Monday, 28 July 2014

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

published 1941






Sandra had very positive ideas about stage costumes. ‘It doesn’t matter how bad the material is or how bad the sewing; all they need is colour and line.’

They asked to see some materials suitable for a party frock, and spent a quarter of an hour inspecting bales of all kinds of light and silky materials, but could see nothing that would be suitable. Then Sandra caught sight of some material at the back of a shelf. She pointed at it. ‘I’d like to see that, please.’

‘But, miss, that’s not dress material,’ objected the draper, wooffling his moustache.

‘I’d like to look at it,’ repeated Sandra, and he brought it down.

She fingered it, looked at it from a distance, and then held it up to the light. It was very thin, but had a fine silvery sheen.

‘I’ll have as much of this as I can for a couple of pounds,’ Sandra told him.

‘But this stuff is only cheap, and there is no wear in it.’

Sandra insisted that she wanted a couple of pounds’ worth of it. When they were outside again Lyn said doubtfully, ‘Do you think it was wise to get such poor stuff?’

‘Yes. Very wise. You see, if I’d got good stuff there would not have been enough, and then the skirt wouldn’t have been full enough, and I might just as well have worn the old floral dress of Mummy’s.’

The other two were not reassured until the next day…

[At the rehearsal, Sandra steps into the spotlight] She stood in the arc of light in a ravishing dress of silvery-blue. The bodice was tight-fitting and unobtrusive, but the skirt – they could not believe their eyes! Although prepared for a full skirt, they were astounded at this cloud of shimmering silk that seemed to fill the entire stage. Sandra, smiling excitedly, made a low curtsey, and the skirt fell like a lake around her.

‘You should see how dreadful it looks in daylight! All anaemic and uninteresting. It’s the electric light that does it.’



observations: I had and have absolutely no stage talent, and no interest in sewing, but to this day my heart beats a little faster when I read a description of penniless young theatricals skimping and striving to make a costume or an audition dress: This scene, and the comparable fairy audition scene in Ballet Shoes are two of my favourite and best-remembered moments from all my childhood books.

Oh how I loved this book when I was a child. Nothing could ever match Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (all over the blog, click on the labels below – and Pauline Fossil plays the fairy godmother in Cinderella) in my stageschool heart, but this one came close. A group of seven young people in 1930s England, living in suburban splendour, decide to put on amateur performances in their school holidays. They get hold of a tiny, unused church hall, and use their talents to impress all around them. It almost all seemed possible.

I knew that Pamela Brown was 16 when she finished this book, and that made it even more exciting to read. It does have the feel of a school composition at times, ‘What I did in my holidays’, but in a good way – she includes random inconsequential conversations among the children having no relevance to the plot but very real-sounding. I also knew that Brown had (of course) grown up to be an actress, and I had always assumed she was the Pamela Brown who played stalwart supporting roles in films such as Cleopatra, Becket and I Know Where I’m Going. Only on researching this entry did I find out that sadly she is not the same person, and the writer’s acting career (under the name Mela Brown) was even less stellar. Alas.

The rather unsettling picture (from the New York Public Library) shows the film actress Gloria Swanson presenting a shoe to the winner of a Cinderella contest at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40. But it might as well have been called: ‘Moviestar 101 – how to totally upstage a beauty contest winner in a glamorous gown, while just wearing a spotty dress and some strange gloves’. Swanson nails it.

14 comments:

  1. I actually thought it was a mother and daughter photo and my eye was drawn to the lady on the right. Maybe I just prefer blondes!
    Another book not for me, by the way.

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    1. You've probably managed to offend both of them, and both their mothers. Fair comment though. And no, even your children are too old for this one I think.

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  2. Moira - There is a real energy isn't there from some young people's writing. I'm acquainted with several beginning writers in that time of their lives, and their something about the stories they tell. And I know what you mean about that 'Let's put on a show!' premise. You almost can't help cheering for the young people. In a way it reminds me a bit of those Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films...

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    1. Absolutely - energy is a great word for what comes over in these books. And the films - they are so American, and this is such a British book, but that doesn't matter, they share a common language.

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  3. Moira: I love Ms. Swanson's hat. It is so stylish especially when compared with the flower perched on the head of the pageant queen.

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    1. Yes it's very elegant isn't it? I love the extra stripe just under the brim. These days she's have a fashion stylist helping choose outfits, I wonder if they had them back then?

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  4. I remember seeing a BBC production of this in the 1970s I think and rather liking it - and I loved Pamela Brown in I KNOW EHERE I'M GOING! - thanks Moira

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    1. Oh yes Sergio - my copy of the book has a photo from that series on the front. I enjoyed the series hugely, while simultaneously clocking every diversion from the book of course.

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  5. I like Gloria Swanson's outfit, including the shoes. It would be fun to see a New York City filled with women wearing dresses, hats and shoes like those. And then we could all break into song, as a 1940s movie often did.

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    1. That's a splendid idea! A chorus of women in proper day dress would make my day.

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  6. I wish I could remember the books I read as a child. I remember just a few from my preteen and teen years.

    Glen is a fan of I Know Where I'm Going; we will have to watch it again.

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    1. I only remember the ones that really seared themselves onto my memory! My YA book interests were quite different from my actual interests (then and now) - I don't know why stage books made such an impression on me. Yes, all the Powell/Pressburger films are good I think.

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  7. I read some good series when young, then got into a serious Nancy Drew period. Then I started reading "serious" books by 13 by well-known authors from the U.S. and Britain, and, of course, got started on adult crime fiction. In high school, I didn't read what we'd consider YA, but rather serious adult dramas. Probably got these ideas from my parents, but I can't think of YA authors in the 1960s when I was in high school.

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    1. We didn't call them YA in my day in the UK - that phrase has only reached the UK comparatively recently. This book I must have read for the first time in primary (=elementary) school.

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