I never went to university. I have been educated by jobs. Through them I’ve learned history, fashion, golf, flamenco, bel canto, public speaking, patience — yes, I have! — medicine, make-up, journalism and the language of the fan, almost all of them with advanced shallowness. If you’d asked me to discuss land rushes during rehearsals of Oklahoma!, you would have been bowled over by my knowledge. Trevor Nunn spoke for six hours on the subject on day one of rehearsals and some of it stuck. Want to know what congenital amusia is? It’s a defect in processing pitch and tone which affected Florence Foster Jenkins very badly. Seventy years after she died while singing “Queen of the Night” so tunelessly that Tallulah Bankhead wet herself in a second tier box, both Meryl Streep and I are still making waves from her disability.
Now, thanks to an odd little job presenting a series called, for the moment anyway, Disappearing Britain — which is a bit too near the truth for my money — I am learning odd pockets of social history which, otherwise, I might never have stumbled upon.
“Not my field, dear,” I snorted when the producers suggested I might like to look into some rare-brand sheep called Cotswold Lions, “I do urban. How about Larry Lamb?’’ They looked askance. Skittishly, I added, “Now if you ask me to do ‘why is there nowhere to buy a packet of needles or a pair of knickers?’, I’ll do the demise of the haberdasher.”
They were the producers and I was just the talent so they prevailed, and when I found myself in a large field with some of the big platinum-haired creatures, I did my level best to whip up some sheep lore. I kept calling the flock a herd, which justifiably annoyed the rather elegant lady farmer I was chatting up. When I rather creepily admired the spotlessness of her farmhouse, she retorted, “You people always expect farmers to be dotty yokels.”
Actually, I had to give the sheep my grudging respect. One of them discovered the joy of nudging me up the bum with its head every time I spoke into camera. I don’t suppose it will make the final cut, but if it ever shows up on the out-takes, it will delight you.
I rang my drama school roommate Lesley Joseph to tell her what I was doing with my life. “I can’t believe it!” she squawked, “I’m standing in a field with a sheepdog doing celebrity sheep trials!”
“Marvellous!” I yelled over the baas of the beasts, “makes absolute sense of all those iambic pentameter appreciation classes, doesn’t it?”
I have covered several castles and stately homes in the last few weeks, including Glamis, Castle Howard and Scone (pronounced Scoon), where Larry and I chased each other around a maze covered by an overhead drone (not pronounced droon or related to Brigadroon, although the outfits were similar). I have shivered at the punishment area on HMS Victory and been moved to tears by the banality of a nit comb among artefacts dug up from the sea 500 years after the Mary Rose sank. At the Highland Games in Dundee, I discovered how huge is a real Scotsman’s caber, and on the River Tay I was wrapped in the grip of a gorgeous gillie. who showed me his flies. “Mmmm . . . I’m not absolutely sure I got that,” I murmured into his Barbour, “could you possibly show me it again?”
I’ve been dazzled by elderly couples dancing effortlessly at a Scarborough Spa ballroom and plied with rum at 11 o’clock in the morning by ten Tudor-clad brethren in an Elizabethan Guildhall in Warwick. I have driven a Morgan car through the rain-spattered hills of Malvern and been shown how to whittle a hazel switch into a chrysanthemum in the New Forest. I’ve reviewed the troops in a Napoleonic reenactment on the Western Heights and fried up samphire on a frozen beach at Dover. As my three-year-old granddaughter said recently, “Momo, my brain is standing up.”
I also surveyed the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Colville Mews, Notting Hill. This is where I send foreigners in Hyde Park when they ask me for directions to the Princess Diana ceremonial wet patch. It is a hidden treasure and we filmed there a day before some of its six million original wrappers and packages were moved to Lancaster Grove. Honestly, when you arrive at your your own childhood — in grocery — it is a Proust madeleine moment. “Omo!” you yell, “Five Boys bar! Vimto!” And you don’t just see them, you taste them and smell the shop your Mam sent you to, with five bob, to buy them.
Then on to the secret theatre in Alexandra Palace. It is a 2,000-seater — as big as Drury Lane, built for spectacles and hardly ever used, with the best views of London in London from its terrace. The jolie-laide building, that only an architect’s mother could love, built to rival the Crystal Palace in south London, burnt down only a month after its grand opening. My late husband Jack Rosenthal and I watched it smoulder up again in 1980, from our Muswell Hill bedroom window, biting each others’ nails with anxiety.
Our Swiss au pair was courting a fireman from Hornsey fire station and we knew he was in there somewhere. I believe it was a 50-car “shout”, which is about as big as a shout gets in London, and Ruth’s fireman got out just before the roof of the great hall fell in. From his story and others Jack created the play, London’s Burning, which turned into a series which turned around the public perception that a fireman’s work is just playing poker and pole-sliding. “Everything is copy,” wrote the late screenwriter Nora Ephron.
Off to St Ives now for Barbara Hepworth’s garden and a tiny, well-preserved 19th-century Jewish cemetery, then to Crosby beach to fondle scores of life-sized Anthony Gormleys, and Swan Upping with the Queen’s Marker on the glorious Thames.Continuous joy, continuing my education and making it look as if I’d had one.