‘There’s always more in this job than you bargain for.’
After what he refers to as ‘a lifetime in show business’, Des McCormack has learned that you should never be surprised by the unexpected.
He learned that lesson the hard way, when (at the age of eighteen) he applied for his first job in the theatre, and was employed in a touring pantomime.
‘It was “Cinderella”,’ he reminisces, in that distinctive voice – midway between hoarse and fruity. ‘My father and mother wrote off to the manager to get me fixed up. He fixed me up all right; he wrote a letter back saying I could start my theatrical career by playing one of the flunkeys, and “looking after P…” He was crafty, you see; we thought the “P” stood for “properties” – and it did – but it stood for “ponies” as well… I still remember one train-call, doing the trip from Salford to Bridlington in a horse-box. Just me and four ponies…’
Nowadays ‘looking after P…’ can stand for ‘personnel’ or ‘props’, or practically anything from panics to panel-game-players. But Des sits back behind his desk on the first floor of Television House, and takes life as it comes, regarding every new trick of fate with a faintly astonished curl of the lip and one raised eyebrow.
If only he had followed up the flunkey role instead of the property-master, Des might have developed into a deadpan comedian in the Aldwych farce tradition; Ralph Lynn without his monocle, amalgamated with Tom Walls minus his moustache.
‘Oh, I have appeared from time to time – perforce,’ he admits dryly. ‘I once played one of the Broker’s Men in panto; and I was so ruddy awful at the first house that I wasn’t asked to go on at the second. So I stuck to being on the stage staff. It’s more regular employment – and there are enough bad actors in the world, without me.’
Just how many actors there are – good, bad or indifferent – no-one knows better than Des.
He was on tour when he was eighteen months old, accompanying his parents as they travelled the country with a musical act. It was all in the family tradition; his mother was already with the circus by the time she was eight, and grandpapa played the flute and piccolo in the pit orchestra at Bury St Edmunds, where he first looked over the footlights and saw grandmama on stage.
Des’s father was a Dublin man, who started by managing a cinema in Galway.
‘Did you ever hear of Cladaugh, in Galway? That’s where I came from really; they call it the city of the tribes – the people are supposed to be descended from survivors of the Spanish Armada. And you can still see traces of it in some of the Cladaugh girls… They have their own wedding ring; like this one I’m wearing…’ He shows it to you; two hands holding a heart between the finger-tips, surmounted by a crown. ‘I picked it up when I was over there last. They make them for the tourists now, really. Still, it’s interesting… Might make a programme out of it.’
Des has always been interested in almost everything. He has been involved and interested in every branch of show business, he claims – except sound radio and ice show.
After schooling, divided between Gloucestershire, where he lived with his aunt, and a later spell in Warrington, where his family made their home, he started work in the theatre, and has never stopped.
(Somewhere along the line, he seems to have picked up a brother called Stephen, who also went into television.)
But in Des’s early days, television was still a gleam in the eye of John Logic Baird. He toured for Prince Littler, in such shows as ‘White Horse Inn’, ‘Glamorous Night’, and ‘Careless Rapture’, as property master or carpenter.
When the war cut across his life, Des joined the Royal Armoured Corps, as a tank driver-operator. He was working in mine-sweeping tanks; Shermans fitted with chain flails that beat up the ground ahead and detonated any mines in the vicinity – and managed to pick up a leg wound in the process.
Scarred but civilian, he returned at last to the theatre as if he had never been away, and after a spell in pantomime (his first love, but this time without the ponies) at Golders Green, he joined Mrs John Christie (the late Audrey Mildmay) at Glyndebourne. He worked on their first post-war season of opera, taking Britten’s ‘Rape of Lucrece’ with Kathleen Ferrier first to Sadlers Wells and then abroad to Amsterdam and The Hague.
In 1946, the Glyndebourne Children’s Theatre sent out a touring company, playing to schools all over the country – ‘in everything from barns to cow-sheds!’ They started at Toynbee Hall, and soon had a repertoire including ‘Tobias and the Angel’, ‘She Stoops to Conquer’, ‘Abraham Lincoln’, and ‘Great Expectations’. Original producer – Mr Anthony Quayle, and a young but very experienced stage-carpenter – Mr Desmond McCormack.
This was followed by a season of melodramas at the old Bedford Theatre, Camden Town (‘Everything from “East Lynne” to “Trilby”, but not for long’) and then Des found himself stage-managing eleven shows a day, in a strange, unfamiliar medium called television, at the Birmingham Radio Exhibition. Pye were demonstrating colour television (the previous year, another unknown called Michael Westmore had been in charge, at Olympia) – and somehow the electronic theatre got into Des’s blood at last.
There were a couple of final flings in the ‘legit’ – a tour of ‘Meet Mr Callaghan’ with Derek de Marney, and a season at Canterbury Rep. – but Des and television could not be parted, and he began to work on a free-lance basis as a stage manager at Lime Grove. (One of his first programmes was a children’s serial written by an unknown author called – but come to think of it, he still is unknown, so who cares?)
‘I once appeared in a serial called “The Railway Children”, with Ronnie Marriott. We were a couple of farm yokels; I know I had on a check suit, and I just had time to throw down my stage-managing clipboard, and pick up a bowler hat, and then rush on to say my lines… Which mostly consisted of “Arrrr”, as far as I can remember. Friends who saw it said I gave a very convincing portrait of an Irish bookmaker.’
Then came 1955, and – as so often happens in this series – came the dawn. He joined A-R as a trainee floor-manager, and while still on the training course at Viking Studios was offered the job of assistant production manager at Wembley; where he stayed from 22 August 1955 to 30 December 1957 – during which time he did everything, from ensuring that the dressing-rooms were in that state in which an artist would wish to find them, to editing our distinguished forerunner, ‘The Wembley Wail’.
And now he sits, as we said earlier, behind a paper-strewn desk, as assistant studio manager (TV House), taking life as it comes.
‘We might have five crises at once… Or it might be a completely peaceful day,’ he says optimistically. ‘I might be out chasing people who haven’t turned up – or acting as general information centre for the studios – or – well, I try to be the oil that keeps the machine running.’
Setting, lighting, rehearsal rooms, tube-hours, liaison with schedules, liaison with artists – even seeing that the crews get their tea-breaks – all of these are just a part of Des’s job.
‘I’ve had three and a half years of it now, and I can’t say they’ve been uneventful; but on the other hand they’ve been so crowded with little incidents – there’s no single thing you could pick out.’
Little things… Like the time Studio 1 was flooded, when the drains went wrong just before transmission, and the actors in a Robert Tronson production had to splash around as silently as possible in inches of water, while the camera cables were dragged up out of harm’s way, and Des helped to build a barricade of sandbags to dam the rising tide.
Or that time when the Mole-Richardson camera ran amok during a rehearsal of ‘Double Your Money’, and Don Gale crashed through several rows of audience chairs, finishing up on the rostrum, and claiming that he had held focus every inch of the way.
‘You see what I mean,’ Des sighs. ‘There really aren’t any particular highlights. 1 just sit back and contemplate the shows we’ve done, and – excuse me.’
He breaks off to answer a persistent telephone, as the day’s sixth crisis breaks loose. Either the performing seals are trapped in the lift, or there’s been a camera breakdown in Studios 7 and 8, and for once Jim is Out…
But whatever Des may do, one thing is certain. He will never have time to sit back – and contemplate.