This article was written by David and Valerie Royal for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter based on a talk given by Stan Pretty and is reproduced here with permission.
Hey Diddley Dee An Actor’s Life for me …though Walt Disney said it first it could well have been the premise behind Stan Pretty’s talk to an appreciative audience at our February Meeting. (See photo to the left taken on one of the three occasions when Stan directed The Martyrs Play for Amersham Museum.)
Australian born Stan told us how an involvement with amateur dramatics whilst working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and a working holiday in England spent as a front of house manager at the University Theatre in Newcastle on Tyne, engendered in him both a love of Europe and England (including our strange climate) and a keen desire to make a career in acting. Giving up a successful and well paid job as a floor manager with the ABC, and despite having then a very strong Aussie accent, he returned to England to try working as an actor. He has no regrets about this: feels it was the best thing he ever did, but Stan made the point that an actor’s life is not always easy or glamorous and aspiring thespians need to be adaptable and willing to have other strings to their bow in order to earn a living. Being an actor has highs and lows, peaks of employment and troughs of being out of work, quite often more troughs than peaks.
Stan’s first job “in the Theatre” was at the Old Vic but only as a programme and ice cream seller, though being there and soaking up the atmosphere was quite a thrill. Meantime Stan was sending out streams of letters in the hope of getting acting work: he said that letter writing plays a large part in trying to obtain a job, writing to producers, agents, managers, anyone who would be able to get you that first step on the ladder.
Eventually he was lucky enough to get a reply from a director, John Bamet, who was casting “The Hasty Heart” for the Theatre Royal at Windsor and wanted an actor with an Australian accent to play a soldier. First hurdle over but then the problem of an Equity card arose – rather a catch 22 situation – in order to get work you need an Equity Card, but in order to get said card you need to have worked on the stage and outside of London for 40 weeks. However luck was on Stan’s side: John Barnet felt that Stan’s previous employment with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation qualified as the required 40 week period outside London and duly arranged for the Equity membership. Stan was on his way. However this first peak of 3 weeks work in Windsor was followed by a trough of 16 months without any stage work.
Stan remarked that whilst talent was obviously essential it was not the be all and end al – luck is also very much a contributory factor in working in the Theatre. His first role at Windsor had been due to luck – right director, right time, right accent – and luck had been with him at other times in his life. Being unemployed he needed something to earn some money to pay the bills.
Again luck was on his side. Not having a permanent address in England at the time, the London Offices of the ABC were used by Stan as his mailing address. Going in one day to collect his mail he was asked if he could write a report on the 100th Anniversary of the D’Oyle Carte opera company (the arts correspondent having returned to the land of Oz). Although knowing nothing very much about it he agreed, the report was broadcast and Stan then became for fifteen years the London Arts Correspondent, interviewing many famous people over the years, and hopefully getting his voice and face known, and making friends in the business. More lucky times …not least in meeting his wife, Christine, on a skiing holiday; Stan paid tribute to Chris and her support of him morally, domestically and financially as there were times when she was the main breadwinner: lucky in renting a cottage from Roald Dahl at Gt. Missenden, then moving to Chesham and finally settling here in Amersham.
A role in “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, which moved to London, meant that within two years of arriving in Britain he was playing in the West End. However being passionate about Shakespeare and keen to become a member of the RSC, he joined the New Shakespeare Company and performed with them in Regents Park. Then followed another spell of 10 weeks in the West End when he took the role of the eldest brother in “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. Following this in the 1980’s he worked in TV in various parts, including appearing in a gorilla suit in a children’s programme, though there was no stage work forth-coming at this time. In 1985 he was appearing in “Waste” as the butler and understudy to one of the leading roles. Luck again—thanks to the vagaries and unpunctuality of British Rail he was to step into the role he had understudied.
Then came a chance of auditioning for the RSC. Auditions – according to Stan you never get used to them. You are expected to present two pieces -one modern, one Shakespeare -one to be serious, one to be comic. It was three nail-biting weeks before he heard that he had been accepted by the RSC: he was there for two years appearing with them at Stratford, Newcastle and the Barbican. He also appeared in Shakespeare at the Ludlow Festival but by the end of the 80’s there was not much work about and so he and a friend formed their own two-man touring company. They wrote their own plays and performed over 200 times not only in this country , but in places as diverse as Ireland, Germany and Rhode Island, and in different types of theatres and halls – some with very limited seating; brick walls instead of wings; hardly any room on the stage – you had to be adaptable. (Stan has certainly been that, as witness his direction of two successful Martyrs’ plays and a Passion Play here in Amersham, not to mention the Gang Shows and his teaching, lecturing and guided historic walks around London and Stratford).
An actor with an Australian equity card was needed for a role in “Allo Allo” due to tour in Australia for three months and, despite knowing nothing about the show (though fortunately his younger son was able to put him in the picture!), Stan landed the part of General Ludwig Von Schmelling. He was to play the role complete with eye-patch, wooden leg and duelling scar and recounted, in his own inimitable way, various hilarious incidents when rehearsing the part at the Palladium.
Summing up, Stan said he never regretted his decision to become an actor – standing in the wings at the RSC still gives him a thrill. It has been an interesting, humorous and inspirational life. He had talked for over an hour, but like all good theatre Stan left his audience wanting more.