I was 17, I enjoyed dressing up – and I was getting paid for it!

I was born in south Benfleet in November 1947. When I was six or seven my parents moved to the tiny village of Layer-de-la-Haye, three miles outside Colchester, where they ran the Donkey & Buskins pub. I went to a private school until I was 11, when I won a grant to go to Elmhurst Ballet School in Camberley, Surrey until I was about 14. Unfortunately my parents went into an ill-fated business partnership with an old friend and lost all their money. This was back in Leigh on Sea, so I went to a secondary modern school there. This was a bit of a come down considering I had been mixing with the likes of Hayley Mills, but I went to Ridley Studios at 15, where I was employed to look after the children in the kindergarten, which enabled me to have drama and musical lessons. I also did lots of public speaking, and it was through studio principal Peggy Batchelor that I met the Palace Theatre’s artistic director Peter Bridge, known professionally as Alexander because there was already a Peter Bridge in the business.

He ran Haymarket Productions and was a real character. When directing he would be chain-smoking, hopping from one foot to the other while lighting the next cigarette from the last one. You’d never know what mood he’d be in. Sometimes he would be very friendly, other times he would just scowl at you.

This is me in 1964, at age 16, and our charismatic artistic director, Alexander Bridge

But the music hall [Palace of Varieties] shows he put on were amazing, as we got the top talent before their careers ended. I remember Hetty King, in her 80s; I had to polish her silk top hat. Jessie Matthews was another we had.

Actress Eileen Farrow was Alexander’s mother (we all called her ‘Mother’), and she was always in the Ivor Novello musicals. (Peter thought he was the reincarnation of Ivor Novello!) One day we were rehearsing one of those shows and ‘Mother’ suddenly stopped everyone and said, with an upper-class haughtiness, “Just a minute! Just a minute! Someone is singing different from like what I am!”

Eileen Farrow in one of the frequent Palace of Varieties shows, which were great fun

Patrick Fyffe was in the company, and he was often my stage partner. He used to ‘take off’ Eileen to a tee. Many years later, my mother told me “one of my friends” (whose name she couldn’t remember) was in the Royal Command performance. So I watched it, and there was dear Patrick, as Dame Hilda Bracket (with George Logan as Dr. Evadne Hinge) taking off Eileen Farrow! So he turned his impersonation of her into a career!

Dear Patrick, during his time at the Palace

I started at the Palace in early 1965, when I was 17. I was an ASM [assistant stage manager] at first, doing everything from sweeping the stage to running the show from prompt corner. (Once, during an Agatha Christie, the whole cast was on stage and I had to cue the lights to go out at a critical moment. I heard the electrician climbing up the stairs to the switches, so at the appropriate moment I pressed the button to alert him – and nothing happened! It turned out the chap I heard was a friend of the electrician who had called in to see him! So the whole cast was on stage, ad-libbing like mad until the electrician got up there!)

Proud to serve! Assistant Stage Managers Dodo Martin, me, Rae Coates and Rosalyn Elvin (with, in the centre, production manager Ken Ward) on the set of Hay Fever (July 1966)

Eventually I got my first speaking part, as a maid called Pamela in Waltz of the Toreadors in May 1966, although it didn’t go entirely according to plan! At the end of the first act I was to come on stage and, when actor Ivan Beavis said “And what’s your name?” I was to reply “Pamela, sir”. Well, I came on, my very first speaking entrance, and Ivan said “And what’s your name, Pamela?” – and the curtain came down! Happily, I eventually got to make my speaking debut in act two!

Sometimes, however, I regretted getting certain lines. I can’t remember which play it was, but I vividly recall having what I thought was the most ridiculous line I’d even heard! It was a beach scene, and I had to skip across the stage saying “The moment I touched my seaweed I knew it was going to be wet”! Every night I thought “this bloody line!” And for some of the Agatha Christies we had to change some of the lines; one I remember originally read “I felt a little queer on Paddington station”!

In May 1965, Ronan O’Casey, who played the body at the beginning of the film Blow-Up, was playing the lead in Harvey. I was the production assistant, and he took quite a shine to me, saying, in a seductive manner, “Marilyn, you are like a pink blancmange that says ‘Upstairs, later’”!

Sadie Corre was about three feet tall, and she played the cat in The Adventures of Dick Whittington [December 1966 to January 1967]. She was a tiny little lady and she would “eff and blind”. We would see this beautiful, fluffy cat climbing up to her dressing room muttering about “these bloody, ‘effing’ stairs”!

Backstage during The Adventures of Dick Whittington: Elaine Price, Margaret Shoenbeck and Mary Clarke react to my (thankfully temporary!) dishabille!

I remember Olga Lowe; her third husband was Keith Morris, who also performed at the Palace. Barbara Miller was amazing, so full of energy. Daphne Odin-Pearse: We called her ‘Daphne Piercing-Odour’, not because of any personal problem, but because she used this really ancient 1920s mascara and candle wax! And dear Roger Adamson was one of the only straight men in the company!

The divine Roger Adamson in Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path (May 1965)

Tommy Tucker was choreographer when I started, and when rehearsals weren’t going quite right I recall him shouting “Oh no, darlings, Oh no, darlings, that went down like a cup of cold sick”! I remember in Adventure Story [July 1965], in which I played the Princess of Persia, I had a long hair piece, which got caught up in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon! But the costumes for that were magnificent; they came from the film version of Cleopatra, so [lead actor] Paul Greenhalgh was in Richard Burton’s costume!

We had a horse in that show, and it peed on stage! Alexander Bridge loved having animals in the shows, but they could present a bit of a challenge! We had a goat for Teahouse of the August Moon [August 1965] which ate everything and head-butted everybody. Waiting at the side of the stage it would eat scripts and anything else it could get hold of – then, when it went on stage, it disgraced itself, and loads of small pellets rolled down the stage into the orchestra pit! Another time I had to look after two huge dogs, a St. Bernard and an Afghan hound. My friend Benny Sublette, one of the dancers, stayed at my flat; he had this convertible, and we took these dogs home with the top down and their hair blowing in the wind!

Here’s Benny fooling about with fellow actors Roger Sutton (centre) and naughty ‘Robinson Crusoe’ Adrian Le Peltier (right) during the run of The Boy Friend (March 1967)

When I was on ‘props’ we’d run through the play on a Monday morning and I’d mark down what was required. I never had any money; I just went to places like Keddies and antique shops (including Choppers, on London Road, not far from The Cricketers pub) and got stuff in exchange for tickets.

In those days, of course, there was no bar/foyer extension. There was an open yard behind the buildings that fronted onto the road, in which John Page, the most amazing set designer, worked. He was helped by ‘Old Harry’ [Harry Bussey], who was the most miserable sod you could imagine! There was also no green room, just dressing rooms, with the star always on the ground floor. Chook Sendell was wardrobe mistress. She had a room under the stage, and was helped by two daughters, one extremely large and one extremely thin!

The steep rake on the stage did cause a few problems, especially, for me, when, in Irma La Douce [July 1967] I had to stand on top of a juke box!

Here I am on that dodgy juke box, and also backstage, getting up close and personal with fellow actor, the lovely Dudley Stevens

I also remember dear Beatrice Shaw, who looked like she was 100, came on with a drinks trolley and promptly tripped over (fortunately this was at the end of one of the acts!). And I had to make an entrance once in an Agatha Christie, get shot and do a sort of twirl as I fell down dead. Well, I put a bit too much into it, and as I fell down my skirt went up over my head! The audience cracked up, as John Marston made his entrance and delicately put my skirt back! Oh, we had such fun; there were so many laughs! I remember when we did Robinson Crusoe we had Kirby’s Flying Ballet. They flew around very impressively but, as they swung into the wings, Adrian Le Peltier (in the Boy Friend photo) – a beautiful boy, playing Robinson Crusoe – would jab them in the bum with his rifle! And there was a UV [Ultra Violet] ballet, where all the lights went out and, while the rest of us sat in the darkness, only the UV designs could be seen. Well, unknown to me, someone (I always thought it was Rae Coates, one of the ASMs) had painted bulls eyes round my boobs, so when the lights went out I sat there with these enormous targets!

On a typical show day we would rehearse all day, and then go to a little café next to the theatre where you could get a poached egg on toast, that sort of thing, then it was back to the theatre to start making up and we’d be on stage at 7.45pm. When the curtain came down we’d take off our make-up and go home, but then we’d be learning our lines, so those days your whole life really was the theatre.

There was a real buzz when guest artistes came to the Palace. Here are just a few:

Pop singer Dave Berry joined us for Expresso Bongo (April 1965)

Here’s another pop singer, Eden Kane, seen backstage during the run of The Adventures of Dick Whittington (December 1966) and posing on stage with co-stars (back row) Paul Greenhalgh, Dodo Martin, Deryk Parkin and Alexander Bridge and (front row) George Lacy (a well-known pantomime dame) and Barbara Miller

Veteran comedian Ronald Shiner, a really lovely old boy, was with us for Seagulls over Sorrento (October 1965), which was his biggest hit: he had played over 2,000 performances in the 1950s. Sadly he wasn’t in the best of health and he died less than a year after performing at the Palace

Diminutive actor and comedian Wee Georgie Wood came along for one of our regular Palace of Varieties shows, in January 1966. I’m second from the left in this line-up.

I remember once drying on stage, which, even with colleagues around, is the most terrifying thing! Time stands still, and you seem to be there forever, thinking what the hell am I going to do now? But then somebody gives you a prompt and you carry on. I was once on the prompt desk and we had Elsie Randolph, one of the old 1930s stars, in Hay Fever [July 1966] and when she dried up she walked over to the prompt desk, stood there, went “Harrumph!”, got her line back and carried on!

In Lock Up Your Daughters [August 1966] I was a voluptuous wench. Photographer John Alexander was taking the front of house stills and Alexander Bridge had [actor] Dudley Stevens stand behind me with his hands on my chest. Well, this photo was put on the front of house display, but there were complaints and it had to be removed! [Archivist David Simpson adds: Sadly, this photograph has not been located!]

With William Redmond in the famous Whitehall farce Chase Me, Comrade (June 1967)

My favourites were the musicals, because I loved singing and dancing, but I did love the straight plays as well. Looking through my photos I love the glamour, and I had the privilege of wearing the most extraordinary outfits, from every era, wearing crinolines and wimples – and having to learn to walk and sit properly in them! I do remember being laced into a Victorian dress in Perchance to Dream [May 1966] during boiling hot weather, and really understanding what they went through at that time! But I really enjoyed the dressing up – and getting paid for it!

Here I am, in Perchance to Dream (May 1966), at left on the balcony

On the last night of a panto it was traditional for tricks to be played. In Robinson Crusoe, Olga Lowe was the very regal, very grand ‘Queen Fatima of the Bongo Island’, and a Whoopee cushion was put on her chair! And in Aladdin a ‘For sale’ sign was put on his cave!

In late 1967 I was approached by Gerry Atkins, who had been a choreographer at the Palace (and also a solo dancer at the Follies Bergere). He had a group of girl dancers, many of whom were my friends, and he asked me to be the singer on a world tour he was putting together. Even though Alexander Bridge wanted me to stay on, I fancied a change and so, after appearing in Robinson Crusoe from December 1967 to January 1968 I started rehearsals with Gerry. Meanwhile, in November 1967, on the King’s Road in Chelsea, I’d fallen madly in love with Faramarz Aslani, an Iranian – and the first place I went to with Gerry, in February 1968, was Tehran! For two years we travelled the world, including Portugal, Germany and Italy. We also flew to New York and cruised around the Caribbean for five months on the SS Rotterdam, of the Holland America Line. We used whichever passenger cabins were vacant, which was wonderful. I was 20 to 21 and it was amazing – we had some wonderful parties with the crew!

A lovely studio portrait of me in 1968, when I was 20 years old

Back in England, Faramarz and I were married in 1970. We had two daughters (Phaedra, born in England, and Roxana, born in Santa Monica, USA) and ended up in Tehran in 1975. Faramarz is a celebrated singer, songwriter and poet – he was signed up by CBS and recorded a couple of albums for them – and I did some TV singing with him. His father was married to the Shah’s half-sister, so we were always at palace parties, but everything came to a halt following the revolution. We returned to England and I started working at Harrods in 1982. Sadly, we divorced in 1984, but I went on to write the ‘Harrods Cookery Book’, and went on a very successful author’s tour, during which I was a guest at the Yorkshire Post Literary Luncheon alongside Kenneth Williams and Merlyn Rees.

After leaving Harrods, I worked with celebrity chef Glynn Christian then became an executive director with ARC, the environmental group, creating vegetarian menus with celebrities such as Chrissie Hynde, Paul and Linda McCartney and Kevin Godley.

I then qualified in holistic massage, reflexology and shiatsu, built up a roster of private clients and wrote a best-selling book, ‘The Tabletop Massage Manual’.

Sadly, in January 2000 I contracted ME. Advised to slow down, I moved from London to the south coast. I now live near Chichester, with its wonderful theatre, surrounded by my two daughters, a grand-daughter and a more recent arrival, my beloved cockapoo Bosie.

I went back to Westcliff in late 2016 for the funeral of Richard Baker, a reporter and theatre critic for the local paper who was a great friend of mine. (I went out on a date with him, and that seemed to be when he decided ladies were not his cup of tea!)

He lived with his brother John, who was well known through his work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. When their parents were away they held the most outrageous parties, full of extremely colourful characters. I remember, after one all-night party, I was wandering around with just a towel on, when the Corona man knocked on the door. Everyone said “Go on, Marilyn, you answer the door”, but when I did someone pulled the towel away and slammed the door, so there I was, stark naked in front of this poor Corona man! Most of Richard and John’s friends were gay, and I remember going to one party still in my stage make-up, with my hair up, wearing a lavender PVC mini-skirt suit with pink leather thigh boots, and when I walked into this party – the only woman – this old chap just stared at me and said “By Jove, that’s well done”! Richard became a respected authority on old time music hall, and wrote a couple of books on the subject, ‘Music Hall: An Illustrated History’ and ‘Old Time Variety’.

Richard with one of his music hall books

While in Westcliff I just had to call in at the Palace. It was lovely to see the theatre still going strong after all these years. And I couldn’t resist a further look around a year later, when I attended the Theatre Open Day with another ASM from the Alexander Bridge days, Rae Coates (who finally confessed, that day, to being the ‘towel-puller’!) and Richard Kingcott, Deputy Stage Manager for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s. It was also fun to gaze in the Palace’s dressing room mirror for the first time in fifty years!

Reflections of a life: As Irma La Douce in July 1967, and back again in September 2017

After all these years, and everything that’s happened since then, I still often dream I’m back in that theatre. It was a real family, with everyone putting their heart and soul into it. Amazingly, perhaps, there wasn’t anybody I disliked. We really did live life to the full, both off stage and on. I have such an affinity with that place! I enjoyed it so much and many of the friendships that were formed there have gone on for years afterwards.

[All photographs, except Patrick Fyffe, courtesy of Marilyn Chaney]

Archivist David Simpson adds: Following Marilyn’s visit to the Palace in late 2016 I had the pleasure of interviewing her at her lovely home, when she also very kindly allowed me to take scans of these delightful photographs. With all that has happened to her since, I was struck by just how much the Palace meant to her: they were clearly very happy days. I am delighted she has so willingly shared her very entertaining memories with us.