Friday, 6 November 2009

My career as a concert pianist.

The piano is usually thought of as a solo instrument. Then someone had the inspired idea of bringing together eight world famous pianists to play together at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. My school had a tradition of using the piano in such a way. That was why we were invited to perform on Blue Peter. I was not one of the original pianists and so was not present when the producers first came to our school. However, early one morning, as I played the piano in a music room before class, the music master suddenly appeared asking where another girl was. I said I did not know. Would I like to play the piano on television, as there was a spare place following the sudden illness of one of those originally selected , he asked? I most certainly did.

As there were sixteen pianists on eight concert grand pianos and a small orchestra, it was decided that we should film our segment rather than perform live. We arrived at Shepherds Bush by coach and were taken to the dressing rooms, which had only recently been vacated by the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

When we went into the studio, what I had assumed were solid walls on screen were actually white sheeting. We met the presenters and were later given autographed photographs. The production team then showed us to the eight grand pianos. They were the very Steinways to be used later in the week by the famous pianists at the Royal Festival Hall.
"Please, please be careful with them," the production team begged.
“I will try not to do too much damage”, I grinned, whilst greatly impressed at just how much such an instrument would cost to buy brand new.
The producers told us all that it was important to smile on camera and then we started taping the segment. Sadly our music master who had done so much to raise the overall standard of music in our school did not appear onscreen. He suffered from a medical condition which greatly distorted his features and as a result he conducted us off-screen.

We played Stravinsky’s Firebird and Offenbach’s Can-Can. The cameras were mounted on little rail tracks so I was aware when they were on me and when they were not. On the final note as the cameraman had trundled away, I flung my hands off the keyboard in mock parody of a maestro.

After our performance, we were presented with the coveted Blue Peter badges and allowed to dine in the BBC staff restaurant before returning home to watch the live broadcast.
“Smile for the camera!” the production team had ordered. The camera pans across rows of unsmiling pianists, focussing intently on the task in hand. Then the camera falls on me. I am smiling broadly. The camera stays on me. It goes away and returns. As we have 16 pianists, each part is relatively simply. The camera is fixed on me for 16 bars when I play a total of 4 notes continuously. The very last image is of me. I did not realise they had overhead cameras, and so did not expect my parody of a maestro concluding his concert to be immortalised onscreen.

In those days, there were only three terrestrial channels, which meant that Blue Peter commanded an audience  many television programmes would be envious of today. I was amazed at the sheer number of children and adults who had watched the programme.
“I felt so embarrassed for you, “said one classmate who had not been invited to appear on the show. I dismissed her comments as arising from pure jealousy.
“Can she actually play the piano?” a friend’s brother asked when the camera focused on my 4 continuous notes.

We were further immortalised in the Blue Peter Annual.
I still have the autographed picture but a while later my mother forced me to give the badge to the younger child of a friend of hers, despite the fact that he had done absolutely nothing to earn it and it was not her property to dispose of as she saw fit. When I had been even younger she had made me give a treasured pink and white teddy bear to an adult patient, albeit with the mental age of a child, at the psychiatric unit where she worked. I couldn't help wondering why she was never quite so generous with her own possessions.

Poster boy.

I once dated a man who had ambitions to become an actor. In that he was simply following a family tradition. His older brother had enjoyed early career success and at one point looked destined to become a major Hollywood film star and even married into English theatrical royalty. My ex had a less than stellar career by comparison to his sibling, so it was comparatively easy to avoid seeing his image or hearing his voice and the painful memories they both evoked. Then he became the “face” of a UK camera and printer company. For 6 months, I had to be chary of watching independent television lest his commercial pop up. That was bad enough but then the company posted a massive billboard image of him along my street. I averted my gaze whenever I walked past his poster which seemed to be gloating at me.

The only time I have ever been mistaken for an actress was at a theatrical garden party at St Pauls, Covent Garden, known colloquially as the Actors’ Church. Its other claim to fame was that Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary seeing the first ever Punch and Judy show in England in the piazza outside. On a whim I decided to have my fortune read and the following is my recollection of the dialogue between me and the gypsy palmist in her little tent.
“Are you an actress?”
“Are you a dancer? “
“So what do you do? she asked in exasperation.
“I work in Corporate Finance.”
You should be in showbiz, “she admonished.
She looked at my heart line.
 “You will have two husbands and you are already involved with one of them.”
“I am not.”
“You are!” she insisted, brooking no argument.
She looked at my life line and shook her head.
“Oh dear,” she sighed.
“What is it?“ I asked with growing curiosity.
“Never go parachuting or hang-gliding,” she warned.
And to this day I never have! I imagine myself jumping from a plane. After a while I pull on my first chute. It fails to open. I pull on the reserve chute and it too fails to open. Just before I smash into the ground I think with some regret, “That palmist was right after all.”