Book of the week: Talented actress Phyllida Law reveals her early antics as a chorus girl and stage star

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Phyllida Law, 85, is perhaps best known for being Emma Thompson’s mother. By rights, Emma Thompson ought only to register as a footnote in the Phyllida Law story — for is there a lovelier, cleverer, warmer, funnier lady at large in the world today?

 I adore her performances, in Peter’s Friends, Much Ado About Nothing, Foyle’s War and Kingdom. Phyllida has kind eyes, a crisp, warm voice, and her glowing halo of hair is kept miraculously aloft, like the nimbus of an Edwardian beauty — Queen Alexandra, for example, or Virginia Woolf. 

Indeed, the appeal of Phyllida is that she is anachronistic, harking back to the days of theatre footlights (‘They’ve gone. I don’t know where’) and the gilded proscenium arch with plaster cherubs and red curtains: ‘I miss it for the weight of the folds, the way its velvet moves from dark to glowing warmth, the way it starts the music.’ 

Phyllida Law pictured in 1963, she was young and carefree before the Sixties, so missed that decade’s orgiastic freedoms

Phyllida speaks properly, too, enunciating words perfectly, bereft of any regional accent or mumbles. You’d hardly know she is from Glasgow, where children ‘were dirty and had fleas’. She was evacuated at seven and enjoyed boarding school during wartime, where she read medical dictionaries and expected to become a doctor.

But instead, she trained as a set designer at the Bristol Old Vic. Dead Now Of Course is her notebook-style memoir of these early years, with which I chuckled along delightedly. As fans of her earlier publications will know, Phyllida is a gloriously dotty and poetical writer. Her sharp little jottings and spot-on observations are a distillation of all that is inimitable and comical about her personality.

At Bristol, she encountered Peter O’Toole, who supplemented his wages selling yo-yos outside department stores. Phyllida also met the eccentric Welsh actor, my old friend Kenneth Griffith, who, when playing Oberon, seduced the fairies during the interval and missed his Act II cues.

Phyllida toured the West Country, helping with the props and costumes, ironing and sewing, and taking small roles in Sidmouth, Newton Abbot and Exmouth. What she mostly recalls are the dire theatrical digs. ‘I sat at breakfast under a pulley full of jock straps.’ One of the landladies ‘covered all the mirrors in the house with towels and retired to a cupboard under the stairs’ during thunderstorms.

Another was always on the alert for hanky-panky. As a gay actor smuggled his boyfriend upstairs by giving him a piggyback, the landlady called out: ‘Cripples now, Mr Cardew?’

Phyllida relished the bustle of the theatre, the boxes of greasepaint sticks, the crepe hair and glue. She tells us how to manufacture false eyelashes out of paper, and false noses out of Plasticine and Copydex. ‘But nowadays, they make them with mortician’s wax.’ Gravy browning was used for stage whisky, tea and sherry.

Moving to London, as a chorus girl, she met Sir Ralph Richardson, who, as a senior personage, was allowed to submit a list of the people he favoured for a forthcoming production of The Merchant Of Venice. ‘They were all dead.’ Sir Ralph kept a pet rat — and dressing rooms were always rife with vermin.

Phyllida Law (Right) with daughter Emma Thompson (Left), Phyllida married in 1956 and lived in a crumbling Georgian property in Kensington

Phyllida Law (Right) with daughter Emma Thompson (Left), Phyllida married in 1956 and lived in a crumbling Georgian property in Kensington

The theatre was a hazardous existence. The rotund character actor Harold Innocent shoved a box of matches down his costume, went on stage to play an emotional scene, bent down ‘and burst into flames’. Harold had to be rushed to hospital, ‘smelling of smoke and singed flesh, dressed in pink satin breeches’.

Another mishap occurred with Peter Wyngarde, who managed to ignite his hair with a cigarette. ‘A fellow actor rushed over, took his hair off and stamped on it. No one had known he wore a toupee.’

London landladies were also incendiary, in a manner of speaking. One of them, known as Mildew, ‘looked like Marlene Dietrich from the waist up and an unreliable charlady from the waist down’. Mildew’s best friends were the Krays, who were cementing their enemies ‘into those huge pillars that hold up motorways’. Mildew owned a Collie dog that drank beer, a Siamese cat that could open a fridge and an alcoholic monkey named Chico.

Phyllida was young and carefree before the Sixties, so missed that decade’s orgiastic freedoms.

‘We were sexually timid and a bit lumpy,’ she confesses. In Glasgow, it had been disapproved of for couples to hold hands in the street (‘Why can’t they wait till they get home?’) and the sauciest thing ever to happen to Phyllida was when a man in Bristol shouted out: ‘You’ve got lovely little milkers, pet.’

Nevertheless, she met a saturnine actor she calls Tom. ‘I knew he watched me if I played the piano and we’d had a snog in the back seat of the touring bus.’

Phyllida was shocked and thrilled to discover she was in love with him — a sudden emotional jolt, like ‘the look on the orchestra conductor’s face when you get your harmony right for the first time’.

Phyllida and Tom were married in 1956, having precisely £30 between them. They lived in a crumbling Georgian property in Kensington with a sign on the lavatory: ‘No Solids From This Facility.’

It sounds perfect. ‘We didn’t shout much, I don’t think. But we did throw things. Tom once asked what my interests were. I threw a meringue at him.’ How could you not be crazy for such a woman?

Tom was Eric Thompson, who later devised and narrated The Magic Roundabout, and died in 1982 at the age of only 53.

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