Peter Ling goes to Room 518 on the fifth floor to visit the manager of the drama department Vyvienne Moynihan
‘You know, dear, when I was a little girl, I wanted to have a bicycle, but my father and mother wouldn’t let me. So I borrowed a bike belonging to the girl next door, and the first time I tried to ride it, I landed smack against the back of a bus. When I opened my eyes in hospital, there were my parents watching me anxiously, and the first thing I said was: “Now will you let me have my own way?”… ’
The memory of this wicked juvenile triumph sends Miss Moynihan off into a paroxysm of giggles until she shakes with laughter.
It is a very recognizable laugh, and the Fifth Floor inhabitants could tell their way to Room 518 blindfold, just by following the vibrations. Vyvienne Moynihan enjoys life, and she enjoys laughing. And yet, like many people with a swift sense of humour, she is basically serious.
‘Born on 19 January, under Capricorn – the goat, dear – I won’t say which year. I lived for a while with my grandmother, in Westbourne Grove. She came from Ireland, and she disapproved of the way the local children spoke, so she wouldn’t send me to school. When I was nine years old, I met a very nice gentleman who saw me playing in the garden – I asked him to tea, and told him daddy was a chemist, and mummy often helped him, so I lived with my granny. He asked which school I went to, and I said I didn’t… but the next day I did. The nice gentleman turned out to be an LCC inspector.’
‘Of course, I hated school; I wasn’t a very nice child anyway. I had long golden ringlets in those days – so long you couldn’t tell where the ringlets ended and my bloomers began. There I was, aged nine, and I could quote any Shakespeare play by the yard – or Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth – I knew them all. Only I didn’t know my five times table.’
‘At that school, as a punishment, naughty children had to learn Latin verse; Virgil’s Aeneid, Book XII, and Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Books I to V … soon afterwards I won a scholarship for my remarkable knowledge of the classics…’
At first Vyvienne wanted to be a chemist like her father, and got her Inter.B.Sc. for chemistry, physics and maths; but she was following another passion in her spare time – the theatre. She studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and took herself off to see the best possible productions and performances whenever she could afford it. Plays like Norman Marshall’s production of ‘Victoria Regina’; performances like Clive Brook in ‘Cavalcade’. One day, she resolved, she would work with men like these .. as in the case of the bicycle, she finally got her own way.
Having won certificates and gold medals galore at the Guildhall, she was invited to go on to the staff, and at the outbreak of war became one of the youngest professors ever to join that august body.
But the war was on, and Vyvienne wanted to do something about it. She went to the Labour Exchange, and was asked her qualifications. Briefly she outlined them – her professorship, her experience of teaching, her spare-time work as a speech therapist at the Maida Vale hospital. The girl behind the desk listened coldly, then said – in a voice that cried out for a course of speech training – ‘Nao thenks. We want somebody that can do somethink useful.’
So Vyvienne took three years’ leave of absence from the Guildhall, and became a student A.S.M. with the West Riding Theatre.
‘I did practically every job there was – lighting, scene painting, the lot. Then I moved on to become the stage manager at the Q Theatre, with Jack de Leon, and through him I met Clive Brook. That’s how it started, really – soon I was stage director or production manager on plays like “Second Threshold”, “The Dish Ran Away”, “And So to Bed”, and “Clérembard”.’
Vyvienne’s proudest memory is of when she was producing a tour of ‘Angels in Love’, with Barbara Kelly and Henry Kendall. A serious operation sent her to hospital for six weeks, and during those weeks not a single day passed without one or another member of the cast keeping in touch with her, by letter or by telephone.
‘A different sort of memory around that time was when a very famous leading lady had a fit of temperament and locked herself in the smallest room in the theatre. I tried to climb through the window to let her out, but the window was too narrow – I got stuck, and we both missed the matinee.’
One of the few people Vyvienne had never worked with, after twelve years in the theatre, was Norman Marshall. She heard he was moving into television, and so – although at that point she knew nothing about TV and didn’t much want to – she decided this was an opportunity not to be missed. She was appointed manager of the drama department at Associated-Rediffusion, and now, after four years in the job, she prefers television to the theatre.
‘Some people say that in television there’s no chance to follow a thing through – once a play is done, it’s done. But that just isn’t so. In the theatre your contacts with people are limited – at most it’s a year, if you’re lucky – but in a year you can’t really see people develop. That’s the thing I love about television. In the long run, the teamwork is more permanent, not less.’
‘And sometimes it can surprise you. The biggest shock of my life was when we did “The Judge’s Story” – yes, Clive Brook again. I knew it was good, but I liked it so much that I was afraid other people wouldn’t. It shook me to the core when the viewers enjoyed it as much as I did.’
At week-ends Vyvienne usually goes to Brighton, to stay with her family and two old friends – a cat called Sukey, and a dog (his breed is politely referred to as ‘Chinese Wolfhound’) called Michael-Angelo.
‘Sukey’s a wonderful critic. If there’s a good programme on, he sits on top of the set with his head craned forward over the edge, watching it upside-down. His favourites are “Wagon Train”, “People in Trouble”, “This Week” and “Crime Sheet”… In that order. If there’s a show on he doesn’t care for, he turns his back, and sits with his tail hanging straight down the screen. Whenever I see Sukey’s tail across the picture I know the viewers are switching off all over the British Isles.’ But Vyvienne likes to get away from that little screen sometimes. She likes swimming, listening to music, going to the theatre or the cinema; she likes eating and drinking, she likes people. And most of all, she likes reading.
‘I settle down with a new novel, and I determine to forget all about television. Only, while I’m reading, I suddenly find I’ve been thinking subconsciously: “I wonder – would it adapt?”…’
Once again, Vyvienne starts to laugh at herself. Let’s hope she never stops.