Tuesday, 17 February 2009


And then, of course, I had a wake to organise. Can you imagine anything gloomier? The deceased - a man of medicine - was gigantically popular, highly-regarded, the centre of village life, the deliverer of new babies, the easer of the dying, the finder of lost children, and truly his brother's keeper.  It was decided that the event should be held in a theatre, a nice nod to the long years he put in as duty doctor on the sets of some of the worst British films in living memory, including On the Buses.  Some kind friends will recall that before making a raging success of marriage and motherhood, I worked as a props mistress, labouring alongside some of the greats, such as that darling old Svengali, Dennis Groutage.  My father's wake was held at an establishment that is currently dark, but where I spent many happy months on a long-running Rodgers and Hammerstein.

There is something captivating about an empty theatre, and there is nothing like the thrill of standing on an undressed stage gazing out across the serried rows of empty seats. I am sorry to tell you that my self-indulgence knew no bounds, and I crept away from the convivial mourners in the theatre bar to wrap myself in the proscenium curtains.  You see, I am an expert in tabs; there is very little about theatre curtaining that I don't know. Go on, ask me.  A proscenium curtain can be lifted and lowered up to forty times each performance. No. 88 or 96 Fleur de Lys webbing is best for lighter weights.  Operating lines should be of hemp sashlines or superfine manilla rope.  Galvanised steel cables give long periods of trouble-free service.  Would you like to see my drawings? I have kept them, filed away, all these years. This one is a sectional drawing showing details of the joining clamps to be used with tubular metal stage equipment. And this one shows a method of attaching a barrel fitting, and this one is a pulley fitting for carrying lines to the winch.  My father was very proud of my technical know-how. He liked girls to be practical, and he was a complete pushover when it came to show-business.  I have never met a more stagestruck man. There was very little about it that he didn't like, and he was easily impressed.  At a Bray Studios charity gala long ago, he performed the Heimlich Manoeuvre on one of the Beverley Sisters when a cocktail sausage went down the wrong way.  He oft times described that event as a defining moment.

In the theatre, when the house is full you say it is "Harry Packers". That was one of my father's favourite expressions; he used it all the time.  Sorry I'm late, the surgery was Harry Packers this morning.  Couldn't get near the station: the place was H. Packers.
When a show wasn't selling well, it was common to give tickets away, or to substantially reduce the price,  just to get bums on seats.  Very often, these freebies were given to nurses, or student nurses and doctors, for some reason.  My father benefited from this scheme in his youth and never forgot it.  This was called "papering the house".  Rubbish crowd tonight; the house was full of paper. 

I know this post is rather disjointed; I am not fully back to normal and I know it shows. I am sorry.  My father had a wonderful life. He loved New York, and he was lucky enough to see the famous contour curtains of Radio City Music Hall.  2,000 yards of fireproof lining, a mile of metal cable and a weight of three tons.  Some people have all the luck.


  1. Thanks again for sharing, you were so lucky to have such a great dad.

  2. Wow. A wake in a theatre. Pretty damned good.

    Yes to the drawings!

  3. Overwhelming.
    There is a most exhilarating explanation somewhere; an eyewitness account from classical times; of Roman sailors unfurling enormous sun canopies over the Coliseum with ropes and pulleys.
    It doesn’t come close to this.

  4. And I still have blogger's blur...

    'there is nothing like the thrill of standing undressed on a stage'
    Maybe this is because I have experienced a costume malfunction...

    Your Dad sounds a wonderful character.

  5. my mother sang on that stage, sugar...radio city music hall...thank you for reminding me. you'll get through this, honey. i know. xoxox

  6. Hello Grump, yes, my father was part of the luck I've had. And I've been way too lucky, believe me. Completely undeserved, too.

    Oh Kev, book yours now. It is the only way to go. In fact, there might be a useful business opportunity for us here. Think of all those resting actors! A hired tux apiece and hey presto! Pall-bearers at a bargain rate. I will give it some thought.

    Farrish, where on earth have you been? No, don't tell me - canvassing for Tzipi, I'll be bound. Which constituency? Jericho South or Armageddon North? Always a pleasure to have the Edgware Eizel on my humble page.

    Scarlawarla, I thought you had bloggers' bum? No matter. Tres drole. You have deliberately misread my carefully-composed text in order to provide a portal for your well-worn vulgarity. My father was not a wonderful character at all. He was almost a caricature of a village GP; but it was his very leather-elbow-patch, Morris Traveller, cheroot before breakfast and after lunch, hahaha Mrs Smith, how are we today? shtick that made him popular. It's a funny old world.

    Savannah, but how marvellous! Then she would have DEFINITELY known the contour curtains: they were world famous. Operated by 13 separate electric motors, too. The Radio City stage manager was a world-class electrician (can't remember his name, sorry) as opposed to the hamfisted sparks who can often be found here.

  7. Stages are magic, aren't they? My mother trained as an actress; and my father - a trained electrical engineer - took on a job as a lighting man in order to pursue her. I assume in those days he was not foolish enough to shine the follow-spot in her eyes or drop screwdrivers on her from the gantry. For them 'the romance of the stage' was no hollow phrase.

    Forgive the apparent flippancy - you write so evocatively, that's your trouble. And I do understand a little of what you're going through.

  8. When I was a child and there was a funeral in the street, everyone closed their curtains as a mark of respect. My continental friends think this is quite barbarian and typically English.

  9. Actually, Daphne, I think it is a class thing. When I lived in Clapham it was quite a run-down common place, not like the gentrified wanksville it's become. Anyhoo, all the old artisans used to drag their drapes whenever a cortege shambled by. Whereas, when I'd gorn up in the world to S. Kensington (the wages of sin) - bupkis. But it was all a bit Araby by then tbh.

    Gyppo, oh my goodness; that is prodigiously romantic. Maybe you can expand on it for us? Did your Pa ever get to swing the Supertrooper? It takes a real man to get to grips with that beast.

  10. So sorry you have lost your father. I hope he had a peaceful end. When my Dad died it helped that I had to support my mother so couldn't give way to grief. Different story when she died and I was an orphan.
    You must carry on your Dad's Packers etc.

  11. A lovely post Mrs P, you and your father had every right to be proud one of the other.

  12. Pat, it was nothing less than heartbreaking. He was in a lot of pain at the end, so the clinicians cranked up the morphine, as they always do for one of their own. But, you are right; supporting my mama has been a diversion, if nothing else. Thank you.

    Dear Boyo, my father had nothing to be proud of in me! A gorgeous old dipso daughter with a bad barb habit is absolutely NOT what the doctor ordered. But we were madly fond of each other, which is probably more important. After a requiem mass, my mother insisted on having the Kaddish said at the crem. It was bizarre. The waiting family of the next crematee were antsy at being kept waiting. As we emerged, a single word formed on the lips of the bereaved: Buddhists.
    V'al kol israel, v'imrum amen indeed.

  13. The Jewbus have arrived!

    zichrono livracha.


  14. Is your mother the Jewish side of your family and your father the Catholic side? He's sounds like he was a great chap. Doctors are often natural actors - it's the only way they can make it through the day with all those sick people. What you've written has given me the smell of the theatre in my nostrils once again!

  15. he performed the Heimlich Manoeuvre on one of the Beverley Sisters when a cocktail sausage went down the wrong way.

    tee hee.

    He sounds like a remarkable man, Mrs. P.

  16. Boyo, thank you so much. I don't think anyone else would've known the old ZL sign-off.

    Gadj, isn't it hideous? Worst of both possible worlds. Mama a Yekke and Papa's family Papes from Antwerp. I mean, it's lose:lose. No wonder I drink.

    MJ, you are kind but probably bemused. "Who are the Bevs?" is probably the question de jour for you. Back in Blighty, we often torment ourselves with the poser "who is your favourite Bev?" Many go for Teddy, but Kev Musgrove, for example, always comes down heavily on Babs.

  17. Oh my Dear Mrs. Pouncer.

    Forgive my tardiness but I have such a time of it dealing with mortality. My Father's grand heart seized when I was at the acme of carefree youthfulness and it destroyed me. I plunged into a world of excess in a race against the clock and most of my early twenties are a blur.

    I had someone from College remind me of some of my antics the other night and I was stunned..how she could see me blush in the dim light of an English style pub is beyonend me?

    My attempts to James Dean into the history books eventually led me to a Road to Damascus style conversion that engulfed my tattered spirit and my powers of reason abandoned me as I waltzed though the motions of being a contrite, religious, know-it-all.

    Until a decade later I awoke with a fire in my belly that forced me to shout from the rooftops at a god who punishes the good and leaves the asshats to prosper in this world that he exiled his most beloved rebellious angel whom he so recklessly granted the keys to the asylum.

    Now I sit and ponder on how best to cyberhug your wounded heart. Now I have fewer answers but better questions. Whatever it is that we are doing here, you seem to be doing it right.
    I am drawn to your craft, with it's bow facing into the wind. I am happy to troll in your wake and see what awaits us over the horizon.

    If we encounter a bottomless chasm where the world comes to a complete end, I shall raise my glass and present a toast to your companionship.

    And now on with the show. There is no Dress Rehearsal, no final run-through..the lights are coming up and it's a full house..
    cue the orchestra..
    and so begins the medley..
    break a leg

  18. A theatre. This is yet to come for me; I hope you don't mind your readers picking up and weighing your experiences so as to be prepared. But maybe I should find something else, as my own father never goes to the theatre except to sleep.

  19. Dear Mr Coppens, I scarcely know how to answer you, apart from saying that the two great monotheist religions that have done much to make me the wreck I am today, have brought me absolutely no comfort or clarity during the past painful month. And I wept bitter tears on seeing my poor father alone and cold in his coffin, the life force absolutely extinguished. Appalling to think that this is how it all ends: a shroud, a bundle of old love letters in your waxen hand, a weeping widow and daughters in various stages of inebriation, the all-pervading embalming fluid in the air. And that's if you're lucky. Carpe diem, Mr Coppens. It is later than you think.

    Inky, I would recommend it, truly I would. A theatre bar is a convivial place at the worst of times, and how chic to have 10x8s of Bruce Forsythe and Sid Caeser grinning down on the mourners as they struggle to remember the deceased's name. I am honoured that my few friends might trawl through these humble pensees, preparing themselves for the demise of their own dotards. A caveat, however. The crems of London are gloomsome places, so your olds might be well advised to die in the provinces or the Channel Islands. Apart from that, curtain up!