Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Eric Thompson knew my father

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Long ago, my mother told me that my father had been a schoolfriend of Eric Thompson - the actor, director, narrator of The Magic Roundabout and father of Emma.

I wasn't able to ask my father about it - he walked out when I was 11 and I never saw him again - but eventually they invented the internet and it became possible to check such things.

It turned out that he had been to the same secondary school as Thompson, but was a year younger than him. This made me doubt the story, as a year means a lot at that age.

But while I was clearing my mother's house recently, I came across a piece of paper right at the back of a drawer.

Quite unexpectedly, it turned out to be my father's School Certificate - the qualification pupils took at 16 before 1951.

And, reading it carefully, I found that he had taken it at 15. He had been put up a year and could easily have been in the same class as Eric Thompson.

Then, the other day, I turned to the British Newspaper Archive to see if it could tell me anything more about my father at secondary school - I was taking more interest in his schooldays than he had in mine - and I struck gold.

Before reproducing the cutting, I must explain that his name was Peter Booth. I started using Calder as a surname at 13, not so much to cut him out of my life as to make what I hoped would be a new start after two thoroughly miserable years.

So this is what I found in the West Sussex County Times for Friday 27 December 1946: a review of the Collyer's School Drama Club production of The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

It begins by saying the club could not be accused of a lack of ambition:

To have chosen a play as difficult in form as 'The Ascent of F6' for their Christmas production on Friday and Saturday showed a lot of courage.

That the production was so successful is high praise to the work of both the young actors and their producer, Miss Margery Lee.

And then, after praise for the portrayal of the lead character Michael Ransom by one John Hempstead, comes this paragraph:

Peter Booth was convincing as David Gunn, happy-go-lucky member of Michael's expedition, as were Eric Thompson (Ian Shawcross), Geoffrey Lesser (Edward Lamp) and Michael Williams (Dr. Potter).

The slightly eerie thing about this is that I discovered Auden's poetry when I was about 30 and developed a strong affection for another of the plays he wrote with Isherwood - The Dog Beneath the Skin. I had even tweeted a few lines of it shortly before I discovered this cutting.

But then, one of the books I've saved from my mother's house is a pocket edition of A Shropshire Lad. I'd always assumed it was hers, but when I studied it I found my father's name and 'Horsham, 1951' on the flyleaf.

Squirreling away in the BNA, I also found that, a month after the play, my father had been announced as the new youth columnist for the same newspaper. But as far as I can see, only one of his columns appeared and it's too dull to be worth quoting.

So there you have it: a discovery at the back of a drawer and an electronic newspaper cutting have made a family legend look a lot more likely to be true.


Frank Little said...

Was that the Michael Williams, late husband of Judi Dench?

Jonathan Calder said...

No, he was from Liverpool.