Crossing the Pennines from Yorkshire into Lancashire in winter can be challenging at any time. But early in 1941, the weather was particularly bad and the Invicta car and its two passengers were finding it hard going.
The austerities of wartime Britain had begun to bite and the man and woman in the car were growing concerned that they might not have enough rationed petrol to make it to a Lancashire mill town that neither of them had visited before and they were anxious to arrive before nightfall, not wanting to be caught in the blackout.
When the hills got too much for the Invicta – its radiator had a tendency to overheat – they stopped to stretch their legs and consult a map.
The suntans they’d acquired over the previous year had gradually faded as their travels took them away from sunny California and across to New York before the final leg home to a country at war.
They were possessed of an understated sense of style; not only in the well-cut clothes they wore but also in the way they carried themselves.
He was an athletic looking 34, with chiselled, matinee idol looks. At 28, she was small, beautiful and feline in a fur coat.
Anyone close enough could see the affection in which they held each other and the gallant way he shielded her from the raw winter wind.
He was the actor, Laurence Olivier and she was his wife, actress Vivien Leigh.
Her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie, “Gone with the Wind,” had recently transformed her into one of the world’s most famous actresses.
In the winter of 1941, they took time off from a morale boosting concert tour to various airbases, playing scenes from Shakespeare and decided to head over the Pennines to see an old friend from London, now working in Burnley.
The Lancashire town’s main claim to fame lay not in its theatrical connections, but in its cotton mills and the relative prosperity that they brought to its population.
Burnley and its rows of terraced houses then squatted, for most of the year, under a pall of smoke from its scores of mill chimneys and as often as they could afford to its workers would seek light relief from the stygian gloom in one of its theatres, cinemas or variety halls.
In 1886, local upholsters, the Pemberton Bros, sensing an opportunity, spent £10,000 on constructing a new theatre in St James Street called, “The Victoria Opera House,” later, “ The Victoria Theatre,” abbreviated locally to, “The Vic.”
It was a grand place.
The Stage Newspaper reported that, “Its fine architecture and interior would hold its own with many in the provinces.”
Built in the, “Italian Style,” with a Doric and Corinthian exterior, its three-tiered cream, red and gold interior held up to 2000 people.
Those well off enough to pay, “full whack,” walked on Minton tiles in a pillared and statued foyer, seeing their gas lit reflections multiplied and sparkling to infinity, in mirrors that lined either wall.
Entrance to the “God’s,” the cheapest seats, was by a side door, up flights of stone steps with not a mirror in sight.
The theatre had provided entertainment of mixed quality for over 50 years when, in 1940, an announcement was made in the Press that not only shocked Burnley’s theatregoing public but also had people in London asking, in horror, “Burnley! Where’s Burnley?”
Because of the threat of air raids in London, it was decided to move the Old Vic Theatre Company and the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet Companies to a new home in Burnley’s, Victoria Theatre, under the directorship of Tyrone Guthrie.
Using the town as their base, they were expected to tour, by the Council for the Encouragement Of Music and Arts (CEMA) whose policy was to open up high quality entertainment to “the masses.”
As the Olivier’s car, steam hissing from its radiator, crested the Pennines and headed down towards Burnley’s, “dark, satanic mills,” the Old Vic Company had already begun their first season at the Vic.
There had been drama in the town before, some of it at Turf Moor, Burnley’s football ground. It also had its chapels and societies and its cinemas, as well as Variety and Light Opera but nothing of the quality that appeared in 1941.
The arrival of the London Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells companies and the glory of their subsequent performances was described as, “A bolt out of the blue.”
One man remembered that, “It hit our town like a rainbow, it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”
Others said, “We’d never seen anything like it, it was so professional.”
People remembered queuing to get in during the wartime blackout – sometimes after school – and leaving on cold, wet nights, buzzing with excitement, full of what they’d seen.
Many of them had never experienced first-class drama and claimed that it was, “A different world, with marvellous productions.”
Others described the opera and ballet provided by the Sadler’s Wells Company as, “Brilliant and amazing.”
People went after work, taking homemade sandwiches with them and paying sixpence to get into the, “God’s,”
Once they’d made it to the top of the stone steps, waiting for the curtain to go up, they felt dizzy, as though they were sitting on a cliff
They experienced a spectacle of colour and sound most of them had never dreamed of seeing, with performers of the highest quality.
In February 1941, Guthrie directed, “Macbeth,” with Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike. The cast included, Kenneth Griffith, Mark Dignam, Donald Wolfit, Athene Syler, Frederik Valk and Robert Helpmann.
“Macbeth’s,” eight-page program announced that the next production would be Gerald du Maurier’s, “Trilby,” starring Sonya Dresdel.
The artists were at the top of their careers or fast approaching it.
People’s hair, “Stood on end,” as they watched “Twelfth Night,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “La Traviata,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” or “The Merchant of Venice.”
The Observer newspapers then famous theatre critic, Ivor Browne described Burnley’s audience as, “like Shakespeare’s.”
Reflecting on the experience, the Cassons said, “We have never played to such an audience. None of them moved a muscle while we acted but at the end they would go wild and lift the roof with their clapping.”
During the daytime, Lancashire ears, accustomed to their own sounds, began to hear new ones, as the clipped vowels of Received Pronunciation (or at least, the 1940s version of it) began to be heard in the shops and hotels of the town.
(If you listen to Trevor Howard and Celia Johnston in the film, “Brief Encounter,” you’ll get the idea.)
The company were lodged in the town and their appearances in Burnley’s streets often caused comment.
There were tales of, “ Tyrone Guthrie and some actors living in a very large, rented, terraced house” and a maid whispered that, “ Sybil Thorndike and her husband, Lewis Casson, were staying at the doctor’s house.”
People felt that some of the company were as dramatic off stage as on it, even noticing a “Different way of walking, when the ballerinas did their shopping in the Market Hall.”
The sight of capes being worn seemed, “Different, exotic.”
With his military bearing, the tall, elegant Guthrie, took to using the Commercial Hotel in St James’ Street as his local and was seen at the bar in black clothes, a black raincoat and a black broad brimmed hat, “Like a Sandeman Sherry advert.”
Sybil Thorndike wore plaid, with a short skirt and thick black woollen stockings and she was seen being followed by Lewis Casson in a new pair of shoes he’d bought in Dunkerly’s shoe shop.
Later made, “Dame Sybil”, there were those who said, not unkindly, that in her manner, she always was.
Reflecting on a long partnership, and asked whether she ever thought of leaving husband, Lewis, she said, “Leaving, of course not. Killing, yes.”
Not that any of this theatricality would have fazed the Olivier’s as the Invicta finally rattled through the failing light along the cobbles towards a meeting at the Victoria Theatre with their old friend from London, Tyrone Guthrie.
They had worked with him in the late 1930’s at the Old Vic in London and although their cinema careers had taken off in no uncertain way, they both felt rooted in the theatre world. Olivier had established a reputation at the Old Vic before the war as one of the finest classical actors in Britain, and Vivien Leigh wanted to be thought of as, “ A proper actress,” and not as a pretty film star.
Another reason for their return to a Britain was that Olivier wanted to, “Do his bit,” and enlist in the armed services.
He had already seen his good friend, actor Ralph Richardson in his Fleet Air Arm uniform and another actor, John Mills had joined the Royal Engineers. Olivier felt that everyone had a uniformed role but him. Having failed to enter active service because of a perforated eardrum, he was now trying to get a non-operational posting as a flying instructor with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
With that in mind and aware that in his absences, the highly strung Vivien needed to be occupied, preferably with work, they had decided to see what Guthrie might be able to offer in Burnley with the Old Vic Company.
Vivien had worked with Guthrie in the theatre twice before in 1937, playing, “Ophelia,” with Olivier as, “Hamlet,” on tour at Kronborg Castle in Denmark and then as, “Titania,” in, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the London Old Vic.
She was guarded about the meeting, sensing that Guthrie, who she described as, “prickly,” was not really one of her professional admirers.
However amicable the meeting, she was in the end proved right and as a result of Guthrie declining to find room for her in his company, Burnley missed seeing one of the world’s most famous movie stars appearing regularly at the Vic.
Perhaps Guthrie thought that the beautiful, slightly built, 5’3” actress was not suitable for a variety of stage roles. Her off-screen voice was described as, “Small and rather high-pitched,” and filling a 2000 seat theatre, without the benefit of microphones, took some doing.
Perhaps he sensed a potential for trouble from a temperamental and occasionally fractious Leigh when she was separated from Olivier for long stretches and alone in Burnley.
She was always psychologically and physically frail; some years later, she would be diagnosed as suffering from manic-depression.
Diplomat that he was, he later wrote and told her that, much as he would love to have her in the company, he felt that because of her fame she had outgrown the, “Hobson’s Choice,” of rotating roles in a repertory company.
After all, he reasoned, “Gone with the Wind,” had premiered in Britain in January 1940 and the public would resent seeing a star in small, supporting roles.
The next morning the Olivier’s said their goodbyes and left Burnley, never to return.
Shortly afterwards, in April 1941, Olivier took up his commission in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and was posted to Lee-on-Solent, near Portsmouth.
Vivian refused to be left behind and moved with him, sitting, cat on lap, in her small open car (which had mechanical problems), being towed by Olivier in the Invicta, steam still hissing from its radiator.
A few weeks later, bored with being stuck in the house, she suggested to Olivier that she might get a tricycle. A lack of balance militated against a two-wheeler.
Olivier was against it.
“It would look rather odd,” he said.
Not half as odd as if Vivien Leigh had got a job at Burnley’s Victoria Theatre and treated its good citizens to the daily spectacle of Scarlet O’Hara bouncing along its cobbled streets on a tricycle.