Their Exits and Their Entrances by Paul A Mendelson

by | Mar 20, 2024 | ReadersMagnet Authors' Lounge | 0 comments

Thank you Authors’ Lounge for this invitation to talk about my work. It saves me collaring people in the street.

It’s no secret that writers often source material from their own lives. I appear to have done this with a vengeance. My first long-running BBC comedy series, the BAFTA-nominated May to December, wasn’t just inspired by my short-lived career as a trainee solicitor, it was even set and shot in the Greater London village of Pinner, where I still live.

When I came to writing novels, the same applied. My first In the Matter of Isabel, was a highly fictionalised version of the extraordinary case that caused me to give up that uninspiring legal career; my most recent The Forever Moment, drew its inspiration from a brief but romantic school exchange I made at 17 from Glasgow High School to the Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Kentucky. (My latest collection Any Lengths to Please contains a novella based on my own experiences with cancer.)

Even the return by me and my wife exactly thirty years later to the place we honeymooned – Seville during Semana Santa –became the seed of an idea, when I pondered ‘What if we met our younger honeymooning selves here?’ To which my wife just rolled her eyes, which told me this is an avenue I must pursue. It became a BBC Radio 4 play, a movie script and then the novel A Meeting in Seville.

The subject of this article, my novel Their Exits and Their Entrances, had an equally real but slightly more oblique provenance. Quite close to where I live is a rest home for people in the theatrical and entertainment professions called Denville Hall. I thought, as a screenwriter, that the elderly residents might appreciate the occasional visit from someone local who knew and understood their world. When I offered this, however, the home administrator asked if I would like to give a talk instead. ‘We had Harold Pinter last month’, she added. So no pressure there!

I agreed somewhat apprehensively but I thought if I peppered my chat with anecdotes and clips from my BBC comedy shows (May to December, So Haunt Me, My Hero etc) and ITV drama (Losing It) it might hopefully not send too many of them to sleep.

I always make sure before a talk that the video equipment is in good working order and usually test it out with a DVD I randomly pluck from a shelf at home. This time I grabbed Olivier’s Hamlet, which I thought might appeal to this particular audience.

Big mistake.

When the residents came in, some sprightly but others on walking-frames and in wheelchairs, I made my hellos and explained that I just needed to test the DVD player for picture and sound quality. The movie was in black and white but the scene between Olivier’s Hamlet and Jean Simmons’ Ophelia came out loud and clear.

I hadn’t immediately noticed the imperious and striking elderly lady in a wheelchair in the front row. But she appeared to have noticed me. As I turned round to begin my talk, she threw me a steely glare, gripped her wheelchair and wheeled herself very crossly out of the room.

As people tend not to leave my talks at least until I’m some way through them, I was a tiny bit nonplussed. But it wasn’t until the event was over – for which gratifyingly the remaining audience had stayed and even laughed – that I was able to ask one elderly thespian about this elegant lady’s dramatic departure.

The man just shook his greying head. ‘You made a big mistake there, son,” he explained. “You see, that lady was the actress Elspeth March. She was married at one time to that great movie star Stewart Granger. Until he left her and went off with Jean Simmons!”

So there we have it. This poor lady comes down to hear a potentially amusing talk from a local comedy writer and the first thing she encounters is a movie clip of the lovely woman who ‘stole’ her husband!

It wasn’t until some years later, when I was thinking of a new novel to write (my previous one Must Have GSOH having had a gracious response and a movie deal) that I recalled the Denville Hall incident. A rest home for retired actors and performers had to be fertile ground for both fun and pathos. I had worked with so many fine and talented actors over so many years.

I needed both a way in and an intriguing plotline (or several) to stop this being just a series of anecdotes, however amusing or touching they might be. Story has always been very important to me and probably why my series have all been long-runners.

What if – there’s always a ‘What if? – a highly respected but sadly down on her luck elderly actress comes to such a home? She’s too proud to admit that she is fully dependent for her lodgings on the charity that runs it, so she tells the other (paying) residents, some of whom she knows of old, that she is only there temporarily whilst her large flat in Kensington is being underpinned.

Obviously this ‘ruse’ can’t last forever, so she has to find a new reason to justify her extended stay. She finds it when she sees her fellow residents – who range from Shakespearean actors to movie stars, singers to tap-dancers, ventriloquists to jugglers – watching a talent show on the TV and jeering that they could all do far better and have indeed done so in the past.

Our haughty but vulnerable heroine challenges them to prove it – to themselves and to their nearest and dearest – by putting on one final Christmas show.

They don’t know whether this will revitalise them or kill them but are finally persuaded, against all odds and sanity, to give it a bloody good try.

As one of them says ‘We used to get standing ovations. Now we get ovations for standing!’


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