Show People

Hugh Barnes

  • So Much Love by Beryl Reid
    Hutchinson, 195 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 09 155730 5
  • Knock wood by Candice Bergen
    Hamish Hamilton, 223 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 241 11358 X

Show people pretend to be other people most of the time, they act out fictional lives. It’s nice work and reasonably well-paid. Also, if Beryl Reid and Candice Bergen are to be believed, they get to meet a regular mixture of super-rotters and superstars in far-flung corners of the world. But it must be devilishly frustrating. There are chat-shows, of course, and autobiographies (often complementary) to set the record straight, but these are poor substitutes. Is real life that important anyway? Both these books sport impressive supporting casts, which run into the glittering hundreds. Sir Richard Attenborough is the common factor. Bergen was his co-star in a film called The Sand Pebbles, shot on location in the Far East. Out of hours, while the other actors, Steve McQueen amongst them, were busy getting drunk and chasing women, Dickie (bless him) was ‘acquiring art and informing himself on the island’s politics, making underground contacts with the clandestine opposition on Taiwan’. Beryl Reid worked with him in less exotic surroundings, at the BBC. He probably spent his evenings at home with the telly. For the rest, their stories shed light on separate worlds. For instance, Charlton Heston dressed as Santa Claus was a feature of the Christmas parties Bergen went to as a child. Beryl’s heroes are a homely breed. She christened her cat Ronnie after Corbett.

Everybody loves Beryl. Hers is not the kind of history celebrated by the theatrical establishment, but as distinguished and a thousand times more diverse. She made her professional debut, still a teenager, at the Floral Theatre, Bridlington, and afterwards served her apprenticeship in old-time Music Hall, in the traditional routine of summer season and winter pantomime. Theatre managers got value for their money when they booked Beryl. She could sing and dance and slapstick, all at the same time. When war broke out, she was requisitioned by ENSA, later returning to her earlier pursuits and sharing in the golden age of radio comedy. So Much Love is most successful when it is describing these years. The list of names here, from Val Parnell to Peter Brough, from Alan Melville to Jimmy Edwards, reads like a history of British Variety. Even then, unconsciously a student of Method, she would dress up in gymslip and boater, catapult in hand, to do Monica for the wireless. She went to Hollywood for the first time in the Sixties, when Robert Aldrich, resisting the advances of Bette Davis, asked her to repeat her portrayal of June Buckridge in the film version of Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George. Sister George was an important turning-point. Her career had brought her to the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, and Mother Goose, where she was upstaged each night by Frank Ifield yodelling. We should be grateful to whoever it was who suggested this new departure. It enabled her to reveal unexploited talents, and without it we would have been denied her Lady Wishfort, her Mrs Candour and her Connie Sachs.

Our first glimpse of Beryl, tipsy after a lunch party and asleep on her bed, is something to treasure. As she sleeps, life goes on for her ten cats and a punctual window-cleaner. Beryl the eccentric, holed up in Honeypot Cottage by the Thames, is an extension of her popular persona. She returns on the final pages, enlisting the assistance of her clairvoyant friend Kim to trace Dimly to a locked-up garden shed. Everything in between these two episodes shatters the illusion. What is curious, even innovative, about her memoirs is that Beryl’s favourites are pushed to the fore. The narrative is interspersed with transcripts of recorded conversations. These are perfunctorily introduced: ‘But let Sue go on with the story’ or ‘As Terry recalls’, or ‘I personally can’t remember, so I’ll let him tell it.’ What follows is a page, sometimes more, of baffling small print. The book has been pieced together by Eric Braun, her press assistant, from hours and hours which she spent dictating into a tape-machine. To give her credit, Beryl seems unsure about the process, commenting wearily at one point that the ‘tiny machine ... loves to play everything backwards just when you’ve got the hang of it’. If a sense of the voice which no doubt enlivened the recording sessions is absent, so is any awareness on Eric’s part that what he’s getting down might be nonsense.

During her time at the National Beryl appeared opposite Michael Gough in the world premiere of Edward Albee’s Counting the Ways. It was a strange choice to open the vast new complex with – a small play. In the course of it, the performers are required to throw off impersonation and improvise briefly as themselves. A technical breakthrough in many ways, it creates the illusion of the actors breaking free. Beryl’s comic training served her well and by all accounts she was extremely accomplished. This is paradoxical, since the book reveals no awareness whatever of acting as something separate from life. Whereas her two marriages, her relationships with her brother Derek and her mother, are passed over with only the barest intimations of their importance, she immerses herself in the extraneous misfortunes and circumstances of every part she has played, from the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet to Kath in Orton’s Mr Sloane. At her most philosophical she compares everyday experience to the business of building a role: ‘all through my life I’ve had knocks – who hasn’t? – but it’s all part of living, and it’s all part of making your character up.’ When she does cast her mind over the ordinary world she becomes incoherent. At one point the television programme Shelley is the vehicle for some laborious social comment. ‘He’s actually put his finger on the button,’ she says, ‘because so many people now don’t want to do a good day’s work for a good day’s pay, and that’s why we’re slipping down a bit.’ So that’s why we’re slipping down a bit.

Unemployment has never troubled Candice Bergen. Even when she’s resting, her hands are full. Many elevated personages grace the pages of Knock wood – Henry Kissinger, Haile Selassie and Oliver Reed to name a few. It’s a pity she fails to distinguish between them. Bergen has it her own way with words, and she can be funny and perceptive. Unlike So Much Love, the book is elaborately structured. There are two funerals on the first three pages, her pet tortoise’s and, a quarter of a century later, her father’s. On the second occasion Ronald Reagan gave the memorial address. Her father was Edgar Bergen, whose ventriloquist dummy, Charlie Macarthy, was the star of American radio before the war. The early chapters, which deal with the triangular relationship between father, daughter and wooden doll, are the best. Bergen skilfully describes the fantasy of a Hollywood childhood. With Walt Disney shovelling coal and toot-tooting and driving his miniature steam engine round the backyard, is it any wonder reality remained a stranger to Candice and her friends? The ultimate prize was an invitation to Liza’s. Vincente Minelli spoiled his daughter with scaled-down replicas of the costumes from her favourite pictures. After tea you could choose between Vivien Leigh’s riding habit from Gone with the Wind, Leslie Caron’s leotard from An American in Paris or Deborah Kerr’s ball gown from The King and I. Things fall apart, however, when Bergen reaches adolescence. She casts herself out, much to her parents’ dismay, flunks finishing-school, flunks college, hangs out with upmarket beats and wealthy radicals. But Hollywood has the last laugh because, as the dream fades, the book loses its way. For all that, here are two examples of showbiz autobiography at its most cheerful and least offensive. As Beryl says, sometimes it’s enough to know the sun shines and you’re getting your share of it.