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 comfort of dogs

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Maria, from SterneHeartbroken Maria, with her beloved dog, Sylvio, from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) by the great Joseph Wright of Derby.
Ferens Art Gallery. Image source: All Things Georgian an essential online guide to the society and culture of the British 18th century.

“Her goat had been as faithless as her lover; and she had got a little dog in lieu of him, which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle: as I looked at her dog, she drew him towards her with the string.—“Thou shalt not leave me, Sylvio,” said she. I look’d in Maria’s eyes and saw she was thinking more of her father than of her lover, or her little goat; for, as she utter’d them, the tears trickled down her cheeks.” From ‘Maria’, in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768)

Maria is another casualty in the line of emotionally abandoned girls, like Ophelia, driven out of her mind by grief from a lover’s desertion and a father’s death, and Marianne Dashwood, whose excess of 18th century sensibility is the same as a major depressive disorder today, and real-life sisters, Sally and Maria Siddons.