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Diary: John Wall

21 July 2023


Mythical creatures

I SOMETIMES wonder what happened to my grandmother’s stuffed wolf.

For some 40 years, from the 1930s, my grandmother was the House Manager for the Apollo Theatre, in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. According to my mother, she was full of tales of the theatrical types who crossed her path: Alastair Sim, of whom she disapproved; Vivien Leigh, who was difficult, insisting that her dressing room was redecorated, and constantly filled with fresh flowers; Sir Noël Coward, who had a photograph on his dressing-table of Princess Marina, with whom my grandmother (bless her) thought he was in love; Dame Margaret Rutherford, her closest friend, who wanted Granny to live with her as her companion; and of someone local, who found a gaudy piece of costume jewellery in a gutter which turned out to be a necklace of real Burmese rubies.

Although hugely invested in the theatrical world, she was adamant that no member of her family would go on the stage. Perhaps, as a parish priest — dressed in strange costumes, speaking to large(ish) crowds from the podium of the pulpit — I come closest. She would, I feel, have been doubtful.

And the wolf? It was given to her by Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray’s husband. Alas, I never saw it; but I gather it was the first thing that you encountered as you entered her office, stuffed and mounted as if to spring — a clever management ruse, to disconcert any complainer.

I’d have loved it in the rectory study; it would have been a wow with the confirmation class. It would also have gone rather well with my stuffed crocodile.


Two-way ticket

THERE was much about theatre, acting, drama, and playwriting in this year’s Charleston Festival. There was Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) presenting his autobiography; the director Dominic Dromgoole discussing famous theatrical first nights; and Professor Emma Smith talking about Shakespeare’s First Folio; but two talks that particularly resonated with me were given by the dancer Akram Khan and the playwright Michael Frayn.

I am fascinated by dance. I can sing a bit, act a bit, and write a bit, but I am hopeless at dancing, which is why I am so intrigued by it. In his conversation with a fellow dancer, Mr Khan warmed to the idea that — however big or small the production (and he was a key player in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony) — at the heart of any performance is a contract between performer and audience through the purchase of a ticket: the performer is “contacted” to engage to the best of their ability, and the audience is “contracted” to respond with attention.

Mr Frayn elaborated on this idea, suggesting that the input of an audience at a performance is as important as that of the director or producer, and that the company’s task is to “energise” the audience. I think I understand what he means: I saw the original run of his Noises Off in the early 1980s, and it remains one of the most gloriously joyous theatrical evenings that I have known.


Performance review

I HAVE since been reflecting on how these ideas affect church. In many denominations, there is a literal contract, in that the minister is employed by their congregation. Not so in the Church of England: we clergy are not paid for what we do, but receive a stipend in order that we might do it.

There is, though, a real contract between a congregation and its priest: the worshippers turn up, Sunday by Sunday, and listen with varying degrees of enjoyment and encouragement; the clergy turn up, Sunday by Sunday, with varying levels of enthusiasm (and, in my case, alas, varying degrees of preparation) and try to engage and enthuse.

I am reminded of that old joke that you can never hear an unprofitable sermon: if it’s good, you are edified; if it’s bad, you can practise the virtue of patience. I must admit that I have occasionally got halfway through a sermon and thought, “Goodness, if I’m bored, they must be, too.”

I don’t think people realise to what extent preaching is a two-way experience. Sometimes, there is a real sense of electricity and involvement when a sermon is going well (Mr Frayn’s “energising”), and then things really fly. I remember that, during Covid’s aftermath, you couldn’t see the expressions of a masked congregation; it was almost impossible to preach.


Nun danket

I AM looking forward to my next trip to Glyndebourne (I live ten minutes away) to see, for the first time, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

Many years ago, when I was a curate, the phone rang: it was a distressed parishioner, contemplating taking her own life. I sat on the stairs for half an hour listening, empathising, and calming her down, with Radio 3 playing soothingly in the background. At last, she said, “What’s that music?”

“Radio 3,” I said. “Why don’t you listen a while? It’ll remind you life’s worth living.”

“Do you know,” she said, “I think I will,” and rang off.

Feeling I’d done a good bit of curat-ing, I settled back to listen. The announcer introduced the next piece: the final scene of Carmélites, in which the nuns walk to the guillotine, singing the Salve Regina. Every few seconds, there is a swish and a thump, and one of the voices stops, until none are left.

It was one of those moments when you either laugh or burst into tears. I did the former. When I told a friend about it, they promptly renamed the Opera “Nun choppy, choppy” — which is what it has been for me ever since.*

*Footnote: thankfully, the parishioner survived unscathed.


Not amused

WE ARE in the last stages of planning for our children’s holiday club at the end of the month. We’re doing the old SPCK “Space Academy” — the third time, for me. I will be reprising my role of elderly Jedi Obi Wan Pappa Jon, complete with long beard and double-ended light sabre. (It certainly beats my last year’s costume: a lobster).

Over the years, my parts have included Pirate, Sumo Wrestler, Ringmaster, Pharoah, Mad Professor, and Chef. I fear my grandmother would not have approved.


The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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