“An Election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry .” George Eliot from Felix Holt
It is Food and Drama Night at The Home for the Terminally Overdressed, a cutting edge residential facility for thespians from stage and screen. You will find it tucked away on the Slough Trading Estate. Here, for a price, there is person centred care for those of a theatrical bent and many of the residents were once household names particularly from the heyday of British Television in the 1970s. Despite all the strikes and de-industrialisation, not to mention the sexism and racism, the 1970s was quite a nice time with flared trousers and platform shoes, when we all knew was that Thursdays was Top of The Pops and Sunday evenings meant The Onedin Line or The Brothers. There was nothing quite like chilli con carne and if you added a small tub of cream to chocolate Angel Delight and covered it with hundreds and thousands you could even pass it off as your own chocolate mousse.
Sadly these days have gone and chilli is now without carne because of the methane and Nigella and the like have more sophisticated ways with mousse although no one actually has time to make it. The culturally unifying force of two or three channels (if you could afford BBC 2) has gone. We are a nation fragmented by choice and digitisation and other things. It is rumoured in the Home that rumbabas are on the menu!
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
“Food and Drama” is one of the more popular nights at the Home and this evening guests have worked hard to bring some memories and some magic back into their lives and there are several elderly Sidney Poitiers from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there is a well known husband and wife team who have come as Lady and the Tramp with a bowl of spaghetti which is proving difficult to handle with zimmers. The Harry Burns and Sally Albright characters from When Harry Met Sally might well have been a mistake as this particular Sally has recently had a hip replacement which rather limits the “oh ah” scenes when it came to each character “doing their turn” to their fellow residents.
Undoubtedly a great success are the two sisters who once won fame and fortune on Opportunity Knocks who have come as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? “This” said Matron in the awards part of the evening “is a wonderful example of how our residents turn disability to advantage as our “Joan” has found herself confined to a wheelchair since making a guest appearance on Playschool and falling over Humpty and going through The Square Window.”
In an aside to her PA she suggested that photographs should be taken as it would be useful for the national “Ageing Well” competition to be held at Blackpool in October. This should not include the rather life like dead rat and parrot, as families considering The Home for the Terminally Overdressed for their loved one might think it was some sort of sample menu.
Fortunately for those who once appeared in such memorable 1970’s programmes as Please Sir, On the Buses, Callan, The Persuders and Cilla to name but a few, they can relive their glory days in a series of themed spaces calculated to help nudge failing memories and encourage what is now called “wellbeing”, and was probably once called something else before it needed to be made into a commodity. You will find quiet corners such as “Val Doonican’s Niche” which contains a rocking chair and a guitar set against a panorama of the Mountains of Mourne. There is a previously “ladies only” space which explores themes of fictional correctional facilities in “Within these Walls”, which is a female prison workshop. This has, like most things, been recently re-imagined as “a gender neutral space” which suits “him from Upstairs Downstairs” who likes to wear the prison overalls and the Googie Withers wig from the dressing up basket.
As the Director of Personalised Care for the company said to “The Daily Wail” reporter “we are all theatre people darling, we don’t judge”. This is not like “The Daily Wail” which does and revealed all in headlines reading “Former Footman to Lord Bellamy in Hairspray Shock – I was terrified said our reporter.”
There are also larger spaces for more communal activities, such as the coffee bar designed to look like the coach in The Italian Job. This is not recommended for those with vertigo and there does tend to be a high staff turnover and the cost of replacement Italian crockery is challenging.
Embodied Performance and a Wrongly Positioned Ironing Board
Of all the residents none is more famous than Sir Sebastian Wylie Fox, the nation’s favourite luvvie. Sebastian is one of our greatest classical actors. In his twenties he famously filled almost a complete row of the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr, where he gave a ground breaking performance as Shakespeare’s King Richard in Richard III, which is a famous play by William Shakespeare, the rather well known playwright.
It was Sebastian who, in the 1950s, first fully embodied the performance of the King’s “humphy back” in a pantomime villain portrayal which as Ken Tynan said “has never been improved upon”. Despite not getting the role of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, “due to artistic differences with Osborne over the motivation of Mrs Porter’s ironing board”, he was undoubtedly one of Britain’s “slightly ruffled young men”.
Much of his early success was due to the influence and expansive network of his legendary aunt, the late great Baroness Wylie of Waterside, who as Muriel Wylie was a major figure in the cultural landscape of post war Scotland. Sebastian was (unfortunately because of the times he lived in) what might be described as “very theatrical”, which in the years before Lord Wolfenden’s report meant he got himself into a bit of bother. Aunt Muriel, who was not above what we might call “knobbling a judge”, managed to get him off one particularly tricky charge and sent him to America in the care of her Cousin Lulabelle, who set him up in Greenwich village. At the actors’ school he blossomed under all sorts of people and Stanislavsky became his byword.
Lobster on the Menu
We still see, even with declining memory and physical stamina, that Sebastian and method acting are almost one in the same. Why today for example he decided that he would come to the Food and Drama evening as a lobster from the scene in Woody Allan’s Annie Hall. Over and above the difficulties of the costume, Sebastian insisted on absorbing his character by spending a large part of the morning in a perfumed bath surrounded by seaweed (good for skin tone) and following this by an excellent lobster lunch which he had sent for from some fancy chef along the Thames towards Maidenhead, which arrived by Deliveroo.
Matron says she is making “damned sure it goes on his extras’ bill as is the bottle of pink champagne”. Sebastian has always seen the need to remain current and his portrayal of the dying moments of a lobster in boiling water through the medium of rap caught the imagination of the residents who have decided to invest in baseball caps and chunky gold jewellery.
Sebastian, despite being given a light sedative earlier in the day, can still work an audience and it is due to him that a rather bad tempered day has turned out rather well. Even if he was also the cause of the bad tempers.
New Directions and New Confusions
The mood in the Home reflects that of the country and here just as elsewhere there is division along party lines. The blame, if blame there must be, is laid fairly and squarely at the door of Brexit.
Actors are used to exiting a stage. There is stage left. This is the instruction for a character to leave the stage on the actor’s left facing the audience in the normal manner, that is to say in a quiet non dramatic fashion, making way for more interesting events. Exit stage right is the same but by the actor’s right facing the audience that is to say their left. So left and right as we know can be very confusing as stage left and right are the opposite of House left and House right. Then we have down stage, upstage and off stage.
Now all the world is a stage and this world stage is where Britain apparently wishes to be, but when the actors are elderly and not a little confused the introduction of another instruction Brexit makes for confusion and where there is confusion there is disharmony. This new stage instruction has resulted in an election and as George Eliot said when we have elections the fox is kinder to the chickens at least for a while.
A Lot of Georges
Sebastian, who is bored easily, can be a mischief maker. He learnt much from his cousin (once removed) about manipulating certain situations to advantage and this morning he enjoyed making the residents jittery with his tales of George Eliot. “Who is this George Eliot” said the former makeup artist on George and Mildred. “Oh darling” replied a researcher from That’s Life with Esther Rantzen “you remember… George Eliot, he used to be Mary Anne Evans, lived with a married man for over 20 years.” “Speak up dear, my battery is low.” “I said she lived with George for 20 years” “Who? He did or she did?” “Both actually.” “Well how very peculiar, so typical of Sebastian Wylie Fox. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were in one of those blancmanges à trois either. I knew I should have gone to Hastings.” “Did you ever meet his aunt and uncle?” “The Wylies; yes we had her on The Generation Game, contestants had to eat a banana with a knife and fork. Anyway dear Sebastian says there is a new stage direction, a Brexit and we must all get used to it.”
Divisions in the Home
Inevitably it was not too long before those residents who could remember what had happened at breakfast were meeting up with others in like minded groups. Those who had forgotten just went to easyobics or crochet. There were those who thought things had gone too far and and that the old stage directions should remain or we would be out of step with the rest of the world. Then there were those who thought it was too late and the Brexit should be embraced with its new opportunities for experimental theatre in places like Australia and New Zealand and with that awful ham actor in the States.
The Scottish residents inevitably felt that they were being marginalised, as they have been since 1603, and retired to the Caledonian Club on the 4th floor with their glass of scotch, where those who had been in the Citizens’ Theatre and the 7:84 Theatre Company would demand Gaelic stage directions and write a musical based on the Highland Clearances with the working title Sheep-xit.
By the afternoon there was a full scale riot taking place in the mock up of the Houses of Parliament which had been built for The Pallisers and rescued by that woman on the TV who hangs about council dumps and turns old rubbish into things people with beards, living in Bermondsey, want.
The Usual Suspect
Matron was furious, she can always sense when Sebastian is at the back of something. “I can quite see why” she said “there have always been rumours he was a spy. He seems to make things happen by the simplest of actions and then disappears to watch things play out.”
Fortunately by tea time everyone had exhausted themselves and after scones and Victoria sponge, many had a dose or watched a woman turning rusty baths into bookcases. Sebastian, true to form, had retired to look out his lobster outfit before going to his individualised reminiscence therapy.
Old and with Memory Problems (he does tell such silly stories)
“Sir Sebastian I wonder if you would like to share with us this afternoon your memories of the famous Country House Concert of 1957 which featured the woman who most clearly epitomises 1950’s Britain, your Aunt Muriel?”
“Indeed well you see it was really about how Così Fan Tutte saved Britain from the comrades and Bunty Haystack, a forgotten crime writer, and a spiritualist called Madame Claire Voyant from assassination.”
“Nurse I wonder if you would make a note? Sir Sebastian’s hallucinations are more pronounced, prepare a sedative.”
“Well of course I was in New York at the time having the time of my life in Hell’s Kitchen, but my Aunt’s diaries give a very vivid picture of that time and I have brought along one of the concert programmes. You see we had to stop the story of Lord Pentland-Firth’s murder becoming public. He was widely believed to have been a war hero, but had in fact betrayed Britain to the comrades. The Secret Service had instructed agents to make sure the news never got out. In 1957 Britain was trying to get Inxit, that is to say into the EU and the PM wanted no embarrassing leaks which could be used by the French.
Part of the strategy lay in making sure that Lady Pentland-Firth’s Country House Concerts were a success or she placed herself in danger of blackmail. Unfortunately Bunty, through the medium, smelt a rat and would if allowed have behaved like a fox in a chicken shed. Will I go on?”
“Yes certainly fascinating, but first you are going to feel a little prick.”
“Life is full of disappointments.”
Sebastian Wylie Fox
The Doctor Findlay Medical Centre
The Home For The Terminally Overdressed