Significant Otherness : Tony Peake : A Friend for Life, Part 2 & 3.

II. COINCIDENCE  :  The Waiting (Sitzkrieg)

The audition was a success made more perfect by meeting friends I had not seen in a while, Allan Leas being the most prominent and later, his wife Nana, whom I’d last seen at the Young Vic four years earlier at a performance of PARADISE IS CLOSING DOWN, a Pieter Dirk Uys piece that was playing there with Naomi BuchBarbara Kinghorn, and Helen Bourne

So off I went to the Netherlands, to Amsterdam, to appear in Anthony’s new play SOMEWHERE ON THE BORDER

The official poster. We opened in Ijmuiden but played De Bali in Amsterdam and De Spijker.

In the meantime I had discovered that the coincidences surrounding our similar South African backgrounds had made it extraordinary that Tony and I had never met before. We had friends in common; our respective parents had emigrated from Britain with that great post-war exodus in the late 40’s; we were both baby-boomers – just. He was born in Johannesburg, I was born in Cape Town; we attended similar schools : his in the Transvaal and mine in Natal – all private; and then went to Universities in Grahamstown, Rhodes (heretofore) for him and in Cape Town, UCT for me.

He had not been conscripted into the SADF for the obligatory post-school training, lucky man, but I had. He came to Britain in 1972 with a wife and an infant son, Irene and Zac. I arrived in London having shredded my South African Passport, on a one-way ticket in 1979. We were both escaping the Apartheid regime which we loathed and, in my case, an endless succession of military call-ups over nine years culminating in actual action along the Angola/Zambia borders on two tours.

All this I found out after I’d left Tony in his office with his Panama hat, clutching my copy of the play, from friends who had known him and didn’t know I didn’t!

But we did not get together for two more years. I went off to Holland for almost five months to rehearse, open and tour SOMEWHERE ON THE BORDER round the Netherlands. It turned out to be an incredible experience, without doubt the best Ensemble involvement I have ever had in my entire acting career. 

Not only was it an excellent piece, professionally produced and properly paid but it acted as a kind of catharsis for me, a liberation from ugly experiences in my own army training and from the guilt engendered by Apartheid. 

The Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR) was founded in 1978 by the merging of two groups of South African war resisters active in Britain. It functioned as a self-help organization for South African military refugees. It also worked to raise the issue of militarism in South Africa and conducted research into the South African military structure and resistance. 

Allan Leas was a founder member of this organisation and also in the Company, playing the character Campbell, and it was no coincidence that the subject of the play was directly related to these matters.

Allan Leas on the right with Anky Mager, our dramaturg and producer with her husband Paul van Os.

Some of the other actors had come to Europe claiming refuge from the SA military call-up and had received in Holland a far more sympathetic hearing than in Britain, then under Mrs Thatcher who, after all, regarded the ANC and SWAPO as terrorist organisations and would hardly be sympathetic to white conscripts claiming refuge in England.

By this time Tony Peake had joined London Management a portmanteau company comprising agents and representatives for actors, writers, directors, dancers and others. He continued to pursue his writing, in private, on his Olivetti.

Tony came to Holland during this time, to see how his client, Anthony, and his project were progressing. That he was a divorcee, with two children and was trailing an exotic, French girlfriend underlined the message I had already been given by friends that though he might be a blond, willowy, lovely man, he was not part of that gay firmament that currently held me in thrall. We were polite at these meetings, but distant.

Holland had a transformative effect on me in many areas. I was not the same person when I reluctantly returned to England after a short skiing trip with Dutch friends to Mayrhofen. I wish I had a ‘before’ picture. The one here is an ‘after’ one!

These pictures are from my Shoebox Files.

When I returned to England in January 1984 I went to work briefly on Ross Devenish’s BBC TV production of BLEAK HOUSE and, as a cash-in-hand fill-in, helped run the Riverside Studio Box Office where suddenly one morning Tony Peake’s head popped over the parapet looking for tickets for something or other, and we chatted and exchanged phone numbers, he was looking for a bridge four and asked if I played the game. I do and so did he. 

A long silence eventually broken by several telephone calls asking if I’d make up a bridge four but by then I was playing Fritz Eppler, the lion tamer and circus stunt man, in the BBC’s TV series about the exotic vet, David Taylor, ONE BY ONE and had no time for bridge. 

Fritz Eppler, Lion tamer and circus stuntman, ONE BY ONE for BBC TV with Rob Heyland as Dr. David Taylor.

Then suddenly in September I was asked to accompany Friend Lois to Tony’s 33rd Birthday party. She and Tony had been friends since Rhodes University days. I was happy to oblige. Apparently Tony had asked that she bring me but when that day dawned, Lois was ill and couldn’t come. I knew no-one else at the party so tried to cry off but she prevailed and feeling foolish, it was a ‘black & white’ fancy dress set up, I hied me to Tufnell Park, to the home of Alistair Beaton whom I’d never met and didn’t know. He answered the door dressed in white rompers and black tie.

Wallflower time :  the flat was full of people many of whom are now my friends, including a shy little boy called Zac, Tony’s son who was at the party with his grandmother, Tony’s mother also called Irene. It was all rather disconcerting. Tony was polite but distant and I wasn’t at all sure why I was there.

Then in through the door walked Friend Edward Russell-Walling who I’d not seen for literally years, now returned to live in England trailing behind him his ex-wife Wendy destined too to become a close friend. 

Edward in Malta many years later.

Edward knew no-one either. Wendy was the link. She knew Tony. How full of coincidence is the world, six degrees of separation, not so? I fell on him relieved to have a familiar face. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers and I left the party in Jonathan Altaras’ sports car – but that’s another story.

It was Edward that unknowingly facilitated our final get-together the following year, 1985.

III. ACTION  :  The BEGINNING (Blitzkrieg)

When I came to live in London in 1979, I had tentatively ‘’come out’’ but was not at all extrovert about this. So much has be written by gay men about coming to terms with their orientation, about their fear,  the uncertainty,  their anxieties that I won’t describe it all now. In South Africa it was illegal to be a practicing gay man. You could be imprisoned, fined, shamed, lose your job, lose your credibility and it was not something that was bandied about in any open way at all. In the army if you were caught inflagrenti dilicto you would be arrested and probably subjected to forced aversion therapy at the hands of some particularly nasty Psychiatrist at the military hospital in Pretoria. You could then also be dishonourably discharged. It was a terrifying prospect.

Darling Wendy Searle with Tony in Venice in 1991. How we both miss her.

Of course working in the Arts helped. After all, ballet dancers, thespians and members of the artistic community were rather expected to be sensitive types, to be on the musical side, to be moffies. Or so the thinking went, so if you were quiet about who you were, you’d be left alone.

All this was left behind and I embraced new freedoms in London where I knew no one, where anonymity is valued. At first, while re-training at LAMDA, I was too busy with my courses and learning to live in a new country; but by the end of my time there it would not be an exaggeration to say that there was an explosion of gay self-discovery – and no one to comment or pass any judgement whatsoever.

This freedom and the promiscuousness that went with it coincided with the rise of a new and terrifying pandemic called AIDS. In England the brakes were not applied on behaviour for a while; we were behind the United States on that as on so much. 

For me the endless visits to clubs and pubs, to saunas and gyms – to a veritable “swimming pool library” of activity started to pall. I wanted proper company; I wanted permanence and a domestic existence. I wanted love and it dawned on me that I’d never find that kind of thing on a circuit of promiscuity. Apart from anything else such activities could kill you if you were not careful. 

So prudence prevailed. Now there would be dates made; coffees and dinners and theatre outings with others to – I hoped, I imagined!

Not so easy though.

And then in March 1985 Friend Edward invited me to a flat warming in Kensington to celebrate his new address. There were many I knew there and who should turn up on the arm of Wendy Searle but Tony Peake. I thought Wendy was his wife or, at least partner but it was at that party that the scales fell from my eyes as they say and what had never been evident suddenly became so.

We talked and talked eyeing each other up and at the end he and Wendy, who was a close friend, dropped me off at Dolphin Square where promises were made to commit telephony and make a date.

A whole weekend went by before the phone eventually rang. 

A date was made : The Ides of March 1985.

We have been together ever since. I care not how public I make this, for unlike men and women, there was no platform then from which to crow one’s love and one’s gratitude at finding someone so special and wonderful; no churches or receptions. 

That all came many years later, when Tony Blair legislated for Civil Partnerships. We had been together by then for 21 years. The rings we exchanged were engraved with the proper date, the 15th March, 1985.