After the war, when England was still in monochrome, and we baby-boomers were in romper suits plotting the swinging ’60s, shell-shocked grown-ups spoke wistfully about a place called ‘before the war’. For us still on rationing, America was the promised land, flowing with Coke and peanut butter, where goody-goody cowboys galloped about with their white teeth.
Friends there would send us parcels: blue jeans, candy cigarettes and the LPs of Broadway shows. We had a tablecloth with all the landmarks of New York on it, and took turns sitting next to the Ferris wheel of Coney Island. New York was our Narnia; we’d read Eloise at The Plaza and seen Lady and the Tramp – I dreamed of living in a skyscraper and having a quiff.
When my father sailed off on the Queen Mary to do a play on Broadway, we added a PS to our prayers, ‘Please let the reviews be good.’ (In the end they were ‘mixed’ – a showbiz euphemism for bad.)
For us still on rationing, America was the promised land, flowing with Coke and peanut butter
I pictured him there in the Damon Runyon heartland. I had learnt all the songs from Guys and Dolls, my favourite lyric was, ‘My time of day is the dark time… when the smell of the rain- washed pavement comes up clean and fresh and cold. And the street lamplight fills the gutter with gold…’ I imagined Daddy in his tweed suit scooping it up like Dick Whittington, and that he’d come home with cowboy shirts for us all.
Long before I ever went there I loved New York – a legend in every corner, Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, Rocky Marciano. I ruled lines on to flimsy airmail paper before I wrote to him – ‘The dogs are well. Can you send some bubble gum?’
My mother’s letters had to include a summary of what was happening in The Archers. He was homesick for Ambridge, the never-never land he’d spent five years fighting to defend. She had to break it to him that Grace Archer had died in a stable fire – what a shock it must have been for him stuck in a drawing-room comedy on Broadway, light years from Borsetshire.
Nowadays on Sunday mornings when I’m torn between church and The Archers Omnibus, I remember him tapping his boiled egg as the theme music began. There’d be a faraway look in his eyes and conversation was out of the question.
If I could have told him 50 years ago that one day I’d be a resident of Ambridge myself, living in sin with Grace Archer’s niece, Lillian, he might not have objected so passionately to me becoming an actor. Listening to myself as Justin Elliott I wonder if he’d notice how like him I sound – a chip off the old block.
As well as playing Justin in The Archers, Simon is in Alan Bennett’s Allelujah! at The Bridge Theatre