London Lives: Off By Heart
This episode of our London Lives podcast series is inspired by the exciting world of entertainment. Hear how love, memory and performance intertwine in this story about David, a vicar impresario!
In this episode of London Lives, storyteller and author Bernadette Russell tells a beautiful tale of strength and togetherness, inspired by the experiences of David, vicar impresario with Upstream Theatre, and his creative partner and wife, Rachel. Inspired by a combined television and wireless set from the 1930s held in the Museum of London collection, some surprising stories and captivating moments from David's life emerge.
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With great thanks to Rachel & David, who are valued members of the Museum of London's Dementia Reference Group, for permission to share their stories and work.
Hello everyone and welcome to our podcast – London Lives. My name is Bernadette Russell and I’m speaking to you from Deptford, about three and a half miles away from the Museum of London Docklands, on the other side of the river. I’m a performer who works in the theatre and I’m a storyteller too, so I was so pleased to be part of this podcast. Marina and Amy from the museum interviewed a lovely couple called David and Rachel. As you know, we like to connect the conversation to an object in the museum. And this month, we were looking at a beautiful combined television and wireless set from 1935, which cost as much as a car at the time! It reminded me of one that my grandparents had had, and listening to my grandad trying to tune into his favourite programme.
[VERY SHORT RADIO CLIPS OF MUSIC AND CHAT]
Our subject is entertainment, and of course this object delivered plenty of that! Lots of music and television programmes which kept so many people happy. But there are lots of other kinds of entertainment too of course, and this is what David, Rachel and I have in common; we all love the theatre. The conversation between all of us covered all sorts of exciting and wonderful things, some of which we’ll be hearing about today. Not least that David was a vicar and an impresario – an unusual combination! He ran the Upstream Theatre Club that you’ll be hearing more about soon. Upstream was a very successful theatre, and we asked David and Rachel to explain a little bit about how the Upstream Theatre Club began.
Yes, it started in the crypt of St John’s, Waterloo Road – was it, it started in?
Upstream was a very successful theatre, as I heard Rachel explaining.
I think what was different with Upstream is that it did so well – like it was not just a community theatre – not ‘just’ – it was not. They did plays that transferred, even a few – I think one or two – to Broadway, and also to the West End. So, it was for a fringe theatre, the quality of what you were showing was very high.
David has met so many famous people throughout his travels, including Angela Lansbury, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Spacey. Often David didn’t know how famous these people were. Here we hear a fantastic story about how David met Eric Clapton.
And there is a famous little story when he met him in the laundry, but he didn’t know who he was. So he asked him if he was famous and because he said ‘What did you do?’ he said ‘I’m just a musician,’ and ‘Are you famous?’ and Eric Clapton said ‘Quite’.
As I’m sure you can tell by now, David and Rachel have so many exciting stories, but it was this part of the conversation that really caught my imagination as a storyteller. Rachel is talking here about their magical bedhead – their sacred space and a place where they collect and keep mementos of their many memories.
The bedhead – it’s a bit like those Tibetan trees – you know, the wish trees? In Tibet, they have trees…
Yes, Tibet – you know, in the mountains?
Oh right, yes. I do remember that.
And people put little bits of material and make a wish. And our bedhead is a bit like that; it’s made of bits of old clothes and things that we picked up wherever we went - pictures and little animals and things that we like. So, it’s like a little world and it’s been created over years, since we’ve known each other. I put it together with bits of wonky – bits of wood that we took from where we lived and things.
I love how Rachel is the story keeper for both David and herself. Here she speaks beautifully about how their stories and their lives are completely intertwined.
But as I’m kind of part of you now and you part of me, then I’m kind of… keeping them alive.
I love this so much and I agree. We do all belong to each other and we all belong in each other’s stories. This is what holds us all together. And when I write theatre plays or stories, I always love to start with a real-life story. So, for this one, inspired by David and Rachel’s life together and their love of the theatre, and also by their magical bedhead, I’d like to invite you to imagine it’s bedtime now. Or maybe you’re even listening to this in bed? And if you’re just about to go off to sleep, well that’s even better. This story is called ‘Off by Heart’.
[♪ GENTLE PIANO MUSIC ♪]
David and Rachel’s window looks out onto an indigo-blue night sky. Their curtains are only partly drawn; they’re heavy velvet that David inherited from the theatre a long time ago. On the hems, you can still see tiny pieces of glitter, glimmering from shows long past. They’re lying on the bed – they’re both fully clothed and upside down. ‘Why on earth are they upside down?’ You might be wondering. Well, that’s because David likes to see things from a fresh angle.
‘Being upside down helps you to do so’, he says.
David is wearing a blue gown with gold embroidery – very grand! The one he used to wear when he performed to his congregation. Rachel is wearing a rose-coloured dress and a matching hat – one of their costumes from a production of My Fair Lady which they kept hold of. They love to dress up, and why not?
‘Do you remember...’ begins Rachel.
‘I’d like you to remind me,’ laughs David. He loves to hear Rachel telling their stories.
On the headboard over many years, Rachel has tied many things, each one a reminder of something. She points to a ticket stub, tied to a piece of ribbon. It says ‘October the 12th, 1978’ and Rachel begins to tell its story.
‘This is a ticket from the opening night of a new play at the Upstream Theatre Club, in the converted upper hall of St Andrew’s Church in Waterloo. The set was made from bits and pieces of the Old Vic theatre’s abandoned sets, and some discarded church pews. The actors were busy warming up backstage and the excited audience were coming in. The leading role was being played by a young Kenneth Branagh – only 18 years old and keen as mustard. David had worked his usual magic, persuading wealthy patrons to give up their money to ensure that the struggling young actors were paid. It was a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they were hoping would transfer to Broadway, as so many of their previous productions had. David came on stage to introduce the show to rapturous applause.
As Rachel is telling David this story, from outside their window, strangely enough, they do faintly hear the sound of applause.
‘The curtains swish open. The play begins. To start with, everything was going well; the sets and costumes all looked beautiful and colourful. The problem was young Kenneth who was playing Puck, a mischievous fairy whose tricks and magic cause all of the trouble, and all of the fun, in the play. But poor Kenneth was so nervous he could not remember his lines. His lips began to tremble, tears twinkled in the corner of his eyes. It was an awfully tense moment – you could not hear a pin drop.
And then suddenly David had an idea. He strolled smartly onto the stage and said to the audience ‘I think this chap needs our help remembering the story, don’t you? Does anyone know what happens next?’
There was a very long pause. David kept smiling, confident that the audience would respond.
All of a sudden, ‘Yes!’ said a man with a ginger beard and twinkly eyes, ‘I know, I studied this play at school.’ Gradually, between them, the audience pieced together the story of the play, which is very complicated, just like a real person’s life! Full of plot twists, mistakes, funny bits, sad bits, arguments, love and parties. Very entertaining! David stayed on centre stage in his vicar outfit, and somehow he fitted in, and the play, which was the strangest and most wonderful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that had ever happened, was a great, resounding success!
And you’ll be glad to know that it did transfer to Broadway in New York. Every night the audience were encouraged to help the actors remember what happened next, which they loved! And sometimes they got the story wrong, or got it mixed up with another story, but it didn’t matter because it was such fun. It was always a night to remember.’
With that, Rachel finished telling the story and David winked at her and said,
‘Well I don’t think that is a true story. I mean, it is true I met Kenneth Branagh, but I don’t think I helped him remember his lines.’
And Rachel laughed and said ‘Well, sometimes if you wanna tell a good story, I think you’re allowed to make a few bits up’.
And David said ‘Yes! Like sometimes I remember a song but I can’t quite remember all the lyrics, so I make them up, like om pom pom pom pom.’
Then they both laughed, and they sang a little bit of a few songs that they half remembered.
David and Rachel:
♪ Mud, mud, glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So, follow me, follow
Down to the hollow
And there let us wallow in glorious mud!
Mud, mud, mud, mud, mud! ♪
♪ Underground, overground, wombling free,
The Wombles of Wimbledon Common, are we! ♪
♪ Barda dee…
Hum diddly um pum, pum, hum diddly um, pum, pum, pum! ♪
I wondered if you recognised any of the songs that David and Rachel were singing? Maybe you joined in a little bit? I know I did!
Anyway, after they had finished singing, they gazed out of their window, framed by the velvet curtains that used to belong to the Upstream Theatre Club, in their beautiful, colourful clothes that wouldn’t be out of place on a West End stage. In a dark blue sky, lit by a waxing half-moon, they saw a shooting star.
‘Look at that!’ said David. ‘Let’s make a wish.’
[♪ TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR ♪]
So they close their eyes, and they do make a wish. And it’s the same wish that they always make – that they will continue to have fun and have adventures, and they always find ways to do so. Rachel says it’s important to always have someone in your life who says yes to every opportunity.
David is always … enthusiastic about any ideas to try out, so he won’t correct me. He never says no, actually, which is quite…
Oh, that’s not true – no!
He always, he always kind of – 'Let’s try!' and always kind of... Yeah, I think it’s always good to have someone like that in your life.
So, we will leave David and Rachel to go to sleep and to dream now. And before we go, I’d just like to ask you, what do you like to do for entertainment? Do you like telling or listening to stories? True ones or made up ones? Do you like to sing, or do you like to listen to singing? Do you love the theatre or listening to the radio? Or do you love watching the telly, or bingo, or just a good laugh with a friend? Let us know what you like to do for entertainment. You can email us at [email protected]. That’s [email protected].
It’s time for me to go now. I do hope that you’ve enjoyed this podcast. Our story this week’s been inspired by the combined television and wireless set at the Museum of London. The museum also has loads of costumes, pictures and even a model of the Rose Theatre on display, as well as other objects related to the entertainment industry too, so do take a look when you next visit.
Thank you so much for listening! I’ve been Bernadette Russell and it’s been lovely to spend some time with you. Bye, bye!
David, Rachel and Amy:
Bye bye, take care, bye!
[♪ CALM MUSIC ♪]
Creative & Connected
This podcast is just part of September's creative activities for people affected by dementia, their carers and loved ones. You can find the rest of this month's content here: Creative & Connected - September edition