Our speaker in February had many amusing tales to tell after a working life behind the scenes in the theatre, writes Charmian Corner
February’s monthly meeting was enlivened by a talk from Brian Freeland, who gave us a true ‘insider’ view of the theatre.
Among other people, he worked with the ageing Crazy Gang, with jugglers, conjurers and comics and the unpredictable Tommy Trinder, the best ad libber in the business, according to Brian.
When our speaker did his National Service he joined the RAF and they sent him to language school to learn Chinese at RAF Pucklechurch near Bristol. He and a fellow airman went to the Bristol Old Vic to see Peter O’Toole in Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw. He immediately became a fan of both Shaw and O’Toole, a seed was sown and he decided he wanted to work in the theatre.
When he was demobbed he managed to get a job with Moss Empires, which ran several variety theatres around the country. He became a trainee manager at the London Palladium where the pantomime ran from November to Easter and where the TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium was staged. The staff worked seven days a week. He soon got fed up with working in the office and wanted to get into the action, so he trained as a techie, ending up as stage manager. He entertained us with sometimes hilarious memories of seeing shows from the wings and occasional risqué anecdotes.
He has worked with animals, including three rabbits that had to appear at the beginning of Cinderella, one of which had to be replaced as it suffered from stage fright. But he was in a quandary when, for a production of Robinson Crusoe, he was asked to put goats on the stage – for they are notoriously stubborn animals. He sought advice from an animal trainer and learned that they loved to climb. So, with a pile of fallen trees and debris on the stage, they climbed happily throughout the scene and were no trouble at all.
Brian toured with shows throughout Britain and overseas, including opera and ballet, and he also worked three summer seasons at Butlins. The camps had two or three theatres, so once again it was a seven-days-a-week job. There was a strict rule at Butlins that there must be no ‘blue’ jokes, but this was ignored by one elderly competitor on talent night. His ambitions as a stand-up comedian were shattered when at a second attempt to get a laugh with a very rude anecdote the curtain came down in mid-act!
Brian planned his retirement well for he has prepared several talks about his varied life and now tours his own show. He is the star, no longer at the back of the stage.