Burgess Memories: Frank Bolton
Anthony (John to us) was my tutor of Language and Literature at Bamber Bridge Emergency Training College for Teachers, near Preston, in its final year ending in May 1950.
I worked closely with him as actor, stage manager, and producer in many college Dramatic productions, and acted as Methusela in his production of Nigel Balchin’s Lord I was Afraid, as Polonius in his production of Hamlet, and as William of Sens in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Zeal of Thy House.
It was even then evident that he was destined for great things.
The reference he gave me on the closure of the College is a masterpiece of deliberately misleading fact. ‘I never saw him give a dull or routine lesson.’ True, but he never saw me give a lesson of any kind!
I don’t know if anyone would be interested in the odd anecdote such as the following:
After a rehearsal of the Hamlet ‘play within a play’ scene, we had retired to the local and were discussing Hamlet’s vulgar …
HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
(Lying down at Ophelia’s feet.)
OPHELIA: No, my lord.
HAMLET: I mean, my head upon your lap?
OPHELIA: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Do you think I meant COUNTRY matters?
OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
John suddenly said, ‘You realise the DELIBERATE pun in “country/cuntry” matters? I wish I had the guts to make it plain on stage but the principal would blow his little top!’
We never played the scene without a sly giggle from the cast.
There are so few details of John’s early life and his brushes with authority. He so loved to shock all around him, and as an openly lapsed (but always conditioned) Catholic he had many clashes in tutorials with the narrow minded and the religious.
Once after the Easter vacation he returned sporting a beard. Sniggers from many in the class. ‘Well!’ he said, stroking the beard before stretching his arms, perhaps as if weary, certainly as if crucified. ‘I’ve been emulating Christ all through the holidays. Why shouldn’t I look like him?’ He was reported to the Principal for that one by a po-faced pious student with no sense of humour.
He loved to make jokes, often against himself. In our speech training we had to listen to the voices of famous men, criticise (in the good sense of the word) their accents, and if possible identify the speaker. After one such session, when the class had spoken against the deplorable ‘flat cap’ tone and the overtressed G of the ‘ing’ participles, he put the record back in his case.
‘Nobody hazard a guess to whose voice it is?’ he asked.
We confessed to puzzlement. With an exaggerated posture worthy of Olivier, he suddenly became Touchstone, cap and bells and all, and jested: ‘An ill favoured thing, sirs, but mine own,’ and brought a round of applause from the class.
He himself could be ruthless.
I had played Methuselah with (he said modestly) some degree of success, and when John announced his forthcoming production of Hamlet, I asked to be considered for the title role.
‘Rubbish!’ he cried. ‘Don’t talk to me about Hamlet until you have got rid of all traces of that northern A. And anyway, I want you for Polonius.’
‘I thought I had already got rid of it,’ I pouted, complainingly. ‘And I don’t want to play Polonius.’
Like a sop thrown in scorn he flashed, ‘If you think anyone here is going to tackle an old man’s role after having seen your Methuselah, you are an idiot. You will play Polonius and you will like it.’
‘I will play him, to please you, but I won’t like it.’
End of discussion. He was right as usual.
Hamlet is an unrewarding role, long and, at times, tedious. Polonius strikes a character and always holds the stage. Typical of the short character role that steals the scenes. I loved it.
He was, of course, ‘scatty’ in more ways than one, and his fixation with James Joyce (almost a love affair) brought wry smiles whenever he mounted his hobby-horse.
Frank Bolton studied under John Burgess Wilson at Bamber Bridge Emergency Teacher Training College, near Preston. This memory was written in 2005.
The picture shows Burgess at Bamber Bridge College with other members of the teaching staff.