Peter Ling goes down on to the studio floor to meet FM Tony Hulley in 1958
The artists and studio staff drift slowly away, heading for cups of coffee; the cameras are lining up before the programme goes on the air; Tony Hulley takes off his cans and steps out to light a cigarette.
If you didn’t know him, you might imagine Tony Hulley was a tennis champion; quick, lithe, with the seamed brown face of a man who spends most of his life under a blazing sun. But Tony’s appearance would be misleading, for his sun is usually a battery of lights, and his feet are set firmly on the floor. First he danced on floors; now he manages them.
‘Well, my family were all theatre people’, he explains. ‘Grandfather composed comic operas, my father was a ’cellist – as a matter of fact he played for Pavlova – and my mother was one of George Edwarde’s Gaiety Girls’.
He even married inside the charmed circle of show business, for Mrs Tony Hulley used to be Marjorie Cormack, and they met backstage at Drury Lane during the run of ‘Careless Rapture’.
Now they live at South Harrow, and Tony has a family of three to ‘manage’, when they hold the floor – Bunty and Marian, who go to dancing lessons and are obviously destined to follow in their father’s footsteps; and David, the renegade, who is looking towards the Navy instead of the Theatre, and sees himself as a budding Lieutenant-Commander. Even so, he might still finish up at Television House…
‘Of course, I started in the theatre very young – I’d only just left school when I got my first job. In the chorus, on a tour of – let me think – “That’s A Good Girl” … It seems a long time ago. Thirty years next December’. Tony frowns faintly at the relentless speed of passing time; even tap-dancers have to give it best. Then he throws back his head and laughs – and time is forgotten. ‘Mind you, I got the sack from that job!’
‘I was understudying a small part, and the chap who played it was taken sick. It was only one line – I had to go on and serve a writ on somebody, just before the first act curtain, saying: “Mr Barrow, sir… ?” That was all…
I was dead keen; I put on a full character make-up – I even wore a hump-back – I was determined to build up the part! The trouble was, all the rest of the company collapsed, and I was fired… Still, I really stopped the show.’ This setback didn’t last long, and Tony’s career began to sound like a page from ‘Who’s Who in the Theatre’. ‘Follow Through’ – ‘Little Tommy Tucker’ – ‘White Horse Inn’ (with an up-and-coming youngster called Jimmy Hanley) – ‘Stop Press’ – ‘Why Not Tonight?’ – ‘Latin Quarter’ – ‘Paris to Piccadilly’ – and a spell as one of Mr Cochran’s Young Gentlemen in ‘Words and Music’ (together with another Young Gentleman called Cyril Butcher).
His first brush with television was as a dancer, nearly ten years ago, in a Henry Caldwell production; but the medium never really beckoned until, after working as a dance teacher for the Buddy Bradley and Joan Davis schools, Tony was rung up in July ’55 by Ted Beaumont.
Would Tony like to be an assistant floor-manager for Associated-Rediffusion? Tony decided he would. He joined the staff and after a few weeks at the Granville Theatre found himself floor-managing A-R’s first live drama production, the opening episode of ‘Sixpenny Corner’, from Viking Studios.
‘And I’ve never regretted it for a minute’, he says cheerfully. ‘Oh, yes; I suppose you do miss the live theatre – you miss the contact with the audience, you miss the warmth – and that excitement just before the overture on a big opening night… But then, in TV, you get that every night. You know the programme I enjoyed working on most? Peter Croft’s “Jubilee Show”. That had everything – the music, the audience – a real theatre atmosphere…’
His worst television memory is that famous production of ‘White Carnation’, when the play was off the air for the first eight minutes, and Cyril Coke in the gallery had to cut as he went along to make up the missing time.
‘He gave me the cuts during transmission’, Tony remembers, slightly glazed. ‘There I was, trying to tell the cast: “Now we’re cutting from shot 83 to shot 91 – that cuts your scene at the front door.” They all looked very sceptical – I suppose they thought I’d gone crazy – but they did it somehow, thank heavens… And we came out on time.’
‘In a way, I sometimes feel I’d like to be back in front of the cameras. (Actually, my ear was in front of the camera once on “Take Your Pick”, but luckily that was a tele-recording, so it was taken out.)… You know, when I retire I think I might make a come-back. I can’t imagine myself retiring, anyway – pottering round gardens – I’m not cut out for that. No, I’ve often thought I might start again as a character actor, when I’ve got a nice crop of white hair. A sort of Grand Old Man of Television.’ Tony grins, and the Grand Old Man seems a long way away.
‘But first I’d like – well, I suppose all floor-managers would like to be directors some day. I’ve got a lot to learn yet – so much technical stuff – you’re always learning in this job; but eventually I’d like to have a go. Light Entertainment; that’s what I’d like… Musicals’.
He breaks off and looks at his watch, as one or two of the girls pass him on their way into the studio. He stubs out his cigarette, and calls: ‘Five minutes, dear’.
He taps one foot absently, then slides into a soft-shoe routine with one of the girls as he disappears into the studio.