Doing my ‘sexy’ numbers always felt wrong: Eileen Atkins on the ‘sleazy secret’ of her childhood
My birth meant that three wishes had been granted. God had forgiven my mother, my father’s manhood had been restored and the family became eligible for a council house.
My mother, father, half-sister, brother and grandmother had all been living in a rented house in Stoke Newington that was so damp they needed to move. While my mother was giving birth to me in the Salvation Army Mothers’ Nursing Home in Clapton (“Costing two and six a night,” as my mother would proudly tell me. “You weren’t born on charity”), the whole family moved to 17 Courtman Road, Tottenham, on the White Hart Lane council estate.
My mother, even though she was desperate to be rehoused, had refused two other houses because she wanted the open aspect of the allotments which stretched scenically behind Courtman Road. I, of course, had no idea that such grandeur awaited me.
Although my birth certificate says that I was born on June 16 1934, my mother said it was June 15. She remembered being told that she had a girl and asking fearfully if “it was all right”, as she was almost 46, and at that great age was convinced there would be “a bit missing”, and the nurse telling her that I had “lovely straight eyebrows”.
She thought, “What on earth must she look like if they can only talk about her eyebrows?” Then she heard the clock strike midnight as I was wrapped and handed to her, and a moment later she noticed the doctor filling in a form and looking at his watch before putting my date of birth. It was always celebrated on the 16th, but at every birthday my mother would say, “It was really yesterday.”
She was ecstatic that I was a girl. She was a dressmaker, and longed to make pretty children’s clothes. She had had a hard life before she married my father. Not only did she work all day as a seamstress, but in the evenings she was a barmaid at the Trocadero Theatre at the Elephant and Castle, as well as having to help with the lodgers that my widowed grandmother was forced to take in.
She was 39 and had given up all hope of marriage when my father, three years younger, who lodged in the house in Stoke Newington, lost his wife, Kitty, in childbirth. He was left a widower with his three-year-old daughter, Peggy, and asked my mother if she would help him look after her. “Only if you marry me,” answered my mother, and my father, always obliging, was dragooned into marriage.
This was not a love match. Neither my brother nor I ever noticed much affection between them, but they got on well enough together. Annie ruled the roost and Arthur clucked along. My half-sister, Peggy, told me that they had a good sex life, so maybe things got evened up in bed. In less than two years after they were married, they had two boys, Ronald and Reginald, and then my mother found that she was pregnant again. They couldn’t afford another child. My father’s wages as an electricity-meter reader were minimal, and even with my mother still working at home, sewing for a factory, there was hardly enough money. Having to look after her mother as well as two babies, she felt exhausted and unable to cope, so she had a backstreet abortion.
A year later, Reginald, known as Bubby, died of meningitis. My mother was convinced God had punished her, and her unhappiness cast a cloud over the whole family. Six years later, my father had an illness that required the loss of one testicle, and my mother, who flew into terrible rages (which, unfortunately, I inherited), accused him of being a useless husband. Apparently, he then threw her on the kitchen table to prove he wasn’t useless, and the result was me. That made us, with Grandma, a family of six and eligible for one of the newly developed council houses. So, as you can see, like a good fairy at my own christening, I granted three wishes.
I have only one memory of life before I was three, and that was of being thrown up in the air and caught again and again by my father, and I swear my small brain registered perfect happiness. My father was a playful, affectionate, childlike man who doted on me, and when I was young, I adored him.
The next thing I remember had a momentous effect on my life and I have a clear image of it. A gipsy came to the door. My mother was very superstitious and always bought heather from gipsies to prevent them putting the evil eye on her. I went to the door with her, clinging onto her dress, and there was this exotic-looking woman, swarthy, bejewelled with bangles and earrings, and with a bright scarf round her head, and a full, swishing skirt that showed coloured petticoats. The gipsy suddenly fixed her eyes on me. “That little one there,” she said, pointing a bony finger at me, “is going to be a great dancer – another Pavlova.”
That was it as far as my mother was concerned – the gipsy had spoken – I was to be a great dancer. She lost no time. I was taken to a dancing school the following week for my first lesson. I refused to “join the other little girls” and screamed to be taken home. She tried a couple of other dancing schools, but, refusing to follow my destiny, I screamed each time to be taken home. But my mother was persistent.
I don’t think it was only because “the gipsy had spoken”. My mother was a tall, overweight woman who had always thought of herself as plain and clumsy. There was no suppleness or softness about her – if you sat on her lap, her fierce whalebone corset was a buttress to prevent comfort, and she walked stiffly, as if clad in armour. Maybe there was a dancer inside her who wanted to get out that would only be assuaged if I pranced and pirouetted for her.
Finally, she found a dancing school that had the somewhat snigger-inducing name of the KY School, and these initials were emblazoned on our practice clothes. Madame Kavos Yandie, the owner of these initials, purported to be Spanish and had 11 letters after her name, all of which she was barred from using 20 years later when it was revealed that she had been born Kathleen Smith, from Peckham, and had never passed a dancing examination in her life.
Although she managed to persuade me to stay for a lesson, as soon as my mother collected me, I said I absolutely would not go again. “Why not?” my mother asked. I couldn’t think why not, and couldn’t scream in front of children I’d just been dancing with. “Why not?” repeated my mother. She’d got her foot in the door and was not going to give up. I had to have a good excuse. “Because a horrible girl put my head down the lavatory and pulled the chain.” Where I’d heard of this minor torture I had no idea.
“What’s this girl’s name?” my mother demanded, fury rising. I searched about and tried to remember someone’s name. Anyone’s name. “Doris.” I’d at last remembered one. My mother marched me back into the class, repeated my fantasy to Madame Yandie and poor Doris was banned from ever appearing at dancing class again.
I now had no excuse for not going, so I was dragged there a second time. By now my imagined treatment at the hands of Doris had made me notorious, and everyone in class had been told to be nice to me. So I began to enjoy being the centre of attention, and found that it was quite fun to learn to dance.
It had taken my mother two years to get me to go to dancing lessons, and in that time the Second World War had been declared. I was aware that this terrible and frightening thing might be going to happen, but it was eclipsed by the terror that I had turned five in June and would be attending Devonshire Hill Primary School the first week in September.
I enjoyed my first day there, where I learnt my first nursery rhyme: “I love little pussy, her coat is so warm, And if I don’t hurt her, she’ll do me no harm.” And I fell in love with a little boy called Gordon, with a shock of yellow hair, who was willing to let me hold his hand. There were three blissful days of this heady stuff, before we were told that the school was closing and we were all going to be evacuated.
It’s apparent to me now that until I was evacuated, I was never out of my mother’s sight. She had at last got the girl she wanted, and she wasn’t going to lose me. As soon as it was announced on the radio that war had been declared with Germany, I realised that the buzz of worry that had hovered over us for some months was now a real and dreadful happening.
Everyone went out into their back gardens and called out to one another. The Haywards next door, the Pritchards, the Mitchells, the Poulters, even Mrs Flowerday, our neighbour the other side of the allotment lane, who for some reason we weren’t normally allowed to speak to (probably because she “used language”), all were clearly terrified, though full of bluster. “Who does Adolf think he is?” “We’ll show ’em.” “When do you think the bombs will start?”
About a week later, I was taken by my mother, in my best clothes, to a railway station where, on a platform, there was a group of children from Devonshire Hill Primary. My mother put a brown cardboard box on a strap across my shoulder and told me it was my gas mask, and someone gave me a bar of chocolate and an orange and I was put on the train, and before I knew what was happening, the train was leaving and my mother wasn’t coming with me.
It wasn’t a very long journey as we were only going to Essex. We were herded off the train at Chelmsford and put on a bus that took us to our new homes in Great Baddow. After some days of agony, I luckily caught head lice and was sent home, and spent the rest of the war in north London, which was later quite heavily bombed. For some reason, I think probably fear that the authorities would force her to evacuate me again, my mother failed to send me to school; it just wasn’t mentioned again, and it was at this point my mother had chanced on the KY School in Wood Green, and I was busy training three or four times a week to fulfil my destiny.
Madame Yandie, who I think was considered a very attractive, slightly exotic 32-year-old, couldn’t have children, and soon after I started classes she asked my mother if she could adopt me. The idea being, I suppose, that she could give me “a better life”. (After all, she lived the other side of Lordship Lane, where the posh houses started.) But having received a firm refusal from my mother, she nevertheless petted me and made much of me, though there was something about her that always made me feel uncomfortable.
Soon after I started classes, she gave me her first great gift, a book called More About Josie, Click and Bun, by Enid Blyton. I don’t remember having seen a book before – there were none in the house, except maybe an almanac or possibly a household manual – and yet somehow I had learnt to read, because when I was about four, I was in my father’s arms and I looked up at the huge Bovril advertisement on a hoarding and read slowly and clearly: “Bovril puts beef into you”. I knew immediately that I had upset my father, as he turned sadly to my mother, saying, as if having to admit to a defect, “She can read.”
My father’s misery at my being able to read was because he made up stories to tell me from his own imagination, and he saw all that ending. I was never quite sure just how well he could read. I never saw him with a book. He read the newspaper in the evening, but as I grew older, I suspected that he just read headlines and the comic strips. He had received very little education: the youngest of 13 children, he had left school at 12 years old, to be employed as under-chauffeur (my father always pronounced it with a French accent) to the Marquis de Soveral, the Portuguese ambassador, in Surrey.
As I grew older, I realised that not only was he totally uneducated, but that he had weird blanks in his brain. For instance, when the first motorway was built, he insisted on calling it the MI (pronounced “eye”), even when I explained that there would be an M2 and an M3, and so on.
My love for my father was unconditional until the beginning of the war, when the terrible possibility entered my head that he might be Hitler. It happened almost overnight. Someone must have told him that he “looked a bit like Adolf”. This encouraged him to trim his moustache to look exactly like Hitler’s and to slick his hair across his forehead. He also wore a dark uniform with a peaked cap for his work.
Everyone who came to the house remarked on the likeness. One day he came home very proud of himself and told us, “I was on my knees reading the meter just off the Lower Clapton Road and this big woman, Jewish she was, I reckon, came up behind me, pushed me in the cupboard, locked the door, got the police in and told them she’d got Adolf Hitler, disguised as a meter reader, locked in her cupboard.”
It sounds absurd, but I was only five when this happened, and a little worm of doubt entered my mind that maybe, possibly, he really was Adolf. People laughed and admired him now, but when the Germans came and he was revealed as the terrible dictator, I would be dragged out into the street and have my head shaved. I worried away at the problem quietly, and spent a great deal of time working out how my mother, sister, brother and I could all squeeze into the lavatory to hide, as it was the only room with a lock.
I’ve wondered often since why my father should have enjoyed looking like the most hated man of our time. It wasn’t till reality shows started happening on television in the 1970s that I began to understand. He wanted to be a celebrity, and he would do anything to be noticed. He was certainly considered a good-looking man. Children adored him – my dancing friends called him “Uncle Funny Man”.
I hope his “dream of being famous for five minutes” was fulfilled when, years later, my parents went to holiday camps for their holidays (never Butlin’s – that was “too common”, my mother would say when she really meant “more expensive than the others”), and my father, in a grand gathering of contestants from various camps, held at a packed Lyceum in London, was crowned winner of the Mr Debonair contest.
After a year at the KY School, I had become Madame Yandie’s star pupil. I don’t think this was because I was a better dancer than the others, but because I had blonde curly hair and big eyes, everyone fancied I looked like Shirley Temple. In fact, by the time I was six, my hair had lost its curl; but my mother couldn’t bear me to have straight hair, so every night she would soak my hair in setting lotion and roll it in rags, and I had to try to sleep with these tight little knots all over my head. The trick worked and I had curly hair each morning, so there was still a possibility that I might become Tottenham’s own Shirley Temple – which was what Madame Yandie had in mind. It was a far cry from Pavlova.
She suggested to my parents (she flirted outrageously with my father, and in later years I wondered if they had had an affair) that they have cards printed saying: baby eileen, soubrette and dancer. I never did know what “soubrette” meant. I’ve just looked it up in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary to find that it means “maidservant or similar character implying pertness, intrigue and coquetry”.
I was to perform a solo song and dance act at working men’s clubs. I would be paid, Madame assured us, 15 shillings an engagement for just one number in an evening along with other artistes (it was always pronounced “arteests”) and I would become a little star. Both parents were very happy with the idea. I was told that a third of the money would be put away in the savings bank for me, and I wanted a bicycle, so I was up for it, too. I was six.
There are still plenty of working men’s clubs in existence, and I think that they are useful, friendly places, and these days are much more inclusive of women, but in the 1940s, though they may have had a “ladies’ night” occasionally, they were really exclusively male. My first gig was at a working men’s club in Finsbury Park, and both my mother and father were excited at the prospect, but I disliked everything about it. I didn’t like being hauled away from the living room fire in the evening to go out in the cold, and down into the Tube, which already had groups sleeping on the platform, and was soon to be so packed with people sheltering there that you had to step over sleeping bodies. I didn’t like the fog of smoke that hit you as you entered the hall of the club, the strong smell of beer and the overpowering odour of male sweat, and I didn’t like the way the other “arteests” looked at me.
There seemed to be only one protective rule for child performers and that was that they must be kept separate from the other performers. This, in most cases, meant that a curtain was hung across the corner of a dressing room – mostly one room for both sexes – and I was shoved behind it with my mother, zipped out of my siren suit and dressed in fancy little outfits, mostly with frilly knickers.
I don’t know if the word “paedophilia” was known in Tottenham, but one of the other performers would mutter, soon after my arrival as I disappeared behind the curtain, “Well, there’s a treat for the dirty old men out there tonight, then.” “I hate working with bloody kids.” “Yeah, they don’t have to bother with talent – just show their arses.” Throughout this talk, my mother would get flustered and try to distract me, and later, when she got more confident, she would put her head round the edge of the curtain and tell them to “Be quiet, you’ll upset the child.”
That first night, “Baby Eileen” was announced, and as the pianist struck up with my number, I walked up the steps to the platform dressed in a white cotton swimming costume with big red spots painted on it and a pair of flimsy wings attached to my back and to the middle fingers of both hands, and sang: “The Love Bug will get you if you don’t watch out/ If he ever bites you then you sing and shout...”
I couldn’t sing for toffee, but I could “put a song over”, as Madame Yandie called it, and I tap-danced well, so Baby Eileen’s career was launched. I tapped my way across Tottenham. Then, when I was seven or eight, Madame gave me her version of two “French” songs to do. The first was I Got Ze Eye, the chorus of which was:
I got ze eye, I got ze wink [wink at audience]
Ze wink that makes ze fellows think.
I got ze mouth zat goes like zis [kiss the air]
Ooh là là I am French and a Frenchy girl can kiss
I got ze smile [smile], I got ze style [hand on hip]
Zat makes ze old men young la la [look naughty]
Zey hug and squeeze me like a sheikh [cuddle yourself]
Zen zey kiss me on ze [pause] cheek
Ooh là là, comme ci comme ça.
Although I did these gigs regularly in working men’s clubs, with my mother in tow, as I grew a little older I began to feel embarrassed, even though I wasn’t the only child doing it. A girl called Shani Wallis (the first Nancy in Oliver!), who had a wonderful voice, was beginning to be quite famous from doing clubs, but she really could sing and didn’t have to waggle her bottom. I always felt when I was doing my “sexy” numbers that there was something slightly wrong, but I really didn’t know exactly why until at a party at a schoolfriend’s house I was encouraged to do one of my numbers.
I did Carmen Miranda’s famous song I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi, I Like You Very Much, shaking my non-existent breasts and gyrating my bottom in an exaggerated fashion because I thought it would make the girls laugh – which it did. My friend’s father was a vicar, and he sent me home with a note for my mother saying that what she was encouraging me to do was disgusting.
I was ashamed for myself and ashamed that my mother was criticised, and upset that she was upset.
“What a prude,” she fumed. “It’s just a bit of fun.”
But my instinct told me the vicar was right. In September 1940 the bombing started in earnest. We were all packed into the Anderson shelter, and the first time I heard a bomb drop nearby, I imitated the noise: “Wheee… BANG!” I shouted, clapping my hands. “Thank God she’s going to find it funny,” my mother said to my father. I never found it funny again.
Suddenly, one Sunday, to our amazement, my mother announced that we were not going to sleep in the Anderson shelter any longer. “It’s cold and damp down there,” she said. “We’ve all got colds, and before we know where we are, we’ll be dead of pneumonia. We might as well take our chance and stay in the house.” So we arranged ourselves in the house. My mother and I slept in the alcove by the fire (chimneys were often left standing in bombed houses), my brother by the door that led to the passage, my sister under the door frame from the living room to the kitchen, and my father in the bath, which was, of course, in the kitchen.
Three nights later, at about 3am, our Anderson shelter took a direct hit from a high-explosive bomb. We would all have been killed had we been in it. As it was, although the windows and doors of the house had been blown out and bits of ceiling had come down, no one was hurt.
Madame Yandie, looking tremendously glamorous in a fur coat, fur Cossack hat and brilliant scarlet- lipsticked lips, offered to take me to her home – no one else in the family, just me. It was in a row of mock-Tudor houses, set well back from the road with a huge grass verge, and a front door that had stained glass. It made me nervous. Everyone else I knew lived in a council house or over a shop. We all called Madame Yandie “Madame”, so it came as a bit of a shock when she asked me to call her Auntie Kathleen. I can’t have had to stay with her more than a few days, but it felt like months.
As soon as I was inside the house, she gave me some food and said she was sure I would like to have a nap after such a dreadful night. It felt odd going to bed in the daytime, but I thought I should say yes. After about half an hour, she got into bed with me, lifted my pyjama top and started lightly scratching my back with long, slow strokes. I was rigid with fear and embarrassment. Then she asked me if I liked her doing this. I couldn’t speak. I had come from a family where no one hugged or cuddled. The only affection any of us received was a kiss on the cheek when you went to bed. That she was lying in bed with me seemed weird, and that she should touch me in any way made me very uneasy.
She went on for a bit longer, then got up and went away. I didn’t like it and I really didn’t want to stay in her house. She had no idea what to do with me, and one day spent the whole afternoon teaching me to do “a frayed edge” on a piece of silk, as if I were a rich Victorian child. I remember thinking, “Is this what she thinks children do at home?” My instinct told me she was a phoney. Everything about her was pretentious. Her made-up name, her made-up honours, her talk of working with the great Italian ballet master Cecchetti, the often ridiculous dances she dreamt up – when the actuality was that she was mainly teaching me how to shake my ass on stage.
Though the windows in our house were still boarded up downstairs and we had to have the lights on all the time, I was very happy to get home again. Then, one afternoon, an official-looking man knocked at our door. My mother answered it. “Is this number 17?” he said briskly. “Yes.” “And was this house bombed recently?” “No,” said my mother with great sarcasm. “We like living like this.”
He soon wiped the smile off her face. “It seems from the ARP report that there are two children in the house, one a boy who apparently attends Tottenham Grammar School, but the girl doesn’t seem to attend any school. Or can you put me right on that?” In the dark living room by the fire, I froze. I was going to have to go to school.
Risley Avenue School was a vast, ugly, Victorian building with high railings round it, and my first day there was horrible. “Crybaby!” they all yelled round me as I tried to hide in the doorway. “Stupid crybaby.” I climbed back up a couple of steps to try to get back into the building when someone caught a glimpse of my knickers.
My knickers were a trial for me throughout the whole of my school life. My mother made them out of whatever she had left over. Any material was used that wasn’t “see-through”. So I had anything from scarlet satin, candy stripes to highly coloured flowered cotton, all with a high leg cut à la a “bunny girl” outfit (sans tail). I longed for the soft navy bloomers that other girls had, but no matter how much I begged, my mother was adamant. She “wasn’t going to waste money on those ugly navy drawers”. At dancing class we all wore the same red cotton knickers, so I hadn’t been bothered. There was a great shout of “she’s got funny knickers on”, and then no matter which way I turned or ran, a boy would flick up my skirt and a shriek would go up.
At the end of the week, I told my mother there was no way I was going there again. I said I’d run away if she sent me. I don’t know whether my mother asked Madame Yandie for help or she just offered – all I know is that I would have had a very different life if she hadn’t decided to pay two guineas a term (six pounds and six shillings a year) for me to go to a small private school called Parkside, which was sometimes referred to as a “dame” school.
I was beginning to be rebellious. One ridiculous argument was over a bowl of gooseberries, my favourite fruit, which my mother had placed on the table as a treat after tea. “Yippee,” I said, “goosegogs.” “Gooseberries,” my mother said. “Goosegogs,” I insisted. “Everyone calls them goosegogs.”
“Only common children. You won’t get any until you call them by their right name.” “Goosegogs, goosegogs, goosegogs,” I chanted stubbornly as my mother gave everyone a portion except me. They were the last of the season and I knew it was unlikely there would be any more that summer, but I sat there saying “goosegog” under my breath until they were all gone, then ran upstairs to cry. After a while she came to the bedroom and tried to put her arms round me, but I wouldn’t give in and moved away from her.
“Everyone in the street calls them goosegogs,” I said again sullenly. “But I don’t want you to be like everyone in the street,” said my mother. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I want you to be different.” There was silence, then with great effort she managed to say, almost in a whisper, “Because I love you.”
She could barely squeeze the word out. It was the only time in her life she ever said it, and it had embarrassed us both. But, of course, this was quite normal. It wasn’t until the 1960s that most people started saying “I love you” to their children. It might have occurred among the middle classes, but certainly not among working-class families, and I’m pretty sure not in the upper classes, either. Then television came along and told everyone they should be saying it.
It wasn’t until after the war, when I was 13, that I finally rebelled about Baby Eileen. There were terrible arguments with my mother then, but luckily my grammar school – Latymer, in Edmonton – had discovered my sleazy secret and told my mother that she was exhausting me and it should stop. Instead, Madame Yandie got me into pantomime, as she had promised my mother. She got me an audition to be one of “Vane’s Juveniles”, who were to appear in Cinderella at Christmas at the Clapham Empire for two weeks and Kilburn Empire for two weeks, and they accepted me.
I enjoyed the experience enormously. I was the tallest of a very jolly group of girls and we were all excited to be performing in a real theatre. My height had stopped me getting picked for the top shows in the West End, as they liked the child dancers to be all roughly the same height and as short as possible. Some mothers even gave their girls gin in the hope of stunting their growth so that they could be child performers for a few more years. I had to be thankful my mother hadn’t stooped to that trick.
When we finally got to a rehearsal, it turned out that there was an exchange with Buttons that required one of Vane’s Juveniles to say three lines:
SMALL GIRL: Buttons, what is it that has six legs, six arms and five eyes?
BUTTONS: I don’t know, I don’t know. What is it that has six legs, six arms and five eyes?
SMALL GIRL: Three sailors.
BUTTONS: Three sailors? Wait a minute. Wait a minute – six legs, six arms and five eyes?
SMALL GIRL: One of them was Nelson.
I was picked for this witty repartee. It was all beginning to look as though my mother’s dreams were coming true. Here I was, dancing on the stage in a proper theatre and speaking lines, and she could luxuriate in the bright lights, the music and general bonhomie backstage. She was in “show business”. This was going to be my life, and she was part of it. Everything was coming up roses.
One evening, in the early 1950s when I was 19, I was walking from my shabby digs in Oxford to the theatre where I was an ASM, which meant that I was sweeping the stage, borrowing props, begging furniture, prompting and occasionally appearing on stage and saying a line or two if I was lucky.
It was a dreary autumn evening with thin rain soaking right through to one’s soul, and the last part of the journey took me down a very affluent, architecturally admired street of houses where most lower-ground floors had been turned into kitchen-diners and had their lights on, displaying the domestic scenes within. A woman cooking, laying the table for supper, often one or two children helping, and at one house I observed a man as he opened the front door, and I stopped to watch him as he entered the scene downstairs. The welcome, the smiles, the kissing, the laughing. And I was overwhelmed by the thought that I would never be that woman, because at this twilight hour I would always be on my way to the theatre.
Standing in the seeping rain, I was drenched with melancholy. I trudged on to the theatre and pushed through the stage door, which led to the green room, stinking of cigarettes, littered with dirty mugs and two sleeping actors sprawled on chairs. My melancholy vanished in seconds. This is my home, I thought, as I happily gathered up the mugs. This is where I belong and where I’ll always want to be.
Will She Do? by Eileen Atkins (Virago, £18.99) is out on Oct 7