As I waited outside his office I passed the time by looking over the photographs and activity bulletins on the notice board. There were auditions, forthcoming productions and theatre trips being organised. It was then a voice straight from Ealing casting’s page of ‘drama teachers’ boomed from behind my shoulder. A bearded figure bearing a likeness to Sir Donald Sinden clutched me like the Ancient Mariner himself and in a particularly declamatory stage whisper, asked, ‘Are you interested in drama?’
I was. But I certainly wasn’t in that moment. As time went on I realised the figure from central casting was more than he seemed. The people I liked, liked him. He came in to the students canteen where others didn’t and he put on shows and plays the students wanted to put on. He had no ego, he was clearly very intelligent and knew almost anything I’d ever need to know about theatre.
Within a couple of years I’d signed up to the drama society and became involved in working with John, who gave up endless time and energy to the simple act of putting on a show. It was perhaps in that experience…alongside the tentative steps of trying to write songs and play with other musicians in my spare time that I learned something about how important it was to ‘put on a show.’ That wonderful ninety or so minutes when you allow people to come out of their own space and invest in yours. The simple idea that people could feel better walking out than they did walking in or, that they might think, and think differently.
John took me travelling. We never went anywhere together but his stories sent my imagination running. I’d come back from the summer holidays staying with my aunts in the South West of England and tell him where I’d been… ‘Nowhere exciting…I was saving up for music gear.’
‘Oh but that is exciting,’ he’d say, ‘You must have seen the Theatre Royal in Bath or The Old Vic in Bristol?’
And yet, he never made you feel you’d done anything wrong by not attending these places. He only planted a deep longing to see it through his eyes the next time. I’d heard he’d gone to America one summer. No one went to America in these days and on a list of things I wanted to do but had no plan on how to achieve it, going to America came first. He’d travelled around in a student mini bus which sounded like something from Ken Kesey without the drugs and had camped, bunked and boarded his way round.
‘How was it?’ I casually enquired, trying to suppress my admiration and naked jealousy.
‘Richard, it is bigger and it is better,’ he replied.
When John did direct students, he liked to be prepared. One day I discovered Peter Brook’s book, ‘The Empty Space’ and felt a small sense of triumph that I had finally found a term for all that I disliked in live drama: in Brook’s parlance - the ‘deadly theatre.’ John kindly explained that this was indeed, a glorious piece of writing but that getting a bunch of people who’d never moved/sung or acted before to do a song and dance routine required less imagination and a little more solid graft.
He seasoned all of his teaching with a theatrical flourish. ‘There are no small parts , Richard, only small actors, as Margaret Rutherford once said.’
It was Margaret Rutherford who John went to see when he took the train with a school friend from Alloa to see ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in 1956 at The Lyceum as a 6th form pupil. “We were afraid to go into a restaurant so we took sandwiches and ate them in Princes St Gardens.’
When he wasn’t in college John was at the theatre. Or the opera. Or the circus. Or the ballet or, as importantly, The Palladium or The Pavilion for nights of variety…so dear to John’s heart. His love of all live forms of entertainment rubbed off on us all. I once enquired if he enjoyed Michael Billington’s reviews in The Guardian. I could tell from his expression there was to be no simple affirmation or negation but a quick light in his eyes as he told me.
‘Well, I don’t mind him as much as some of the others as he once wrote an excellent biography of Ken Dodd.’
As we got to know John we would be invited back to his small flat near the college. It was an Aladdin’s cave of theatrical memorabilia: posters, photographs of productions, travel souvenirs and books, stacked to the high heavens. It would be spring and his Christmas cards were around the house on every surface.
‘I couldn’t get rid of these after Christmas…people were kind enough to send them.’
But how do you dust round all these things, a girlfriend I introduced to him enquired.
‘I never dust,’ John stated triumphantly.
I once was appalled when I took a pal up to visit. I was hoping John’s infectious personality might rub off on this friend for whom the theatre was about to be a new experience. It didn’t work and the evening seemed to be going from bad to worse. As he made his way round John’s house he pointed to all his things and patronisingly said, ‘It’s so sentimental.’ I wanted to die, immediately after I’d successfully killed my pal. John didn’t miss a beat. He smiled delightedly, and laughed.
‘Oh yes. You are so correct. It is very sentimental.’
John took us to the theatre or we would occasionally take him. Dundee Rep, Perth Rep, The Citz, The Byre in St Andrews, The Lyceum, and all spaces in between. When we didn’t go he’d tell us stories of productions he’d seen of operas where the critics had clearly misunderstood everything about it and times when, yes, the company/director got it all wrong. He was generous, never allowing anything to be written off unnecessarily vilified. He was always the outsider; happier in the stalls than on the apron of any professional theatre. When asked to direct plays for an amateur drama festival he declined as he ‘couldn’t see how drama could be a competition.’ Everyone won with John.
He is still attending theatre now. We write to each other…John has never embraced the modern age. Every time I see something on the web or the riches of YouTube I sigh as I know how much he’d love it but can’t access it. He spends much of his time looking after his partner Maureen who can’t leave the house due to her illness with M.S.. John reads her out my letters and postcards from my travels.
About ten years ago they were together on a visit to London. I was to be in town on the same evening and we hatched a plan for me to meet them for coffee (John doesn’t drink anything stronger) after the performance they were seeing at The Royal Opera. For various reasons we missed each other and, though John had a mobile phone, he’d quite forgotten to switch it on. As the crowds thinned out and the staff began to close the foyer I made one last attempt to find them. I walked down towards the Strand where I knew they were staying and there bumping over the Covent Garden cobbles, fifty yards ahead, were John and Maureen hobbling at a snail’s pace, he on her arm, she pushing a walker. I caught up and told them how the Arts Council needed to see this to understand how vital it was for people to experience ballet.
If I write my love letter to the theatre, it must first be a love letter to my dear friend John. It is ironic that the man who has always been in the circle or the stalls should finally make it through that fourth wall and become the subject of the play. I know he will be back in the hallowed space of the Lyceum as soon as it can and shall open its doors again.