Nancy Clara Seabrooke (1914 – 1998) does not figure hugely in the history of the British theatre and TV. Her biggest claim to fame was being the most patient understudy in the annals of British theatre– shadowing the role of ‘Mrs Boyle’ in Agatha Christie’s record-breaking Mousetrapfor 15 years (6,240 performances), and actually appearing as her for a fraction of these performances, before retiring in 1994. On TV she was a bit part player, appearing in single episodes of Danger Man, The Grove Family, Maigret and No Hiding Place. Double Exit(1950) was her first TV movie. She was Deputy Stage Manager of the play ‘The Irrregular Verb to Love’ (1961), which starred fellow RADA student Joan Greenwood. There is no record of any appearance by Seabrooke on the silver screen.
Her journal, which covers the period April 18thto May 19th1934 while she was a twenty-year-old final year student at RADA, occupies the whole of a slim exercise book, and is written in a large, round, artistic hand in fountain pen and pencil. At the outset Seabrooke confesses that she had decided to begin it after acquiring a Victorian example in a second–hand shop. She says nothing about whether she plans to continue her journal well beyond the month. For all we know, it may have been part of a series, though no evidence of this has come to light.
At the time in which she began her journal Seabrooke was commuting to London from her home not far from the small village of Newdigate, south of Dorking, Surrey, and the events she describes are concerned as much with her home life in the country as they are with her other, more glamorous, existence as a RADA student. Several things emerge from the journal. She seems to have been fascinated by Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, particularly Ben Jonson and John Webster (she even named her cats Beaumont and Fletcher), was an avid playgoer in London, notably at The Old Vic, and was in awe of many leading actors, especially John Geilgud, to whom she writes a fan letter. She also seems to have been the editor ( or assistant editor ) of the news-sheet The Rada News and was writing a ‘ satire ‘ and some ’sonnets’. Having at the outset vowed that she would steer away from introspection, she devotes a good deal of her journal to tormenting herself over a certain Joseph, on whom she clearly had a crush, although the affection seems to have been one-way.
She mentions some fellow students at RADA. Selected out for special mention is Stephen Haggard (1911 – 43), who graduated in 1933. His ‘Silvio’ in As You Like Ithad been widely praised that year and great things were expected of him, but later, at the age of 31 he committed suicide over a romantic affair that went wrong. His son is the film maker Piers Haggard. Another student mentioned was Trevor Howard, later star of ‘ Brief Encounter ‘ (1945) who struck Seabrooke as ‘ very public school, but a good bit more intelligent’. Anthony Quayle and Joan Littlewood, both of whom achieved enormous success in later years, were also RADA students in Seabrooke’s time, but it is not certain whether these were among those referred to in the journal. A few former students did return to visit their friends. One who Seabrooke admired was Gertrude Musgrove (b.1912) who she described as a ‘ charming girl’ and who was to achieve immediate success in 1934 with the film ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’.
Seabrooke is suitably scathing concerning those of her fellow female students with whom she was less enamoured:
‘ That annoying Diana Witherington is still here—still in the same kind of olive tweeds. A large, vulgar voluminous girl with yellow hair. Vacuous Ruth Munro—a little like Margaret Lockwood and a little like old Kitty Arbuthnot. Eileen Rice, a stupid-looking child, but who did a speech of lovely Kitty’s from “ The Circle “ for Voice Production, amazingly cleverly. Two or three undeveloped girls of nondescript personality ‘
Of the male students she is less judgemental:
‘…dear flashy Izaaksen, the manly Alexander, Trevor ( I shall have to print his article), a cruel looking man called Matthews, who read Branwell rather well, and the vast de Wolfe..’
To be continued… [R.M.Healey]