Excerpt for The Best Fooling by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Copyright © 2017 by Michael Bawtree

Michael Bawtree has asserted his right under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

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Cover design and artwork – Ray Lipscombe

ISBN: 978-1-86151-814-9

Dedicated to



and to the memory of


1919 – 2011

“Why, this is the best fooling, when all is done.”

Andrew Aguecheek, Twelfth Night Act 2, sc. 3


These adventures begin as I step off the boat in Halifax, Canada, having left England to embark on my new life as an immigrant, with the intention of staying no more than a year. A first volume, As Far As I Remember, published in 2015, covered my first twenty-five years, and was written almost entirely out of my memory, because nearly all my early papers and records in the UK had been disposed of as a result of a misunderstanding. But once in Canada I rarely threw anything away, and am now awash in letters, photographs, programs and every other kind of record of life in my new country. In spite of all this mass of documentation, I was advised by a good friend to keep relying on memory, so that the tone of the writing would stay the same, and the same selective principle keep operating. Once my first draft was written, I could always go back to my letters and other papers, to check and occasionally to correct. This I have done, throughout the years covered in this volume.

However for 1973 onward I decided on a change of gear, because in January of that year I had begun to keep a diary. It was an irregular affair – sometimes weeks or even months went by without an entry. But I realized that the diary opened a clear window on my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote in it, and that this might give a new impetus and interest to the story. So extracts from the diary start taking a minor, and occasionally major, role in the telling – which I have continued to supplement with my own recall of events.

I have also felt it only fair to intersperse an account of my public doings with some reference to the private life that ran alongside them, because for some reason the world continues to act surprised and shocked when the personal areas of people’s lives are suddenly exposed, as though the respectable majority of us have no private world of any kind. I have tried to balance discretion with truthfulness as I trace this tumultuous, sexually active and now distant part of my life. All these years, after all, fell within what has been called the ‘sexual revolution,’ when doors suddenly opened up for millions of people in the Western world into all sorts of new experiences, sometimes transcendent and life-affirming, sometimes seedy – and occasionally both.

My theatre career has seen remarkable peaks of success. It has also witnessed spectacular crashes, as my various heady dreams ran into the rocks of personal let-down or envy, or financial stress, or my own loss of confidence, or sometimes my fatal politesse.

In spite of everything I have been extraordinarily blessed in Canada, as will be seen: finding great things to do, a wide circle of friends and colleagues from east to west, and above all an abiding love. My year in the country turned out to be somewhat longer.


Wolfville, Nova Scotia

February 2017



Chapter 1 Beginning Life Over

Chapter 2 A Magic Door Opens

Chapter 3 Branching Out

Chapter 4 A Summer at Stratford

Chapter 5 Shall I Stay?

Chapter 6 Home Again

Chapter 7 Gone West

Chapter 8 Russian Interlude

Chapter 9 Sea Changes

Chapter 10 My New Country

Chapter 11 Latin America

Chapter 12 Transitions

Chapter 13 Back To Stratford

Chapter 14 ‘And Away He Shall Again’

Chapter 15 To The USA

Chapter 16 Britten to Bernstein

Chapter 17 COMUS Music Theatre: a Splashy Launch



To the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for permission to make use of two photographs © Martha Swope, from my production of The Rivals in New York (1974-5); to photographer Robert C. Ragsdale for permission to use his photographs from my productions at the Stratford Festival, 1972-4; to Roundabout Theatre Archives for the portrait of Gene Feist; to Gill Evans for the portrait of Grant Glassco; to Library and Archives Canada for permission to use three photographs in the Walter Curtin collection, from my production of The Beggar's Opera at the Guelph Spring Festival 1977.

Photographs from my play The Last of the Tsars (Stratford 1966) are reproduced from the original slides given to me by photographer Douglas Spillane. I have made unsuccessful efforts to trace the origin of one or two other photographs I have used. The rest come from my own collection.

I would like to thank my good friend Christopher Langham for permission to share stories about his parents Michael and Helen, to whom, as will be seen, this book is dedicated. Thanks also to old friends Bill and Marie Clarke, John Weston and Jonathan Harlow for reading and critiquing my first drafts; and to Chris Newton for his sensitive editing skills.


May 2017


Beginning Life Over

With most of us crowded on deck to catch our first view, the coastline of North America appeared hauntingly on the horizon. We were steaming towards Nova Scotia after a smooth five-day passage, and three or four hours later, with the rocky shore now close and misty but plainly in sight, we nosed up the narrow channel towards Halifax, past George’s and McNab’s Islands, to tie up at Pier 21. A Red Ensign of Canada flew high above the long, chunky building. I have hazy memories of entering the vast hall of the Pier along with hundreds of my fellow travellers and waiting until my turn came to stand before an immigration officer, who checked my papers and stamped my British passport. I was now a Canadian Landed Immigrant. The date was September 26, 1962.

Some of our passengers disembarked here. But many, like myself, returned on board, and a few hours later the Arkadia went slowly about and headed out again to the open sea. The next two days saw us rounding the Gaspé Peninsula and ploughing up into the vast mouth of the St. Lawrence. As we approached Quebec City the shoreline edged closer on each side, and we could see settlements of red wooden houses, and docks, the grey spires of churches and deciduous trees without number, their leaves just beginning to turn.

Quebec City, when we finally reached it, was a wonder, beetling on the hill above us like a mediaeval walled town. We were allowed to land and stroll about for a few hours, and I remember being amazed at how unlike it was to the modern Canada I was expecting. An old city, and a French city. I was glad I had spent that year in France, and felt oddly at home.

A few hours more back on board, and we reached our final destination: the Port of Montreal. We disembarked around eight in the morning. There must have been friendly goodbyes, especially with Andrès my Polish cabin-mate, with whom I had done some entertaining on board, accompanying his saxophone on the ship’s piano. I can’t think what music we had in common. Perhaps Blue Moon.

An hour or two later, my baggage rounded up and transported to the station – I suppose by taxi – I had boarded my first Canadian train, wondering at its sleek silver sides and high platform. I remember nothing of the rail journey except our arrival at Toronto’s Union Station, where I was relieved to be met by my dear and only Canadian friends, Bill and Jane Glassco. Coming up into the main concourse I was startled by the assured massiveness, the stone-clad classicism of the place with its almost absurdly high, coffered ceiling.

Bill drove us back in his Volkswagen Beetle to their apartment on the ground floor of a redbrick house on Madison Avenue in Toronto’s Annex, a cluster of quiet, leafy streets north of Bloor Street and east and west of Spadina Avenue. I was shown to their guest room, and Bill carried in my two large suitcases. I had arrived.

Bill had been at Worcester College Oxford with me back in 1958, where we had been part of the Worcester Buskins, the College’s drama club. A couple of years ahead of me, and like me reading English, he was treasured among our troupe because of his superb piano-playing and his ability to write catchy tunes. Because of our musical interests we had become good friends, and it was Bill who earlier in the summer had suggested to me that I should come to Canada for a year, and try my luck.

Bill generously assured me I could stay with them until I found other accommodation. But their son Benjamin was less than a year old, and his parents were coping with all the usual stresses of dealing with a first-born. So a week or so later I set off down the street, having seen a ‘Room for Rent’ sign in the window of a massive house not fifty yards away from Bill and Jane’s. The room I was shown into was tucked under the eaves at the top of two flights of stairs, its window looking straight into another one in the next-door house not more than four feet away (I remember having been already amazed at how these large Victorian houses in Toronto were all sitting cheek by jowl with one another on narrow lots). I would be sharing the bathroom. The kitchen, which I would also share with the other roomers, was far away down in the basement. The arrangement was not perfect. But the landlord and his wife were Italian, warm and friendly, and the rent was modest: $8 a week, payable in advance. I took the room, and in less than twenty-four hours had moved out of the Glasscos and into my own place.

It was at this still point, established in my own space for the first time on this vast new continent, and thousands of miles away from the life I had been living, that I experienced what immigrants throughout history must have felt. In the Britain I had left I had known and been known by countless people. I could find my way with ease through many of its counties and towns and cities. I knew its politics, its accents, its ways of dressing, its class preoccupations, its weather, and the price of a pint. I felt confident in the love of my family and friends. And now, in what seemed little more than a blink of an eye (I was glad it had been a sea-journey and not a flight), I found myself alone in a strange country, in a city where I knew just two people. I understood nothing more of Canada than the lumberjack caricature I had picked up over the years. Everything was to explore and to discover.

But there was something more. The realization hit me that if I did nothing in this new world I found myself in, if I stayed alone in the cocoon of this little room, I would slowly rot away, and no one the wiser or sadder. The existential idea that persons had no essence and were identifiable only by their deeds became suddenly relevant and real. As far as Canada was concerned, at this moment I was nothing. I did not exist. My life to come in this place, and the way it would be shaped, lay entirely in my own hands.

It was perhaps in response to this sense of isolation that I almost immediately ordered a telephone, which arrived two days later. I also enlisted with a message company – in those days, when you went out, you had to call the company and ask them to take your line and its messages. An extravagance, yes, but if I was to be in touch with my new country it was the only way.

And now for the first time, from my new viewpoint outside it, I saw the world of my life up to this moment as a single traveller’s bundle: like Dick Whittington’s as he trudges towards London carrying his scant belongings at the end of a stick over his shoulder. Whatever I was able to do here, to make my way, would have to come out of whatever skills and knowledge and will I had acquired and brought with me. What was in my bundle? What were the resources I was bringing to this new land? It was time for what in later years we would call a diagnostic.

I had experience as an actor, with apparently some superior talent in the comic line – an ability to make audiences laugh. I was musical, had written songs and sung them, could read music and play the piano at a modest level. I had – so I had often enough been told – a melodious speaking voice as well as a good singing voice. But these skills and talents had been tested only in the world of school and university – or the army! I had no professional training as an actor or musician: no professional credentials of any sort.

I had a fair capacity in the English language, and could speak and write it more or less articulately. I even had some reputation at home as a wit, although I was soon to find out that wit in one culture can be downright rudery in another. l retained small Latin and less Greek from my years studying the classics, but could sketch for you the histories of ancient Greece and Rome and their literatures. I also had a fair grasp of the canon of English literature, from Beowulf to Eliot. I had read widely, although I think not deeply.

I could speak French (‘French French’ as opposed to québecois) with reasonable competence, and could read it comfortably, though with a somewhat restricted vocabulary.

On the social level, I was perhaps especially lucky, in that my life experience – my parents’ hotel, my many years of boarding school, my two years in the army, and my year in France – had enabled me to be very comfortable with people of all kinds. I could meet strangers and know how to speak to them. I was able to make friends. I smiled easily, and enjoyed laughing. I had been told, often enough to believe it, that I had ‘charm’: that capacity, picked up maybe from my school at Radley, for sensing the feelings and thoughts of others and responding with care and attention. It could be said too that I had ‘taste’, if by this is meant a sense of proportion, an avoidance of unseemliness, an ear for the right moment. That kind of taste, like charm, could of course be an impediment as well as a gift. was, I believe, good-looking in an English way – high forehead, big nose – and had a fair amount of physical and mental energy, determination and tenacity. I had some confidence in myself: a belief that I could make something of my life. And I believed that whatever I did not know I could easily learn.

These were some of my qualities. It is interesting that the one I am putting last – that I had a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the renowned University of Oxford – would now be considered my only qualification, because it was the only one that could be recorded on a piece of paper. The rest were vague, numinous gifts, which I could reveal and test only by displaying them.

And what were my deficits – as we should now say?

My rarefied upbringing had made me unworldly. I had little knowledge of business or finance. I had no experience of salesmanship and in fact found the whole idea of pushing a product – even, or perhaps especially, when the product was myself – wholly distasteful. I was not by nature a hustler: at least, not yet.

Brought up among so many people of kindness and generosity, I believed that everyone was well intentioned, that all lies were white. I had no real knowledge of practised malevolence among men or women, no experience of the demonic. That was to come.

For all my vaunted self-confidence, I had moments of crippling self-doubt, when my world entirely caved in on me. I would wake up at three in the morning and be beset by nightmares of disaster and shame, in which all hopes and plans would be blasted, and I would want to sink into the floor. By dawn, I was usually myself again.

Sexually I was still a conundrum even to myself, although I had determined as part of my new life in the New World to put my confusion behind me and find the girl of at least some of my dreams. For all this willed planning, I still found myself beset by the sight of beauty in both sexes, and this rattled me, though not to the point of paralysis.

So, Canada, this is what I am offering you, warts and all: not a bad bundle of possibilities, all things considered! Thus I thought. I also realized what an enormous advantage I already had in knowing English, and how much of a burden my cabin mate Andrès – and hundreds of our fellow immigrants on the Arkadia – had to take on before they could pick up anything more than manual or service work.

But my advantages didn’t stop there. My brief time at Bill and Jane Glassco’s – and I continued to see them regularly after I moved out – had already taught me that though I knew only these two people in all of Canada, they were extremely valuable people to know. Jane was the daughter of chartered accountant Walter Gordon, senior partner in the family accounting firm of Clarkson, Gordon, who had just launched himself on a political career. He and his wife lived on Chestnut Park in Rosedale, which I soon learned was one of the most expensive and desirable districts in Toronto. They also owned a farm outside the city, with fields and lakes. Bill’s father Grant Glassco, also an accountant, was president of Brazilian Traction (soon to be Brascan), the old and wealthy Canadian company which at that time owned and ran Brazil’s transportation and hydro networks. He had been commissioned in 1960 by the reigning Diefenbaker government to head up a commission: the Glassco Royal Commission on Government Administration. Grant and his wife Willa lived in a spacious apartment on Poplar Plains Road. They also had a farm outside Toronto, with a couple of hundred acres, a fine herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle, a swimming pool, and two houses.

Interestingly, the Glasscos were a prominent Progressive Conservative family, and the Gordons were equally prominent Liberals. So the marriage of Bill and Jane, at which Liberal leader Lester Pearson had proposed the toast to the bridal couple, had been something of a Montague-Capulet affair. Party loyalties in Canada at this social level, I learned, were almost ancestral.

Bill was cast somewhat out of the mould of his wealthy and business-oriented family. When he had returned from Oxford in 1959 he had enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English, which was now nearing completion: he was writing a dissertation on the mediaeval poet John Skelton. He was also attached to Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where he taught a course or two, and it wasn’t long before he invited me to eat with him at the College’s High Table. There I had a chance to meet several of the English faculty, including Victoria’s celebrated principal, Northrop Frye – at that time Canada’s most famous English scholar, and indeed a most famous Canadian, whose work on criticism and on Blake I had studied at Oxford.

Before long Bill took me to meet his parents for dinner on Poplar Plains, and a week or two later drove me out to the Glassco farm, nestled in a happy valley near King, and closed in on each side by maple woods turning now into their fall glory. At some point too we visited Jane’s family in their country retreat, and I had my first encounter with Walter Gordon, whose wit and charm were immediately apparent. Mrs Gordon’s qualities in that direction were less obvious, and I later learned that Jane and her mother were often at odds. ‘Two queen bees’, as my mother used to say. They were both powerful, even willful personalities. Jane, though, had the most enchanting smile, and was kind and generous.

Having urged me to come to Canada, Bill evidently felt almost an obligation to help me get into the swim of things. It was soon clear that his connections went beyond Toronto’s high society, and I was introduced to friends of his at the CBC radio building on Jarvis Street, including Bob Weaver, who ran a literary program, was interested in new writers, and edited an important literary journal, The Tamarack Review; and also the formidable Esse Jungh, radio drama’s most accomplished producer. Somehow I also found my way to CBC Television’s music and drama department, which occupied the second floor above Basil’s Restaurant and Grill, on the southeast corner of Gerrard Street and Yonge. This was a buzzing hive of activity: the CBC at that time presented an astonishing number of television dramas and concerts, all performed live in front of the cameras. The large, low-ceilinged central area was lined with the offices of the Corporation’s television director/producers, their distinguished (and all male) names on the doors: Mario Prisek, George McCowan, Norman Campbell, Daryl Duke, David Gardner and Perry Rosemond, among others. Outside each man’s office sat his (female) assistant hurriedly typing away at a new play script, to be ready for rehearsing the next day or the next week. The noise of clacking typewriters was almost deafening – I only now realize how long ago that sound disappeared from our office worlds. The script assistant also served as her producer’s guard-dog, keeping eager actors at bay. The trick I soon learned was to try and make friends not with the bosses but with their guard-dogs, who in their quiet way wielded considerable influence: “You might like to take a look at so-and-so – she seems just right for that small part…”

The place was abuzz with would-be performers, who were allowed to rove around and socialize. I soon got to know some of the regulars, and we would gather together below in Basil’s for coffee after our visits, swopping news of the latest possibilities. “I hear Daryl Duke is looking for burly young guys for his battle scenes…” – that kind of thing.

I suppose Bill was peddling me as an actor and reader, but also as a writer, editor and even as a very green Oxford scholar. He also knew that I had brought very little money with me to Canada, and that I was increasingly in need of employment. So it was after these many introductions, and entirely due to Bill, that some time in October I landed my first Canadian job.

Bill called one day to tell me that his father wanted me to meet with him at his office in downtown Toronto, somewhere midway up the flagship building of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The CIBC tower was at that time the tallest building in Canada – and also, it was said, in the whole British Commonwealth. As you look at it now, nestling like a humble stone puppy-dog among the dizzily high glass towers of Bay Street, you wonder how that could ever have been so. But it was, and I was properly awed to be entering its revolving doors and ascending its sleek, old-fashioned brass elevators. I think they even had human operators.

Grant Glassco was a tall, big-built and paunchy businessman in his late sixties, with reddish face, small grey moustache and receding hair, and with a formidable aura about him that made even his son Bill nervous. He had a natural air of authority, and there was a gleam in his eye that told you he had a temper and would not suffer fools too gladly. But he had fine manners and considerable old-fashioned charm when so disposed. He took little time to let me know the reason for my visit. He was in the final stages of putting together his Royal Commission report, and needed an editor for two of the six volumes. One of these dealt with agriculture, the other with the CBC, and both needed to be trimmed down and checked for spelling, grammar and style. Bill had suggested I could do the job: would I like to work with him on the volumes?

I readily accepted the offer, especially after he asked me whether I would find $25 a day an acceptable wage. I secretly hugged myself with amazement at the generous stipend, which more or less corresponded to what I earned in a laborious five-day week driving my builder’s-merchant truck back in Oxford during the summer vacation. I left the office with two large bundles of galley proofs, and with an agreement to meet again in a week’s time. As a humble suitor begging for the Corporation’s favour on my regular jaunts to her office above Basil’s, I was amused now to be collaborating in a report that was intensely critical of the way the whole enterprise was being run. I was, of course, sworn to confidentiality.

My visit to Victoria College also paid off. An English professor, a Shakespeare scholar named David Hoeniger, needed someone to help read and grade his students’ written work. Bill put me in touch with him, and I visited him at his house round the corner from the College, emerging with my first package of twenty or thirty essays, to be assessed and commented on at $3 an essay. Not a lordly amount, but it added up, and since a dollar in those days bought you a beer or a loaf of bread or even a bowl of soup in a restaurant, I considered myself, with my two jobs, more or less in clover.

Meanwhile, I was getting to know my way round Toronto by bus and streetcar, and by the one subway line which ran up and down Yonge Street – the Bloor Street line was still under construction. The city at that time, for me at least, ended more or less at Eglinton Avenue in the north, at Jane in the west, and at the newly completed Bayview Expressway in the east. I remember marvelling when Mr Glassco told me he was in discussion with City Hall about how to preserve his farm outside King as parkland when Toronto grew to swallow it up: it seemed inconceivable to me that the city could ever expand so far. In the words of the Queen of Sheba, “The half was not told me” – his farm might now be almost considered downtown.

I became very familiar with the area around Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue, the intersection that was no more than five minutes’ walk away from my room. There was a small grocery there, and a hardware store. On the corner was a branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia, and it was not long before I dropped in and opened an account to deposit my modest earnings. A few yards down Spadina stood the red-brick headquarters of the YMHA. I had never heard of the Hebrew Association, and assumed it was off limits to me as a Gentile, but a few months later found I was able to join, and regularly played squash at its two courts. Next to the grocery was the local restaurant, the Varsity Grill, and since my cooking skills at that time never went beyond breakfast I soon became a regular there, enjoying the vast portions which were served up at all Canadian eating-places in those days, and which amazed anyone coming from still ration-conscious England. Huge piles of potato chips, which I was learning to call French fries; hamburgers two or three inches high ‘with everything’; mounds of greasily-battered cod, and all dishes accompanied by the statutory ‘tangy cole slaw.’ A hefty slice of apple pie, with a square of Cheddar and a globe of vanilla ice cream, finished off the meal – and all for four or five dollars if I remember. I did not starve.

It’s worth noting that Toronto in 1962 had many eateries of the ‘greasy spoon’ variety, like the Varsity Grill, but very few restaurants offering what now would be called fine dining. You could eat well and cheaply at the Chinese restaurants west of Spadina below College. But if you wanted to eat more expensive fare you went to the hotels, like the Prince Arthur Room at the Park Plaza. The only ethnic restaurants I remember were the Chez Paris on Bloor Street (also a night-club and open until the shockingly late hour of eleven), La Chaumière in a charming old house somewhere off Jarvis, the gloomy Balkan on Elm just west of Yonge, and the freshly-opened Viking Restaurant at Yonge and Wellesley, where you could be served Danish open sandwiches and good coffee. When you look today at the bemusing wealth of eating-places in Toronto (or any other large city), you realize how people nowadays spend their money in ways which were simply not available then. Even then, though, things were beginning to change. The Italian influence was starting to make itself felt in the west and northwest of the city; the Greeks were beginning to enliven Danforth. And as early as 1948 Honest Ed Mirvish had opened his cheerfully vulgar store on the edge of downtown, at Bloor and Bathurst, drawing folks like a magnet from all walks of life for his astonishing deals and the shouting, self-mocking slogans plastered over his building: “DON’T GO SOMEWHERE ELSE AND GET ROOKED: COME TO HONEST ED’S!!!”

For the prosperous old Toronto families among whom I had by chance landed, this vulgarity was a source of contempt. But then Toronto still at that time belonged to them, and was a very restrained, God-fearing and even dull place – and more or less (as they say) closed on Sundays. They had their private clubs – like the conservative York Club on Bloor of which Mr Glassco was a member: but eating out even for them was something of a luxury, and shopping for clothes meant going to department stores: Holt Renfrew on Bloor, or more democratically to Eatons or Simpsons at Yonge and Adelaide – or to the other Eatons at College and Yonge. Summer weekends were spent at their hobby farms outside the city, or in cottage country up north.

As a new immigrant trying to make his way, I lived in something of a schizoid world. Through the Glasscos I was privileged to rub shoulders from time to time with the wealthy and highly anglophile circles which still ruled Toronto, among whom I was the engaging young Oxford man who could charm and entertain them, and whom they welcomed into their houses. But I was also making friends among the down-and-out actors at Basil’s: mostly (but by no means all) young people who were struggling to find a toehold in the entertainment world, and living in rooms, or in cheap apartments in shabby, Bohemian places like Yorkville. There was no unemployment insurance for actors, only the dole: I remember one who had himself listed as a ‘shepherd’, searching diligently but unsuccessfully for work in this line at the Employment Exchange each week, and therefore successfully drawing assistance until such time as the next leaderless flock happened to clatter in to the city.

Over breakfast I also got to know my two fellow roomers at 6, Madison Avenue. They were both simple old fellows, and I think had been there for some years. One was Cyril, a sweet little man, very kindly, very grey and very poor. The other, a Second World War veteran with a steely crew cut, was somewhat strange. We shared pots and pans in the communal basement kitchen, and I had noticed that before using the huge cast-iron frying pan he would clean it very carefully. Then he would clean it again. And again. The same with every knife, fork and spoon. A few months later he started taking showers in the middle of the night – for as long as an hour and a half at a time. One night an ambulance came and took him away. I had met my first anal obsessive-compulsive, though it was years before I knew such a phrase. Psychological disorders of that kind had not yet made their way into the general consciousness: at least not into mine.

I soon became aware that while the good people of Victoria College, and also the circles in which the Glasscos moved, had respect for the young Oxford man with his articulacy and smartish English accent, there were other less privileged Canadians by 1962 who were becoming increasingly resentful of the way Englishmen had been making their way to ‘the colonies’ for a couple of centuries, and then strutting around as though the place owed them a living. There were of course British doctors, teachers and other professional men, whom Canadians certainly had need of. These were generally appreciated, since for a long time there had been so few opportunities for Canadians to gain the required training in their home country, and there was a perpetual shortage. But there were also bounders who seemed to think that the mere fact that they were Englishmen was enough for them to be looked up to. And, worse, there were some well-educated Canadians who unconsciously or not thought of themselves as intellectually inferior to someone from the old country. The year I arrived, though, things were definitely on the move, and in fact I had turned up just at the moment when Canadian cultural nationalism was beginning to make headway. There were pockets of it at the CBC, and I was aware that my accent was an impediment when the one or two Canadian dramas being produced were looking for actors. But there was still a heavy dose of British and European classics being served up to the Canadian public, and English vowel sounds and clipped syllables were for some reason thought perfectly acceptable, not just in British plays but in the works of Ibsen or Chekhov.

The live theatre was something different again. Less than ten years before, Canada had begun to play host to one of the most remarkable theatrical enterprises ever launched anywhere. Tyrone Guthrie had been inveigled over the Atlantic to the little railway and market town of Stratford, three hours’ drive west of Toronto, and in the summer of 1953 had opened the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in a circus tent. Guthrie had been keen to absorb as much Canadian talent as he could find, and many Toronto actors had auditioned for him and been accepted into the company. But Guthrie had also attracted a fair number of British actors, who had come for a summer season or two and decided to settle. A handful of these actors were now living in the city during the winter months, and naturally there was some indignation when they seemed to grab so many of the good roles on television.

Guthrie had left the Festival in 1955, and his place had been taken by the young and consummately English director Michael Langham. Langham’s early years at Stratford had been difficult, we heard, because Guthrie had been loved as well as feared, and no one could possibly fill his shoes. But Langham had persevered and taught himself a great deal, and by the early 1960s was beginning to be recognised as a director of some genius who had an increasing command of the demands of Stratford’s splendid but tricky thrust stage. As artistic director of the biggest, most professional theatre company in Canada – a company that had attracted the attention of distinguished critics from south of the border as well as Britain – he was in fact just becoming accepted as the tsar of the Canadian theatre. His name was mentioned in hushed tones by our Basil’s group. Some had auditioned for him and found him arrogant and forbidding. But there was no doubt of his almost godly status.

The 1962 Stratford summer season was well over by the time I set foot in Canada, and in Toronto itself there was at that time only one theatre company mounting a full winter season of plays. This was the Crest Theatre on Mount Pleasant, between St. Clair and Eglinton. It had been founded some ten years earlier by Murray and Donald Davis, with their sister Barbara Chilcott, and was being run at that time by Murray Davis. Since my experience was entirely in live theatre, it was natural that besides sniffing around CBC’s television and radio drama departments I would be keeping an eye out for the possibility of auditioning for the Crest. Some time late in October I saw a notice of auditions taking place there for a play by Jean Giraudoux called The Enchanted. I booked for an audition: it was to be the first professional audition of my life. I don’t remember whether I went to the library to read the play: probably not. But on the day appointed I took the subway up to St. Clair, and then the streetcar which slid east along St. Clair and then turned north onto Mount Pleasant.

The play was to be in the hands of an up-and-coming young director called Leon Major. He and Murray welcomed me pleasantly, and then sat side by side in the darkened auditorium. I remember nothing of the audition, but I will never forget what followed. When my stint was over, I left the theatre by the front doors and crossed over Mount Pleasant to wait at the streetcar stop for my journey back home. It was while I was there that I suddenly saw Murray emerging from the theatre, and then crossing the road right to where I was standing. I wondered whether he was taking the streetcar too. But no: he said, “Michael, we thought we would put you out of your misery right away. We would like you to take the part of The Ghost in the play. Will you do it?”

“I certainly will,” I stuttered: “Thank you very much, sir.” “Good,” said Murray. “Rehearsals start next Tuesday. See you then.” We shook hands and he returned to the theatre.

I more or less danced my way back home. I don’t ever remember being quite so elated as at that moment: I had been accepted for the first time into the theatre profession. The Ghost was a small role, but he had one important scene towards the end of the play, when the young ingenue appears to be falling in love with him. The ingenue, I later found out, was to be played by a young actress from Winnipeg, and freshly out of the very first intake of the recently founded National Theatre School. Her name was Martha Henry. The rest of the cast included Joseph Shaw and his wife Mary Savidge; Norman Welsh; Tudi Wiggins; Barbara Chilcott; and a young man called Henry Hovenkamp.

Though my role was small, it required me to join Actors’ Equity, and I spent the rest of the week working through this process, as well as discussing with my other employers how I was going to continue to carry out my assignments for them. It would not be too difficult: given the small part I was playing, there would be many days when I would not be called in to rehearse at all.

I remember little of the opening days of rehearsal. We no doubt sat around and read the play together and talked about it in a rather bemused way: French drama was so very different from the plays we were used to. Anyway, I was concentrating intensely on the Ghost, determined to make it a starring role if I possibly could. I was not particularly helped by never having had an acting class in my life – I knew nothing of the actor’s methods for ‘creating a character’. But in my usual slapdash style I was confident I would be able to rely on native intelligence and ability.

It was around the third or fourth day that our director Leon Major stopped me in the hallway after lunch-break and said: “Michael, you’ve been to Oxford. What’s this play all about?” It seems an innocuous enough question, but I cannot overstate what effect it had on me. First, of course, I had been assuming all along that Leon knew exactly what the play was about, and like the rest of the cast I had put myself trustingly into his hands, thinking only of my Ghost. Now here he was suggesting he didn’t really know what we were all doing and where we were heading! But secondly, and more importantly, once I got over my surprise I started to think seriously and for the first time about the answer to his question. What was the play all about?

I’m not sure how much help I was able to be to Leon, but I will always be thankful to him, because his question set me thinking in a new way. How did the play fit together? What was the author trying to say? What were the relative importances of the different characters, and did they change and develop through the play? Was there some kind of a climax somewhere? Even when studying classic plays as part of my Oxford requirements, I had never looked at any of them from this practical, ‘sawdusty’ point of view. In other words, I began for the first time to think not as an actor or a scholar, but as a director.

In the end I doubt that either cast or audience ever quite knew what the play was trying to say, and there was a certain amount of cynicism about it backstage, with Joe Shaw’s sardonic wit setting the tone. Reviewers were also confused, and there was a general feeling that the play should never have been selected. But we soldiered on. My Ghost was certainly no star, but I believe I was at least competent. And I much enjoyed making friends with my fellow-actors, many of whom I would continue to know and work with for years. Martha Henry’s beauty and poise on stage was universally acknowledged.

By the time The Enchanted breathed its last puzzled breath, Christmas was almost upon us. The Glasscos were overwhelmingly generous and kind over the holiday season, bringing me into their homes as one of the family, and even giving me expensive gifts – something I was in no position to reciprocate. By this time too I had got to know other people. My Oxford friend Robin Grove-White had put me in touch with his Irish uncle, who it turned out was something of a literary presence in Toronto: his name was Kildare Dobbs and he had just published his autobiography, Running To Paradise. Kildare and his wife Mary McAlpine had had me more than once to their house on Duplex. Through my CBC contacts I had also met a young couple called Patrick and Joan Lyndon. Patrick was short, fair-haired and irremediably English, with a lugubriously long face and a mournfully comic wit to go with it. He had been a piano prodigy as a child, and had even given a solo concert at Wigmore Hall in London at the age of twelve. He had gone on to my own Oxford college, Worcester, where like me he read English, though tutored not by the brilliant Christopher Ricks but by his predecessor, the redoubtable Colonel Wilkinson. Patrick had emigrated to Canada eight or ten years earlier, and had first found work at a radio station in Cornwall. He had then taught for a while at Upper Canada College, but now worked in the magazine publishing business: he had not touched a piano since his teens. Joan was Canadian, dark-haired and attractive and with a subtle wry wit of her own. She had worked at the CBC as an editor before their marriage. They had recently started a young family, and had two young daughters.

Half a century later Patrick described being introduced to me at a Toronto party late in 1962 and clearly finding in me an intellectual soulmate. “I could not stop talking and listening to you,” he said: “It was like meeting The Paraclete.” Coming from Patrick with his ever-morose and world-weary view of life, this effusiveness was astonishing. “Joan felt the same way,” he added. I am still not quite sure what was meant by these compliments (and had to turn to a dictionary to find that the Paraclete was nothing less than the Holy Ghost!). But there could be no doubt that I had managed to put a version of myself together at that time which gave a highly positive impression to others. Perhaps I also enjoyed being one of my kind: almost all my life – and especially at Oxford – I had been surrounded by supremely witty, intelligent and articulate English people, against whom I was, albeit unconsciously, measuring myself. We had all honed our social skills in conversation and debate over our young years, and had developed a good deal of assurance and even well-mannered cockiness – as well as a fair dose of self-regard. I had left all these scintillating young people behind in England, and found in Canada that I was able to interact with everyone I met with that same assurance, but without such competition. This would have been insufferable to Canadians, who it seemed were very much inclined to think little of themselves, if I hadn’t also brought along that sensitivity known as ‘charm’. I was very aware of how easy it was for Englishmen to throw their weight about when abroad, and was not disposed to do the same. In fact my genuine interest in other people, as well as a certain amount of (not entirely false) self-deprecation, made for a good social cocktail. I was beginning to feel at home.


A Magic Door Opens

It was 1963, and my first Canadian winter was now in full spate. Antonio had long since climbed his ladder to affix my heavy wooden storm window three floors up, with its slot which I could open and close for air in my overheated room. I remember my astonishment at the sidewalks piled up with snow from the streets, and the black slush it turned into. But most of all I recall waiting wretchedly at unsheltered streetcar stops with the wind biting through my trouser legs at 4° above zero (minus 20° Celsius, but we were still using Fahrenheit then). I had not heard of long johns underwear at that time, and in fact have never worn a pair in my life, but I could have done with them in those early, straitened years. And how warm it was whenever you were inside, from private homes to banks or department stores! I was also intrigued at the way the large buildings downtown gushed clouds of white steam from their roofs. Cold was something I had been brought up with and was thoroughly used to – and loathed. But although outdoor temperatures in England never dropped to anything like those in Canada, the English in those days never really heated the interiors of their homes or public buildings. As a result, when you went outside your hands and feet were not really warm to begin with, and soon, with the flimsy gloves and boots we wore, became numb with both cold and damp. I was finding that in Canada you were always warm, if not stifling, indoors, and when you ventured out you stayed warm, inside your outdoor gear of fleece-lined jackets and cosy boots lined with fur or fake-fur. You also learned not to linger in the cold, but to dash from oasis to warm oasis. I often said, and it is still true, that I had been colder in England than ever in Canada.

Some time that winter, which saw the blowing up and eventual cooling down of the Cuban missile crisis, I took the Greyhound Bus down to New York, where my close Worcester friend John Weston was serving three months as a very junior Foreign Office staffer at the British Mission to the United Nations. My sister Jo was also there, as was my old schoolfriend Peter Cook, preparing for Beyond The Fringe’s transfer to Broadway. All these dear people I met during my few days in the terrifyingly cold city; it must have been February. I seem to remember John bringing me into a meeting of the General Assembly of the UN, and I certainly recall walking through the East Village with Peter and stopping inside the door of a small club to see and listen to a jazz pianist: his name was Thelonious Monk. I was awed by New York’s almost superhuman energy, the sprouting of its skyscrapers, the thrusting of its traffic, the driving pace of people on its sidewalks.

Back in Toronto, I was hired as an extra in my first television drama – starring Christopher Newton, I remember (later to become the distinguished director of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake), though I have no memory of the play: Billy Liar, perhaps. Later in the year I was a soldier extra in a campy black-leather production of Antigone directed by a young Peter Boretski, with Joseph Wiseman as Creon. These productions were both prepared down in the CBC’s cavernous rehearsal building on Sumach Street. Their chief stars, it seemed to me, were their designers, because the fact that the shows were broadcast live meant that the set had to accommodate continuous action from scene to scene with almost no breaks. This was true of all CBC productions at that time – though for not much longer.

I completed my editing work for Grant Glassco early in the new year, receiving my last amazing pay-cheque for a couple of hundred dollars. And I continued to ferry back and forth from Professor Hoeniger’s house delivering graded essays and carting away a fresh load. He seemed pleased with my work. But this had become my only source of income, and I was keen for a break and a less dreary occupation.

It was some time in March of 1963 that I was granted an audition with television producer David Gardner, who was casting for two short British plays, each of them starring the very fine Canadian comic actor Eric House. One of these plays was A Resounding Tinkle by the English playwright N.F. Simpson, whom I had met once briefly with Peter Cook, back in England. There are only three characters in this ‘absurdist’ play, but at one point they stop their madness to listen solemnly to a religious radio broadcast by a ninety-seven-year-old Father Gerontius. This was the role I auditioned for, and since it was very much in the British style I knew, I gave them my comic vocal old-man rendition, complete with mock-religious chanting. David responded warmly and offered me the part. I found out that he had asked the well-known Elmer Iseler Singers – already engaged to perform as a Salvation Army choir in the other play – to provide some choral responses for me. This was exciting. But what really surprised me was when he decided that Father Gerontius should appear not on radio as in the original script, but on the household’s black-and- white television set. It was clear that at the age of twenty-five I didn’t exactly look the part. But David assured me that the make-up people could do wonders, and I was able to hang onto my role.

One blue-sky Sunday in late March I remember from that year, when Bill and Jane took me out to the Glassco farm to join in the sugar maple festivities. It was a family gathering, and Bill’s sister Gay was there with her husband John Evans and their children. It was my first introduction to this very Canadian occasion, which was carried out in traditional style, with the sap being collected from one tree at a time in the maple grove around us and poured into a large square tank, with a fire blazing beneath it. Plaid lumber jackets, toques, mufflers and gloves kept us warm, and we all tasted the newly-distilled nectar, our breath steaming in the cold, sunny air. I was astonished at how much sap was needed to produce how little syrup.

Diefenbaker’s minority Conservative government fell that same month, and in the run-up to the General Election of April 8th I found myself accompanying Jane Glassco canvassing from door to door for her father Walter Gordon’s re-election in the riding of Davenport. I watched the results at the Gordons’ home, which that evening was filled with ecstatic Liberal supporters, including hockey player turned politician Red Kelly and future cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp. The Liberals won, though short of a majority. Walter Gordon regained his seat, and a few days later was appointed as Lester Pearson’s Minister of Finance. I wondered at being so close to Canada’s political centre of power so soon after arriving in the country.

Rehearsals for A Resounding Tinkle began later that month, and it was only then that I met the rest of the cast. Eric House, playing the hen-pecked Bro Paradocks, was short, dark and nervous, with the kind of sad face that well suited Simpson’s deadpan humour.

Playing the hen-pecking Middie Paradocks was an even shorter actor, clearly English, shapely, with beautiful wide eyes and an infectious laugh. Her name was Helen Burns. The third character, though named Uncle Ted, was played (as the script calls for) by a woman dressed as a man. The part had been given to Patricia Collins: tall and leggy, attractive, thin-faced and blonde.

I suppose there are episodes in all our lives which we can point to as defining moments: a new way opens up, or a chance comment or unexpected encounter leads us on to some profound change. I had certainly had some lucky breaks in my first six months in Canada, and had been enormously helped by my influential friends. But on the set of A Resounding Tinkle I found myself in the midst of one such key moment. I became friends with Helen Burns.

Perhaps it began because we were both transposed from the country we still knew as home. Helen, who had spent several years hopping from one side of the Atlantic to the other, was apparently attracted to this reasonably bright young man who had so recently ventured over to Canada. Each day the little cast would go out for coffee or lunch at a restaurant nearby and have lively chats. But then one day, at the end of rehearsal, Helen asked whether I would like to join her that evening for an omelette at her apartment hotel on Jarvis. I was flattered and happy to accept.

I must have stumbled out of there some time between two and three in the morning, after six or seven hours of joyous talk and laughter from which I seemed unable to tear myself away. I was spellbound: a spell that has never been broken in the fifty and more years since that first close encounter. Helen was a consummate cook, a brilliant conversationalist, warm, uncannily intelligent and perceptive, charmingly wicked, enormously attractive and uproariously funny. All this I gathered that first evening. I was to get to know more, much more, of this extraordinary human being.

Helen evidently felt the same way about the magical fun we were having. Was there sexual attraction involved? Probably – on both sides. But it never occurred to me that I could have an affair with someone more than twenty years my senior. Besides, Helen was as far as I knew happily married. And by this time I had become very well aware of whom she was married to. Her husband was the bright star of Canada’s Stratford: none other than its artistic director, Michael Langham.

From then on our work on A Resounding Tinkle was an unceasing delight. I became fascinated by the strange way Helen worked: by her mixture of imperious certainty and quick self-doubt. She was mysterious, unpredictable: her character was living a secret life, which we caught in odd glimpses. When she looked out of the window at the elephant that had been delivered to the house but which turned out to be the wrong size, she so clearly saw the elephant herself that we all saw it too. David Gardner was I think a little intimidated by her temperament, but he and all of us found her irresistibly funny. Eric House was funny too in his down-in-the-mouth way, but with far fewer flashes of unexpectedness. As for my own performance as Father Gerontius, it was buoyed up by Helen’s pealing laughter in rehearsal, and I felt very much on home ground – even after three hours in the make-up studio being turned into a nonagenarian.

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