Webster Booth was the guest of Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs on the BBC Home Service on 3 April 1953.
Unlike the accepted view that Anne and Webster were losing popularity because of the rise of American entertainers and rock ‘n roll, they still had plenty of work from 1953 to 1956. Through no fault of their own they were struggling with the Inland Revenue so decided to move to South Africa in July of 1956.
Webster Booth was the guest of Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs on the BBC Home Service on 3 April 1953.
1 April – Go to Rhodes Park library today. Jennifer Humphreys serves me. Get out autobiographies of Humphrey Lyttleton and Donald Peers – both mention Webster and Anne. Go to town and have lunch with Mum and Dad, then we see Once More with Feeling, starring Yul Brunner and wonderful, whimsical Kay Kendall who died two years ago. See a snippet in the newsreel of Lennie and Glenda doing a routine at the rink – they get a huge ovation from the movie audience and I clap jolly hard too and feel proud of them.
2 April – Sunday school. Not many kids there owing to holiday. I have Neill, Mark, Desmond and a little boy called David in my class. I tell them a story and let them colour in. Eugenie Braun makes me lead singing and I practically sing a solo – can hardly hear the kids! Peter gives me hymns for the guild afterwards – practically all unknown! Go into church with the usual crowd – Leona Rowe is away at camp, and Mr Russell gives a rather dreary sermon.
In the afternoon the Diamonds come and we have pleasant time. I perk up when conversation leads to a discussion about the Booths – they still maintain that Anne’s singing voice is painful but she has a lovely personality and speaking voice. Am persuaded by everyone to sing which I do reasonably.
3 April – Easter Monday In afternoon Dad and I go to eisteddfod and I buy a season ticket. We go to Duncan Hall to hear singing and instrumental items. A little Welshman presides and the adjudicator is from England – very good. After the interval the Welshman tells us to take our seats. I turn round to see what’s what and, out of the corner of my eye, catch sight of Webster. I get a real shock. Whisper to my father who is not at all perturbed, so we sit through the whole competition without further ado.
We get up to go and the first person I come across is Anne looking too gorgeous for words in a flowery dress. Her face lights up as only her face can, and she says, “Why, hello, Jean, how are you?” Webster, who is sitting in front of her, turns round to say hello. I introduce them to Dad and they are really charmed when he says, “I’m privileged to meet you.”
Webster asks in his usual vague fashion, “Have you done your piece yet, Jean?” She says, “Of course not!’ and I say, “It’s not till Thursday, Webster
.” He looks very knowing as though he knew that all the time.
She says, “It’s a pity you can’t stay for the next item, Jean,” and I say that Mum is expecting us home so I’m afraid we can’t stay. She tells me how sorry she is and we say goodbye to them. We stand at the back of the hall and listen to the last adjudication then depart to the sight of Anne going up to the front, preparing herself to accompany their singer in an art song.
Dad tells me on the way home that he doesn’t think Webster looks very well and that everybody around us was staring at us in admiration for knowing them – I didn’t even notice this as I was too wrapped up in speaking to them! All I know is that I adore them, and other peoples’ opinion don’t count two hoots!
5 April – Listen to Webster’s programme at night, and he was right as usual – it is good tonight! He starts off talking about the difference between opera and oratorio and gives an example from Handel’s Samson – his own recording. He goes on with his story, how he had an interest in Gilbert and Sullivan, how he came to join the D’Oyly Carte Company by barn-storming an audition when the company was in Birmingham and not turning up for an audit when he was asked to go to London to sing for Rupert D’Oyly Carte so that he was sacked. His teacher Dr Wassall was angry that he joined the company and never acknowledged him in future. He toured the UK with the company which included Henry Lytton, Bertha Lewis, Darrell Fancourt, Sydney Granville and Derek Oldham as principals, and Malcolm Sargent as the conductor in 1926. Webster asked Sir Malcolm whether he should sing in Grand Opera, and sang to him from La Bohème. “If you’ve no money, don’t sing in grand opera,” was his advice. He toured Canada with the company where his companion was Martyn Green and he had a wonderful time over there.
He plays a record by Harold Williams whom he obviously feels is the bees’ knees and ends with the overture to Mikado, an anecdote about Gilbert and Sullivan and the promise to play one of the G and S operettas after copyright is surrendered by Bridget D’Oyly Carte at the end of the year. Lovely programme by a wonderful man.
6 April – Eisteddfod at night. Sonnets are all done fairly well mainly by varsity students reciting poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I don’t disgrace myself but I don’t win a gold medal either. The girl who wins is about 25. The adjudicator, Miss Levitas, says on my report that I’m sincere!
7 April – Go to the Booths today feeling rather apprehensive. Webster answers door holding a large bell which, he tells me, is supposed to ring every half an hour to let him know when to put another sixpence into the parking meter. He says he’s forgotten how to wind it up. “I can’t depend on my watch because I forget what time I put the money in, in the first place.” Lemon is there so I play with him until Anne comes in, looking beautiful in a charcoal-grey pleated skirt and sweater and black court shoes, all in the best of style.
She asks me about the Eisteddfod and I tell her that I didn’t get any medal but I didn’t dry up either. She reads the report and says, “Who the hell is C. Levitas? I thought the adjudicator was Mary Webster!”
Webster goes out to put money in the meter and to go to a jeweller to find a real copper bracelet for Anne’s rheumatism. Says, “Goodbye, see you in a little while.” Before Anne starts on the play, she tells me that their bass came second, their girl got a gold medal in Lieder and there were several more seconds. I make fitting remarks about their success. She tells me that the girl who got the gold medal didn’t really deserve it, “God forgive me. She got it on musical knowledge.” This girl had great trouble with her voice – her husband didn’t like it but she persevered so that was a kick in the teeth for him when she did well!
We start on And So to Bed and really give it stick. She asks me whether my parents had any theatrical experience because I have such good control of words and cues. Webster comes back and says that the jeweller had no real copper but a someone in a shop in Eloff street would make one for her.
We go on with the play and Anne praises Leslie Henson (who played Pepys) to the heights – did I ever see him? I say no, but my father said he was wonderful. She goes into ecstasies about him and says, “If only they would put this play on here.”
Webster says I am good but must be careful not to tear my throat otherwise, if I was doing a show, I would soon not have any voice left. “Get French through the nose!” I must say that Anne becomes rather flustered herself when she does my part to show me what to do. She says I must learn the scene.
Tells me that Mr Salmon, the music adjudicator took far too long over adjudications. “He’s from Lancashire, but still he took too long!” We have tea and Anne naturally says once again that it is like TCP and some discussion ensues. Asks me to come at the same time next Friday and all is lovely. They’re nice.
8 April – Go skating today. Sue, Neill and Menina are there and I spend most of morning talking to Sue. She tells me about building the float for varsity rag. Says that Jennifer Nicks now lives in Canada. Jennifer Nicks wrote to Gwyn and told him she has called her baby Methuselah-Star – I ask you! Sue skates like a honey as usual and I skate as normal and enjoy myself. She says she thinks Christians don’t have much enjoyment in life.
Scotts come at night. Linda cute, Mr S armed with violin – I accompany him at piano to hitherto unseen pieces which, strangely enough, I succeed in playing. We also gallop (he misses beats) through Only a Rose. All convivial.
10 April Have lunch with Mum and she promises to phone Anne about doing singing instead of speech from a week on Friday. This point has been mooted in the family circle so I’m going to do that instead of speech – if they’ll have me. Buy an SABC bulletin and there is an interview with Webster in it in which he talks about his career, stage fright and rewarding moments. He says that he wouldn’t change his life if he could live it over again. “I was given a voice, a figure and my marriage with Anne Ziegler – something that has been successful and happy, and I have adopted what I think to be about the finest country in the world.” He was lucky, but his luck certainly hasn’t spoilt him in any way.
Mum phones Anne in the afternoon and tells her that I’d like to do singing. She is quite happy about this and says that it’ll be a pleasure to teach me. She tells mum that I’m a sweet thing and they’re very fond of me. Mother says, “Jean enjoys going to you and she’d like to do singing as it goes with the piano.” Anne says that it is half the battle learning to sing if one knows music.
Mummy says, “Jean was a bit nervous to ask about singing,” and Anne says, “Oh, why?” Mummy says, “Well, she’s not too sure of her own voice.” Anne is evidently as big a honey as always, and when Mummy says that I love to listen to Webster’s programmes, she says, “Oh, no! Not really!” Well that is that and I hope that I can do well at singing because I love to sing so I must do well. This is really their true sphere.
11 April – Start college again today – new typing teacher – all affable.
12 April – College. Typing teacher says my accuracy is best in the class – whew! Must keep up this good standard.
At night I listen to Webster’s programme. After he left D’Oyly Carte he joined Tom Howell’s concert party, the Opieros, singing operatic excerpts in parks and at the seaside. He eventually sang oratorio tenor solos with the Huddersfield Choral Society and Royal Choral society under the direction of Sir Malcolm and started recording for BBC studio opera programmes.
He plays records by Isobel Baillie, Dennis Noble and himself singing in La Bohème, and bass Oscar Natzke, with a most beautiful bass voice who died at the age of 39, and a duet from Carmen by South American Soprano and a man with an unpronounceable name. There are several recordings by Webster himself singing opera. He has a beautifully restrained voice and gives a more polished performance. He presents the programme beautifully – polished to a ‘t’. Songs of sopranos all gorgeous – dread to think what he’ll have to say about me – still, the programme is terribly nice.
13 April – College – long day today. Jill, Lyn, Audrey and I go to the library and I meet David Cross there who is very sweet and looks nice enough to divert attention!
In the afternoon I listen to Leslie Green, with Charles Berman as his guest. Latter has made a new recording.
At night phone rings and I know, almost instinctively, that it is Anne – am right as usual! Gives usual greeting, “Is that Jean? Jean, this is Anne Ziegler here!”
She asks (talking very loudly tonight), “Jean, could you possibly come at 4.30 instead of 4 tomorrow?”
“Yes, that would be all right.”
“You see, tomorrow night is the music prize-winners’ concert and I’ve had to change all the lessons around because of it.” (Can’t see any connection at all, but still!)
“So, will that be all right, Jean?”
“Well, goodbye, we’ll see you tomorrow then.”
14 April. College as usual. My deskmate Lorraine Feinblum, who is a year or two older than the rest of us, is engaged. We are all thrilled for her.
I go to the Booths in the afternoon. Lemon snuffles at the door and Anne answers it. She wears a straight skirt with a jersey and grey shoes with an overdose of eye make-up (probably for tonight’s concert). We have customary greeting and she finishes practising an intricate accompaniment for the concert tonight.
Webster comes in and brings various purchases into the kitchen and says, “Oh, hello, Jean. I didn’t know you were here.” We have customary greetings and Anne finishes practising piece for concert.
Anne calls me in and says, “I hear you want to do singing, Jean. I think that’s splendid.”
I say, “Well, I’d like to, but I’m not sure about my voice.”
Webster says, “Well, judging from what I remember from last hearing you, I don’t think you have to worry much about that.”
He asks me what sort of music I have at home and goes to look out some music while I go through the last scene of And So to Bed with Anne. I have learnt it and do it quite well. She says afterwards, “It’s too wonderful! You really do it beautifully – it’s a miracle how you learnt the part – some people doing singing won’t even learn a song I give them to do – but this – brilliant, and very well done.”
Webster says, “It’s very good. You could know the part in a fortnight!” He asks where I have acted before and I say, “‘School plays etc.”
We go through it again and she tells me I have the makings of a fine actress.
They insist that I should sing. I go through some scales with Anne playing and looking down my throat at the same time, and Webster listening very intently with the ear of a master. Anne says my tongue is in a perfect position – how hard I have practised to get it there! – but I must open my mouth wider on the high notes. Webster says I have a very good voice which will be fine for training and Mrs. B says, “It’s all there – you’ve probably got about four notes to add to it yet.”
She makes me look in the mirror to see how to hold my mouth when singing high – the rule is not to show teeth. I’m afraid I look rather like a horse laughing! Webster takes the music and we debate about what I should sing – a Schubert album with dozens of lieder (all in English including On Wings of Song).
I say that I know Wiegenlied best but it isn’t in that book so what about Hark, Hark the Lark? I say I know Hark, Hark, the Lark but when I’ve tried that at home I couldn’t reach high notes. Anne says it was probably in a higher key, so I agree to try it although this key is actually higher than mine, for the top note is high G but somehow I reach it perfectly. Anne sings with me. She really has a lovely voice. Webster stands at my side listening very intently. Thank heaven he expresses approval. He says I must go through my own Schubert album and bring it next week. I have nothing to worry about with regards to my voice –it’s good. I tell him, “Well, I wasn’t too sure about it because I’d never heard it!”
He says, “Well, we won’t let you hear it just yet. Everybody gets a terrible shock when they hear their own voice.”
Anne comes with me to the door and says, “Well, Jean, I’m glad that at last, you’ve decided to obey the request we made to you so nicely such a long while ago. You can go home and tell your parents you have a lovely voice and we’re both thrilled that you’re going to do singing.”
I say goodbye to Anne and Lemon and come down on the lift floating on air. I’m so thrilled about it because they have such a fine musical understanding and can tell a good voice when they hear one. Also Webster has taken on a more authoritative position because singing is his forte. But he’s quite different from the Webster on the radio – I prefer him as he is in the studio.
For ages – since I heard them sing at the church last year – I’ve wanted to do singing. After I heard them I started to enjoy music and singing far more – I know that what they sang that particular evening was light but their presentation of it was perfect. But it has taken me practically a whole year to start my singing lessons with them. I know I’ll never regret it. Not only are they top-notch singers, but they’re top-notch all round.
On Wednesday evening Webster said of Isobel Baillie, “I understand she’s teaching at the Manchester School of Music – lucky pupils.” Well, that’s the way I feel about them. They’re awe-inspiring and make me feel as though I might do well if I work hard.
15 April – Go into rink today. Menina, Neill Craus, Dawn Vivian are all there – Sue is in the rag – and we have reasonably gay time but have to work. Menina is learning with Mr Perren while Jill is getting married, and says he is a real old tartar!
Skating goes very well and is exhilarating. Come into town and buy On Wings of Song in Kelly’s and then have lunch with Mum and Dad in Capinero and then go to see Bottoms Up with Jimmy Edwards. Good but a bit kiddish in places!
16 April Sunday School today. Mark, Neill, Desmond and Gary W are there and all of them tell me strangest things – some of Mark’s stories are decidedly exaggerated. Stay to sermon by Mr R – quite good but a bit disjointed towards the end. All the usual crowd there but can’t say they thrill me with their spirit. Gail won the prize for best beatnik on Friday night.
18 April RDM provides pleasant shock for me in morning. Full page picture of Webster and Anne advertising Skal beer! Doesn’t say it’s them but of course it is! Webster complete with beard (he had it shaved off on Friday!) sitting holding glass of beer and Anne sitting on his lap with telegram in one hand and a look of sheer delight on her face. It’s a really gorgeous advert and large – larger than life – up it goes on my wall – if there’s another I’ll put it in my diary!
College goes well today – Lorraine F is excited about her engagement. Go with Jill Harry to library and meet Mary Theodosiou who says she’s working hard, isn’t living in Kensington, and hears that Atholie is pretty fed up working in the library. I’m not surprised with those awful hours! In the afternoon I vegetate owing to a cold which I must get rid of before Friday at least.
19 April College. We have a party for Lorraine F which is fun. Come home on bus with unknown but very affable girl who is doing a speed-writing course.
I listen to On Wings of Song at night. Webster doesn’t continue with his own life story but plays records. First one is a Thomas Beecham recording which he got for Easter, then a song by Gigli and an aria from Messiah.
He says that in 1938 he had the honour of singing the tenor role in Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden. Richard Tauber was also in the production. He says, “When Richard Tauber was appearing in the same concert as us at the Coliseum Anne asked him what songs he intended to sing. Tauber replied, ‘German songs,’ and his little accompanist (Percy Kahn) added, ‘With English words by me!’”
He talks of another opera by Rossini (I think) and says, “Anne and I sang it at the festival opera season in 1953 and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
He mentions that he sang with Kathleen Ferrier and Gladys Ripley, the two tragic contraltos who both died within a year of one another, Kathleen, a switchboard operator, and Gladys, a hairdresser. Plays record by Gladys and another tenor – how I wished it had been a Kathleen Ferrier recording – very nice though. Ends with overture to HMS Pinafore, conductor – Sir Malcolm, and says, “It’s very light-hearted but I love it!”
Very nice programme and well presented. I do approve of the “Anne and I” part!
21 April – College – thank heaven for the weekend! I kill time in the afternoon by having a long drawn-out snack in the Capinero. I go up to studio at a quarter to four and am greeted by Webster. He says, “Anne isn’t back yet, so do come in and sit down. I’m just trying through the examination pieces – please excuse the mess.” He sits down at the piano and labours away at the exam pieces. I feel a bit corny sitting there so stare at the photographs and see one of Lincoln Cathedral where he was a chorister.
There is a peremptory knock at the door which heralds the entrance of Anne. He answers the door and she walks in without greeting him. She wears a grey princess line coat (she had her picture taken in it autographing their new LP record last October) and says something about gardenias and donating something to some society or other – all a bit vague. She looks very tired today.
She says. “Well, let’s start!” Sits at the piano and he sits on a chair opposite and says that he forgot to note my range. We do all the scales once again and she tells me to drop my jaw more on the higher notes. I reach high A fairly comfortably but B natural is a bit much – I end up looking like a horse on the higher notes. Anne says that she bets that within 2 months I’ll sing high C – I doubt it! He says that I’m a mezzo, but she says, “If she’s a mezzo she’ll be a very high one.” I go fairly low too and reach a bottom E. Amazing – I can hardly reach low G at home. They tell me about vowel sounds, all to be sung with the mouth in the same position. Mrs. B says, “He’s an example of perfect vowel sounds. No matter where in his range he sings, or what the vowel sound is, his mouth is always in the same position.”
Anne makes me sing Hedge Roses in English and they say that my vowels are fairly good except “ee” – I must sing that one in the same way as the others. Anne gives me a demonstration. I sing Hedge Roses in German all by myself with no assistance at all. We go through this twice, and Anne says, “You learnt And So to Bed so nicely for me a little while ago – will you learn this for next week?”
German, I find, is a wee bit more difficult to learn than English but nevertheless, I will for her!
A fire engine passes sounding a siren and Anne says, “Fire engines and sirens remind me of the war and make me feel terrible!” She says I have a well-placed voice and thinks that the few months of speech-training did me good. She feels my breathing and both she and Webster are happy about it. She says to me, “You want to sing good songs, don’t you? Not musical comedy or pop songs?”
Before I have a chance to answer Webster hops in with, “There’s nothing wrong with musical comedy!” So be it.
I depart, saying goodbye, see you next week, with the worry of learning three verses in German. Anne says that next week I must bring some Scottish songs (for English words).
Come home on bus with Rosemary, Jennifer Bawden and Gill Colborne. Meet Miss Ward coming home and take great relish in telling her that I’m completely exhausted after my singing lesson.
Go up to guild tonight. Ann is happy to see me and her reaction about singing lessons all that could be desired. We go to the Central Hall to hear panel of men: Dr Roux (a botanist), Mr McEwan (lawyer), Dr Webb – my favourite minister, and Gary Allighan the journalist and author of Verwoerd – the End. Meeting becomes practically political. All denounce government’s apartheid policy and in one particular question, Gary Allighan answers by starting, “First, let’s forget about the government!” Violent clapping. “There is only one race – the human race!” Shot for him – he was a labour MP in Britain and is a Cockney through and through. Shorty gives us a lift back and we all go to the roadhouse and have something to eat – good fun.
22 April Play piano and sing in the morning and then go to town. Go into CNA and mooch around. Look in the SABC bulletin for programmes and am disappointed to see that Webster’s programme seems to be cut out – perhaps it’s been changed to another evening, but if it isn’t, to hang the SABC!
We have lunch at the Capinero and then Mum, Dad and I go to Brooke Theatre to see Roar Like a Dove with Margaret Inglis, Brian Brooke, Norma West, Robert Haver and also Alfred Stretton (the old man who spoke to us after Caesar and Cleopatra – he’s sweet). Play isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Margaret Inglis and Brian Brooke have whisky voices and Margaret I is hard as nails, although she’s probably meant to be in this part.
24 April College – goes reasonably – dozens absent. Go into Music library and buy the SABC bulletin in afternoon and study it carefully. I am glad to see that Webster has had ten minutes added to his programme – forty minutes now! On Thursday evening at 9.20pm.
26 April – My father’s fifty-ninth birthday. Webster’s programme tonight is really about the best I’ve heard so far. He says that the first time he sang with Thomas Beecham, Joan Hammond was one of the other soloists. At that time she had a light, lyrical soprano which later developed into a heavy dramatic soprano. He plays the duet from Madame Butterfly which he made with her, which is quite fantastic. Webster is a tenor of great restraint which is pleasing. His voice contrasts sharply with her loud, almost harsh soprano.
Then Webster makes me laugh. He discusses the Strauss operetta, Night in Venice and says that during the Jo’burg production Anne wore a crinoline that covered practically the whole stage. “I look on this duet I am about to play with certain misgivings because during the Jo’burg production I tripped and broke my foot and was laid up in plaster for three weeks!” Poor Webster! He talks of his old friend, conductor Mark Lubbock and how many happy hours “Anne and I” spent with him. “He was a specialist in the music of Franz Lehar and arranged some of Lehar’s songs for Anne and I to sing as duets with his own London orchestra.”
These songs are about the finest I have heard. They sing so beautifully they make me cry because they’re so glorious. Her voice is out of this world – like water floating gently over tiny pebbles. He sings the Serenade richly, gloriously, temperately. Webster and Anne were terribly lucky to be blessed with such voices and I’m terribly lucky to be training under them! He ends off the programme by playing the overture to Don Pasquale, the comic opera soon to be seen in Johanesburg.
27 April – College. Go to lunch hour concert conducted by Anton Hartman with soloists Rita Roberts and Bob Borowsky. This series of concerts is a prelude to the forthcoming opera and ballet season. Both sing operatic arias (separately and together). Duet from La Traviata. Anton Hartman conducts overture to Les Pateneurs and the Flower Dance from the Nut Cracker Suite. Hetty and Jill sit with me and Hetty is charmed – so am I.
28 April. I arrive at the studio before the Booths today. I sit on the little ledge outside and vegetate. One of Madge Wallace’s pupils comes out of her studio and grumbles about having to wait for the lift, but just as lift arrives she goes back into the studio to say goodbye once more so I hold the lift for her.
Mrs. B comes up on the other lift armed with the evening dress she wore to our church concert and a fur cape. She is also carrying a little vanity case. She asks, “Was the lift stuck at the eighth floor?” I have to admit my guilt in this matter but she is quite cheery about it and takes me into the studio.
She tells me they were at first night of La Traviata last night and didn’t get in till half past three. She says, “I just can’t take late nights any more! Tonight it’ll probably be just as late too because we’ve got Don Pasquale.”
Anne says that the production of La Traviata didn’t nearly match the standard of an overseas production, but Mimi Coertse was wonderful. She covered her top notes well and used her face at every possible moment. Her song at the end of the first act, however, was breathy and she broke the trills, but this might have been due to first night nerves or not being used to the altitude. She says it’ll be good for me to see it as Mimi’s singing is wonderfully controlled.
We start on My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose after doing oodles of scales to work on the English vowels. Apparently my phrasing is all wrong. Webster arrives at this point, dressed in tails and black bow tie, looking too gorgeous for words, ready for the first night of Don Pasquale and is very affable. Anne says, “Jean is doing My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose,” and he says, “Oh! I know that one!”
I do Heidenroslein by memory. Webster watches me closely the whole time I am singing and I feel a bit silly. He says to me afterwards, “Honestly, Jean, you’ve got a wonderful memory – and of German too! If I had a memory like yours I could really do wonders!” I smile at him. He says, “But Jean – I wish you’d smile like that when you sing. You’ve got such a lovely smile.”
I sing it again, trying to look a little happier this time. The phone rings and Webster answers it and comes out of the office, saying, “Do you remember people called Wilkinson?” Anne looks quite blank and then says she believes she remembers them vaguely. “Well, they’ve asked us over on Saturday, the sixth of May. Are we free?”
“Oh, no, darling. We’ve got that Mimi Coertse presentation cocktail party. We can’t miss that.”
“Well, shall I say we’ll go over later?”
“Well, we can’t go for drinks. Say we might go later if we can make it.”
“These damned socialites,” says Anne to me in hollow tones.
We go on with Roslein and they say I look a bit cheerier about it. To finish she makes me sing Hark, hark… Webster asks, “Do you like Hark, Hark the Lark?” I say, “Yes, it’s very nice.” He says, “Well, I hate it – probably because I was made to sing it so often when I was young.”
They sing it together – beautifully – as though they know exactly what the other one is thinking and exactly what to do. No. Mimi Coertse might be excellent but she’ll never ever beat Anne, and although Gigli was a great tenor he never had that lovely restraint which Webster displays so eloquently and beautifully. OK, so I’m prejudiced but I don’t care – they’re wonderful singers and lovely people.
Anne asks whether I could change from Friday to Tuesday next week because Webster has a recital in Krugersdorp on Friday. She asks whether 4 o’clock would be OK. I agree and Webster says, “Will I get you a pencil and paper to write it down?”
“It’s quite OK. I’ll remember it, thank you.”
“Yes, I know you will. If only I had a memory like you.”
Anne says, “But darling, look how young Jean is compared with you…”
“Yes, but still…”
Anne makes me feel her breathing again and says that as we’re the same height we should have the same rib-expansion. She has such wonderful breath control – it’s unsurpassed, really it is! I say goodbye and Webster sees me to the door, his tails following behind him.
29 April. Go into town and book seats for La Traviata. We’re going on 3 May – a Wednesday. I feel rather the worse for wear after the debate last night. I also go to music library and procure dozens of songs. I go to Capinero and have lunch with Mum and Dad. He has a book from the library with oodles in it about Webster. Author says that he could have been the finest British tenor if… But tomorrow I’ll type out the relevant parts and put them in the diary.
We go to see Song Without End, the story of Franz Liszt – Dirk Bogarde as Franz – good up to a point. Dirk is gorgeous though!
At night I listen to Afrikaans programme and announcer says, “Nou gaan die sang-tweeling, Anne Ziegler en Webster Booth Indian Love Call sing.”
30 April Anne in paper advertising Stork margarine.
2 February – Work hard at the library – the hours are unbearable so I may be going to business college instead.
3 February – Am definitely going to business college! Have lunch in town with Mum and Dad and then wander around and look in the Belfast – I meet Inge Alexander there and we talk for a while. Practise my piece at night.
4 February – I go for my lesson today. First, I miss the tram and then the lift in Polliacks Building leaves without me and I have to wait for ages for it to return to the ground floor. I imagine I shall be frightfully late, but when I arrive at the studio Webster answers the door with their little Maltese poodle (Lemon) in his arms and he asks me to have a seat. I pet Lemon, and Webster warns me that he goes for ankles. I sit in the kitchen and play with Lemon and listen to them teaching a girl to sing. They all sing together and this make me giggle with Lemon.
Girl – all these other girls seem elusive and nondescript – goes and Anne calls me in and we discuss Lemon. She says that he’s the loveliest pet she’s ever had – she’s crackers over him.
Webster goes out for a while and Anne says to Lemon, “Now come and sit down at my feet and be obedient.” For a moment I forget that Lemon is there and then I realise who she was talking to! I tell her my mistake and we have a good laugh.
Anne says that my diction in the poem is now perfect, but everything must be a hundred percent, “So use yer face and yer eyes!” I endeavour to do this to the best of my ability – impossible! Anne says, “A smile lifts the voice and gives it light and shade.” Webster comes back and she calls to him, “Oh, Boo, this is much better!” and he replies, “Yes, I could hear she was smiling.”
We start on the movement again. 1) Move from waist down. 2) Move knees (flexibility) and 3) Know every move. She asks, “Did you see Lock Up Your Daughters, Jean?”
Feel grim at this and have to lie, “No, I would have loved to of course but we just didn’t seem to find the time.” What a whopper! How could I have told her, “My father didn’t approve of this risque play!” She talks and demonstrates different movements such as the “Cor blimey cockney movement” (as she calls it), the burlesque movement and others. She says, “Come with me towards the mirror, Jean, dear!” Talks about the way Indians and Africans walk. “You must enter a room, stage, anywhere without apologising for living. Even if old Dr Verwoerd comes in, still feel that you are just as good as him!” Yay for Anne’s attitude. Wish I could do all this.
Says I must work out every move beforehand because for two minutes everybody’s attention will be focused on me and the adjudicator will be waiting for me to make a mistake. Says that dozens of people have said to them, “But you and Webster are so natural on stage.” She takes me by the hand and we stand in some corny position in front of it (like foxtrotting at the rink) and she says that they might appear natural but every move is planned and they even know exactly where they will put their feet.
They are going on holiday soon and will be back about the 5 March and she will phone me on the Monday after they get back to make an arrangement for lessons. However, I’m still going to her on Monday afternoon. Shall have to work hard tomorrow.
Anne says she gets rheumatism in her neck – that must be grim. She is wearing exactly the same shoes I bought the other day – I shall never be able to wear them to the studio. Webster says goodbye to me and Anne comes with me to the door, and Lemon is in the offing. Webster says, “The whole family is here today.” They give me practically a whole hour today. They are honeys. Webster looks rather grim in a light white sports jacket.
Meet Mummy and buy a briefcase for college – Harvard Commercial College in Pritchard Street under the direction of Mr Pelkowitz, then we have lunch with Dad and see Make Mine Mink with Terry Thomas and Hattie Jacques which is good!
6 February – I start my commercial course at Harvard Commercial College in President Street, near the library today. I find Jill Harry from school there, so there is a known Jeppe face amongst the other girls who are mainly from the northern suburbs, putting in time until they find a suitable husband. When we come out of college in the afternoon I moon around for an hour, walking round and round the block between John Orrs and Polliacks. I get tired of doing this so I go up to the Booths – terribly early but desperate.
Webster answers the door and takes me into the waiting room cum kitchenette while he dries the dishes. He asks me about college and the brief job in the library and is hang of a sweet. He tells me that he has been walking around town for hours this afternoon in sweltering heat. I ask whether I can help him dry the dishes, but he says resignedly, “No, I’m used to it.” He offers me a cup of tea but I refuse – I’m too tired to live, far less drink tea. While sitting there I think how sweet they are and how horrible everyone else is to be so nasty about them.
I go in at Anne’s bidding – I feel at times as though she’s the Queen granting an audience to a very lowly subject, and she says, “How are you?” I say, “Tired,” which makes a change from “Fine”.
She gets me to do Shall I Compare Thee? and tells me that it is absolutely perfect and she wouldn’t interfere with it in any way. Praise indeed. She spends ages going through the book to find some new ones for me to do while she is away on holiday. Eventually, after a long search – in which time I realise that the photo on the table is of Leslie Green – she chooses three poems – one Scots one – To a Field Mouse, and she makes me read them, sits next to me and listens, then criticises, reads them over herself and says my Scots accent is so cute.
Gets Webster to put the poems on tape – they sound ghastly and she had said, while tape was still running, “Oh, darling, I’ll read this poem too!” We practically kill ourselves when it is played back. Anne says I pitch my voice too high when I start. She says it’s like some of their early speeches where they sounded quite burlesque because of the high pitch of their voices. Webster calls through asking for something. She looks at me in such a puzzled fashion and asks what he said. I say, “Something about ink.” and she calls, “Oh, Boo, we haven’t any.” Poor old Boo!
Anne makes arrangements for my next lesson. I am in credit and she owes me a lesson – 10 March, a whole month away – boo-hoo (no pun intended) and she makes me write down the times. Webster hands me a pen. He checks my phone number and asks what suburb the number stands for – I say Kensington, and he looks enlightened and says, “Oh, of course, Kensington!”
I wish them a lovely holiday and they are pleased. I hope they do have a lovely holiday. They deserve it.
8 February – Listen to Leslie Green and Marjorie Gordon and do homework. Play piano and sing (seriously in both cases) at night. Have worked out three poems starting on Friday thus giving me a week each for two short ones and two weeks for long one. All during this time must keep up Shall I Compare Thee.
9 February – Webster and Anne leave on holiday. Very miserable and rainy but dare say they would leave anyway.
Spend lunchtime on the college veranda with Jill H, Audrey and Lynnette and we consider whether it would be a good idea to spend our lunchtime in the bar across street – decide against it!
Learn Fair Daffodils We Weep to See on tram in about ten minutes – good, eh?
10 February – Meet Doreen Craig on the bus and we discuss the guild outing at the old age home. I am to play a selection of songs. Perhaps I can wangle We’ll Gather Lilacs (Webster and Anne’s song!)
At guild at night we go to Rosettenville church and have mock Olympics which is quite fun. Doreen and I go and return with Mr Russell, the minister. We talk – or gabble would be a better name for our conversation!
18 February – I go to the rink and I’m delighted to see Kay Tilley there after a long absence. Kay is still at college in her second year. She says she thinks Anne is not as good as Webster – the first approving opinion of him I have heard for a long time…
20 February – College once more. Jill tells me that Colleen O’Donaghue has got into varsity. We sit on library steps at lunch. Listen to Leslie Green in the afternoon. He’s sweet.
22 February – I am absent from college today because I still feel ill. It’s worth it thought because I hear Sweethearts sung in Afrikaans (very well) by Webster and Anne. I feel really proud of them. They have wonderful voices no matter what people say.
I was thinking yesterday that the present generation of performers don’t really have much talent – Elvis Presley, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard etc. earn much more money than Mr MacMillan (British PM) yet they’re positively amateurish compared with the Booths. Even now, in middle age, they are wonderful. Britain doesn’t know what they’re missing not to have them living there any more. It is sad that they should have had to come to South Africa to make a living – and even here they are constantly criticised by ignorant people.
23 February – I practise for our concert at the Old Folks Home. Doreen phones to talk about this and I feel as though I’m preparing for a first night at the London Palladium.
24 February – College goes well as always. At home I read the autobiography of Noel Coward which doesn’t cheer me up any owing to talk of bad performances of his which took place in London theatres, and don’t really apply to playing at old folks’ home!
Go up to guild at night feeling vaguely theatrical. I am first, with Doreen a close second. We speak to Peter Casteling and he agrees to lead the singing and is very affable. Doreen organises lifts for us – Peter, me, and Doreen go with Mr Russell. At OPH we hear great hilarity – old people are already singing to the accompaniment of an old lady who plays extremely well. Peter C leads the singing. When singing Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ he says, “Now lets give it big licks for the benefit of our Scottish pianist!” Dave shows slides; Kippy gives a talk, and I play hymns. Then, while we are having tea, the old lady plays again – a bit loudly, but still very well indeed. Peter asks me to play again. I do so because of vague recollections that an artist must never play hard to get, and also because I want to shove all the songs the Booths sing down their ears! Play We’ll Gather Lilacs, Operette, and Only a Rose (Webster and Anne’s signature tune).
Joan and Doreen tell me with great surprise, “You played so well tonight.” Obviously a good piano and a lively imagination contributed to that. Peter says, when he introduces me for a second time, “I don’t think I’ve introduced you properly to our Scottish pianist, born at the bottom of the banks of Loch Lomond – Miss Jean Campbell!” All very nice in a terribly small way I know, but how I’d love to revel in things like that often. I wouldn’t be a pianist of course, but an actress – professional at that! But these are dreams that will probably never come true. In the meantime, I shall have to make do with giving speeches at guild, playing at old folks’ homes, spouting poetry at eisteddfods (if I don’t go dry-mouthed) and doing speech with Anne. Webster and Anne are the luckiest people I know. They have had world-fame and respect, and now they are still great celebrities over here.
March Ann, Brian and Mr and Mrs Stratton come at night. Mr S goes back home to fetch music and comes back with it to sing for us while I play. He has a lovely baritone voice. When Ann is in my room she sees picture of Anne and says, “What a lovely picture of Anne Ziegler!” She has never mentioned Anne before – except with derision!
3 March – I get Gill McDade home on the tram. We talk theatre. I am put off when she tells me that Lock Up Your Daughters was wonderful except for Anne who gave her the shivers because she yelled far too much. I tell her that I expect the play was terrible and that Anne is sweet and a real darling. I should like to know how they achieved such fame and popularity when everybody I know seems to have terrible vindictive downs against them.
4 March – Go to the ice rink today and Susan comes. I skate for a time and then get the shock of my life when I see Gwyn Jones arriving, complete with Springbok colours blazer – whew! I go in and tell Sue about his arrival and we both talk to him for ages. He was allowed into the rink again on Tuesday. I’m glad to see him back. Says he had a gorgeous time in Scotland and at the Olympics and didn’t need any oxygen. He shows us various routines – very good, considering how long he’s been away from skating. We talk about the Goon Show and Peter Sellers. I mimic his Scottish accent in recent film – terrific fun. Gwyn carries on madly on ice.
5 March Booths are back from their holiday today!
7 March – George Formby dies.
8 March – Sir Thomas Beecham dies. Wendy phones at night about Cliff Richard and so does Peter (hymns – 4!).
9 March – Cliff Richard arrives today – mobbing outside Carlton in evidence from the morning.
10 March – After college I come home in terrible rain and then – the time I have looked forward to for a month arrives – I go for my lesson with the Booths. When I arrive I bang on the door and nobody answers. I begin to think vile thoughts, thinking they have forgotten me again, and decide to wait until five past five and then leave. A number of prospective models arrive for Madge Wallace’s modelling school next door and they eye me and I eye them with mutual disdain. Madge Wallace comes out and asks whether I’m waiting for her.
I say, “No, actually I’m waiting for the Booths, but as it’s five I doubt whether they’ll come now.”
She says, “Yes, they will, but they’re always late. Why not take a seat in my studio until they arrive and watch the models.” I do this – models are still extremely disdainful, but the seat is very welcome. Eventually I see Anne at the door of her studio and forget all social graces and go out to Anne who was looking a bit worried. Maybe she thought I had changed studios and was going to take up modelling instead!
Anyway, she is a honey as always – quite brown after holiday and wearing sunglasses. She says their holiday was gorgeous. I go into the studio and sit on studio couch and look at these infernal pictures. I say infernal because they all reflect their fame which I shall never achieve! I hear someone clearing their throat at the door – Webster Booth!
Never in all my living experience can I describe what a shock I receive when I see him – he has grown a beard! I ask you – a beard! A horrible bristly beard, very grey which clashes with the colour of his hair, and moustache. I hope I didn’t let my feeling of horror show. I ask him how he enjoyed his holiday and he talks through his teeth with ecstasy, “It was wonderful,” he says.
Anne and I start on Shall I? and she says it is good but I must have no inhibitions, shyness, or embarrassment of any kind. (Q. Am I showing all those negatives?) We do the other Shakespearean sonnet, Being Your Slave and suddenly she decides that I do that far better than the other. She says, “I’m almost tempted… What do you think Boo, don’t you think Jean could do this better for the eisteddfod?”
He says, “Is it a sonnet?”
“Yes, it’s got fourteen lines.”
“But Anne, are you sure it hasn’t got fourteen lines by accident?”
She asks me what I think – I don’t really mind. She says, “It’s much less hackneyed, but I must smile when I do it. She makes me walk into the room smiling and makes me look at myself in the mirror – I always look vile in their mirrors! She says, “Walk on your toes, head up, shoulders down, and a slight movement of hips wouldn’t go amiss!”
Begins to wax eloquent and continues, “There’s nothing so attractive as seeing a beautiful girl walking on to a stage with a lovely smile. Even if the adjudicator doesn’t smile back, don’t worry – he won’t be in the Profession. A person in the Profession would always smile back at you. In Springs when I was adjudicating I smiled at every contestant just to cheer them up!”
At the end of my lesson she says to me, “You have a lovely face, so smile!” Gives me a big grin which I reciprocate in practised manner and feel quite touched at her good acting. During the whole session Webster chipped in once to say I must clip off “world-without-end-hour”. She says that my diction is good but I can afford to be less pedantic now. Both come with me to the door. A rather nice chap is waiting for his lesson – gives me a grin – sweet! Say bye-bye about a dozen times. (Must remember to say cheerio) and then get lift and come down.
See their car with its GB plate – after five years one would think they might remove it. It’s a green Zephyr – that is, it isn’t a Jag, Rolls or a Mercedes like Daphne Darras’s father, but still, its theirs!
11 March Go to rink. Sue comes and while she, I and Carol Ann (little American) are sitting in cloakroom Mrs Nicholls (Denise’s mother) comes in and tells us that Lennie and Glenda have won British junior pairs championships. She is nearly crying with excitement and I must say that a lump comes to my throat too. Sue and I are utterly thrilled and say so. Good show!
We go out and talk to Gwyn about it, and I must say, that he takes it all in good heart and says how terrific it is. Go on ice and talk to Neill about it too and we are all thrilled. Menina Klein comes and we talk – I tell her about Webster and Anne and she nearly does her nut over them, telling me how lucky I am and how famous they are.
Gwyn is as mad as usual and carries on on the ice wonderfully. Sue has (at least her dad has) a new car and she wants a name for it. Gwyn says in disgustingly – or should I say – deliciously rude manner – why not a chemical formula: ShoneT! My goodness! Says he saw Cliff last night – he thought him good but too screamy. Sue skates gorgeously as usual and so does Gwyn. We fool about and make spectacles of ourselves – everyone watches us – wonderful fun! Neill buys me a cold drink and is sweet but a terrible bragger. Still, he is cute. Afterwards I walk down the road with him and catch a bus on the other side of the road. Lovely morning and am thrilled about Lennie and Glenda.
14 March College – fine. Come into town again and wait outside the Carlton for Wendy to go to see Cliff Richard. Girls and boys are waiting for Cliff to come out of the hotel – all in vain. Wendy comes and we have supper in the Capinero and talk to Carol Balfour afterwards.
Go to Coliseum and feel the atmosphere! Show is very good and so are supporting turns, especially young comedian, Norman Vaughan – amusing and can play the guitar, tap and sing. Cliff and Shadows are lovely and we all clap to the beat. I really enjoyed it, although, on reflection, I prefer Tommy Steele but Cliff is good fun.
17 March. College. We are all thankful for the weekend ahead. I come home with Ann and Colleen O’Donaghue. Talk is centred around college and all the projects Ann has to do for Teacher’s Training College. I come back to town in rather a strange frame of mind and feel rather a failure theatrically speaking. Go up on the lift and think they probably won’t be there yet, so I knock. I am shocked when I realise that somebody is singing and I’ve interrupted them.
Webster answers door – still with beard – and is affable. Takes me into the kitchen and asks me if I want a cup of black tea. I decide to accept so he tells me to help myself. I do so and he disappears. I drink tea and then wash and dry spoon, cup and saucer.
Girl – her name is Roselle – sings Someday My Heart will Awake really gloriously and touches high A with great ease – the sort of singing that touches the heart. Anne says, “Very cheap, very common, but lovely.” After lesson, Roselle tells Webster and Anne she loves singing far more than the piano and could give her whole life to it. She is very eloquent about the whole thing – something I could never be. I am very surprised when I see that Roselle is only a girl of about fourteen – very plain and a bit stodgy, but my goodness, her voice will be her fortune.
I go in next – an anti-climax for all – and say that Roselle’s voice is too gorgeous for words. They are both enthusiastic about it too and enlarge on her. She could only sing to the A above middle C when she first came but can now reach high A. Has a great future if she’ll work. She loves singing and is very musical. Webster says, “The day she came, I knew she was going to be good. She has a voice like an adult.” (He places the accent on the ULT)
Webster gives me a long lecture. “When I was young, the famous character actor, Bransby Williams gave me a tip. He said, “When you walk onto the stage, feel proud of yourself as if you’re just as good – if not better – than anybody else. It’s something I have never forgotten.” He gives a demonstration of Bransby Williams walking onto the stage.
Anne says, “He wouldn’t have been so arrogant, Boo.”
“He wasn’t arrogant, but he was self-assured.”
I tell them that I don’t feel nervous on the stage in a play, only when I’m doing something by myself. They say that is understandable, but one must be able to be a soloist as well as an actor. Anne says that she has to accompany some of the singers and she feels nervous. How unusual! On leaving, Webster says I shall have to get onto some plays – very good idea. I’m sick of spouting poetry…
18 March Copy music, play piano and listen to radio in morning. Go to lunch with Mum and Dad in and then we go to see Midnight Lace with Doris Day and Rex Harrison. It is a really good thriller – Doris Day excels herself in this dramatic role. Rex Harrison is excellent too with beautiful diction.
When we come home I see Jeppe girls coming from the swimming gala. I talk to Dawn Vivian and she tells me that Jeppe came seventh out of nine! Parktown came first – watch out for bragging at college on Monday! Girls are far more demure than usual – Miss Reid and Miss Allen are following them in their car to keep order!
21 March College. Mr Pelkowitz says it’s OK for tomorrow – prize-giving at school so shall have a holiday. Wendy phones this evening and we discuss the prize giving. I am meeting her tomorrow at 9.45. It will be funny going back to school again.
Play the piano and then listen to the radio. I am barely seated at the radio when the phone rings again. I wonder if it is Wendy phoning again and wonder what on earth she wants.
Voice, which isn’t Wendy’s says, “Hello, is that Jean speaking?” I reply “Yes,” and wonder if it is Mrs Watt or Mrs Corrigan. Then mysterious voice says, “Oh, Jean this is Anne Ziegler speaking.” I nearly die on the spot. My heart jumps into my throat and I say in surprised voice, “Oh, good evening.”
“I just phoned about your lesson, Jean. Do you think you could possibly make it Thursday instead of Friday?”
“Yes, Mrs Booth – that would be fine – what time?”
“Four o’clock – would that suit you?”
“Yes, that’ll be perfect.” I reply in slightly dazed tone.
“Well, goodbye, Jean. We’ll see you then. Don’t forget – Thursday 4 o’clock.”
“Goodbye,” I reply in cheerful yet distraught fashion.
I go through to the lounge feeling a great shock, but it’s rather a nice feeling really. Can I forget, “This is Anne Ziegler,” – To have a name so famous and to use it so carelessly. I don’t know what or why it is, but when I speak to them I forget their fame and their singing, but this incident gives me a gentle reminder of who they are – not Webster and Anne as they have become to me, but Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, the famous singers.
22 March. We have prize-giving today. It is very strange returning to school – seeing the girls again. Winnie, Gay and Hazel J are nurses. Sit next to Claire J and Audrey D. Miss Reid’s report on last year’s events is cold and impartial – take a deep breath at mention of Miss Scott (who taught us English so brilliantly for a term). We get our prizes (matric certificate!) and talk. Gill Clarke is there – gushing and facetious as usual – utterly charming all the same.
Go into town and Mum buys a tangerine jacket for me in the Belfast – lovely.
While dad is twiddling with the radio he comes across a well-known voice on the English programme – Webster presenting a new programme – Webster Booth presents opera, oratorio and operetta. It is lovely to hear his voice on the radio unexpectedly and to know that I know him. He reminisces about his youth – born in Birmingham then advised to go for audition at Lincoln Cathedral school which would give him a free education. He was accepted and became a boy chorister, trained by Piggy (nicknamed because he snorted while he was conducting). Life at Lincoln gave him a rigorous musical training for four years until he was thirteen when his voice broke. He was told, “Don’t sing for two years and then you’ll be a tenor.” He followed the advice, but he hoped to be a bass rather than a tenor. He says in typical Webster manner, “I have made 350 solo recordings and many duets with Anne Ziegler.”
He fills this talk in with record he has made – religious aria, aria from Carmen and several others – oh, yes – How Lovely are Thy Dwellings. He plays some Gilbert and Sullivan overtures too. It is a gorgeous programme – not only because it’s him but because he’s so interesting and presents himself so well, and because his singing is beautiful and cannot be surpassed. Please let me have the courage to tell him that his programme was wonderful when I see him tomorrow. No one who has good taste can deny that!
23 March Go to college again and work hard and feel dead by the end of it all. I kill time for an hour in Anstey’s and then meander slowly up to the studio, feeling quite strange in the lift as I usually do.
Anne arrives after me and is charming as usual. She admires my tangerine jersey acquired yesterday. We go in and I sit down for a minute and look at the photos. She sits down and I do poem – swallow “per chance” for some reason – perhaps because Webster opens the door at that very moment. Webster stampedes – that’s the word for it – in, and it takes him a few seconds to realise that I’m there! He says, “Oh, hello Jean. I didn’t realise you were there!” I ask you!
He says that six weeks ago he wrote to hire a wig and it didn’t arrive, and now he has had a letter to say would he please return it. He is furious and goes into the office to phone up about it.
Anne tells me that they haven’t had any tickets for the eisteddfod. How can people make arrangements for Easter with this infernal eisteddfod looming? Their maid is going into hospital for a tonsillitis operation so she won’t have any help in the house. She has to come into town for eisteddfod about nine times, so doesn’t know what to do.
She says that if I’m nervous I should take deep breaths as this is very calming. Swears, using hell in one of its forms – can’t remember what exactly she says! She says it’s time I started on plays now. She pores over innumerable scripts and brings out Spring Quartet – they were in it in Cape Town when they first arrived in the country in 1956. She explains the plot to me and I do the part of a Scottish girl in Austria while she reads all the other parts. It is gorgeous acting with her. She says that Scottish comes very naturally to me so she’d like me to try something else. She finds And So to Bed when the phone rings and Webster looks up the part – Mistress Pepys – and hands it to me after much searching. They played Mistress Knight and King Charles II in the touring production in the UK in 1953/54. She comes back from the phone and tells me that I should take the script home and study Mistress Pepys which should be done with a slight French accent.
She’ll phone me if she gets any news of the eisteddfod. I say goodbye and shout goodbye to Webster who is in the office. He is affable in a dazed fashion and shouts, “Oh, goodbye, Jean.”
Armed with the script which they had used at the height of their fame – I walk down Eloff Street feeling spontaneous and happy. I glance through the script on the bus and laugh at some remarks Anne had written in the back of it.
Betty phones at night – Peter, 1 o’clock on Saturday – coming here. And now, as Pepys would say, “Goodnight, sweet dreams and so to bed!”
25 March Go to visit Mr and Mrs Jones who have stand at Hartebeespoort Dam with rest of teachers. We have a really gorgeous time. I go with Fred Shaw, Joan Spargo, Wendy Price-Williams and Dorothy Shaw – houseboat in wilderness of shrubs adjoining the dam – really beautiful. Ann, Peter, Leona are already there when we arrive. Mr Jones is a local preacher who preached once at our church.
Go home eventually with Fred. Peter comes too and we sing on the way home. Peter has a good voice – should have it trained with Webster! We discuss them. Wendy says how wonderful it was when they sang Wunderbar at church concert, and she loved it when Anne said to Webster, “Just wait till I get you home!”
We all sing this and other songs and Wendy tells me I have a wonderful voice – I should join the choir – says this so sincerely it fairly bucks me up. I adore singing. I put my heart and soul into it – I love it!
29 March Webster with his gorgeous programme again – it has been renamed On Wings of Song and it is introduced with the Booths’ recording of the song. Webster sounds familiar and yet a complete stranger.
He tells of applying for the post of tenor soloist at a certain cathedral, but turned it down for the salary of £200 a year was too low. He started his singing training with Dr Richard Wassall and started to sing tenor solos in the choir.
While working in an accountant’s office, he gets offers from oratorio agents and began singing all over the country – including in Wales and Scotland – and so became reasonably well-known in oratorio circles.
He is proud that he sang with Harold Williams, whom he considers to be the baritone of his generation. He plays some of his own recordings, all conducted by “my old friend, Sir Malcolm Sargent”. He also plays the overture to Merrie England, in which he took the tenor lead with Dr Wassall.
He makes all this so interesting and his records are beautiful – plays arias from Messiah and Elijah and other songs. What a man, what a voice and how nice he really is. To think I’ll see him tomorrow and he will once more become that rather vague person, dominated by Anne.
30 March Go for lesson. Arrive early and hear snuffles of Lemon at the door. Man who has come up on the lift with me comes into the studio too. I go in and Webster holds Lemon in his arms and asks customary question, “Are you wearing stockings?” I say, “Yes, but please put Lemon down.” I play with him – what a sweetie. Anne comes into kitchen looking too beautiful for words in red and white sheath dress and she tells me she is dead tired because of all the work she had to do at home without the maid who has gone into hospital for her tonsil operation. Between the worry of the eisteddfod and the heat, she’s dead beat. She takes me into the studio and Webster introduces me to the man called André van der Merwe. He says, “We’re sorry we haven’t been able to spend more time with you while you were here,” and A vd M departs – saddened, me thinks.
Anne gives me tickets for the eisteddfod and says she doesn’t know if she’ll manage to be there to hear me. Webster disappears to make tea. She says that she’ll have to accompany a singer in the Duncan Hall, so she isn’t quite sure… I say, “Anne, please don’t come. I shan’t feel so badly if you’re not there.” She laughs and says that she’s sure I shan’t do anything badly. Now I come to think of it, I don’t suppose she has any intention of coming to hear me recite the silly poem at the eisteddfod!
Webster returns and Anne searches for her And So to Bed script. I realise that this is the moment, so I say, “I thought your programme was terrific last night, Webster.” He turns around and says, “Oh, thank you, but I wasn’t too happy with it last night. I could hardly hear it either with the crowd around the radio. I was better pleased with the first one, but next week is a nice one.” I assure him that I enjoyed both of them and he is obviously pleased, but tries to appear nonchalant.
Anne takes me over and shows me pictures of And So to Bed. Mistress Pepys with Charles and Pepys (played by Leslie Henson) with Anne looking as gorgeous as anything. I make appropriate remarks and then we start. Webster promises to do Charles, but we don’t get that far. I really enjoy doing the play with Anne. She’s terribly vulgar in explaining character – be bitchy and wish the other woman to hell. She seems pleased with my acting and French accent. She says that I pick up my cues well and I obviously have been taught to do this. Webster turns around and says that I do it very well and could do the part anywhere – rather a compliment coming from him when he usually tries to criticise me.
In the middle of this there is a knock at the door and a stodgy little girl of about nine enters the room. Anne’s expression changes to ice and she says in a horribly cold voice, “Oh, it’s you Sally. You had better sit in the kitchen for a while.”
Anne tells me that this kid hasn’t turned up for her lesson for six weeks and yesterday her mother phoned up for a lesson for her today. Anne was flaming mad, but said, “OK, 3.30.” She didn’t turn up then and has turned up now and they are expecting someone else after me. Webster comes in and Anne says flatly that Sally can’t have a lesson today. We continue with our play without further disturbance and all is convivial.
During tea a discussion arises about different teas. Anne says that in Britain they used to drink Indian tea and she loathes Ceylon tea. She has discovered an imported blend in Thrupps, and compared to it, this tea tastes like DDT. Webster says, “What nonsense,” and I am inclined to agree with him but more politely. When I leave they both wish me luck. I say goodbye to Webster and Lemon. and Anne comes with me to the door and wishes me luck yet again and see I win a prize! I shan’t! What pets they are. Anne tells me how she loved Daddy’s Scots accent.
From the moment Webster and Anne started singing together regularly, they were very popular with the public. Few remembered Webster’s acrimonious divorce from Paddy Prior in 1938 when Anne had been named as the co-respondent. The public was happy to accept the glamorous couple who sang beautiful songs and duets together so melodiously and with such feeling as glamorous sweethearts in song. Unlike ordinary couples whose marriages settled down after a year or two, Anne and Webster’s marriage was seen as one filled with the constant romance and passion of a permanent honeymoon.
Anne and Webster before their marriage. (1938)
When they took their act to the Variety circuit in 1940 Webster still managed to carry on singing at more serious concerts and in oratorio, but it was probably at this time that people began to regard him as a “romantic duettist” instead of one of the “elect” and one of the finest British tenors of the century as he had been regarded in the thirties. During this time they made their name on the stage in productions of The Vagabond King, Sweet Yesterday and And So to Bed, and in several films.
Webster as Francois Villon in The Vagabond King (1943)
The Laughing Lady film in 1946 with music by Hans May was a starring vehicle for them both as singers and actors although it was not generally liked by critics. They did many concerts for the impresario, Harold Fielding and must have known every place in Britain like the back of their hands as they went from place to place to fulfill engagements.
Their concert tour of New Zealand and Australia in 1948 was very successful indeed, although some of the Australian critics did not always give them good reviews. I sometimes wonder whether their glamorous stage act, complete with crinolines, sparkling jewellery, and gardenias in the buttonhole of Webster’s immaculate evening dress did not become slightly tedious to them after a while. They had a limited repertoire – possibly a repertoire demanded by their many fans who did not want to hear any new or innovative material.
In 1952 their recording contract with HMV was cancelled and although they made several recordings for Decca this did not result in a steady stream of recording dates. By the fifties Harold Fielding was enlarging the number of performers he employed for his concerts; post-war audience preferred American performers on the stage of the London Palladium, and as the fifties progressed rock ‘n roll was appealing to younger audiences.
Through no fault of their own, they received a very large tax demand for unpaid American recording royalties which Webster could not afford to pay at that time. He told me that he had been foolish and should have offered to pay the tax off gradually, but because he had flatly refused to pay, there was talk of the Inland Revenue seizing their property. The satirical revue Airs on a Shoestring made a mockery of their act, and of Hiawatha, the work with which Webster was closely associated. Perhaps that was the last straw for them.
They had made a successful short tour of the Cape Province of South Africa in November of 1955 and although they were not short of work in the UK they decided to move to that country in July of 1956.
JEAN COLLEN – 13 OCTOBER 2018.