THE BARON AND THE SHOWGIRL

Two men influenced the early part of my life; one was Adolf Hitler, the other was Hugh Hefner. Hitler did more than just influence my life, he did his best to end it. Although he failed in that respect he succeeded in breaking up our family, forced me to spend my first four years sleeping in an air-raid shelter and was responsible for my food being rationed until I was fourteen. Long after his mortal remains had been incinerated, Adolf’s shadow loomed over the land. Many of London’s bomb sites, more exciting playgrounds than the swings and roundabouts provided by local councils, persisted into the mid fifties. At school meals our Housemaster, who had spent three years in Colditz, employed salt and pepper pots and cutlery to daily reconstruct the Wehrmacht’s flanking movement that had deprived him of his liberty. Without the benefit of any serious study I can identify the shapes of most WW2 military aircraft. I still hear the wail of the air raid siren and the all-clear.

In 1953 a new leader came out of the West, a mild, pipe smoking hedonist who ran his operations, dressed in silk pyjamas, from a round bed that revolved and vibrated. His name was Hugh Hefner and he came, not clutching a copy of Mein Kampf, but a magazine called Playboy, which would prove to be just as revolutionary and more popular, with a monthly readership that was to reach seven million in the 1970s. ‘Smut’ decided my mother, writing to tell me she had burnt what she called a ‘substantial collection of pornography’ found in my wardrobe. But among the naked lovelies, there were short stories by Norman Mailer and John Le Carre, articles on fashion and sports cars and Hef’s support for progressive social causes.  Black guests were invited to the Playboy Mansion when Jim Crow Laws still operated in many US states and the magazine was used to campaign for the decriminalisation of marijuana and for abortion rights in an age when doctors refused contraceptives to unmarried women. In 1961 the first Playboy club opened in Chicago and when the London club opened at 45 Park Lane in1966, I was one of the first members through its doors.  Hitler once wrote that the world was made of ‘Gods and beasts’; Hef changed that to ‘Gods and breasts’. The bare breasts in the centrefold of the very first Playboy issue belonged to Marilyn Monroe; it is entirely fitting that Hef now lies beside her in a Los Angeles cemetery.

If Adolf launched a V2 or a couple of Doodlebugs at London while my mother was wheeling me in the park then she would have taken shelter in the Underground.  Apart from safety there was often a cup of tea and a sing-along perhaps organised by Joan Littlewood, a belligerent, chain-smoking impresario in a woollen cap. Under surveillance by MI5 for association with the Communist Party, Joan led a collective of left-wing leaning actors who performed in the street and outside factories to working class audiences as well as conducting sing-songs for those sheltering from the Blitz. In 1953 Joan and her group, now calling themselves the Theatre Workshop, found a permanent home in the derelict Theatre Royal in London’s East End. The Company lived and slept in the theatre, redecorating it between rehearsals, deprived of government grants on account of its communist ideology. Joan was saved from sleeping in squalor by Gerry Raffles, an affluent, public school runaway who joined the company as theatre manager, fell in love with her and took her into his luxurious home in Blackheath.

The next years were a battle between East and West. It was Joan’s mission in the East to create plays that stimulated and entertained, be both popular and serious, completely divorced from the polite, drawing room dramas of the West End, what Joan called ‘daffodils up arses’. She liked plays by and about working class people performed for working class audiences and found success with Brendan Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ and Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’.

The battle also raged within the East. Creditors had to be kept at bay and there was a continuing fight with the BBC who refused to show or air Theatre Workshop productions and with the Arts Council who refused grants.  Meanwhile Joan, foul-mouthed, unwilling to listen to advice, nasty and aggressive, humiliated actors and crew alike. ‘You can’t act’ she told Michael Caine, ‘so you might as well fuck off up to the West End or get a job in films.’ ‘Best bit of advice I ever had’, said Caine. Only Raffles stuck by her.

The East End – land of Jellied eels, music halls, costermongers and pearly Kings and Queens with its unique and colourful dialect of thieves cant and rhyming slang –  is no more, gone in a single lifetime, a victim of German bombs, closure of the docks, multiculturalism and gentrification. It was always going to be harder to conserve than the giant panda and the snow leopard, although Joan did her best to keep its memory alive with two brilliant ‘cockney’ musicals, ‘Fings Aint Wot They Used T’be’ in 1958 and ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ a year later.

Her masterpiece ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, an anti-war satire focusing on the folly and incompetence of England’s WW1 military commanders, opened at the Theatre Royal in March 1963. Using a backdrop of distressing facts and statistics of the Great War, documentary footage, marching and music hall songs of the time and actors wearing Commedia dell’Arte costumes and tin helmets, was an instant hit, transferring to the West End in the same year, to Broadway a year later and to the cinema in 1969. The film’s last scene, when the camera pans across the South Downs sown with rows of white crosses, is as moving a hymn to pacifism as you are ever likely to see.

When Raffles died in 1975 while sailing his boat up the Rhone, Joan walked out of the theatre never to return. Her destination was Vienne, a small town thirty miles south of Lyons where she kept vigil on the banks of the river close to the spot where Gerry had died, her only companion an adopted mongrel she called Jacques Tati.

How Baron Philippe de Rothschild knew of her whereabouts or even knew of her we do not know. He had certainly lived a world apart from Joan’s East End. His youth was spent at the wheel of a Hispano Suiza, skiing in Gstaad and sipping champagne from the slippers of high-class tarts.  At the age of 22 he inherited Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 222 acres of Medoc vines in the village of Pauillac, which became his home and where he introduced the concept of ‘Chateau bottling’ and the idea of using famous artists, including Picasso, Miro and Dali, to decorate his wine labels. He would certainly have known of Littlewood. He had an interest in drama; briefly managing a theatre owned by his playwright father and translating plays by contemporary English writers. He may have seen one of Joan’s Paris productions, for her work was acclaimed in France long before being accepted in England, partly because the French have always championed the Left ever since Camille Desmoulins jumped on a cafe table and called for a physical resolution to the French Revolution.

In May 1976, only two months after the death of his wife, Baron Philippe motored alone from Paris to Vienne and found Joan, dressed in clogs and slacks, outside a small whitewashed hotel not a hundred yards from the river. He records Joan as being reticent at their first meeting, even a little hostile, until they found common ground in the Baron’s translation of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. A mutual interest in theatre and the Elizabethan poets soon overcame distrust; when the Baron returned to Mouton he took the pocket Marxist with him. There she became Jeanne Petitbois and lived platonically with the Baron whom she called ‘the Guv’, for the next ten years. The Baron involved her in his activities, designing the gardens, organising the Queen Mother’s visit and helping write his autobiography, the embarrassingly titled ‘Milady Vine’. It was not a perfect alliance but it suited both parties; she called her benefactor ‘spoilt, selfish and rude’, and her irreverence was not always welcome especially when she introduced the Baron to her friends as the fourth Marx Brother. When Playboy came to write an article on the Baron she came down to a grand dinner wearing floppy rabbit ears and a fluffy pompom on her derriere.

The Baron died in 1986, the showgirl in 2002. For all Joan’s Marxist principles and contempt for privilege she owed her life and legacy to Gerry Raffles and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, two members of a class she despised. Perhaps love trumped her contempt in the first case, companionship in the other, but it is common taste that reconciles strange bedfellows.

Dio li fa e fra di loro si accoppiano.

PS  A Royal Shakespeare Society production of a new musical, ‘Miss Littlewood’ is scheduled to open in 2018.