William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd 1564 and died on 23rd April 1616. 1964 was the 400th anniversary of his birth and I was living in Stratford on Avon, which was certainly the most exciting place to be at that time for a theatre mad teenager.
The highlight of my acting career had been the part of Mole in Toad of Toad Hall at St Gabriel’s Convent in Carlisle. Cardinal Heenan was the honoured guest in the audience. My part was memorable as it involved a tea party at Toad Hall. We had real cakes and biscuits. I had never seen those pink and white marshmallows with a biscuit base and coconut all over the top. I became so engrossed in examining and eating them that I forgot where I was and had to be prompted to continue my lines. “Oh, you silly ass, Mole”, as rat would say. But I think I got away with it. The Cardinal singled me out for praise afterwards, impressed by the realism I portrayed!
I moved to Stratford from the north of England in 1960, the same year that Peter Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and became Artistic Director at the theatre. Sadly the two events were not connected but our paths crossed over the next few years. At that time he was married to Leslie Caron and they lived on the Warwick Road near St Gregory’s Church. I was a teenager at the local girls’ grammar school, Shottery Manor, passionate about literature and especially Shakespeare.
In those days you could pay 4 shillings (20p) to stand at the back of the theatre in Stratford and watch the plays. From 1960 to 64 when I left school I think I saw every production, often going to the matinee and the evening performances. My all time favourite was King Lear in 1962 which I have never forgotten. Paul Schofield played Lear and a young and gorgeous Diana Rigg played Cordelia.
In 1964 when I was doing my A Levels I watched the full history cycle; Richard 11, Henry 1V part 1 and 2, Edward 1V and Richard 111. I became familiar with actors such as Roy Dotrice, Peggy Ashcroft, a very young John Hurt, and my hero David Warner. All the girls at school had a crush on him as he was so 60’s with his gaunt look and flowing scarf. We would hang out at the Dirty Duck pub by the river Avon, barefoot and with flowers in our hair, hoping the actors would pop in after the show, which they often did. I was such a regular at theatre events that I somehow got to know Peter Hall and Leslie Caron. I was asked to babysit once for the child of actor Tom Bell and his first wife when they were visiting the Halls. Tom Bell had become very famous for his part in The L Shaped Room in which he played opposite Leslie Caron. He and his wife were lovely and I was so sad to see that he died some time ago after a long and magnificent career.
1964 also saw the opening of the Shakespeare Centre where visitors could study every aspect of Shakespeare’s work. I was privileged to work there part time while at school and full time in the summer after I left. I loved it. For the centenary year there was a special exhibition with all the sights and sounds and smells of Shakespearean Stratford. As I remember it the plays were performed on a loop and the visitors could wander in and sit down to listen for as long as they wanted. To me it was heaven. I don’t think any exhibition since has bettered that experience for me.
Every year in Stratford there are celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday but 1964 was spectacular. There were flagpoles put up in the centre of the streets leading from the theatre to the Holy Trinity Church where the bard is buried. Representatives from 115 countries of the world came to unfurl their flag at 11am. This was followed by a procession of dignitaries, townspeople and pupils from the two Grammar Schools, King Edward V1 school for boys, which Shakespeare himself had attended, and Shottery Manor, the school for girls. I was in that procession and will never forget it. After the church service and laying of wreaths at the tomb in the presence of Prince Philip, there was a festival on the Bancroft Gardens. Primary school children danced around maypoles and there was all the fun of the fair. It was a glorious day.
I still consider King Lear to be the greatest play ever written, and William Shakespeare to be the greatest playwright. It is almost 449 years since he was born and the celebrations will take place this weekend in Stratford. But they could never match those of 1964.
Photos show a portrait of William Shakespeare, A photograph of my old school Shottery Manor, The parade through the town on 23rd April 1964 and a view of Bridge Street from the roundabout at the top.
July 1964 Click this link to show a class photo of our school leaving day,