The inspiration for these books came from my childhood memories of stories told by my parents, who were both in ‘show business’ in the years before World War ll. My father was a singer, trained in Italy as an opera singer, and my mother was a dancer. Sadly, though perhaps fortunately for me, when my father returned to England he found that there was a prejudice against English singers performing opera. It was assumed you had to be Italian to sing Verdi or Puccini! In that period, however, there was less division between the worlds of ‘high’ culture and popular entertainment. Audiences were accustomed to hearing light operatic arias alongside popular ballads as part of a ‘variety’ show. In the same way, ballet and tap routines might mingle with the can-can. This was the case in what used to be known as Concert Party – the summer shows performed in seaside towns every summer. It was in this milieu that my parents met, while performing in the Eastbourne Revels.
As a child I knew that my father had been called up immediately war broke out, because he was a member of the RAF reserve, and served all through the conflict, but when he returned to civilian life his singing career was at an end. He had lost all his contacts in the profession and no one remembered his name. Not so many of the performers he had worked with before the war. They had avoided active service and had instead joined ENSA, the Entertainment National Service Association (though in some circles it was said that the initials stood for Every Night Something Awful!). In spite of its rather unfortunate reputation, this organisation did great work in keeping up morale, both among the civilian population and the military, and many of its members became household names through a combination of live performances and appearances on the ‘wireless’, which was such a vital part of life in those days. When the war ended, their careers were ready to take off.
I had always been fascinated by the tales my mother and grandmother told me of life in the theatre before the war. The idyllic summers, where once the various items had been thoroughly rehearsed days were free to spend on the beach or the golf course, until it was time to go to the theatre for the evening performance – unless it rained, when there would be a matinee. The winter tours to bleak northern towns, where the more high-brow items were greeted with jeers and even missiles. The theatrical landladies, some of them treasures who mothered their guests, others mean old hags who festooned the house with notices forbidding this or that and provided such a minimal diet that food parcels from home were all that kept the players going. The petty jealousies, the friendships, the disaters and the funny incidents – it was a rich tapestry that I longed to share. Which is why I grew up hopelessly stage-struck and insisted on training as actress, against the better judgement of my parents and my teachers!
It was when I was casting about for a suitable topic for a novel that it occurred to me that all this might be the basis for a gripping story. In particular, I was interested in the way in which the war had disrupted careers and sent people off in directions they would never have imagined. So I created my imaginary Concert Party, the Fairbourne Follies, and people it with the sort of characters I remembered from my mother’s stories. Monty Prince, the proprietor of the show and also its comic, his wife, who glories in the stage name Dolores da Ponte, though everyone knows she was born plain Dolly Bridges in the East End of London; Frank and Isobel, the duettists who present a picture of romantic love on stage and fight like cat and dog in private; the chorus girls, some worldly and sophisticated, others naive and hardly more than school-girls. And my main characters, Rose and Richard, who started out looking very much like my parents but rapidly took on a life of their own. Then there was Merry, Guy Merryweather, who appeared out of the shadows of the orchestra pit and insisted on being part of the story, and Felix, the illusionist, whose life was as much a mystery off stage as his act on stage.
So all that remained was to see what would happen to this varied group once war disrupted their lives. My researches threw up one possibility after another. There was ENSA, of course, and the army’s own equivalent, Stars In Battledress, which kick-started the caeers of Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe among others. There was the RAF and the exciting image of Spitfire pilots taking on the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. There was the work of plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, who pioneered new techniques in order to rebuild the faces of pilots shot down in flames. There was the Women’s Land Army, and the Special Operations Executive, whose brief it was to run agents behind enemy lines, and the courageous men and women of the French escape lines who helped to get British servicemen out of occupied territory. It soon became clear that there was material here for more than one book. ‘Now Is the Hour’ led on to ‘They Also Serve’ and then to ‘Theatre of War’ and ‘The Final Act’.
I have one lasting regret. In my original draft, I wrote five chapters about life in the Concert Party during that last idyllic summer of 1939. This drew heavily on my mother’s reminiscences, but also gave me a chance to get to know my characters and introduce them to readers. I enjoyed writing them, but my publishers are convinced that no one would be interested in reading them. Talking to groups of readers, I have been told otherwise. So here, for any of you who would like to find out what happened before the beginning of ‘Now Is The Hour’, are those deleted chapters.