. Or are we? We're sitting at a table, looking quite serious. In front of us are lots of little cards. Some of the cards are pink, some green, some yellow. We are moving the cards around. Are we playing some game? No, we're beginning to assemble the finished shows, ready for transmission.
There are still lines of tape all over the floor. This is where the rehearsals will take place. they are not taking place at the moment.
The truth is, you see, that the thing Ronnie and I disliked most about rehearsals was the rehearsing, we loved the rest.
These discussions took place round a big table at the BBC rehearsal rooms at Acton, a charmless modern block on the A40, sarcastically known to everyone as the Acton Hilton. If the Hilton ever saw it, they'd sue.
The Acton Hilton seemed for so many years to be one of, if not THE, centres
of my professional life from the mid-1970s until about 1990 - as I suspect it
was for a lot of other drama and L.E. directors of the time who were lucky enough
to work fairly regularly for the BBC. Until recently, when it suddenly vanished
from the skyline, I used to nostalgically look out of the carriage window of
the train from Chippenham to Paddington as I travelled to yet another boring
meeting and wonder who among my friends and professional acquaintances might
at that moment be sitting in the cafeteria at the top of the building and scanning
the dull London suburban skyline to the south as I had done on so many a morning
in the past.
I first encountered a BBC rehearsal room late in 1958 when, as a young actor doing my first TV play, due to be transmitted (live of course) on New Year's Day 1959, I reported for the start of rehearsals in an anonymous church hall way out on the Piccadilly Line towards Hounslow. No splendid cafeteria at the top of the building there, we all had to bring our own sandwiches for lunch. I remember being very overawed by one particularly impressive elderly actor who arrived each morning in a somewhat ancient, but highly polished, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. His name was Sir Campbell Cotts (alas long dead), a legendary raconteur, who had many years previously been picked out by an enterprising theatrical impressario to appear in a West End play after being regularly observed holding in thrall the members of Boodles Club in St James with his tales of the adventures and misadventures of his early life. Each day Cotts' chauffeur delivered him to rehearsal armed with an impressive hamper stuffed with all kinds of goodies from Fortnum and Mason. Taking pity on me as a young and nervous actor, as rehearsals progressed he invited me to swap some of my meagre, hastily put together sandwiches for some of the contents of his splendid hamper. As my acting career progressed and then I transferred more and more to directing, that distant rehearsal room was superseded by other BBC rehearsal rooms, usually equally bleak and anonymous, all over west and south London. ITV, in contrast to the BBC, usually had better, less remote rehearsal rooms, often in their own studio complexes. There were ABC's out at their Teddington studios, Lew Grade's ATV complex out at Elstree or Granada's up in Manchester. Being in the studio buildings meant that all the technicians and other people who a production in rehearsal might need to call in were on hand, make up and wardrobe were nearby and each set of studios had its own cafeteria - so no need to hastily prepare some sandwiches each morning before dashing off to rehearsals. Of course, such on-site studios could have their own hazards. The boss, or department head you had been trying to avoid could easily find you and summon you to his or (less often) her office. At Granada you always had to be somewhat on your guard. You might be innocently eating your lunch in the canteen, gossiping and exchanging jokes with the members of your cast, when Sidney Bernstein, the Boss of Granada bosses himself, and members of his entourage would enter the canteen. You tried not to attract his attention but if your luck was out that day, he would come over and plant himself at your table or an adjoining one. He was very likely to subject you and your colleagues throughout the rest of your lunch break to an extended catechism of questions, suggestions or commands.
So to me The Acton Hilton, when I first found myself directing a play there in early 1976, was a blessed relief. Far enough away from the TV Centre to discourage the big bosses from coming to it and unbidden planting themselves at your table during lunch, but with most the facilities you needed and close enough to the TV Centre to be able to easily get other members of the production team to come to rehearsal if wanted. In those days of studio drama most of the real work was done in rehearsal - the vital work of understanding, interpreting and realising the text. To someone, like me, who had spent most of the early years of his career as an actor and director in the theatre, that was as it should be. That the Acton Hilton was a whole building, non-descript industrial office block type edifice though it was, dedicated to the business of rehearsal made it a special place. Inside that building on any one day there might be a play by Shakespeare, a script of "Fawlty Towers", an episode of a children's series, a modern thriller, an adaptation of a Dostoevsky novel, a dance troupe, a gritty one-off modern drama (such as Play for Today) or "The Two Ronnies" all rehearsing at the same time. And at lunch times the casts of all of them could mingle, catch up with old friends and colleagues, get into conversation with others in the profession who they admired, or in some cases particularly fancied. (The rehearsal rooms and canteen of the Acton Hilton witnessed the first tentative sparks of a number romances). It gave one an almost unique sense of belonging to a shared profession with others of all kinds (the only thing I ever experienced to come remotely near it was an occasional Equity or BECTU AGM. BAFTA had nothing on it).
Of course, the place had its own special hazards. First there was the life and limb risking business of making the dash across the race-track which was Victoria Road from the North Acton tube station to the Hilton itself or , if the car park was full, trying to find somewhere close enough to park that wasn't so far away that you arrived late for rehearsal. Then there was the lack of anywhere private to talk in or adjacent to your allotted rehearsal room itself, a place where you could withdraw for a discrete chat with a struggling member of your cast or a colleague.
I remember having the great pleasure and privilege of rehearsing a famously
difficult Ibsen play at the Acton Hilton with a small but truly awesomely brilliant
cast of big-name actors. The first act of this play contains a twenty minute
duologue between a husband and wife which is recognised to be one of the most
intellectually dense and emotionally challenging scenes in all European drama.
We had worked on the scene intensively for the whole of the two previous days.
Finally, on the Friday afternoon, I said to the two actors "Okay, let's
try running the whole thing." Off they went and, of course, it was terrible.
All the things which we had so painstaking rehearsed, dissected and analyzed
and played in short bursts over the previous two days, suddenly coming without
pause one after another, ambushed and overwhelmed the two actors. I was unsurprised.
So immediately they had come to the end I sat them down and said, "OK,
that was bloody awful. Now let's get our breath back for a few moments and run
straight through it again." I gave a few specific notes and then headed
off to the loo for a much needed pee. Entering the tiny confined Gents I found
the famous, and famously frightening, actor who was playing the husband. With
a face not unlike an infamous screen murderer (of which, in his time, he had
played more than a few) he said to me through clenched teeth "Don't you
ever speak to me like that again!" With no realistic line of escape from
the loo I muttered my apologies and tried to cheer him up, saying that I had
not meant my remark to be taken too seriously and that if we ran through the
scene again I was sure it would go much better.
Minutes later we ran through the scene again and this time the two actors remembered all that we had rehearsed over the previous days and the scene came together properly for the first time. Later, in the studio, they got it right and a famous Ibsen scholar wrote some years later that he had never seen that particularly difficult scene played with more power and truth. So, although on that earlier afternoon I had cursed the confined spaces of the Acton Hilton's facilities, I have to admit that in the result even the 'Hilton's' limitations proved to be a plus. So as I travel up the old Great Western line from Chippenham to Paddington I shall continue to gaze fondly out of my carriage window to the north as the train hurtles through Acton Main Line and mourn the gap in the familiar skyline where once stood the Acton Hilton.
Tuesday 3 January 1984
BBC TV rehearsal-room in Acton, where we'll adapt our stage production of Tartuffe for the telly. The building is so high it's like being airborne again. Way below are the factories, suburbs, railway lines and cemeteries of Acton and Willesden.
Steph Fayerman says, "Isn't it nice to get in a lift and go up for a change?" After months and months underground at the Barbican, at last a rehearsal room with windows. Tartuffe read-through for the TV crew, RKO money-men, and our producer Cedric Messina, a one man Roman epic in name and size. Not a single laugh from this assembled group. Reminiscent of those depressing early rehearsals at the Barbican. But we know better now. Chris Hampton sits at the end of the table grinning and corpsing.
Thursday 5 January
The rehearsal-room is laid out with a forest of vertical poles to denote doorways and walls. Without my glasses I keep crashing into these on fast exits, suddenly finding one between the eyes like I've stepped on a garden rake.
Saturday 14 January
...Last run-through of Tartuffe for the technical crew. An army of cameramen, sound men and other technicians follow the action around the rehearsal room, their noses buried in large fold-out studio plans.
Wednesday 14 March
Technical run-through of Molière . A depressing, token affair because of the continuing strike. Everyone's heart out of it now. Only a third of the technicians turn up. They know and we know that it's not going to happen on Sunday. Have just to go through the motions until we're officially cancelled. Wig fittings next door; the hours spent drawing up these. The infuriating, evil, sad waste of it all. Contingency plans discussed half-heartedly. Postponing is impossible. Many of the cast are off to Europe with Much Ado and Bond's Lear, Mal and Brian Parr off to Stratford to open in Henry V and Merchant, and then of course Bill and I start rehearsals for Richard next month.
Friday 16 March
Bill calls us into a circle. Cedric Messina stands up and announces that the strike has 'delivered the mortal blow' to the show and we're cancelled. Apparently there is a faint hope of doing it at an independent studio, as the production company is RKO and not the BBC. We vote to try for this even though it's fraught with problems. I've bad flu to add to my misery.
Saturday 17 March
Incredibly, they've made it work! In twenty-four hours Cedric and the RKO people have found us an independent studio [Limehouse] and the unions have agreed to allow us to use the sets – although built outside, they were designed by the BBC and, had they wanted to be difficult, the unions could have stopped us – as long as not a single member of BBC staff is involved. Sadly this means losing a lot of people who've worked devotedly on Tartuffe and this project: Tom Kingdom, Harbi Virdi, Peter Kondal, Cherry Alston and others. A new crew is being assembled and we start tomorrow as scheduled. Molière may be jinxed, but it's a survivor. All day at the theatre, people congratulate us as if we had worked this miracle ourselves. Thumbs are held high across the Green Room, actors whoop and rush into one another's arms. It's so beautifully American what's happened, so un-English: a refusal to be philosophical about defeat.
NB. Copyright for the above rests with Nick Hern Books, a specialist publisher of plays, screenplays and theatrebooks.
As a dedicated facility the Acton Rehearsal Rooms were very popular with actors,
directors and technicians alike. While outside there was a bleak, urban sprawl,
inside it was rather like a magic-box with sit-coms, variety specials and major
dramas being marked out, rehearsed and tech'd to an exacting standard.
TP always took the rehearsal process very seriously and couldn't get enough of it, so he always got out of the car with a spring in his step when arriving at Acton, anticipating a busy morning's work. Until lunchtime, that is. That's when everyone percolated up to the top of the building and in the large canteen TP would find himself in the lunch queue, with perhaps Arthur Lowe in front of him, or Ronnie Barker behind.
There'd always be plenty of repartee ringing around the room as old pals hailed one another, exchanged gossip and indulged in bringing each other down to size. Indeed, it was an altogether democratic environment. Literally, an entire trade at lunch with household names, jobbing actors, directors, PAs and floor staff all sat at the same tables.
TP was surprised also by some of the people who would reveal themselves as admirers, very often from the world of variety, who seemed to regard 'legitimate' actors with a certain degree of awe. One such self-avowed fan who regularly stopped by to say hello was Ernie Wise, though luckily he never seemed to have TP in mind for one of his plays 'wot he had wrote'.
Looking back, TP always recalls the Acton years as the happiest of times: working at the 'Beeb' and working with the best.