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Jeremiah Savant’s ‘Inside the Inside’

A Parallel Companion to ‘Adventures In Mental Health

ONE: My Mistress Calls

IN POPULAR CULTURE much seems to be made of the annual Xmas Pageant – be it a full-on Nativity Play or some weird fabrication to do with a bratty child finding ‘the TRUE meaning of Xmas,’ with no mention whatsoever of virgin birth and babies in stables. A strange thing for me is that I do not recall ever being in one. Perhaps we had Xmas concerts, I simply cannot recall… what I do remember is one village pantomime; a fairly major production of something based on ‘Mother Goose’. As is the custom with local amateur/community theatre productions, they threw every conceivable popular culture joke and local reference into it, along with any random songs they can squeeze in for good measure.

This particular year, because many in the cast either had children of their own or younger brothers and sisters, they decided to populate the stage with us – mostly as a chorus of villagers at the start, then courtiers at the end (where everyone lives happily ever after in some castle or another for some reason) – and a few of us had ‘solo’ spots. Three of us were goblins in green makeup and green costumes, we did a menacing little dance in front of the half-curtain as they changed the scenery from the village to the Dark Woods… and we had a bit of business tormenting the principal players for a couple of scenes. We even had our own curtain call at the end.

As I stood there, all four-foot something and sweaty under the lights, caked in makeup and barely seeing the wildly applauding audience, I thought, I like this. I like it a lot. I had been allowed – encouraged, even – to show off; even better, there had been a reason for me to do it, even though I did not quite understand what the reason was. Then there were the regular concert evenings and suchlike, including when I went up to the senior school, I remember an evening of readings and as a class we performed some of The Pied Piper.

The first time I remember doing some ‘proper’ drama was in the third year: the English teachers got together and decided to do an evening of excerpts – I was in an excerpt of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. There was a lot of effort in bending the language to my will, to make it fit in my mouth, to make it… mine. The following term there was the annual big school production and I got to do various bits in it, but the following few years I was disinterested. Maybe I took a look at what the plays were and just thought I did not want to be in them, I cannot recall. But then…

Back in those days, we had two levels of exams at age sixteen: General Certificate of Education (GCE) – which was thought of as ‘academic’ – and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) – which was thought to be more ‘practical’. In French, for example, the GCE (or O Level) went into how the language worked, whereas in the CSE, we learned how to use it in every life. After these exams, at sixteen, one either left or went on to what used to be called ‘The Sixth Form’.

I desperately wanted to leave school. Many of my classmates were from my village and they had brought their previous prejudices about me with them and these had spread and multiplied over the years. The result was that I had very few friends, and those that I did have were often invited to parties and events I never even got to know about until the following Monday morning when people would be laughing about their hilarious exploits. It was as if I was subjected to some Rule of Exclusion… I did not know at the time because no one told me about it. I had to work it out for myself.

The pressure at 15 and 16 to plan the next few years was huge, and finally, I realised that I truly wanted to do drama – and learn more about the whole thing of the stage and maybe screen. Perhaps it was my own outlook, but often I had seen on some chat show an actor talking about some project or another where they had adapted something or written it; perhaps were having a go at directing or whatnot. Often, a celebrity author would tell the story of the first book, and how they ‘just sort of fell into writing’.  For me, the thing of ‘being an actor’ did not mean working behind a bar or something while hoping an agent will call and scanning the trades for open auditions: it meant everything.

It meant anything to do with the acting thing: knowing about setting up and running a lighting rig, making and sourcing props, scenery and so forth… directing and writing or adapting scripts for performance… everything to do with being able to devise a production and to do it: from a one man show to a cast of thousands. Camera operation and photography, sound and vision for film and television – that interested me too. And with that, it did not matter to me if I became a cinematographer or a news cameraman; or even if I ended up with any of dozens of different jobs in the whole field of theatre, film and television. To me it was all the same, and if I failed at that, then I envisaged I would end up running a small theatre or arts centre somewhere… and if that failed, I would teach English and Drama at some level.

The nearest college was about 45 minutes away, and I could have commuted for the first year, except… I did not have a motorcycle and there was no way we as a family could afford one, even with me taking a job – and bear in mind that in a small rural village, there were few opportunities for work, even then. My father put his foot down: I was too young to leave home and I would end up wasting my life waiting for the phone to ring because not every actor actually gets work, let alone their name in lights. His lack of support and imagination destroyed me and ruined my life, but back to school I went – no work, you see – to study ‘second best choices’ ‘A’ Levels. Had our positions been reversed, it would have been very different for him, I would not have blocked his way as he had mine. So I stayed in school – hoping that it would work out somehow.

The first year of GCE A Level studying was the Lower Sixth, the second was the Upper. That year, there was an option open to all in the combined Sixth Form to take the CSE Drama course compressed into a single year; that was definitely for me. Mark, with whom I had shared several classes with over the years but never really got to know well, decided to also signed up – and Chrissie, Jane and Carol, a trio of longterm friends now in the Upper Sixth – joined us. We started to hang out with each other as a group during lunchtimes and spare periods: Mark and Christina ended up together fairly quickly, and Carol started to banter with me – I did not realise it was flirting. As sort of part of our course and because the group was so small we could not hide from it, we were ‘volunteered’ for that year’s Big Production: Twelfth Night… I was invited to play Sir Toby Belch.

We did it in the then-fashionable style of sort of modern dress. No doublet and hose: suits, ties, general whatnot. I was given nearly a full bodysuit of a huge backside and a massive rotund belly, which actually helped me get into character. As well as going through rehearsals every day after school, I also put in hours in front of a mirror. The drama teacher insisted we rattle off the lines like machine-gun fire – for such was the fashion with Shakespeare at the time. The stage itself was large enough to grace many a full-size theatre, and was doubled in size with a two-tier apron – so the audience seemed to be a very long way away… AND the hall could hold 500: I knew I had to pull the stops out.

I built Sir Toby from the ground up. There was to be no trace of ‘me’ in him, I decided. The way the hands moved, the facial expressions, the entirety of the body language – all of it. Fresh, new, not-me. Unfortunately, there was a massive downside to this, and it was that I only felt alive onstage, being Him. The rest of the time – most of it – was drab and colourless… except for Carol – but that part of it is another tale altogether. There was an underlying reason for this, of course: I was merely making-do. The courses were not what I had wanted, the place felt… enclosing and suffocating. The only thing that made any sense to me was this play, this character… this Make Believe. Working in front of my wardrobe mirror for hours, word by word by line by line, my Belch was becoming real. He was expansive, a bon viveur par excellence; bluff and blustering yet kindly. He was a scheming buffoon of the highest order, a broad comedy character… yet he lacked one thing. A voice.

Oh, I tried. I did a sort of rural accent, but he sounded only like a farmer. I tried something on the formal and educated side, but it denied his lust for life. I went Welsh… Scottish and Irish also fell by the wayside, as did a generalised Northern accent. Nothing seemed to fit.

So there I was, waiting for my first entrance, on the first of the performance nights, watching and waiting as Olivia and her courtiers set part of the scene, and then trail off the stage. A couple of beats, then on I stride – right at the back of the stage, the furthest away from the audience. I start to follow those leaving, look at them, shake my head in a bewildered manner and begin to head front… a deep breath –

– and I’m in a time slip to many years earlier, seeing fairly well-known lesser British Thespians perform a nativity play in the local church. An actor who was known for his role in ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)’ was Mike Pratt, and he started the play off by filling his lungs and calling to the imaginary flock of sheep… I remember the impact it had on me: here was a guy who knew what he was doing, who knew what it took to grab an audience by the scruff of the neck the moment he opened his mouth –

‘What means my niece to take the death of her brother thus?  I swear, care’s an enemy life,’ roared Sir Toby. Honestly, it was nothing to do with me. That moment is etched into my memory. I glanced quickly at the props table just in the wings, and Carol was nodding her approval – she knew Sir Toby had found his Voice… Inside, I was dancing and cheering and shouting; on the outside, he had control of my body – and he decided to do a few things a little differently from how I had tried to do them. Movements which had felt a little clumsy and forced suddenly somehow became that obscene elegance which some larger people have. He skipped, he danced and capered. He glowered and above all, he spoke and sang lustily, with a voice from a hundred miles below the soles of his shoes, glurping out through my mouth with gleeful mischief dripping from every syllable. And I let go. I let him have his way with me.

That surrender was the sweetest, most wonderful thing ever to happen to me. Then, it was over, the band was playing and the audience clapping as various ‘extras’ and bit part players took their bows to increasing volumes of cheers and applause… then, enter Sir Andrew Aguecheek from one side, Maria from the other, and Sir Toby up the centre through the throng making the living backdrop.

First a couple of clusters, then spreading out like ripples in a pond, people stood for us, and the noise became deafening. We waved and bowed and smiled, we stood aside and applauded our supporting cast, faced front and took another bow, then away to our places as the dramatic principals took their turn. And we all basked. Then, with a stagey skip, a final wave and head nod, led by the supporting cast, we backed off the stage to even more cheers and whistles. The sound echoed through the harsh school corridors as we made our way back to the secondary hall which was being used as the main dressing room and storage area. The little cliques which had formed throughout the term clotted together in their little groups, chattering excitedly: I was very tired, and more than a little high off the experience… yet in some corner of my mind, rather than jubilation was just a small smug voice murmuring, ‘well, you must have done something right’.

The next day, in the normalised corridors thronging with pupils and staff, I was aware I was being noticed and pointed at by several small groupings of younger youths – towards the end of the day, one unlikely-looking lad from the second or third form approached me and said, “I didn’t want to see that play last night, but… well… you really made me laugh. You was dead funny.”  I nodded and said something bland like, ‘cheers’.

This was new. Usually, any time I had done a performance all I had received from those not over 30 was ridicule. That evening, the notice in the local paper – published that day – was on the notice board in the hall, and little groups were reading it in turns to see if they were mentioned. I simply went to my little area and got into costume; almost noticing eyes following me. The guy playing Sir Andrew arrived and told me to check out the notice… so I did. “…was EXCELLENT as Sir Toby Belch, ably supported by … Sir Andrew Aguecheek and … Maria…”

So I clearly had done something right. However, in the days to come and weeks that followed, I was hollow and hurting and lost. It was not just the ‘comedown’ from the performance… there was something else: and it was I had got some things very wrong.

TWO: The Carol Incident – and a prophecy?

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Jeremiah Savant’s ‘Inside the Inside’ is a parallel companion to ‘Adventures In Mental Health‘.

If you would like to connect with Jeremiah, or have any questions about this series, feel free to get in touch.