A PASSION FOR THEATRE

A memorial to Sarah Vernon compiled by her closest friends.

Sarah in 2008

Sarah Vernon had, to use her own phrase, “a passion for theatre”.

Like many actors’ children, she could never be sure if she would have gone into the entertainment industry if her parents, Richard Vernon and Benedicta Leigh, had not been in the profession.

It wasn’t an industry or a job for Sarah: it was a romance and a calling. Being an actor was her body and soul, an act of love uniting emotional longing with technical accomplishment, a child’s dream of perfection made real.

Her performing career was cut short by the progression of a rare autoimmune disease. Her contribution to promoting the importance, and fun, of theatre in everyday life was far more than a list of credits could represent.

She trained, and made lasting friendships, at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art from 1975-78. Her professional work was predominantly in Repertory and touring theatre, and on the London Fringe. She also gave characteristically intelligent and sensitive performances on television, such as Janet Nowt in Paradise Postponed, and Jean Gaunt in The Bill.

Studio headshot of Sarah Vernon c.1985-88

Her impressive height and voice, a beautifully modulated instrument, deep, rich and melodious, gave her authority and an aura of raffish grandeur, redolent of great players of the past, belying her vulnerability.

Her unaffected refinement, gentle, quizzical expression and understated emotion made her natural casting for period plays, though she had misgivings about her suitability for one part early in her career, as the passive victim in Gas Light.

As Sarah herself recounted: ‘“You would have called the gas board a long time before,” said my mother after seeing me as Bella Manningham…It was a piece of miscasting that could only have happened in weekly rep.’

Sarah claimed she was thankful when it was over, but she relished the challenges and spontaneity of weekly rep, the traditional apprenticeship of stage actors, especially her happy summer season at Folkestone in 1983, working in the Art Deco Leas Pavilion.

She was completely at ease in one of her last stage appearances, the sophisticated, fun-loving and witty Dona Lucia in Charley’s Aunt at The Shaw Theatre, in 1997.

Sarah – “this beautiful lady” and “amazing lady” recalled by her peers – was a lady in the classic sense, with impeccable manners on and off-stage, thoughtful and kind to other people, sharing her sense of humour in every company.

The written word was as important to her as the spoken word. She was an enthusiastic member and organizer of the Hammersmith Actors and Writers Group in the 1990s.

Sarah was proud to have been “born in a trunk”. She believed acting was her destiny. She grew up learning from her parents and other actors; by watching and listening and asking questions she became a discriminating critic of the best techniques and styles in her early teenage years, while she prepared for her vocation.

When limited cutaneous systemic sclerosis forced her to retire from stage work, she reinvented herself online as the custodian of great acting traditions which she believed should be passed on to new generations of performers. From 2001 she sacrificed time and money to her Rogues & Vagabonds website, a constantly updated online magazine about theatre and acting, publishing reviews, interviews and anecdotes.

She was a naturally gifted writer and scrupulous editor, who gave opportunities to many other aspiring writers as well as established authors and academics.

She was encouraging and exacting, charming everyone into producing their best work and coaxing talents out of other people that they didn’t know they had. Good writing delighted her; grammatical errors and untidy sentences upset her well-ordered mind.

Sarah never stopped looking, learning and working. Every time she changed location, she embraced and contributed to the community. She was at home on islands, preferably in a warm climate, but she was always part of the main.

Sarah, at her happiest by the sea in a hot climate, while she was living on Crete, 2014

Sarah was proud of old-fashioned virtues, and her yearning to commune with the past was as strong as her passion for theatre. Her mind was too sharp, too inquiring, to dwell anywhere but in the present.

She was always well-informed about current events, and engaged with political and humanitarian causes. Her life’s work was to bring the best of the past to enlighten the present. “How can we improve our future if we don’t understand the past?” The current state of Britain angered and grieved her.

In her friendships she showed a similar, whole-hearted commitment to the truth. She was caring, affectionate and loyal, and, in the biggest demonstration of love, did not shrink from criticizing when necessary. Most of the time, she wanted to share “the joy of friendship”.

Photo of Sarah Vernon with her greatest friend, Helen Pearson, in the 1990s.
“We set the world to rights, gave each other advice,
lifted each other’s spirits and laughed…I can face the day”.
(Sarah Vernon commenting on Facebook, after a telephone conversation with Helen on 9 June 2017.)

She conquered social media with her humour, wit and visual flair. In the last decade of her life, the actress and writer turned herself into an equally dedicated and admired digital designer. Her taste was vintage; her techniques were modern. Defying her disabilities, she managed, edited and contributed to her First Night Design website, her three blogs and online newspapers devoted to “Art, Design, Theatre, Literature, History, Food, Laughter”.

Her focus on working, day and night, on her computer could appear obsessive to her friends and companions, concerned about her health; it is clear in retrospect that she was afraid she would run out of time.

She was haunted by her adolescence, as “a girl who’s been emotionally abandoned by her mother and whose father doesn’t know how to interact with his daughter and can’t be disturbed anyway because of learning lines.” (Sarah commenting on Facebook, 31 January, 2018.) The measure of Sarah was that instead of resenting her parents, she strove to understand them. She admired their achievements and honoured their memory.

Sarah, the child of the stage, could have been a casualty of the devil’s profession, but she was saved by self-determination. She cultivated her many literary and artistic talents and preserved her life-enhancing sense of humour. She addressed the past and present with equal intellectual force, she was computer and internet savvy, she was an entrepreneur, she was a sweet friend and she was brave, till the end.

She was still designing, still writing, during her last illness. Her mind could not stay still. She was inspired and burdened by heritage and history. She deplored bigotry and cruelty, and a mis-apostrophized word, as much as she loved laughter and beauty in an often painful life.

She died in hospital on the Isle of Wight on 13th January, 2021, aged sixty-four.

SARAH BENEDICTA VERNON
25th November 1956 – 13th January 2021

Bertel Thorvaldsen ‘Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy’, c. 1836,
Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen

 

Pippa Rathborne © 2021

The Modern Salonnière

The Modern Salonnière was a post from 2015 dedicated to my great friend, Sarah Vernon, who died on 13 January. It is reblogged below as a tribute.

At the time it was written, Sarah was living on Crete, where she had bravely started a new life. That was what Sarah always did. She never stopped looking, learning and working. Every time she changed location, she embraced and contributed to the community. She was at home on islands, preferably in a warm climate, but she was always part of the main. And, yes, she hated Brexit.

Through bad health and bad luck, Sarah’s acting career was cut short. Like many actors’ children, she could never be sure if she would have gone into the entertainment industry if her parents had not been actors.

It wasn’t an industry or a job for Sarah: it was a romance and an art. Being an actor was her body and soul, an act of love uniting emotional aspiration with technical accomplishment, a child’s dream of perfection made real. Don’t put your daughter on the stage. It could break her heart.

Sarah could have been a casualty of the devil’s profession, but she had a brain, a life-sustaining sense of humour, and other artistic and literary talents to cultivate. She engaged in the present and the past with equal intellectual force, she was computer and internet savvy, she was an entrepreneur, and she was brave, till the end. She was still designing, still writing, during her last illness. Her mind could not stay still. She was inspired and burdened by heritage and history. The current state of Britain angered and grieved her.

She conquered social media, which is why I reblog this old post of mine, for her WordPress friends and admirers. As one of them, Pete Johnson, has written: “The world is a lesser place without her wit, her intellect and her talent”.

THE MODERN SALONNIERE

“Darling! The set was wonderful.”

via “Darling! The set was wonderful.”

It’s one of those site-specific shows in which the lead actress, in the title role of “Sweet Melancholy”, is upstaged by a live, cooing, flying prop; the play is in blank verse, and the director, after blaming everyone else at the Tech Rehearsal, has lost the plot; but the set design is wonderful….

Joseph-Marie_Vien_Sweet_Melancholy_(1756)
Joseph-Marie Vien Sweet Melancholy 1756.
Cleveland Museum of Art. Image: Wikipedia

Melancholy, as you know it, was never this sweet. This looks more like Wistful Posing, though maybe you have missed the point about contemporary self-consciousness. Mid-drama, she, Melancholy, looking as pretty as possible, rearranges her drapery and takes a selfie.

You would be at a loss for words when you congratulate your friend afterwards, if it wasn’t for Vien’s sophisticated colour scheme, daring to put Melancholy’s acid yellow dress against a dark grey background, and his dedication to historical detail in the props and furniture, pioneering a fashion in neoclassical home interiors.

The smoke from the antique brazier is scented, sending the front rows, especially the critics, into drowsy raptures. That might explain the liminal moment when you thought you heard the dove speak.

You travelled far to get here, to a disused temple in an inaccessible part of the old City, where no buses dare to stop. You took three wrong turns on your way from the station. You are dismayed by the thought of missing connections on the long journey home, and arriving tired and dispirited in the lonely night.

You imagine yourself slumped unprettily on a chair, holding your head in your hands, mourning your losses, knowing that bad as the day has been, there is always hope tomorrow will be worse.

You promise yourself that if you can ever afford it – ach, if only you’d got that film job the other day – you will buy a neoclassical upholstered chair and incense-burner, and recline elegantly in a full-length, yellow silk gown, to sweeten your own melancholy.

You are not lying when you reassure Sweet Melancholy that, “You looked like a goddess on that set, and deserve awards just for acting with that pigeon.”

A Regency Romance

What explains the enduring appeal of the Regency Romance?

Why has that period in history lent itself more than any other to our fantasies about courtship and social acceptance? The origins of its potency lie older and deeper than the comedies of manners written prolifically by Georgette Heyer, the doyenne of Regency Romance fiction, and the costume rom-coms of the film and movie industries of the last hundred years.

Regency Romance is written to a winning formula nowadays, some of it blissfully unconcerned with syntax or history, but millions of women had fallen in love with Classic Literature’s Mr Darcy for nearly two centuries before the BBC got him wet.  Members of all sexes have obsessed over the period’s dead poets with a sense of connection that felt stronger than many real relationships. Many a girl and boy have thrilled to Byron’s “mad, bad and dangerous” celebrity, or pined to be the one to soothe Keats’ fevered forehead, rather than inadequate Fanny Brawne.

We are all touched by the Regency, even those of us who have never read a romantic novel or would know a pelisse if it arrested us.

John_Arthur_Douglas_Bloomfield,_2nd_Baron_Bloomfield_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield, already a career diplomat at the age of seventeen, a pillar of the Establishment trying desperately to look like poet, libertarian political writer and social outcast Lord Byron, painted at full Romantic throttle by Thomas Lawrence, 1819. (National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia).
The Regency created its own romantically sexy myth long before it was appropriated by later generations.

The Regency period looks more modern to us than either the preceding 18th century age or the following Victorian age. The style of clothes and short hairstyles are still around – even the men’s tight-fitting trousers have been revived as jeggings.

Regency architecture, interior and garden design still provide some of the most elegant home improvement options available today.

EdmundBlairLeightonOntheThresholdEdmund Leighton: On the Threshold (1900). Manchester Art Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia
Love the wrought iron and lead roofed porch. And his boots….

A late Victorian nostalgia for Regency style packaged the romance of consumerism, in which props and set dressing are more prominent than feelings. You’d never guess from later illustrations that there had been a war going on, in fact several wars, about ideology, trade, territory and ideas.

Women’s clothes in the neoclassical Regency period, for three decades after the French Revolution, were more comfortable, more symbolic of personal freedom, than later 19th and early 20th century fashions. By the late 1820s, tight lacing was back and got tighter. (Traditional stays had never really gone away for every woman in Regency times, and were superseded by the much-maligned corset which, correctly fitted, is far more comfortable and good for posture than its reputation allows. And some of us are comfortable and happier in high heels, just as some people have sea legs – but that’s for another battle at the Last Post.)

The female body of the following four generations was squeezed in and padded out, satisfying somebody or other’s fetishes, some of them as weird as Comic Con costumes.

At the time Edmund Leighton was turning out his chocolate box historical genre scenes, and C.E. Brock was producing his fairytale illustrations to Jane Austen, fashionable women’s bodies were trapped in S-shaped cages which they only started getting out of shortly before World War I. The Regency looked like a time of rationality and enlightenment in comparison.

Bingley&Jane. Brock

One of the later (1907) watercolour versions of C.E. Brock’s original 1895 illustrations to Pride and Prejudice: the sugary colours signal the export of Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory” world to the arch land of Regency Romance.

to be continued

The audio version of A Worthy Wife by Barbara Metzger, read by Pippa Rathborne, is available now on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

Vickie Lester’s Book at Bedtime

 audio serialization on BEGUILING HOLLYWOOD

happyreadingPhotograph by MARTIN HÜBSCHER PHOTOGRAPHY © 2015

Reblog of the original post on Vickie Lester’s BEGUILING HOLLYWOOD

Adventures in Audioland

oevelgoenne
For “a life larger than the sentence”:

Travel, Humour and Utopia
wsy

High Fantasy, Science Fiction and Arthurian Romance
A LIFE LARGER THAN THE SENTENCE

True Shaggy Dog Story for Children of All Agesangelpyrenees

All three titles available for Christmas and the New Year on iTunes, Audible and Amazon (UK and USA)

A limited number of Audible codes for free downloads of  THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN and THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW are available upon request – please leave a message in the comments section specifying Audible.co.uk or Audible.com and I will email you back.

A LIFE LARGER THAN THE SENTENCE

oevelgoenne
photo by Martin Hübscher © March 2016

A Woman’s Travels with Tongue in Cheek

wsy

New audiobook available on iTunes, Audible and Amazon

Pippa Rathborne narrates Margaret Eleanor Leigh‘s recent picaresque adventures across three continents in search of personal Utopia which turns out to be….

THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW

marathonMarathon by Carl Rottmann. Encaustic on stone, 1848. Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Image: WGA

The isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!

(from “The Isles of Greece” by Byron)

MethonicastleBurtziBurtzi and the Castle of Methoni, Messinia, Greece by Flyax (Creative Commons 3.0 Licence) via Wikimedia Commons

THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW is available as an audiobook on iTunes, Audible and Amazon.wsy

If you would like a complimentary review copy, please leave a message in the comments section.

Margaret Eleanor Leigh follows the tradition of intrepid solo female travellers and recounts her misadventures with wry humour and relentless self-examination.

NellieBlyjournalist

Nellie Bly, journalist, industrialist and inventor, on the eve of her journey around the world, 1889.
Image: Wikipedia

Noir

“FOR MY PART I KNOW NOTHING WITH ANY CERTAINTY BUT THE SIGHT OF THE STARS MAKES ME DREAM” (Vincent van Gogh)

Pippa RathborneWoman reading Vickie Lester’s novel “It’s In His Kiss”  at night. Photo © Martin Hübscher

LISTEN TO THE FIRST CHAPTER OF It’s In His Kiss
on Vickie Lester’s brilliant blog
Beguiling Hollywood

on which each apparently effortless post strikes deep behind the razzle-dazzle to give insight into the design and inspiration, humour and human cost that go into creating the glamour of classic film-making.

All these qualities are evident in Vickie Lester’s fiction.

It is easy to dream when we look at a starlit sky, more difficult to represent it, even harder to understand how it was made.

“IT SHOULD BE CLEAR THAT PUTTING LITTLE WHITE DOTS
ON A BLUE-BLACK SURFACE IS NOT ENOUGH””
(Vincent van Gogh)

The most comprehensive and authoritative site I know about dramatic and comedic arts in all media, from historic to present times, is Sarah Vernon’s Rogues and Vagabonds, rich in articles and illustrations, edited by someone who understands theatre through and through.

Another recommended site dedicated to classic movies, combining charm with informed criticism, is Silver Screenings.

For down-to-earth reviews of popular films, I enjoy the wisdom of Pete Johnson (who is wise about everything) and Vinnieh.