Peter Gruner talks to Sweetpea Slight, whose new book lifts the lid on life backstage in Theatreland
20 July, 2017 — By Peter Gruner
Sweetpea Slight. PHOTO: KATE BARSBY
THE unladylike habits of two leading actresses are revealed in a witty new book by Hampstead author Sweetpea Slight.
Get Me The Urgent Biscuits is a lighthearted, warts-and-all memoir of life backstage in the West End during the 1980s and 1990s.
We learn how actress Miriam Margolyes, with a propensity for salt beef sandwiches, “farts for England” in her dressing room and Sarah Miles once burped pickled onions into the face of the author.
Speaking this week, Ms Slight said that Sweetpea was not always her first name. It had previously been plain Jane but her mentor, maverick theatre producer Thelma Holt, decided Sweetpea had a better ring.
The author was 18 when she first arrived in London, her heart set on becoming an actress. But Thelma saw a talent in other directions and decided to “steal” her away from her dream.
Within a fortnight Thelma had persuaded the teenage Jane to cancel her audition for Rada, sent her to evening classes to learn to type, organised a “miniscule” salary and renamed her.
Fiona Shaw. PHOTO: MARIE-LAN NGUYEN
In her book, Sweetpea tells how Thelma joined forces with the late Robert Maxwell in the 1970s to run the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. Maxwell always introduced himself –“I’m Robert Maxwell” – even though everyone knew who he was. He explained that there were three things that Thelma needed to know about him: He didn’t drink; he didn’t gamble; and he didn’t sleep with women. Thelma, who was keen on a tipple, replied: “Mr Maxwell, how splendid, at least we have two things in common.”
The book praises impresario Thelma, now 85 and still busy producing, for her dedication and devotion to the theatre. Sweetpea worked with for her for more than 20 years, which included time with Peter Hall. The memoir is also a wry celebration of Thelma’s many eccentricities.
There was, for example, the time they went to a first night party and Thelma asked Sweetpea to remind her that under no circumstances should she (Thelma) remove her overcoat. When asked why, Thelma revealed that beneath the coat she was wearing just bra and pants.
Thelma taught Sweetpea the rules of backstage language. If the play is frightful, try and find something positive to say. “Never say: ‘Well done, darling, you must be exhausted’.”
When Thelma told stories she expected her listeners to have previous knowledge of the characters involved. This prompted her good friend, the late actor Alan Rickman, to comment dryly: “What is she talking about…?”
The tantrums of the stars make wonderful reading.
Alan Rickman. PHOTO: MARIE-LAN NGUYEN
Sweetpea witnesses Richard Harris kick a filing cabinet during a row that results in a director walking out of a production.
Harris had given up drinking and appeared to live on porridge, which apparently settled his stomach, which was upset by nerves.
One night in Cardiff Harris locked himself in his dressing room and refused to go on stage. Thelma finally persuaded the star to perform by giving him her rosary beads.
Sweetpea describes going hungry with her good friend actress Fiona Shaw. “The first time she invited me for supper, we ate pudding before the main course. She had woefully mis-timed the cooking. The second time, unable to work out how to use her new oven, we sat staring at a of pile of raw sausages…”
Sweetpea, who has lived near New End for four years with her partner artist Kate, is now PA to TV presenter Anne Robinson.
She loves Hampstead but told this newspaper of her sadness that so many wonderful old buildings have been redeveloped.
“I was particularly unhappy that one lovely old building (which I gather was once residence for nurses and had been empty for years) was bulldozed to make way for posh apartments.”
She added that she and Kate used to love the Old White Bear in Well Road. “It was always full of locals and served very good unfussy food. We now call it the Old White Elephant because it’s been sitting empty for over two years. Developers bought it but nothing has happened, such a waste. We now go to the Wells on Well Walk.”
• Get Me The Urgent Biscuits (An assistant’s adventures in theatreland). By Sweetpea Slight, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99