Sebastian is Thinking
In the basement of a ground breaking retirement facility for actors somewhere deep within the Slough Trading Estate, “so handy for Pinewood and the set of EastEnders,” Sebastian is sitting in contemplative mood.
New York 1957
Contemplation was something he came to grips with in the late 1950s when he left Britain for New York and The Actors Studio. Here he came under the influence of Konstantin Stanislavski, Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg and the legendary tours of the Moscow Art Theatre which made such a major impact in the 1920s and 1930s and helped to create “a new kind of acting”.
Sebastian, like Goethe. came to believe “that the actor’s career develops in public, but his art develops in private”. The deep and lengthy practical experiments undertaken at the studio would provide “the method” by which Sebastian would approach so many of his roles including a patient with a strangulated hernia on Emergency Ward 10, a sleeping Tory peer in The Pallisers (Susan Hampshire said she had never heard snoring like it) and notably, “Death of an Antique Dealer”.
In this “wooden sink drama” (so necessary for the washing of good crystal) Sebastian played Edinburgh antiques dealer, Orlando Ormolu, in a darkly comic play written by his own Uncle the late Jasper Wylie and first performed at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in 1970s. The real Orlando was once the toast of Edinburgh’s New Town but disgraced himself by “French framing” a painting by Glasgow Boy, James Paterson, to suggest its provenance included a spell in the Louvre before the painting was apparently appropriated by Goering during the last Unpleasantness, with it subsequently turning up in the cellar of a house in Partick, Glasgow.
The stretching methods employed on the canvas led to a series of shocking articles in The Connoisseur and revelations of further dire doings by Orlando in The Sunday Post, such as Marks and Spencer slippers passed off as the footwear worn by Marie Antoinette en route to the scaffold and a pair of double gusset directories which were proved to have belonged to a Mrs Travers of Maryhill and not a Mrs Saxe-Coburg & Gotha of Windsor Castle. In a rare demonstration of emotion (and there being no wind from the Firth of Forth) the citizens of Auld Reeckie’s tweed and twinset belt were “shocked” and many indeed “outraged”, despite it being a Sunday.
Gritty Scottish Characters
Orlando descended into a binge fuelled world of depravity with a number of growing addictions including Ovaltine made with “the top of the milk”, (a sign of total indulgence on either side of Princes Street), caramel wafers, snowballs and double nougat Italian ice cream wafers, with (can you believe it?) added sprinkles! It was not long before he began to associate with members of the underworld, producing plaster of Paris busts of Greek deities, including a very competent Aphrodite based on the legendary Lady Pentland-Firthwhose bust was said to have had many of the attributes of the Mona Lisa’s eyes, i.e. all over the place, or to misquote a more recent film “Every which way and loose”.
It was not long before a cynical, Leith born redheaded “polisman” Alexander “Sandy” Beach was on his trail. Sandy, a man so hard he was known locally as “Tumshie” (Scottish for a swede – have you tried to peel one?) who had his own axe to grind, his mother having fallen prey to Orlando’s silver tongue and purchased a Dansette record player, “as used by Flora MacDonald while imprisoned in London, including free Kenneth McKellar long playing record of “Scottish Favourites”.
Getting Into Role
To prepare for the role Sebastian actually lived in Edinburgh for a while on his return from the United States at The North British Hotel, even taking a taxi to Leith and back again. The play is now studied as part of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. This is a revival of methods used in schools before the 1970’s which have been long forgotten, so are now considered new. Students are encouraged to watch rare film footage of the desperate Orlando played so movingly by Sebastian climbing out of the Edinburgh to Inverness Train on the Forth Rail Bridge (a marvel of stage craft) hotly pursued by the possessed Sandy. It being February the metal of Sir William Arrol’s famous bridge was somewhat icy and as Orlando shouted those now famous lines, ‘‘ma heid is up ma jumper ya big Tumshie” he falls on to the ferry below which was moving between South and North Queensferry, where he surprised the driver of an MG sports car who had foolishly left his top down. Orlando was found dead sitting bolt upright, holding a map of the East Neuk of Fife in one hand and a thermos of coffee in the other. Sebastian brought the house down.
Behind the deceased Orlando a film is projected of the building of the new Forth Road Bridge and fake antiques tumble from the gantry above into the water, symbolising the death not only of a dodgy antique dealer, but a dodgy past and hope for a new technological Britain in the 1960’s.
A Night at the BAFTAs
Well that was then and now in 2017. The ageing and increasingly forgetful Sir Sebastian Wylie Fox is thoughtful and perhaps a little down. It is late and he is tired having been at The BAFTAs in The Royal Albert Hall, where he has been pleased to see the recognition of a current favourite Manchester by The Sea and also of I, Daniel Blake, a reflection of a Britain that many would rather ignore and one which is being left behind by another technological revolution. He reflects on how his uncle would have been pleased about films showing the lives of ordinary people for Uncle Jasper lost his parents in a custard powder factory explosion. He was brought up by his granny in a Gorbals tenement, and knew all about those who were left behind while others flourished, under the banners of progress.
Uncle Jasper – the Literary Years
Sebastian pays for extra storage space in the home for his vast archive and indeed that of his celebrated aunt the late great Muriel Wylie, Baroness Waterside, interior decorator, cross bench peer and simply marvellous human being whose guides to Gracious Living have never been out of print. In his mature years Uncle Jasper had gained some acclaim for his writing. The manuscripts are here. These include his historical works particularly “Embodied Embroidery – A Study of Needlework and Convalescent World War One Soldiers” and its companion volume “Handicrafts for Heroes”. Both were originally published under the imprint “Making the Most of Conflict”.
One cannot forget his works for the stage, particularly The Mrs Travers Farces including “Support Stockings” – a musical and “Of Course it’s Corsets” – a light operetta. Then of course there were his more serious literary works, such as the autobiographical “Hospital Street” and “Tram Spotting” not to mention “Librarian”, a Nordic inspired tale of a public service worker “on the edge” in a portakabin during a refurbishment of adult non-fiction, with a brown issue card system, an ink pad that is running dry and a bottle of vodka in her handbag.
Awards Are so Unsettling
There is something about the award season that unsettles the residents of the Home for the Terminally Overdressed. Their years in the spotlight are largely over, although many earn a nice little sum as accident victims in Casualty or purchasers of fruit and vegetables in Albert Square and one or two have managed a free lunch as the older love interest in First Dates, with that dishy man who is so French he must be from Falkirk. On the whole, however, the luvvies have been replaced be newer, younger models mainly from private schools, with no student debt, good genes, classic bone structure and from what Aunt Muriel would have called “the better varsities”.
The coach to Kensington is, therefore, bitter sweet for it is both a treat to be able to walk up the red carpet and meet old friends but also a reminder of the applause that has gone before and is unlikely to return until the BBC presents “In a change of programmes we present a tribute to…….”. It can be a confusing time for those with shaky legs and even shakier memories and Matron who begrudges the administrative burden that is the ordering of the coach, notifications to catering, emails to insurance, not to mention drawing up a comfort stop strategy (roughly every six miles) was heard by Sebastian to mutter to Sister D’eath, head of the Judy Garland locked ward, “I don’t know about La La Land; this lot belong to Ga Ga Land.”
Matron’s view seemed to be supported by Emily Terry who used to be in charge of Crackerjack pencils asking if she could have a ride on Hercules, who was the horse on Steptoe and Son. Sebastian made a mental note that Matron would pay for her crass indifference to those she was paid to care for and the betrayal of her calling. Remembering that he would forget this on the bus he took out his phone and quoting Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing , sent her an email saying her management reminded him of “the parish where a stupid old man was set to be schoolmaster because he was past keeping the pigs”.
A Good Night Out
The journey home along the M4 from the Albert Hall had been fun with at least 6 Ethel Merman impressionists (one of whom was actually a woman) leading the company in “There’s no business like show business”. The supper that followed was also enjoyable but Sebastian drew the line at team games including the popular, “Who was married to who” based on Pointless which Sebastian has never understood anyway.
So armed with a glass of something pink, Sebastian has made his way down to the storage area of the basement below the old sets of Margot’s sitting room from The Good Life and Alf Garnet’s home from ‘Till death Do us Part. These are used by key workers for reminiscence therapy, depending on whether or not the clients are from middle or working class backgrounds. For the few who require an upper class setting the Home rents Lady Marjorie’s drawing room from Upstairs Downstairs or for Scots such as Sebastian and any other “minorities ethnic” it is always possible to hire an amusing backdrop from The Good Old Days or It ain’t Half Hot, Mum, there being relatively few depictions of sober Scots or meaningful minority ethnic roles and the Showboat is very expensive.
Sebastian has, with some effort, managed to put up an Ercol table and a chair which are left over from his aunt’s Scandinavian period. Aunt Muriel was a pioneer in such modern designs in 1950’s Glasgow. She and her husband, Uncle Jasper, owned a chain of interior design shops long before Habitat or Laura Ashley or that other one with the flat pack book cases. They successfully tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment and indeed “Chez Nous” did a roaring trade in Scandinavian chunky glass ornaments and abstract textiles as well as furniture for the 1950’s home.
Sebastian surveys shelf after shelf of acid free boxes containing the Wylie archives. In a box marked 1957 he finds his aunt’s diary and realises for the first time that it was Muriel and those two remarkable larger than life figures, Lady Pentland-Firth and Cousin Lulubelle (who was an American from the very, very Deep South) who prevented his prosecution after the incident in the Necropolis and paid for him to go to New York, while Muriel looked after his daughter Gayle. Only of course she never really was his daughter, but everyone kept up the pretence for the sake of the little girl.
He also finds an uncirculated and fuller version of the Wolfenden Report and sees his aunt’s name as one of the secret authors. So, he thought to himself, good old Aunty Mu was one of those responsible for liberating the “very theatrical” from a very unpleasant past.
Sipping his drink he thought what amazing people he had been so lucky to have in his life. Aunt Muriel was politically, in her thoughts, such a conservative and yet in her actions often so radical and Uncle Jasper such a radical and yet in so many ways so conservative, it would after all be 1977 when he finally filled in the air raid shelter and took down the blackout shutters. Oh dear he thought I remember all that fuss about Uncle’s duffle coat. Aunt Muriel hated it; she said it made him look like a Labour voter, which of course he was, but after he had gone she kept it hanging in the wardrobe.
A Might Pair
They were he mused, looking through an album of photographs, such fun and unpredictable people to be with, ahead of the game in so many ways. Aunt Muriel could be such a tartar in many ways and yet underlying her bossiness was a humanity that one finds in Glaswegians even of the poshest sort. She believed in fairness. They both liked interesting people, different sorts of people from all classes and backgrounds, provided of course they were well accessorised. I wonder what she would think of the things that are going on today in Britain, Europe and America?
Not a lot I fear, for they loathed vulgarity and revelled in difference despite often appearing to be to the contrary. They showed kindness to strangers and of course Aunt Muriel would always be the first to remember that the unknown person at the door just might be an angel in disguise and worthy of a pot of tea and a slice of gingerbread or a traybake prepared of course by Mrs Travers, the daily woman what did but not a lot.
If on the other hand she discovered you were being unfair or unkind, a threat to family friends or country, that country being divided between Glasgow’s West End and the Rural Bolthole, she would put on her whole armour of God – one of her body armour duster coats, fix her hat firmly to her head with an intercontinental ballistic hat pin, put her sling backs on and pick up her handbag and tell you Prime Minister, President or Pauper that if you did not behave she would fill your pockets full of stones and sew them up – a few other home truths too.
She would then send for the armed car, the Humber Super Snipe with Jasper at the wheel and Lady Pentland-Firth and Cousin Lulubelle in the backseats hurling bon mots from open windows and Mrs Travers riding shotgun (metaphorically speaking) on the bumper conducting a war of nerves by giving passers by a glimpse of her support stockings. From her megaphone Aunt Muriel would preach the gospel of marvellousness and if division at home and abroad failed to heal she would produce her Trump card – how to eat a banana with a knife and fork.
Well thought Sebastian to himself, it is getting chilly down here and I seem to remember we were having milky drinks and hot buttered toast before bed. Then if I remember, which I might not, I will send emails to world leaders quoting Florence Nightingale from Notes on Nursing where she also suggested that those in positions of power and authority should “do no harm”.
Sir Sebastian Wylie Fox
The Home for the Terminally Overdressed