General articles
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

The Adventures of an Australian in London: A double life in music

Written by Tony Locantro

Tony Locantro 

In the first article in a three-part series, TONY LOCANTRO recounts highlights from his career in music, both as a professional pianist and working in the recording industry for EMI in Britain, where he had initially gone for a sight-seeing working holiday in 1960, but ended up staying on as an Australian expatriate.

 Iwas born in kensington, sydney, on 15 june 1937 in a private hospital called ‘Famenoth’ in Alison Road near Randwick Racecourse. My mother, Olga Jones (born in Sydney in February 1917) was descended on her father’s side (Sid Jones) from Rosa Harrison, a niece of Lady Martha Harrison who was a Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria, and an Irish photographer called Da Shannon (which was possibly Dara Shannahan). The name Jones was the name of Rosa’s first partner (a West Indian entertainer of colour called Thomas Jones who was in a travelling show) with whom Rosa eloped to Australia, probably in the 1870s, and had four children, although she never married Jones before he eventually left her. Rosa never married Shannon either but used the name of Jones for the two children she had with him as well as the previous four with Thomas Jones. Olga’s mother (Alice Partridge, known as Dolly) came on her maternal side from a Jewish family called Marks that ran a jewellery business, and paternally the Partridge family had a fish shop in Cleveland Street, Sydney.

My father, christened Bartolomeo Locantro (born in Sydney in 1905) but who always called himself Bob or Robert even on his Marriage Certificate, was descended from two families who originated on the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily. His father, Antonino Locantro was born in Lingua, Salina, in November 1870, and his mother, Carmela Reitano, was born in New York in November 1883 from parents who had emigrated to New York from Lipari, the principal island in the Aeolian group. Carmela’s mother was Francesca de Luca whose family later ran the famous fruit shop in King Street, Sydney. In 1891, Antonino, who had been in the Italian Merchant Navy, emigrated to Sydney where in 1900 he opened a fruit shop at 191 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, at what is now Taylor Square. In 1901 he sailed to New York where he collected his 18-year-old fiancée Carmela and they sailed to Salina where they were married. They then immediately undertook the long voyage to Sydney, where they lived in premises in Oxford Street above Antonino's fruit shop, which was called the Darlinghurst Fruit Mart, and began raising a family. Soon afterwards the Reitanos and De Lucas from New York joined them in Sydney and they are all buried in Waverley Cemetery, along with many other families from the Aeolian Islands who also emigrated to Sydney around the same time with names like Favaloro, Natoli, Giuffre, Pellegrini, Costa, Tesorero and Beninato, whose gravestones always show the name of the Aeolian Island on which they were born.

My mother and her father Sid were great lovers of the theatre and the early movies. Sid (born in 1887) remembered seeing the early Australian productions of things like The Arcadians, Maid of the Mountains, The Mikado and other G&S operas and they both knew and sang all the early popular songs from the turn of the century through to the Hollywood era of Busby Berkeley. My father, on the other hand, had little interest in any of this and none of them ever listened to classical music of any kind.

From an early age I had a talent for playing popular songs on the piano. After a minimum of training—mainly from the Shefte College of Music—I began gigging in the 1950s in a rather primitive dance band while still at school. This was the Marist Brothers College, Randwick (now the Marcellin College), and the Brothers used to set me to playing the piano to accompany the school choir, even at the prestigious Eisteddfods where we sometimes won prizes. And being away from my classes while I was playing for the choir did me no harm as I went on to be Dux of the College in 1953!

When I finished school, I started my university degree course in Science in 1954 and in the next few years I played for several amateur revues (one of which was directed by the Sydney actor Bob Hornery) and a production of The Boy Friend, all with the Randwick CYO (Catholic Youth Organisation).

The dance band also flourished and we played for weddings, birthday parties and dances in the local halls, and parties in private homes although, to be honest, we made a fairly unattractive sound but I guess our drummer provided the right rhythms for dancing which was the important thing. Later at Sydney University, I played for three revues in 1957, 1958 and 1959 plus HMS Pinafore and Victoriana, and met and worked with the actors, writers and directors Philip Hedley, Clive James, Leo Schofield, Chester, Peter Kenna, Kate Cummings, Madeleine St John, Pamela Trethowan and others of that ilk. These days are recalled in detail in the book The Ripples before the New Wave by Robyn Dalton and Laura Ginters and I will write later about Clive James and Leo Schofield in London.

From Sydney to London

I left Sydney on Sunday 7 February 1960 on the Fairsky, a smallish liner owned by the Italian Sitmar Line. Their other ships at that time were the Fairsea and the Castel Felice, and many Australians of my generation sailed on them for their trips to London. The ship stopped at Brisbane, Singapore, Colombo and Aden, then Suez and Port Said (the towns at each end of the Suez Canal) and finally Naples before our ultimate destination of Southampton, and this gave Australians like me their first taste of visiting foreign places, albeit for just a few hours. This voyage is described in some detail in the book Australia’s Lost Tenor by Doug Holden in which the tenor Lance Ingram (later called Albert Lance) sailed on the Orontes to London in January 1955 and experienced the same sense of wonderment of an Australian going abroad for the first time.

On my voyage on the Fairsky among my fellow-passengers there were a number of theatrical people, both professional and amateur, and to pass the time between stops we put on a revue. The singer Barbara Robinson had been in the Australian productions of Salad Days and Grab Me a Gondola, Don McIntyre had been a dancer in the chorus of several musicals and there were also a number of people from an amateur company in Melbourne, including Peg Marks and a rather flamboyant lady of indeterminate age called Persia White. We were actually rather a good-sized and talented group and enjoyed rehearsing the revue in the main lounge after it closed at 10 pm every night and the rest of the passengers were sent off to their cabins. Barbara sang ‘My Biography’ from Grab Me a Gondola and the Melbourne people did several original revue numbers, including ‘The Hooch Joint’ and ‘Sadie the Sexy Soubrette’. There was also an academic and dance critic called Alan Brissenden who enjoyed amateur dramatics and who later introduced me to the joys of visiting stately homes, palaces and castles around England. Alan sang several Noël Coward songs including ‘Nina’ and ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. We gave just one performance of the revue, which we called Grab Me a Deck Chair, after we first entered the Mediterranean and then we still had another week of very boring evenings with bed at 10 pm before we finally arrived at Southampton. But we still had one last stop at Naples with a few hours for sightseeing. Alan Brissenden told me that the pizza originated in Naples so we found a pizzeria near the university and sampled an authentic Neapolitan pizza as our introduction to European culture.

London at Last

After five long weeks at sea, I arrived in London on Saturday 12 March 1960 on what I expected to be a working holiday for a year or two, but I found the place so congenial that I am still here. Philip Hedley had come to London just a few weeks before I arrived and he helped me find a bed-sitting room in Notting Hill Gate, but more importantly he booked some tickets for me to start sampling the joys of London theatre and in my first two weeks in London I managed to get to 18 different shows—including matinees and 5 pm performances of plays on Fridays and Saturdays—of an amazing range of things.

My first show on Monday 14 March was the brilliantly funny revue Pieces of Eight with Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding, which had a plethora of talented writers and composers including amongst others Peter Cook, Laurie Johnson, Sandy Wilson, Harold Pinter, John Law, Edward Scott, Lionel Bart and the Australian Lance Mulcahy. 

The next night I saw Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be, the Theatre Workshop production, brought to vibrant life by the famous theatre director Joan Littlewood, that had just transferred from Joan’s Theatre Royal at Stratford East. I was totally knocked out by the power and energy of this rather rude show about pimps and prostitutes set in the underworld of London’s Soho and eventually found time to see it a further five times over the coming months. Its lively music and down-to-earth lyrics by Lionel Bart were perfectly suited to the colourful story and given knock-out performances by Miriam Karlin, James Booth, Yootha Joyce, Wallace Eaton, Toni Palmer and the irrepressible Barbara Windsor. Also, in my first two weeks in London I saw two further Joan Littlewood shows, namely The Hostage by Brendan Behan and the musical Make Me an Offer, the first of which was wonderful but the latter not quite so good. This was partly because The Hostage was a Theatre Workshop production with Joan’s own actors like Murray Melvin, Brian Murphy, Dudley Sutton and Ann Beach, whereas Make Me an Offer was a normal commercial West End musical which Joan had agreed to direct.

My theatregoing was somewhat reduced when I took a job as lounge pianist in a rather seedy hotel in Bayswater four nights a week to bring in a bit of money, so that left me just three days for seeing shows. London had surprised me by being brighter and more colourful than the foggy, dark place I imagined from the black and white British films I had seen, so during the day when I wasn’t going to matinees, I enjoyed the tourist attractions of London and its environs. But in May I decided to look for what I expected to be a temporary job, and immediately found employment with the UK record company EMI Records Ltd in the Management Accounts Department. I had a degree of BSc in Mathematics and Statistics from Sydney University and I had been working for several years for the Commonwealth Statistician in Sydney. I saw an advert in the Evening Standard newspaper for an Accounts Clerk with EMI Records and was immediately given the job at my first interview—I guess that particular job and the low wage it paid were not of interest to anybody else, but everything I did from May 1960 onwards as a pianist was in my spare time while holding down a full-time office job.

Life at EMI

At that time the company was on a huge roll at the end of the 1950s with hit after hit from British stars like Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Adam Faith, Acker Bilk, Rolf Harris, Shirley Bassey and even unlikely groups like the Black and White Minstrels and the Big Ben Banjo Band. Before then most of the chart hits came from the USA and were by people like Frankie Laine, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Jo Stafford and Doris Day. The new British pop records, mainly from EMI, were produced by four in-house producers, all of whom I got to know quite well. These were George Martin, Walter Ridley, Norman Newell and Norrie Paramor. George was suave and sophisticated and was a classically-trained musician. His recordings were released on the Parlophone label and before his punt on The Beatles in 1962/63 he produced some classical recordings, some Scottish popular music by artists like Jimmy Shand and comedy albums by Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, the Goons and Flanders and Swann.

Walter Ridley had been in the music publishing business and become a successful song writer before coming to EMI as producer for Donald Peers and taking over the pop production for the HMV label. Wally, as he generally known, was small of stature but always seemed very busy. Norman Newell was a flamboyant theatrical type who recorded original cast albums of West End shows as well as other star artists like the singer Alma Cogan, the pianist Russ Conway and later Mrs Mills.

Finally, Norrie Paramor, who seemed to be very ordinary, was a pianist and bandleader who had the Columbia label with Ruby Murray, Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Helen Shapiro and other stars. As an example of how the producers in those days interacted with the rest of the staff, which stopped happening in later years, when Norman Newell heard that I had been very impressed with the new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld at Sadler’s Wells in June 1960, he invited me to the final recording session of the cast album at EMI’s famous Abbey Road Studios where I met the star of the show, the fabulous Australian soprano June Bronhill, who not only sang like an angel but as Euridice on stage looked extremely glamorous, rather like Betty Grable—an unbeatable combination!

Some years later at EMI, I had the pleasure of compiling the 3CD set called June Bronhill—The Platinum Collection containing a selection of June’s EMI recordings for release by EMI Australia.

Each of the senior producers had an assistant producer and when in about 1963 I heard that Norrie Paramor’s assistant was leaving I asked the Personnel Manager if I could be interviewed for the job. He told me that there was a young man called Bob Barrett working in a junior position for the company who had already had a successful interview to be the next assistant producer as soon as a post in that field became vacant, so he got the job. Bob went on to have a good career as a producer specialising in recording brass bands and later opened his own company called Grasmere. When Norrie Paramor left EMI in 1968 to go independent it was Tim Rice (at that time a Management Trainee with EMI) who went with him as a junior producer. I often wonder how my life might have panned out had I become assistant producer to Norrie Paramor instead of going into the international classical part of EMI, which I later did.

At that time EMI was also very strong on the classical side. The three famous sopranos Maria Callas, Victoria de los Angeles and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were producing outstanding solo recitals and complete operas, and other classical singers like Boris Christoff, Tito Gobbi, Nicolai Gedda and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were also exclusive to the company. There was a clutch of great pianists like Walter Gieseking, Claudio Arrau, Hans Richter-Haaser, Alfred Cortot, György Cziffra, Samson François and the Russians Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, and a whole gang of conductors whose names began with ‘K’ such as Rudolf Kempe, Rafael Kubelik, Paul Kletzki, Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer, whose complete set of Beethoven Symphonies had caused a sensation a few years earlier. Conductors beginning with ‘B’ included Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Thomas Beecham, and there was the very dapper Sir Malcolm Sargent and a young Australian called Charles Mackerras who was also making his mark after arranging and recording the music for the highly successful ballet Pineapple Poll. HMV’s legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin was performing and recording prolifically and the Russian violinist David Oistrakh was also with the company as well as his compatriot, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The complete Don Giovanni under conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, standing in for the indisposed Klemperer, had just been recorded in October 1959 with Joan Sutherland in one of her few recordings not for Decca and it would go on to be one of EMI’s all-time best-selling opera recordings. Yes, it was a rich time for the classical business too.

In about 1962 I was given a job in marketing on the pop side of the company and a few years later I moved into the International Classical Division of the parent company EMI Ltd. I eventually became responsible for financial planning, royalty accounting and licensing in what by then was called EMI Classics and for a number of years I was responsible for dealing with licensing the Soviet Melodiya catalogue of Russian classical recordings for release by EMI in the UK, as well as making contracts for EMI to record the Soviet superstars in the West like the violinist David Oistrakh, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter among others. I was fortunate enough to visit Moscow twice and Leningrad once at EMI’s expense as part of my work to negotiate with various Soviet organisations responsible for classical matters, such as the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and enjoyed the status of VIP Visitor with the tourist authorities for my sightseeing to places like the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Despite the best efforts of my hosts to entertain me well, the food was terrible but the Georgian red wine and the vodka were excellent.

In 1991 I retired from EMI but continued to work from home, effectively full-time, as a self-employed compilation producer turning out literally hundreds of popular programmes in various series like Classics for Pleasure, Classical Favourites, The Very Best Of…. and other similar series.  I was particularly pleased with the series of operettas and musicals that I produced on Music for Pleasure with my colleague Andrew Lamb. This consisted of all the Sadler’s Wells opera and operetta highlights, including several with June Bronhill like The Merry Widow, Orpheus in the Underworld and La Vie Parisienne, as well as Madam Butterfly with Marie Collier and Carmen with Donald Smith, plus a number of studio cast albums from World Records and HMV, of which my favourite was The Desert Song, also with Bronhill. So skilled did I become at this work that in 1997 I was Grammy-nominated for producing the 10 CD set 100 Years of Great Music to mark EMI’s centenary, but alas, I did not win.

I also became the company’s expert on Maria Callas and produced a number of re-issue albums which sold huge quantities around the world running into millions of copies. I saw Callas perform live in concert and in opera six times in London and in Paris and I also met her at Abbey Road Studios when she came to listen to playbacks of some unreleased recordings for an LP entitled Callas by Request. Although the camera loved her, I was surprised to see in the flesh how coarse her features seemed to be, but I guess that’s why she was so effective on stage and how her dramatic performances reached the farthest parts of the world’s great opera houses. The photo below shows my appearance as a commentator in the documentary Legends of Opera—Maria Callas.

I finally gave up my work with the company after more than 50 years when EMI Classics became part of Warner Classics and the operation moved to Paris. But I still had one last trick to play and in 2016, with my friend and colleague Roger Neill, I finally completed one final compilation on which we had been working for some 13 years: a four-CD compilation called From Melba to Sutherland, being a compendium of 80 Australian singers on record from the very first female recorded in Europe in 1898 (Syria Lamonte) to some of the more recent Australian opera singers of the present time. After being accepted and then rejected by several record companies both in the UK and in Australia, the project was finally brought to fruition by Cyrus Meher-Homji on the Decca Eloquence label of Universal Music Australia in a superbly packaged set.

First Encounter with Stratford East as a Pianist

Clive James in London

But, coming back to my main narrative, in 1962, I was asked by Philip Hedley to play for a cabaret that was being staged by the students of the first two intakes of the E15 Acting School (an offshoot of Theatre Workshop at Stratford East) of which Philip was one. The school was run by Maggie Bury, wife of the set designer John Bury, and continues to this day as one of London’s principal training grounds for actors. We rehearsed on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, but the show itself was put on in the huge, cavernous, Victorian East Ham Town Hall with dreadful acoustics, as entertainment during a fashion parade and was a complete disaster. But it was my first introduction to being involved with Theatre Workshop on the other side of the footlights, as it were. The cast included Ann Mitchell, John ‘Ginger’ Halstead, Annette Robertson, John Lyons, Janet Nelson and Kate Williams and there was a sketch about the fall of Troy by Clive James, by then living in London, that included a parody of ‘Zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ sung by Cassandra. Clive had written this sketch for the 1960 Sydney University revue Nymphs and Shepherds but it was heavy going for an audience in East Ham at a fashion parade although I expect the students were pleased to tackle it.

Clive James and Leo Schofield had both come to London in the early 1960s and I used to see Leo regularly at the opera at Covent Garden. In 1962 Anne O’Neill came to London to marry Leo and it was at their wedding, a very jolly affair, that I renewed my acquaintance with Clive. He had never been to see an opera and was intrigued that Leo and most of the guests at his wedding kept talking about what operas they had seen at Covent Garden. I offered to take Clive to an opera and a few weeks later we went to see Aida. Clive said he thought there was ‘something in it’ and this was the start of his life-long love of the art form. I kept in touch with Clive and a few years later I rescued him from a squalid bed-sitting room in Tufnell Park and invited him to share my modest flat (‘a set of rooms’ he called it rather grandly in Falling Towards England, one of his ‘unreliable’ autobiographies) just off Baker Street in Marylebone. Life with Clive was never dull. I continued to get opera tickets for him and he introduced me to the genre of American film noir of the 1930s and 40s at the National Film Theatre. We also used to go to jazz nights at various small-scale suburban venues around London and he played me some of his LPs by legendary jazz musicians, especially the clarinettist Pee-Wee Russell. Our relationship ended rather abruptly when his girlfriend arrived unexpectedly from Rome. We didn’t particularly take to each other and they moved out. Clive treats this episode somewhat differently in Falling Towards England, but I was very sorry to lose such a congenial flat-mate. After that, we lost touch. He studied at Cambridge University and then went on to achieve great fame as a newspaper TV critic, journalist, TV presenter, author and poet. I am pleased to say that in recent years we renewed our friendship by email and his last message to me just before he died made reference to the happy times we had spent together in the flat in Marylebone.

Opera and Ballet

At this point I will write a bit about some of the performances that I saw in London in the 1960s. Unfortunately, I no longer have my diaries which were disposed of in two recent down-sizing house moves so I have to rely on my memories and they will be random. Firstly, opera and ballet. I had already become interested in opera in Sydney in the early 1950s through the opera companies run by Mrs C.T. Lorenz in Sydney and the one run by Gertrude Johnson in Melbourne, and later we had the Elizabethan Opera Company.

I can still recall the excitement when the Melbourne company came to Sydney and the tenor Lance Ingram in the last act of Tosca was shot in the chest with a piece of walnut shell. He survived, and although I was not in the theatre for that performance, I did see Stefan Haag’s sensational production of Menotti’s opera The Consul starring Marie Collier which remains one of the most powerful and dramatic things I have ever seen. But my ‘road to Damascus’ experience with opera was the Elizabethan production of Verdi’s Otello with Ronald Dowd, Joan Hammond and John Shaw, which literally blew me away, from the violent storm scene at the beginning to the heart-breaking death of Otello at the end. Dowd found the part so taxing on the first night that he had to be replaced by Raymond McDonald for the remaining two performances but I saw all three and decided opera was what I really loved.

When I got to London in March 1960 I immediately made for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and started with a highly enjoyable Aida but soon realised that although the musical standards were high, the production values with sets and costumes and choreography were not always going to be so good. But within a few weeks, I had the opportunity to hear the legendary Swedish tenor Jussi Björling as Rodolfo in La Bohème and, despite the fact that he was already quite ill from a heart condition, he didn’t disappoint. He was dead within six months so it was a great privilege that he was able to fulfil his Covent Garden engagement.

Also, in those early days I saw some amazing things at Covent Garden, like Boris Christoff in Boris Godunov, Birgit Nilsson as Wagner’s Isolde and the sensational production by Luchino Visconti of Verdi’s Don Carlo with Christoff, the Italian baritone Tito Gobbi and the Dutch soprano Gré Brouwensteijn. My first experience of Joan Sutherland was in Lucia di Lammermoor and then Handel’s Alcina, but I was disappointed with her droopy singing and poor diction until a few years later when her glorious performance in Bellini’s I puritani convinced me that she was totally worthy of her nickname of ‘La Stupenda’. In those early years I was lucky enough to see a number of operas with the great Tito Gobbi (Tosca, Simon Bocccanegra, Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff and Le nozze di Figaro) and I have to rate him as the finest operatic artist I ever saw, although Maria Callas in Tosca and Norma in 1964 in London and Paris was indeed something special. I also went regularly to see the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company in Islington in which many of the stars were Australian like June Bronhill, Kevin Miller, Elizabeth Fretwell, Ronald Dowd and Donald Smith. Some of the productions were outstanding, such as a thrilling Flying Dutchman in which the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship was a coup de théâtre that startled the life out of the audience when it occurred in Act 1, and a Carmen that seemed like a perfect realisation of Bizet’s masterpiece. Singing in English, the performers’ diction was much better than it is these days with the English National Opera (which the Sadler’s Wells company became) in the vast Coliseum Theatre in central London.

Queuing at Covent Garden

I should also say something about the system that was in place for booking tickets at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when I first got to London, which was the same for both opera and ballet. The Opera House would issue a leaflet listing all the performances over a period of about two months and then the booking would open for those performances at 10 am on a designated day, usually a Monday morning. People who wanted to book tickets would start queuing well in advance and a whole ethos grew up about the queuing. There were three separate box offices covering tickets for the old Gallery and Upper Slips, the Amphitheatre and Lower Slips and Downstairs which included the Stalls, Grand Tier, Stalls Circle, Balcony Stalls and Boxes. The number of seats available in the Gallery and Amphitheatre was lower than Downstairs so there was a greater demand for those parts of the house, which of course were also the cheapest. In 1960 the demand for ballet tickets was not particularly great and it was usually enough to turn up on the first day of booking to get good seats for everything, until the Russian star Rudolf Nureyev arrived, when tickets for his performances became highly sought after and the ballet queues became almost as big as those for the opera, for which there was usually a heavy demand.

The first person to arrive at each of the three box offices to buy tickets for the new booking period would take it upon themselves to keep a list of everyone who joined the queue behind them. It was then necessary for each of the queuers to remain somewhere in the vicinity of the Opera House until the morning of the new booking, when ‘Queue Tickets’ would be handed out at 8.30 am with a time on which the person should return to the box office later in the day. Anybody arriving at the box office after the queue had dispersed at 8.30 am but while the queue ticket system was still active would also be issued with a queue ticket to return later. These times had been worked out statistically and the box office tried to be fair and serve people in the order of their queue tickets but the system did not always work perfectly if some queuers failed to turn up at their appointed times. But once one had joined a queue, the rules were fairly lax, except that everyone had to remain in central London not too far from Covent Garden and spend the night near the Opera House, sleeping in sleeping bags on the pavement (the doorways in Floral Street were favourite places to get). A few people actually brought cars to the area for sleeping which was not officially allowed but they usually got away with it. And this was at the time when the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market was still fully operational and things became very busy early each morning as the market came to life. For the rest of the duration of the queue one could attend performances at the Opera House, the Royal Festival Hall or somewhere in the West End and even go home but this had to be for a minimum time to change clothes or attend to other needs. When the morning of the booking arrived, the queuers would wake up early, usually disturbed by the market traders, and then visit the public toilets in the area, the best ones being alongside the back of the Actors’ Church in the Covent Garden Piazza. Some queuers avoided sleeping rough overnight and would just come down on the first buses or tubes to join the queues on the Monday morning, which was often good enough, but for those of us who wanted A56 in the centre of the front row of the Amphitheatre for the first night of a new production you had to be close to the front of the queue!

On the morning of the actual booking, the one person always in evidence was Sergeant Martin. He was the sort of Major Domo for the Royal Opera House and used to dress in splendid maroon livery with gold trimmings and wear a top hat.  His official title was Head Doorman of the Royal Opera House but he was very much in charge of things like the queueing system and oversaw the handing out of the queue tickets and the orderly operation of the actual queues later in the day.

I have reason to be grateful to Sergeant Martin because on Sunday 9 February 1964, the TV crews were at the Royal Opera House to televise the second act of Puccini’s Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi for a Golden Hour TV programme. The TV vans were parked in Floral Street and through their open doors one could see the TV monitors with the rehearsal going on for a shooting schedule to be worked out.  This was entertaining in itself because Callas and Gobbi were playing the fool during the rehearsal and pretending they were two lovers instead of sworn enemies, so when he said: ‘Come tu mi odi’ (‘How you hate me!’) she responded like an affectionate sweetheart!  Anyway, I was there in the street with a dozen or so of the other ‘regulars’ because the word had gone around that the rehearsal was taking place and we all wondered whether or not there was any chance of us getting in to see the actual performance.  The tickets had been distributed by the TV company to private individuals, but when it came time for the audience to arrive, Sergeant Martin, splendid in his usual regalia, appeared on the scene and, seeing the group of ‘regulars’ whom he knew by sight, he tipped us the wink to wait around unobtrusively.  And just before the starting time, he led us quietly into the Stalls and directed us to a row of empty seats at the very back. So whenever I see that iconic video of Callas in the second act of Tosca at Covent Garden I always say: ‘God bless you Sergeant Martin’.

I used to do the queue usually for one night or occasionally two and the longest queue I ever did was for the first complete Ring Cycle conducted by Georg Solti in September 1964, for which I started queuing on the Friday late afternoon and slept out in Floral Street for three nights. I hated Solti’s Wagner but had to be there for his first complete Ring, although I was one of the people who sometimes booed him at his solo curtain calls!

There was a great deal of camaraderie among the queuers and the regulars included Sir Brian McMaster and Nicholas Payne, both of whom went on to run major companies and events like the Welsh National Opera, Opera North and the Edinburgh Festival. Other queuers were known only by their nicknames (not always flattering) like ‘The Queen of the Night’, ‘The Seahorse’, ‘The Fat Boy’ and ‘Mad Heather’ to name just a few. And the regulars would meet at the performances in the intervals to discuss the pros and cons of what they had seen and heard, and there was always a lively exchange of tickets for the performances during each booking period as the days went by and we wanted to dispose of extra tickets we had booked for things that we didn’t like or to buy extra tickets for things that particularly pleased us.

The queuing system came under pressure with the Callas Tosca in 1964 when there were questions asked in Parliament as to why the wives of MPs could not obtain tickets after they had read the reviews. The whole booking system was then declared to be unfair on people who could not physically get to the box office on the first day of a new booking period, which of course included the bulk of the population of the UK who did not live in London. So a system of postal bookings was eventually devised, which was rather hit and miss depending on when one’s application was opened at the Opera House and then the Friends of Covent Garden scheme was invented which was also unfair in that it gave priority to people who could afford the most expensive tiers of membership. In fact, there has just been a scandal about the current series of performances of the opera Fidelio (March 2020) with Jonas Kaufmann because all the seats were bought by Friends and when public booking opened there were no seats left at all at any price!

Regarding ballet, I came later to this than to opera and my first introduction was through the influence of Keith Bain, a major figure in the history of Australian dance and particularly choreography for opera and musicals as well as traditional ballet and modern dance. Keith had begun as a ballroom dancer and it was on an episode in his early career that Baz Luhrmann based the film Strictly Ballroom.  Keith had come along to the Sydney University Dramatic Society at the request of the director Pamela Trethowan to provide some choreography for several of the numbers in the revue Lower Education that I played for early in 1957.  These were just small-scale duets and such but Keith’s charming manner and skilled choreography made them seem more significant than they actually were. I mentioned to him that I had never seen any ballet performances and he recommended that I should go to see the Borovansky Ballet Company which was at that time giving a season in Sydney at the Empire Theatre. Keith said that he always sat in the front row so I did the same. People generally avoided sitting in the front row at the ballet, believing it was too close, but I had no such qualms and found it was extremely rewarding. I did what was in effect a crash course in ballet and saw as much of the standard repertoire as I could, including things like Swan Lake, Giselle, Les Sylphides, La Boutique Fantasque and Petrushka

It was later in June that same year that the Borovansky Company brought Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes to Australia and showcased them in two different programmes based on Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. We also saw the New York City Ballet, whose Sydney season in 1958 was amazing, with a number of Balanchine’s spectacular large-scale works, of which the most impressive was the new work Stars and Stripes with the music of John Philip Sousa, performed by most of its original principals and complete with baton twirling, military movements and the corps de ballet as a regiment of rifle-bearing ballerinas all marching en pointe!  There had also been a somewhat disappointing visit by the Royal Ballet which was in fact mostly members of the second ‘touring’ company and the school, although eventually we got to see a few stars like Svetlana Beriosova and the great Robert Helpmann.

In London I tried to see as many performances as I could with Margot Fonteyn, who was already past 40 and expected to retire at any time. I thought she was wonderful in Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Daphnis and Chloe, The Firebird and Ondine although I felt she seemed like an old lady in Giselle. But in the other ballets she remained young, or perhaps ageless would describe her better. She had perfect musicality, she filled every phrase, she never hurried but she was always exactly where she needed to be as the dancing progressed, and there was a magic to the way she moved that no other dancer seemed to have. I have still never seen any ballerina in Sleeping Beauty bring the magic and poise that she did to the first act and execute the Petipa choreography with such precision and yet such a sense of wonder and youthful excitement.  It was also noticeable that Fonteyn used her facial expressions more than the other ballerinas, who generally seemed more po-faced. For example, her beaming smile as Aurora in Act 1 of Sleeping Beauty was part of her characterisation of the role which the other ballerinas did not seem to copy. And her fear as the Firebird when captured by the Prince was also palpable on her face. When the Sadler’s Wells Ballet first moved into the Royal Opera House, the choreographer Frederick Ashton apparently went all around the auditorium checking that Fonteyn’s facial expressions registered in every part of the house and he made sure she paid attention to this. I suspect that De Valois and Ashton did not allow the other ballerinas to copy Fonteyn in this regard, which was perhaps their subtle way of ensuring that Fonteyn shone more brightly then the other dancers as the jewel of the company. She was in a class of her own and was the perfect ballerina assoluta.

But then we had the extraordinary situation of the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev defecting from the Kirov ballet company in Paris in 1961 and coming immediately to London where the Royal Ballet took him into the company and allowed him to dance with Fonteyn. They became a truly perfect artistic partnership, as well as international celebrities, and over the next few years I managed to see most of the ballets in which the pair danced … except Giselle which I still avoided.

And I have to say here that the greatest night I ever spent in the theatre throughout my whole life was the first night of Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet  with Fonteyn and Nureyev in the title roles on 9 February 1965 at Covent Garden. Everything about it was incredible: the sets, the costumes, the dancing, the wonderful music and the charismatic performances of the two leads. Fonteyn was totally convincing as a shy young girl and Nureyev was ideal as the impetuous young lover. I went back and saw nine of the first twelve performances with other principals as well as Fonteyn and Nureyev and it was always like a great feast and totally satisfying in every respect.

Over the next few years I continued to go a lot to Covent Garden to ballet as well as opera and the visits by foreign ballet companies were always hugely enjoyable. The Bolshoi from Moscow brought their spectacular productions of things like Spartacus and Don Quixote with dancing of great energy and strength while the Kirov from Leningrad (now the Mariinsky from St. Petersburg) brought beautiful, romantic productions of things like Swan Lake, Giselle and La Bayadere with ‘white acts’ danced by a superb corps de ballet that were flawless. The companies also usually brought their own orchestras, which was an added musical bonus. I have to say that despite favourite performances of Swan Lake by Beriosova and Fonteyn as well as much-loved Giselles by Beriosova, the finest Odette/Odile and Giselle I ever saw were danced by Natalia Makarova with the Kirov. In the second act of Giselle she really looked ethereal and weightless, like a leaf floating to and fro above the ground in the breeze—an effect sought after by all ballerinas in that role but actually achieved by very few. George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet also provided some truly outstanding dancing in some glorious works, despite some unpromising names like Bugaku and Agon which the wags changed to ‘Agony’. But to see this wonderful company at full stretch in Bizet’s Symphony in C was to see ballet at its glorious best.

Musicals and Straight Plays

Now a few recollections of the legitimate and musical theatre in my childhood and youth in Sydney. From my early years, my mother often took me to see the variety shows at the Tivoli in the 1940s and as well as the comedians (especially George Wallace and Jim Gerald), acrobats, jugglers, etc, I have a very strong recollection of the Tivoli chorus girls, who seemed to be glamorous creatures who sang and danced as if from some other magical world. And I was intrigued by the three microphones at the front of the stage that rose up by themselves and descended again like snakes from a charmer’s basket. I also remember Jenny Howard who sang Gracie Fields songs and appeared as the thigh-slapping Principal Boy in pantomime and the French dancer called Micheline Bernardini from the Café de Paris, who did a titillating fan dance in a flickering spotlight, apparently naked.

But the one artist who is indelibly engraved in my memory is Ella Shields, the American music hall star. It was March 1947 and I believe she was the first major artist to come to Australia from America after the Second World War. I can still see her in immaculate male evening dress standing beside a grand piano singing popular songs like ‘If You Knew Susie’, ‘Let Bygones Be Bygones’ and ‘Cecilia’ and then in a separate scene, dressed in shabby, tattered clothes in front of a backcloth representing the Thames Embankment in London, singing her great hit song: ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’. What a polished artist she was.

I also remember my mother taking me to see The Desert Song and White Horse Inn when I was a child, but it was the production of Annie Get Your Gun with Evie Hayes in 1948 that hooked me onto musical theatre at the age of about eleven. I saw it a number of times and was totally immersed in the whole theatrical experience which, as it happens, is summed up so accurately by Irving Berlin in his song in that very show: ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’: ‘The costumes, the scenery, the make-up, the props’. Evie Hayes as Annie Oakley was irresistible and I was caught for life!

After that I saw all the big American musicals like Call Me Madam, Paint Your Wagon, Oklahoma!, Kiss Me, Kate, Brigadoon, South Pacific, one British one Zip Goes a Million! and one Australian one Lola Montez, usually several times, as well as the wonderful revues at the Metropolitan Theatre and then the Phillip Street Theatre. In straight theatre an aunt took me to several of the British comedies like Sailor Beware! and Worm’s Eye View, and then for myself I discovered things like Nude with Violin with Robert Helpmann, The Chalk Garden with Sibyl Thorndike and Lewis Casson, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew in a spectacular Old Vic tour starring Robert Helpmann and Katharine Hepburn and the new Australian plays like The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler and The Slaughter of St.Teresa’s Day by Peter Kenna. I also attended the smaller theatres to see things like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Genesians and The Man at Hayes Gordon’s Ensemble Theatre. But the best thing of all was the Elizabethan Trust production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night with Dinah Shearing, Ron Haddrick, Neil Fitzpatrick and Frank Waters which was quite superb.

Coming now to London, I have a strong if rather generalised memory of the Zeffirelli production of Romeo and Juliet in 1960 at the Old Vic with Judi Dench and John Stride. I remember the crowd scenes being very lively and the young principals being extremely moving. Also on Shakespeare, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle performed in London was something unique and with a top class cast brought to life Shakespeare’s great plays. I also saw Gielgud doing his readings from Shakespeare called The Ages of Man which was something very special. The funniest play I ever saw was Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear with Geraldine McEwan and Albert Finney where the audience was often helpless with laughter and the expression ‘falling out of one’s seat’ literally applied. Finney was a very charismatic stage actor and to my mind was more effective in the original National Theatre Company at the Old Vic than Laurence Olivier, who was technically very strong but less convincing in his characterisations, with his terrible Othello as an example, where Olivier spent all his time mimicking the physical actions of a black man and rather ignored the real acting, which was somewhat misguided as Othello was a Moor, not a Negro! But I also saw many top class actors and actresses like Ralph Richardson, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (in The Visit), Peggy Ashcroft, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness, Alistair Sim, Edith Evans, Charles Boyer and many others. To keep up to date, I assiduously attended the Royal Court Theatre for the plays of Arnold Wesker and enjoyed being shocked by the works of Joe Orton. But I also kept up with musicals and revues although I eventually had less and less time for theatregoing when I got more into piano playing most nights. Some of the musicals I remember enjoying include The Sound of Music, Flower Drum Song, Irma La Douce, Lock Up Your Daughters, Once Upon a Mattress, Oliver!, Maggie May, Sail Away, Follow That Girl, Bye Bye Birdie, She Loves Me, Mame, Sweet Charity, and many others.

Jump to 1967, and I was invited to come and see a revue that was staged by Joan Littlewood in a room upstairs in a pub in Angel Lane, just opposite the Theatre Royal. I think Joan was experimenting with entertainment in a pub as preparation for staging the Marie Lloyd Story in the theatre starring Avis Bunnage. I was asked to play for the next edition of the show the following week, which I duly did and that was my first experience of working with Joan. She must have been happy with what I did because she gave me no notes on my playing and asked me to come back the following week for the next show, but I was not free and I never heard anything more of the venture. I can’t remember who was in the show apart from Myvanwy Jenn (who in 1963 had been the Red Cross Nurse singing ‘Keep the home fires burning’ in Oh What a Lovely War), Kent Baker and I think Stephen Lewis (known from the TV series On the Buses and The Last of the Summer Wine).

As the years went on I gradually got involved with various small companies doing old time music hall and variety in and around London at such places as The Tramshed at Woolwich Arsenal, Chats Palace at Hackney and the Pindar of Wakefield, a pub at King’s Cross, working for companies like Aba Daba, Hiss and Boo, Song and Supper and Gaslight and Garters. Some of the shows featured eminent people like Adelaide Hall, Tommy Trinder, Sandy Powell, Reg Dixon, Syd Marks, Sid Wright and other old stars who had been all but forgotten, as well as young actors just starting in the business who have gone on to have successful careers like Ruth Madoc and Marcia Warren. At Aba Daba we also had a contingent of Australasian actors including Bob Hornery, Terry Bayler, Davilia David, David Ryder Futcher, Elaine Holland, Beatrice Aston and Valerie Bader, and we did a very successful ‘Down Under’ show. Valerie leading the company in the finale with ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ (written by George Wallace) was particularly moving.


To be continued ...


Picture credits:

Chiefly from the Author’s collection with the exception of:

Pieces of 8 and The Hostage theatre programmes – Elisabeth Kumm collection

Rosanna Carteri and Jussi Björling rehearsing La Bohème – Private collection

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – Wikimedia

Queuing at the ROH c.1960s – newsreel film still

Sergeant Victor Martin, Head Doorman of the ROH – John Hall

Keith Bain in a character role – (Papers of Gertrud Bodenwieser), National Library of Australia – http:/​/​​nla.obj-234842080

Borovansky Ballet theatre programme – Rob Morrison collection

George Wallace & Jim Gerald – Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Jenny Howard – Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Micheline Bernardini – Pix, 22 No. 18 (30 April 1949)

Ella Shields – Private collection

Tivoli theatre programme – Rob Morrison collection

Annie Get Your Gun theatre programme & Evie Hayes photo – Rob Morrison collection

Montage of JCW theatre programmes – Elisabeth Kumm collection (top), Rob Morrison collection (bottom)

Joan Littlewood photo – Private collection

Last modified on Friday, 09 September 2022