My first job in the theatre – Fly Man extraordinary

Many, many years ago, back in the mid ’60’s of the last century, the very first job I had in the theatre was as a fly man in a theatre in Streatham, a sort of suburb of South London, and in those far off days, an extremely working class area.  I have no recollection of the name of that theatre, but given that it was an old Victorian theatre, it was probably called something like The Streatham Palace, or the Imperial or some such over-blown name.

Anyhow, at the time I was an art student at the Croydon Art School, and needed some extra cash to live according to the level I felt I was entitled, so I duly managed to get that evening job in this theatre.

For those of you who haven’t a clue what a “fly man” does, well it is simple enough, we worked way above the stage in a system of walkways where we controlled all the bits of scenery and such like that needed to be raised and lowered during a show.   There was an impressive collection of ropes, pulleys and heavy steel counterweights, all of which we controlled by means of a number of brake levers and by simply heaving on the ropes at the correct moment, and lo and behold, a back drop would slowly descend onto the stage.. Or whatever the play called for.

Even given my lousy head for heights it was pleasant enough work, running around up there in the almost Stygian darkness doing our work merrily enough.  The only bit I wasn’t too happy about was the vertical ladder that I had to climb in order to get up there.. It was a hell of a long ladder, as the fly gallery was about 2 1/2 times higher than the opening of the stage for obvious reasons..

Curiously a fireman I happened to know had taught me how one went up a vertical ladder, so I at least had the right technique to help my vertigo.

I have almost no recall of the shows that took place there in my time, with the exception of a performance by the students at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) one of the main actor’s training colleges in London.

This was a performance of A Midsummer’s Dream, which among the other actors had a very young Ian McShane in one of the main roles.  In those days he was an insufferably arrogant young man – I am sure that with age has come a better grasp of how to behave, or at least I hope so for his sake.

In any event, we stage hands took a real dislike to him owing to his overweening behaviour towards us “mere stage hands” as he appeared to consider us.

Ian McShane as a young and rather horrid young man
Ian McShane as a young and rather horrid young man

Therefore, we plotted a suitable revenge for him on the last night’s performance.  Namely we bought a chicken (dead and plucked) and at a dramatic high point in his role, where he pointed dramatically up to the sky, we dropped the chicken onto his head from our gallery above the stage.   I know, totally unprofessional, bit we didn’t give a damn really.

The audience loved it and fell about laughing, but not surprisingly, McShane was livid with rage and as soon as he came off stage he was up our ladder intent on revenge as fast as he could go.   Well he got as far as almost the top of the ladder, but we were waiting there for him, and simply stamped on his hands as he endeavored to clamber off the ladder and onto the walkway…  After a while he realised that not only had he no chance of getting off the ladder and onto the walkway, but also that there were about 6 or 7 of us there waiting for him and he is actually a very short man …… So he retreated.

Also not surprisingly the Stage Manager was furious with us too, but interestingly enough, he didn’t fire us, so perhaps he was quietly pleased at our action…. As I mentioned, McShane was really a horrid little twit to everyone he came in contact with in that theatre at least.

Anyhow, that was my first real theatre job, and my first and last encounter with Ian McShane as well.

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