Sandra Shippy -
A Day at Portland Place

.................Out of the blue I received an offer for one of my plays to be transmitted by the BBC. This filled me with joy and horror! Joy because I never thought it would happen and horror because it was just about the worst play I had ever written. It was an attempt to entertain my kids and was written down to the level of their age. To imagine anyone would want to transmit it as a Midweek Theatre presentation was almost beyond my imagination! But apparently they did and I did nothing to dissuade them.

Eventually there I was in Portland Place for the recording. Another world. Originally Dennis Waterman had been touted for the lead role but was unable to do it as he was suddenly off filming ‘The Sweeney’. I couldn’t blame him however disappointed I might have been.

One tiny fact delighted me. When I was young, between thirteen and fourteen, my father and mother took me every Saturday to the High Wycombe Repertory Theatre to see whatever play was showing. It was a small theatre and smelt of musk and damp and old clothes. Heaven! The lead actress nearly every week was the wonderful Betty Hardy and she it was who was to play the lead in my small effort. She died in 1981, but my memories of her are always bright.

All of the cast and crew were so tremendous I can only wish for them eventual places in some celestial palace of their choosing. I must have seemed like an excited teenager but their behaviour and patience was something that I have never forgotten. I still have three copies of the transmission script (one of which was signed on the back by all and sundry) and of course, a copy of the then Radio Times with all of it in that wonderful medium – print!

A further miniature delight came a year after this when I received a royalty cheque when the play had been transmitted in South Africa, home of my childhood.

Anyway - back to Portland Place. The actual recording took the entire day. I remember that several of the cast and crew took me to lunch in the famous (or infamous) BBC Cafeteria but other than remembering some tepid orange juice I cannot recall what I had or who was there. I remember that the tables were grey/white formica edged with steel; likewise the seats. I felt awe at the special effects. Water dripping from cups onto bits of cardboard; shaking of bits of tin for thunder, and my own disbelief that any of these things would in the end seem like the real McCoy – to my delight, when I listened to the transmission, they were perfect.

My one moment of complete panic was being asked to make a minor change to something, so insignificant I won't bore you with it here, and I froze. I remember Stephen Thorne putting his arm round me and saying ‘don’t worry, it's no worse than being asked to make a speech at a wedding when the best man passes out.’ Of course I and everyone else fell about laughing and I was then able to breathe again and get on with it.

John Theocharis was one of the kindest, most patient men I have ever met. My vague recollection of him was tall, thin and dark with a soft -spoken mellow voice that kept you in focus.

The cast and crew could not have been gentler or more compassionate to someone who was obviously out of her depth, star struck and completely thrilled and terrified at the same time.

It was an experience I shall never forget, and going home I felt totally deflated at the thought that it had gone forever and I would never experience it again; so far that is true.

The heyday of such things seems to have gone and only 'sound bites' seem to occur these days. Even a 45 min play may be too long for today’s attention span.

Eventually I intend to transfer my hundreds of scripts, both tv and radio, and all my short stories to this computer from my hard copies; likewise the three or four novels I have already done.

Sandra Johnson (Sandra Shippy)

..............Many thanks, Sandra, for describing this for us - ND.

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