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Wednesday 24 September 2014

A night with Hilton and Michael

Hugh Leonard

Published 06/06/2004 | 00:11

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The year is 1942, during what was known in Ireland as the Emergency; the story passes in Drane (pronounced "Dreen"), a seaside town near Dublin. There is no railway station or bus service, and someone is deliberately scrambling all radio signals, so that the only diversion for the townspeople is the local Picture House. For many it was more than a diversion; there were those

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The year is 1942, during what was known in Ireland as the Emergency; the story passes in Drane (pronounced "Dreen"), a seaside town near Dublin. There is no railway station or bus service, and someone is deliberately scrambling all radio signals, so that the only diversion for the townspeople is the local Picture House. For many it was more than a diversion; there were those who, in the dark of a cinema, found themselves new skins to inhabit and new lives to live. The narrator of the novel is the Ringsend playwright Perry Perry, married to Babs. Among their few friends in Drane are Dermo Grace, who owns and manages the Picture House, and Hansy Mueller, a minor German diplomat who shares a house, Heimat, with his manservant, Sean.

ONE Sunday evening in May, Babs and myself were walking on Dun Laoghaire pier when she said: "Oh, God forbid. Say it's not them."

"Who?"

"Hilton and Micheal . . . are you blind?"

The pair of them, arm in arm, were strolling towards us: Tweedledum and Tweedledee, only different. Hilton Edwards was short, baldy and pink with a nose that could have cut a ribbon to open a flower show, and he spoke with a slurp; Micheal Mac Liammoir had a cat's smile and wore a wig like a black tea-cosy. He was in his full war-paint for a summer's day, blue eye-shadow and all.

"Don't look!" Babs said.

She dreaded being made a show of. While Hilton, in plus-fours and carrying a silver-topped cane in his free hand, looked like the proper English gent, Micheal was what in all seriousness a certain Dublin producer of plays called a bit too flam and buoyant. He was half-way between precious and priceless. People walking on the pier looked at them, nudged and smiled. They were as much a part of Dublin as Nelson's Pillar. We were starved in those days for more than food and tea and clothes to put on our backs, and Hilton and Michael - we called him by his English name - gave us a ration of the plays of Shakespeare and Shaw and Ibsen. Some made out that if they were honest-to-God homos, then in the words of Noah there was room in the ark for two of everything, and more luck to them. Others, and bad scran to them, said that their carry-on was only for show; a cover-up for what was worse; or else they would have been tarred and feathered years before, and a good job, too.

"Oh, God, don't let them see us," Babs said that day on the pier, and of course they did. Michael stopped with a jerk that all but pulled Hilton off his feet. "My God," he said in a great purr of a voice, "it is darling Perry Perry and the Blessed Catherine Mary." Nobody knew, at least we never did, whether it was from just acting the jennet or out of badness that he called Babs by that name. He kissed her on the cheek and left twice as much of his make-up on her than she had of her own. Hilton called me his dear fellow and said that I was sorely missed in Epidaurus, whatever that meant.

It was only a case of hello and goodbye, which meant 10 minutes of listening to words pouring out of Michael, all in one breath without comma or colon. "You must come to one of our Sunday evening at-homes," he said. "Remind me, Hilton, on what day is the next one?"

Being an Englishman, Hilton had no time for codology. "It will be on a Sunday, Michael, as you have very correctly said. We are at home every second Sunday."

"Do you tell me?" Michael said.

"Because on weekdays we work. In the theatre."

"The thee-ayter, yes. Hilton calls it work," Michael told us, shutting an eye that was like a blink from the Kish lightship, "and I call it friv-ol-it-y." To the day he died, he did not know what a throwaway line was. He would chop long words into bits and wrap them up in coloured paper, pink for girls and blue for boys. "We will send you an in-vit-ay-shon. Where is it you live?"

"Drane," I told him.

"Drain, yes." he said, fondling the word so as youcould get the smell of it. "'That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.' Hilton, dear Hilton, advise me, am I quoting from the First Quarto or theSecond?"

"You are quoting from Juliet, my pet," Hilton said, sucking back a noggin of dribble. "and people are receiving a Shakespearian performance from you without paying for it. Now come along."

He kissed Babs's hand, and Michael gave her face another coating of Leichner Number Three and a Half. We watched the pair linking arms again, as they continued their saunter. Babs shook her head and made a yech sound.

"What's up?"

"If you don't know, don't ask."

"I wonder if they'll invite us."

"For God's sake!"

Babs was a wonder. In three short words, she managed to say that there would be no invitation, and that if there was an invitation then it would be the waste of a stamp, for neither of us would set foot inside the house on Harcourt Terrace. We were not their sort. Like I say, that was a Sunday, and on Tuesday morning the invitation came.

* * *

The Perrys' German friend, the ever-obliging Hansy, finds out about the at-home and insists, in spite of Babs's protests, on collecting her and Perry from Harcourt Terrace at 11 on the Sunday evening and driving them home again.

* * *

We took a cab to Harcourt Terrace, and the party was what you would expect, with most of the guests flying the colours of either Sodom or Begorrah, as the Gate Theatre and the Abbey were called. Hilton and Michael made sure we mixed. "This will emph-at-i-cal-ly not do," I heard Michael say when he came upon a group colloguing in a corner. "'You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!' If there was an audience watching you, they would by now have asked for their money back. For God's sake move around, my darlings. Mo-o-ove! Minnn-gel!"

The chat was good. At 10 o'clock there was a buffet supper, and in the stampede to the kitchen the ones who were actors left their hoof prints on the backs of the ones that were not. There was beef done in a wine sauce - Michael had a long French word for it - with carrots and onions, all of it dished up with rice, and a young actor - a discovery of Hilton's named Marius Corby with golden hair that God would have been hard put to it to invent - had made the sweet, which was bread-and-butter pudding. "God help us, I think it is bread-and-margarine pudding," Michael said in a wailing voice, like a Connemara woman keening for her drownded son.

I was bringing a plate to Babs when Hilton touched me on the shoulder and said: "Dear boy," - and the nerve of him with his "boy", for I could have given him three years and walked barefoot for another two - "we do not want to lose either you or her charming self." He gave one of his wateriest slurps. "But against the evil moment, have you arranged for transportation? Most of our guests are bussing it or tramming it or are within walking distance, and I fear that if you require a taxi . . . "

"We don't," I told him. "A friend is collecting us."

"Oh, joy. Then say not another word. I am presumptuous."

"He's a diplomat. A great admirer of Michael's."

"Oh, how thrilling," Hilton said, with jealousy slobbering out of him. "Mickey, do you hear?"

"An admirer of mine?" The room was full of talk, but you had only to mention Michael's name and he was on the spot, quivering like a pointer dog.

"The friend who's picking us up," I said, "saw you the other evening in The Man of Destiny . . ." Michael did a little twirl for joy. "Hilton, you preposterous creature, do you hear? I have a fan."

"Oh, a great fan," I said, like a born crawler.

"Mercy upon us," Michael said. "And at what time are we to look upon this barometer of good taste?"

It was hard to know if he was making fun of me or of himself or of Hansy, who was still to appear. He said: "All that is left of our supper is grrrisss-ell. But I shall tell darling Marius - he is to be my Laertes, you know - to put the poor remainder of our bread-and-margarine pudding in a safe place. We must offer my admirer hospitality."

I said "Hansy is only coming to give us a . . . " but he was already gone ballet-dancing off.

On the stroke of 11 the doorbell went. Michael shot out into the hall like a greyhound leaving a trap and came back holding Hansy by the arm and - and I near fell out of my standing - talking German to him, 13 to the dozen. "It is only Plattdeutsch," Michael said to me, corner of his mouth, as they went past. Hansy gave me a helpless look, and the golden boy, Marius, was there to the tick guarding a plateful of the bread-and-whatever pudding with his life. Babs came in and asked, "Was that Hansy?"

"He's doing all right," I said. "Leave him."

The time came for the last buses and trams, and the party began to quieten down. There were goodbyes, and cold air came in from the street with every slam of the hall door. I had not been to a Second Sunday for years, but nothing had changed, and towards midnight Hilton still sat in a wing chair by the dying fire and held court. He had the kind of actor's voice that pulled a room to him. I suppose he had a smell of himself, but he was good value. There was maybe a dozen of us left, sitting on the carpet; Babs was next to me, and across the room Hansy looked as if he had died and gone to heaven. He moved to make room for Marius.

As usual, Hilton began as if he was nattering to just the one person, and then a running loop was thrown around all of us. He began with: "Michael and I are great filmgoers on afternoons when we are not in rehearsal. We were at the moving pictures the other day. I forget what film it was."

One or two of us looked at Michael, expecting him to put in his prate; instead, he pointed a plump finger to remind us of who had the floor.

"It was a thing with bows and arrows and portcullises," Hilton said, "and there were two young women in front of us. I heard one of them say, and it made excellent sense, that in costume films you could always tell the hero because his tights did not wrinkle at the knees, whereas the villain's always did, and the bagginess increased as one went down the scale of iniquity from Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the High Sheriff of Nottingham to a brutish henchman of the fourth class."

His listeners laughed and some clapped their hands to egg him on. Hansy looked around him; he was maybe catching no more than one word in five but was thrilled to be in the middle of it.

"My own problem with the silver screen," Hilton said, "is its predictability." I took a dekko at Michael; he had his eyes closed and was tasting the word "pre-dic-tab-il-ity" as if each little bit of it was cream chocolate. "You are all aware, I am sure, that in the year Nineteen Hundred and Ten the recently departed Dublin corner-boy, James Joyce, was briefly the manager of a picture house."

"The Volta," someone put in.

"Thank you, dear heart," Hilton said.

"In Mary Street," the same voice said.

Michael looked at the know-it-all through two thin circles of eye-liner and said in a roaring whisper: "It suddenly occurs to me that the Grand Canal is at the end of this short thoroughfare. And it is six . . . feet . . . deep . . . "

We all looked at the interrupter, who had gone the colour of a brick.

Hilton went on: "And it was the same scrofulous James Joyce who wrote 'Reproduction is the beginning of death.' Now I wonder if he found that pearl of sagacity in one of his silent films at the . . . " He looked into his audience with cod curiosity. "Was it the Voltage, dear boy?"

After the snigger had died down, he said: "In any event, the truth of it holds good today. Only let the hero of a moving picture have a close friend who marries and becomes a father, and woe betide that person. His biological function is over. He is done for. If he is a policeman, he will be shot dead in the line of duty; if he is a zoo-keeper, a lion will eat him; if he is a clerk, a pen-nib will be thrust through his heart.

"And there are others who are almost as surely doomed. The spurned fiance - a dullard, of course - is one of them. He is now redundant. In the Holly-wooden world, sex is the opposite of justice, for it may neither be done nor seen to be done. It has been replaced by the shorthand device of a kiss, closely followed by the National Anthem. And yet, sex and sex alone is what films are about, and the wretch who has been cast aside is destined for oblivion.

"Only compare this nonsense with the theatre. Ah now, the theatre is the work of artistes! It is achieved with a painter's brush and a sculptor's thumb." Hilton used his own thumb to make a curve in wet clay that we could all but see. "Whereas, the cinema . . . well, what is it, except poor shadows and lines drawn with a ruler and a T-square?"

I wanted to tell him, but did not dare put my spoke in, that what he called the predictability of films was part of what some people liked. It made the world safe for them. It was like going home. When you saw the same street corner or the same cat on a wall; you knew where you were.

Hilton went on for maybe 10 minutes, ticking off what he called cliches, starting with the half-breed woman who on account of some law or other could not be let marry a white man, and ending with the young soldier who goes into a battle with a picture of his girl back home - he was always a certainty for the chop. "All of them doomed," Hilton said, "for oblivion. And then, when you think you have run the whole grisly gamut," he said, "along come the new cliches."

"Oh, my God," Michael said, clasping his hands as if more was too much. It was his way of whipping Hilton's audience into the home stretch.

"Think of war films. They may be kept from us by the censor but we read the fan magazines to which you are so devoted. Aren't you, Mickey?"

Michael blew him a kiss.

"And I speak not of storm troopers or Nazis or common-or-garden traitors, but of the collaborators whose conscience takes them along the knife edge between good and evil. There is your new cliche for you. All of them are doomed, just as are the so-called Good Germans."

At this, he caught sight - if he had ever lost it - of Hansy.

"My dear fellow," Hilton said with one of his best splutters. "No offence is intended. None in the world. I apologise most abjectly."

Hansy was as good-natured as ever. "Is not needed," he said.

"And I spoke not of actuality," Hilton said, "but of the world of cinema and the ghastly stereotypes it imposes on us. Damn MGM and those deplorable Warner Brothers and the elves of Elstree and the rest of them."

"But you know," Hansy said, as mild as milk, "some of us are not bad people . . . "

"Which is exactly what I am saying," Hilton said. "The wretched picture houses have so much to answer for. But the multitude, the masses, they will not pay their dollars or their pounds sterling to look at a good German. To them there is no such animal."

He looked at his watch and said "Good heavens." It was the signal that his star turn and the at-home itself was over. Everyone - at least the ones who wanted to be invited to Harcourt Terrace on another Sunday - said their goodnights. I waited while Babs went up for her coat - she had left it in a bedroom off the first landing. She was back inside of a minute.

I told her: "I can't find Hansy."

"I found him."

Her face was death, not even warmed up. She staggered against me.

"What is it?"

"Get a taxi. I want to go home."

"We're going home. Where's Hansy?

"I don't want him. I want a taxi."

Her voice was high. People were looking at her. I said: "There aren't any taxis. Are you mad? What's up with you?"

Next thing I knew, Hansy was on the stairs following her down. She went past me, out into the open without a goodbye to our hosts. I was going to tell Hansy that she wasn't well, then I saw by his face that whatever ailed her, he was part of it. Like her, he went out without as much as a yes, aye or no to Hilton or Michael. He opened the rear door of the Merc, and she got in without looking at him.

I slid in beside her and asked: "What the hell's wrong?"

She shook her head. It was not an answer but a begging to be let alone. On the way to Drane she did not speak a word - no more than did Hansy. I wanted to ask him what had happened, but was as much afraid of his answer as of what Babs might do or say. She sat, with her face white in the light from the dash. When I made to touch her she pulled away.

The Merc pulled up outside Carvel. Hansy opened the nearside door and said "Good night, Babs." She went up the front steps without a word.

I slid out and said, "Listen, thanks for all the trouble." Him and me always shook hands when we met or went our way; this time he bowed and as near as dammit clicked his heels.

Babs was already upstairs, sitting on the edge of the bed. I said: "All right, let's have it. Did he chance his arm?"

"What?"

"Trot it out. He tried it on with you, is that it?"

She said: "Are you mad? I wish he had. No; no, I don't, God forbid. All I mean is that at least that would have been natural." When I stared at her, she shouted at me: "Are you thick? It was him and that young fellow with the dyed hair. Martin or Maurice or whoever he was. It was the pair of them. At it!"

She began to sob.

"Jesus, at what?"

She let out a hiccup.

Looking back to those days,I think of how narrow-minded we must seem now, but that was the way of it. A man kissing another man was a thing not to be talked about, at least not by nice people like Babs, and with her it was even worse because of her fondness for Hansy. The word she spoke was nearly funny because it was so tame. "Oh, the . . . the boldness of him."

She cried into her pillow, and I left her to it. Next morning over the breakfast, the first thing she said was: "Well, I'm not going to the Picture House again."

"What's the Picture House got to do with it?"

She said, straight out: "Because he might be there, and I don't want to see him."

"Ah, now."

"Ever again. I'm black, black, black out with him."

© 2004 by Hugh Leonard. 'Fillums' is published by Methuen on June 25

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