I knew when he told me he was going to the ballet it would be a problem. It always is. Not Covent Garden, but a packed Dorking Halls. The Royal Opera House screening live to 1,500 cinemas in 35 countries.
Just for a moment, shut your eyes. Imagine you are in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with the love of your life. The curtains are closed and the lights go down. And the music starts…
And then the curtains open.
But for Bobby now it is always a problem. Always will be. If there is one thing in Bobby’s bereavement that really tugs the heart strings it is the ballet and its attachment to Covent Garden.
Many of you might well wonder what the attraction is to “Sarf London” Bobby. He even doubted himself. Telling those who mattered years ago that there was no chance of a proper geezer ever going to the poncey ballet. It was for rich people. People who liked posh classical music. Posh people. Hardly a place for the likes of Bobby. So no. Don’t even ask. No way.
And then son Andrew bought his parents tickets in the dress circle at Covent Garden for the Boxing Day performance of Cinderella. It was late 1980s and a very apprehensive Sarf Londoner walking into an opera house. Way above his station, until he found he was sitting in front of the Right Honourable John Gummer MP and his brat children. In front. blocking his view. A bleedin Tory. “People watching”, he discovered that some people were in jeans! There were some posh types and, being Christmas and a pantomime ballet, a lot of very spoilt Henriettas and FFionas. And they shut the doors before the performance started. However posh you might be, you were not allowed in once an act had started. Worst of all, Bobby soon discovered he couldn’t talk. Not even in a whisper.
This was a foreign world. One that Bobby did not belong to.
And then the lights went down. The music started and the ballet proper. The story was the same. The ugly sisters were still men. Cinderella still a waif. There was still a pumpkin coach and mice. But, this was sprinkled with stardust. The prince a magnificent male dancer. None of that weird girly kissing. He was mesmerised. Starstruck. Transported to another world that maybe he could belong to. More than anything it was the music. There is nothing like a live orchestra.
The next Christmas, Andrew did the same thing again. This time Cinderella was danced by the most famous French prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem. Sarf London Bobby suddenly found himself thinking she might be famous, but she is no Cinderella! No waif. Hardly down trodden. Too tall and awkward with a broom. Also known as “Mademoiselle Non” for her uncompromising personality. In his second ballet he had become a critic. He wanted more and more: The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, La Fille Mal Gardee, Giselle and best of all – Swan Lake. All followed. He was hooked. Line and sinker. The years went by, as did the marriage.
And then there was Diddley. A love affair. He printed his own invitation for Swan Lake. “Diane Diddley Ball is cordially invited to a performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House”. She couldn’t believe it. Having Bobby-like tendencies that she wasn’t good enough for the Royal Opera House. “What will I wear? That first time he could see in her eyes. Even in the amphitheatre. “Am I really here?’ But soon took the opportunity of celebrating her elevation with the most expensive glass of champagne in history. It didn’t matter. There was joy in their eyes. They had found something so special to share. Something to feel proud about. Something that no one else they knew did. When her boss asked her what she was doing that weekend she puffed out her chest and said “I am going to the ballet”. “Oh. Where?” “Covent Garden”. “I say, how splendid. Who are you going with?” “Bobby, of course.”
The look of shock and disbelief had to be witnessed. “BOBBY!?”
That night they saw Darcey Bussell dance and he fell in love with her as well. The years went by and their yearly trips to Covent Garden became common place. They saw most of the classic ballets. Some more than once. But Giselle escaped them. There were rituals. The ROH had now been rebuilt at enormous expense with lottery money and controversy. Accusations of elitism were scorned by those like Bobby who, just a few years before, might have been an accuser. As he saw it there were seats no dearer than West End theatre prices. With a cast of dozens and sets from heaven. And a full orchestra. The amphitheatre of old was no longer an amphitheatre but an incorporated space as glorious as the rest of the Opera House. Where they always sat, the magnificent domed roof had the stage lighting concealed behind and the engineering of that always fascinated Bobby. As did the impressive glowing green serpentine bar for Diddley.
Andrew now had his own Giselle. He too loved the ballet and christened his first born Giselle (see Brief Encounter).
Diddley liked playing games. Wandering around the posh downstairs, insisting that Bobby wore a black T-shirt and jacket to look a bit arty crafty. They saw lots of famous people. Standing next to the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, one night and realising how tiny he was. She commented ”did you think the music was a bit flat tonight?”
One night he was “encouraged” to go back to Waterloo Station in a rickshaw. Sod the expense. This was true love.
Here’s Darcey in all her glory:
Interval drinks were another ritual. No drinks ordered in advance but bought at the bar, as they wanted to sit in the window looking down on the main area – seemingly suspended in space for those downstairs looking up. People watching. As the interval lights went on he rushed to get a seat. Until one day Diddley decided to stay in her seat in the auditorium.
With Bobby’s 70th birthday approaching, he finally booked “Giselle” for the night after. Diddley so badly wanted it to be special she booked two nights at the Russell Hotel. How exciting was that! For one night only, no walk back to Waterloo Station. No feeling strange about the pure extravagance and glamour of the ballet when compared to the rough sleepers in the subways near the station. No need to worry about interval drinks. Against the rules, she had brought her own. A large handbag smuggled in. Full of small bottles of wine. With one eye on Giselle, and the other on a large bag slipping up and down, the ballet was ruined. Semi inebriated they (not him) retired to the Italian they liked. And back to the hotel. The last ballet they ever went to.
Soon after, Bobby finally succumbed to the anxiety (GAD) that had haunted him for months. Then Diddley became ill. Bobby recovered. She did not.
In the months that followed her demise, he discovered a secret bank account set up to pay for her own funeral. With more than enough for the best you could get as funerals go, there was enough to treat everybody the following Christmas. Four grandchildren and three adults went to the matinee of the Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House. An unforgettable experience, particularly for grandaughter Giselle. Paid for by Granny Di.
And the curtain came down. Maybe forever. Bobby could not go to Covent Garden on his own – any more than go with anyone else. The memories are set for all time.
Instead, there is the new thrill of live ballet on cinema screens. It can never equal the atmosphere of actually being at the Opera House. But it does have advantages. It is live and seen close up. Facial expressions, the lot. There is much more in having commentaries before and during the intervals. Interviews with the artistic directors, stage designers et al. How ballet shoes are made, maybe. And all it seems with the ubiquitous, lovely Darcey Bussell giving the whole thing a validity for those who could never go to Covent Garden but can go to their local cinema. Frankly, it is bringing ballet to a wider audience. And the Opera. He went to see Madame Butterfly at the cinema, which had subtitles for all that Italian singing, which enhanced that experience no end. One odd downside is that applause is a big part of ballet. Lots of it. In the middle, for special dances, and at the end endless applause. Flowers for the ladies. Curtain calls. In the cinema, it’s very flat. People seemingly embarrassed to join those at the Opera House. Those irritating people who walk out directly the curtain first closes, as they do during final film credits, often accompanied by lovely music.
And here’s a fact. The lovely Darcey. Now the star of Strictly, was christened Marnie Mercedes Darcey Pemberton Crittle! How posh is that? Bussell came from her mother’s second husband’s surname.
There is sadness and joy here but, ultimately, it is the recognition that “what ifs” and pure luck can change your life forever. The plain truth is that Andrew bought those tickets all those years ago to satisfy his mother’s wish to go to the ballet at the Royal Opera House. His dad was merely the reluctant chaperone. He could never have known in a million years that it would be his Sarf London dad that fell in love with Covent Garden and the ballet… and the music.
There are so many memorable moments, but here are just two. Both from the greatest ballet of all. Swan Lake. Illustrating the incredible artistry and athleticism of the dancers.
Thirty turns on point shoes…(wait for the lady) fantastic
The wonderful dance of the Four Cygnets
Ohhh and a bonus …. the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the
And for the coming season of live screening of ballets and opera, go to www.roh.org.uk/cinemas.
And finally there are also BP Big Screens around the country filming the same productions. He could have watched Swan Lake in Trafalgar Square. Free.
Promise me one thing. If you have never been to the Royal Opera House, you must. But note – all productions are sold out. You need to book early in booking periods. Bobby actually went to the ROH and bought them in person.
The Russell Hotel was closed, boarded up and completely refurbished to emerge as the Principal London. Still the same outside. Still memorable from the top of the 73 bus.
But I will be glad when this story is posted and he stops watching those clips and listening to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score. He knows in truth that they were wonderful times that could not go on forever. But excuse him a little tear when he next sees the ballet at the cinema.
Lighting a Candle for Diddley.
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