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A Biography

Nautical language ... who's so vain? ... and furry bikinis

19 February 1995
Written for The Independent, London by Charles Nevin



THE CAPTAIN doesn't know much about the theatre, but he does like a good show. An invitation to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, then, for the opening night of Zorro, the Musical! was a bit of a pull. Jolly panto business, boos and hisses, Zarzuela music, a big black horse, a man in a mask, bad jokes, who could ask for anything more? But there was: Joan Littlewood, founding mother of the theatre, arrived unannounced, 20 years after she shook the dust of Sparrers Can't Sing, A Taste of Honey, O What A Lovely War, and left for France, too upset by the death of her husband and partner, Gerry Raffles, to carry on her carrying on with a moral. She had come back in tribute to the late Ken Hill, her pupil, successor and Zorro's Stratford begetter.

She sat in the Green Room afterwards, not down in the bar, sipping champagne, wearing the famous black cap and red mac, receiving and insulting old friends, complaining about the tea in France, praising the trains, wondering where she might sleep the night, mocking luvvie kissing, complaining about too much money being spent on paint, and telling stories involving Lionel Bart, Kirk Douglas, a fall, Tiny Tim's crutch, hospitalisation, a demand for salt beef sandwiches, meeting the Marx Brothers and very much doubting them when they claimed they had never heard of the commedia dell'arte.

She had come back, she said, because Hill's death had completed the circle begun by Raffles, because she wanted to be there with Hill's wife, Toni Palmer, one of the best things in Zorro. The language was as nautical as the cap as ever, but it seemed a worryingly mellow Littlewood. Except that when she had arrived, before the show, to general stun and awe, she had surveyed the scene, the curtain waiting to go up, the small auditorium complete with its chandelier, the one Ian Albery had lent from Wyndham's Theatre before they fell out and never managed to get back; and she had said, her first comment after 20 years: "Still got Albery's f---ing chandelier then."