During the rehearsals of a pantomime in a Scottish town, an infant is needed for the Spirit of the Mustard-pot. Ellen Terry’s father offers her services. He has acted both at Edinburgh and Glasgow, throughout the 1820s and 30s, and the stage-manager will assume she has inherited talent. In addition, her mane of pale yellow hair and small size is perfect for the mustard-pot. They try to put her inside, but Ellen howls and screams, showing far more lung power than temper for the stage.
The park slopes upwards, away from where Dan and I sit near the stage. Above the rows of festival goers on their picnic rugs and fold away chairs, children have gathered at a basin in the hill. There is something in this assembling, like ants drawing round a spillage of honey, coming from far, somehow knowing about this treasure.
The larger children run from one side of the basin to the other: down into the grassy trough with their arms flailing, shouting and laughing, now up the other side, staggering between bushes and narrow tree trunks, some flopping over and even choosing to roll back down into the swarm below – even better if they can knock someone over.
Toddlers are bent double, using their hands for balance as they walk – straightening up for brief moments to look around them, their faces wide with wonder. Now, one sits down with an abrupt bump, astonished. Kids pick things up from the ground – stones, twigs – throwing them, hurrying on.
It is a haven, this bowl in the park, where only childhood roams.
This is the first things Ellen Terry remembers:
In the corner of a lean-to, whitewashed attic stands a simple, solid oak bureau. Standing on this bureau, she can watch the sunset from the window. The smoke of a thousand chimneys hangs like a grey veil, with the fires in the sky burning beyond.
Before her father and mother leave for the theatre each night, they put her to bed, but directly their backs are turned and the door locked, she jumps up and goes to the window.
Her bed consists of a mattress laid on the floor – on father’s side. Ellen is – she believes – her father’s particular pet. She will sleep all night, holding his hand.
One night, Ellen Terry wakes to find a lovely face, bending over her – thick, rich brown hair tumbling forward. Father has lit a candle so that the visitor might see. As Ellen’s eyes adjust, she realises the face belongs to a lady with a beautiful complexion, wearing a silk dress. This is the first silk dress she has ever seen. She stares into the woman’s soft, brown eyes, which appear very dark – perhaps because the Terry’s are all very fair. Ellen reaches out to touch the gold chain around the woman’s smooth neck. The woman is her aunt. Ellen will never forget this exquisite vision.
A heavy bank of cloud travels across the sky, throwing a shadow over the crowd and park below. As it breaks, people lift their faces, leaning back onto rugs and bin liners. Trees quiver, but the sound of leaves in the wind is drowned out by the music. A large group surrounds the stage, dancing gently.
The DJ on stage has pulled up the sleeves of his leather jacket to allow his arms to move more freely. All around me, the crowd punch their fists into the air in time to the music. The DJ dances, pressing his fingers to an earphone, using the other hand to spin the record into place. As the song mixes in, a powerful swell of cheering goes through the crowd. People jump and wave. The DJ smiles and nods his head with the beat.
Towards the end of his set, the DJ gestures to someone off stage. There are two figures, standing in the shadows. Perhaps they have been there some time, watching. He leaves his decks and wanders towards them, pulling one of the figures into the light. It is a young girl, who struggles a little at first and then allows herself to be brought onto the stage. This must be his daughter. She looks about eight or nine, casting hurried glances out to the crowd and tugging her hair over her face like a curtain.
Now, he is lifting her up on the speakers at the front of the stage as everyone cheers. He steps back and she reaches for him, but he points to the crowd who have raised their arms. She turns to us and he goes back to his decks. The little girl steps from side to side, her knees soft so that she bops up and down. She wears all black. Her hair is long, thick – it is a comfort to her as she pulls it first over her face, then tucks it back behind her ears, and now twists it round her fingers. She keeps looking over her shoulder at her father, turned slightly away from the crowd, swaying, fiddling. She seems to be begging him.
She’s not so shy at home, he says over the microphone.
She continues playing with her hair, glancing at us, swaying, looking over her shoulder at her father, swaying more. He nods and smiles. People are waving, clapping. She looks out again, giggling. We cheer. She glances at her father once more who brings his hands together over his head. Slowly, she lifts her arms into the air, and the crowd go wild.
In her autobiography, Ellen Terry held very strongly that a child’s earliest impressions moulded its character. Things came and went in her life, but she always adored pretty faces like that of her aunt.
She was also unable to keep away from shops where they sold good old furniture like her bureau, which became like a stage to her – the sunset beyond the window a glowing, adoring audience. She liked simple rooms with low ceilings better than any other; and for her afternoon siesta she often chose a mattress on the floor.
She abandoned the stage twice – on the second occasion, leaving London without word so that her parents thought her dead.
But she always returned.
Before his set, I’d seen the DJ in the crowd, though at first I wasn’t sure and looked harder. He took a swig from a can of beer and wiped his chin. The movement exposed more of his face. I tapped Dan on the arm and pointed.
Hey, isn’t that –
Yeah, Dan said. It is.
The DJ was alone. It was strange to see him like that, anonymous, looking almost forlorn – in the way that celebrity can be when it’s unidentified. Something about his leather jacket gave a sense of him shrugged into himself. He took another sip of beer, glancing sideways. His face was expressionless.
But then, two young boys approach. They tap him on the shoulder and lean in very closely as they speak. Eventually, the DJ nods and the three of them begin rearranging themselves – one of the boys standing with his back to the stage now, raising a camera. The DJ and the other boy stand with their backs to me, motionless, waiting. The boy’s arm is flat across the DJ’s shoulders, his palm pressing flat on the dark leather, holding.
After this, as if a floodgate has been opened, more and more people come, slowly at first but then increasing – the taps on the DJ’s shoulder, closing in on each other, closer, closer, until finally, he turns with a rigid jerk. But, very quickly, he checks himself – the edgy look on his face replaced with a smile. He nods, strangely submissive or resigned, and shuffles into position, people on either side of him, their arms a lattice across his back, a clamp. I feel strange to imagine the smile on the DJ’s face as he looks into the camera. It was this that first made me think of Ellen Terry because of a photo I’d seen once.
In 1864 Julia Margaret Cameron photographed Ellen Terry. In the picture, Ellen Terry leans against a wall – almost pressing her cheek to it, as if seeking comfort. Her eyes, cast down – the hand that rises up to hang a finger off the beads around her neck – add a sense of lonesomeness. Nearly a century later, J B Priestly was to talk of ‘the mystery, the challenge, the torment, the solace’.
The picture was made during Ellen Terry’s honeymoon. It is entitled, ‘Sadness’.
Perhaps I was sickened slightly by this constant stream of people, taking photos. But I was struck also with that first glimpse I’d had of the DJ in the crowd, lonesome in his obscurity, knowing myself what a taste the limelight can leave you with. I felt that I wanted to talk to this man, who I’d grown up watching in a strange and beguiling TV show. But why?
I asked myself whether I wanted a piece of his celebrity. No, it wasn’t that – I didn’t want a photo. But of course, there was a reason I got up and wandered down the hill to the stage where he stood. I didn’t know what I was going to say – only that I wouldn’t tap him on the shoulder.
Down here, the music is so loud that I have to lean in close to his ear. Even this feels presumptuous. I am near enough to smell the leather of his jacket, see the lines in the skin of his hand as it grips the can of beer.
What’s it like with all these people wanting to take your picture? I ask.
It is a moment before he looks at me.
Fucking annoying, he says, and we both laugh. His eyes are a gentle brown, questioning.
Why do you do it? I say.
You’ve got to, he tells me.
Do you ever say no?
When my kids are with me.
I would remember this later – when he and his daughter are on stage – and again I would think of Ellen Terry, the fact that her parents only had one destiny in mind for her. One biographer describes that attic room of hers as a prison. But, there are always two versions, especially for those under the spotlight. Even our own actions aren’t always clear – not to us, and not to those people we act upon.
I am about to say something to the DJ when a woman taps his shoulder. Another photograph. The fan gestures with the camera and asks if I can take the picture.
You’ve become complicit! he tells me as I look at them through the lens.
Shall I start charging? I say.
I want to be able to continue talking, just the two of us, as normally as possible, but that is hopeless. More people come, each time, handing their cameras to me. Once this rush dies down, he asks if I’m enjoying the festival and we talk about the acts. Someone asks for his autograph then and afterwards he sighs and touches my elbow. He tells me that he only wanted to come out and enjoy the show before his set.
During the performance of her first role, at age eight, Ellen Terry is so eager to watch the scenes she’s not in that she borrows a knife from a carpenter and makes a slit in the canvas at the side of the stage. For the first time, she is able to see the effect of weeks of thought and labour, which have been given to the production. On the first night, she had tripped over the handle of the little cart her character is to drag about the set. A snigger ran through the house as she fell onto her back.
But now, she watches with wonder, free of the concerns of her own performance, the burden of being forever watched. While it is a thing to be on stage, there is something about this slinking into anonymity, revelling in the exhibitions of others.
I feel comfortable, standing by the DJ’s side, talking of normal things, but perhaps I am just like all the others, disturbing his peace, a deluded fan, thinking myself far more important than I could ever be. As I continue to stand beside him in the crowd, more and more people come to ask him to pose for a photo. It’s hard to keep the thread of the conversation going. I want so much to talk about the role I remember him in – that series on TV. He was a lot younger then – much boyishness about him. I would love to tell him that in the show he looked to be having wonderful fun. What was it like? But there are too many people now – too many photos. I imagine putting my thumb over the camera lens, or cutting him out of the frame.
He seemed so free in that TV show – perhaps because he was a boy still, looking at the world with playful eyes, before it was fully exposed, or had fully exposed him.
The two of us now seem caught up in an endless wave. It’s stupid me still being here. I give him a look as he poses again. He dips his head in some acknowledgment – but of what? I’m not sure. I can’t separate myself from these other fans – I could be just like them, dazzled by the brightness of fame.
I finally say goodbye as the clouds heave above. At once, there is a look of confusion on his face. I am shaking his hand – it was cool to chat, I tell him, looking for a space in the crowd to make my way and leave him be.
He touches my arm – aren’t you going to take my photo? he asks.