Birmingham Royal Ballet in Gillian Lynne's restaging of Robert Helpmann's A Miracle in the Gorbals. © Emma Kauldhar

Dame Gillian Lynne DBE

The much loved and highly esteemed dancer, choreographer and director Dame Gillian Lynne DBE passed away on 1 July 2018, aged 92, barely a week after the New London Theatre (where the first production of Cats was premiered) was renamed the Gillian Lynne Theatre in her honour. In 2014, VIKI WESTALL, a dancer in Lynne's A Simple Man for Northern Ballet, interviewed the remarkable woman who was in the throes of recreating Sir Robert Helpmann's A Miracle in the Gorbals for Birmingham Royal Ballet's Shadows of War programme. Premiered in 1944 by the Sadler's Wells Ballet, Helpmann's ballet proved so successful that it was performed every season until 1950.  Lynne was a dancer in the original cast. The  interview, originally published in Dance Europe, October 2014, is republished here in her memory. 

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Gillian Lynne rehearsing A Miracle in the Gorbals with Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014. © Andrew Ross

So, how did the idea of restating A Miracle in the Gorbals come about - did David Bintley approach you?
Oh, no, no, no – it was David Drew. He always felt that Dame Ninette de Valois, Fred Ashton, Margot [Fonteyn] and Kenneth [MacMillan] had all had a lot of publicity during their careers – but that Bobby [Robert Helpmann] had never received his fair share. Bobby did some beautiful ballets, and a couple of duds, which everybody does from time to time, and David thought that Miracle in the Gorbals, which caused such a stir in 1944, should be brought back. There were five of us left alive that were in it originally: Henry Danton, Julia Farron, Pauline Clayton, I am one and darling Jean Bedealls, who has left us at the last moment. What a shame! It would have been fun for her. So everybody talked about it and my name came up as, out of all of them, I am the only one who became a choreographer and director and has kept working – Henry still teaches in the States but doesn’t choreograph. So David got in touch with me and, to cut a long story short, we started to put things together. None of us remembered anything! I was only 17, turning 18, when we were doing it, and I was very new so I don’t remember a step! Pauline did remember her solo – which she taught, but as it turns out I am going to have to adjust it as I have done things differently. I was staging the 25th anniversary of Phantom at the Royal Albert Hall at the time so I used to fly over in the evenings to knock a pas de deux together so we could do a little showing for the bigwigs for the Royal. But then I thought – a pas de deux and Pauline’s dance, is that enough to show them? It wouldn’t be the Gorbals, the Gorbals is The Street. So on the day I said to David Drew – get the people out of the room, talk to them and I’ll fling something together as a present for you. Fifteen minutes later we had a little something and the kids did it well, and gave them the idea that the Gorbals had another side to it. Of course, the music is wonderful, and the people at the Garden liked it.  Then one Sunday we got about 70 people together, people who could dance and people who couldn’t, kids and oldies, and I knocked something together which was filmed and sent to David Bintley, and on this David decided to do it – although I thought it was terrible! 

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Birmingham Royal Ballet - Gillian Lynne rehearsing A Miracle in the Gorbals with Cesar Morales and Michael O'Hare in 2014. © Andrew Ross

What made you decide to first send it to Birmingham Royal Ballet?
It was nothing to do with me; it was all David Drew’s idea. I didn’t even know David Bintley then. Of course, now that I do, I certainly would have.

I read and loved your book, A Dancer in Wartime, this summer. I never quite knew exactly how all the famous names I have grown up with fitted in to the start of the Royal Ballet, and it brought together all the threads.
Oh, I get a lot of letters saying that.

I also found it very interesting to read how Madam had given Bobby the chance to choreograph as well as Sir Fred, as they had very different talents.
Totally! Bobby did the best Hamlet I have ever seen – short, 25 minutes - it was utterly brilliant. Bobby had this boyfriend called Michael Benthall, a beautiful-looking man, who was a very good director in this own right, but he was in the army. He was sent to the Gorbals to command a gun thing and he got the whole idea from being there. He wrote a detailed scenario and Bobby instantly realised its potential.

You have many similarities with Helpmann...
Well, that’s because I learnt everything from Bobby – the actor/dancer - that was my gift from him. For me to be able to do this is a joy, an offering and homage to him. Although I would have liked to have done it when I was a bit younger!

You are in a unique position to compare the dancers of today with those or yesteryear. Obviously technique has improved...
Amazingly! But we were much better actors. I am teaching these kids to act – not ballet acting, real acting, and that takes a bit of time. Things are so different these days, dancers have computers and phones and all the things we didn’t. We were much more interested in reading and conversation and life.

Do you think that’s because the training is so technique focused that dancers don’t have the confidence or the freedom to develop their acting skills?
I think everything has changed for the worse! They have to have breaks now, which we never had. We used to have long rehearsals, which I liked, but now, just as you are getting somewhere with a scene, they have to go off and have a break. And that’s hard. It’s not their fault; it’s what they have grown up with. But I think their techniques are wonderful and this company is particularly nice. It’s not that the discipline is different, it’s just they wouldn’t dream of working the long hours we did. Nor do I think they would have the stamina for it now. You used to take class at 10 and you went on till six with maybe an hour or less for lunch. I think it’s a terrible shame, not just for this company; it’s across the board. They all earn a lot more than we did, too – I was playing leading roles at the Garden when I left and I was getting 15 quid a week! It wasn’t as dreadful as it sounds then, but it wasn’t any good either.

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Gillian Lynne rehearsing A Miracle in the Gorbals with Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014. © Andrew Ross

Have the dancers responded well in rehearsals?
Oh, very much so. I love this company; they are very, very young. But I won’t have anybody mark anything, which they all do now. I will NOT have it! What do you gain from it? Nothing. It doesn’t build your stamina, it doesn’t improve you for the next time you do it, and in a way it’s arrogant. I said to them – and it’s one of the only things it’s worth being this old for – I’m 88, I haven’t got time to wait for you to give it to me on the stage, I have to see it now, and bless their hearts, they have not done it since, not once. There was only one day they were a bit under, and I told them.

You are, obviously, quite amazingly fit, but have you found this rehearsal period tiring?
Only because I had that pneumonia for a year, and it was a particularly horrid strain. It affected my right lung badly but that’s nearly better. I do get moments of fatigue and have to be very careful because it can come back. Most people who are 80 who get pneumonia die! There is a name for it – the ‘Old People’s Friend’ or something!  My husband Peter [Land] was certain I was going to die – everybody was. In the middle of it the Oliver people decided to give me a lifetime achievement award, so I had to fly back from New York to receive it – madness. The next day I was terribly ill. Then there was the filming of Fabulous Fashionistas for the TV, which they couldn’t delay, so that didn’t help. This ballet was put off a whole year because of it. I’ve got two metal hips and a metal foot, so that is hard. My legs have always been strong but I can’t move properly like I would like to – it’s the foot really. My husband thinks I’m permanently drunk!

So do you get someone else to demonstrate for you?
Oh, no, I do it all the same but it looks dreadful! I still show what I want because you have to, really.

Tell me more about the ballet...
Sir Arthur Bliss [composer], Edward Burra [designer] and Bobby all worked very closely together on this. The sets are difficult: he was trying to get the feeling of a tenement in the Gorbals, narrow and dirty, building after building, one lavatory to 12 people, with no door. Roughly the same number had to share a bed, so they had to sleep in shifts. But it makes the spacing very difficult. I am doing a sound prologue because, at the time, we were in the war so there was no need to introduce it, but I thought it was important to let people know the period, what it was like to hear the bombs drop around you as they did at the time. I’m also adding a totally different opening to suggest the mound of humanity that was the Gorbals. I am absolutely thrilled with the boy playing Bobby’s role, César Morales - he was born for it. César is the stranger who has been sent down by his Dad, and he resurrects the girl who has committed suicide - the Christ figure. Then we have a wonderful minister, who is a bit of a devil, in Iain McKay. He is drop dead gorgeous; I find I put my hands on him a lot! There’s the prostitute, Elisha Willis, we like her a lot, and a wonderful little boy who plays the Vile Urchin, James Barton. Michael O’Hare is our beggar, and after seeing him as Will Mossop in Hobson’s Choice I just had to give him a solo, although there wasn’t one before, and Marion Tait is one of the Hags! There are villains and lovers, and a lot of hot sex. They laugh a lot at me, which is good as I am very rude and swear a lot.  After listening to me, the dancers have nicknamed the ballet ‘The Miracle of the Heavy Balls’, which is my way of describing how to get weight into the movement!


Birmingham Royal Ballet - section of the front cloth for A Miracle of the Gorbals. © Emma Kauldhar

Future plans?
I am currently involved in bringing Cats back to London. It won’t be an entirely new cast but we need a ‘name’ for Grizabella – we have her, but I am not allowed to say who yet, and a couple of other principals. I also have a musical in my head I want to do called Strings. Peter took me to Venice in the aftermath of the illness, we love Venice, and we went into this church where there were three ancient double basses on a stand, beautifully lit. I stood in front of them and stared for ages and I got the idea for the whole musical from them, especially the score, which will be a mixture of 1650s’ music - which is when the first bass was made - to Errol Garner type jazz. And I suppose I have to do a sequel to my book as people keep asking me.  The first one totally buggered up my hand, as I write in longhand. Peter has to type it up, as he is the only one who can read my writing. I also want to do an opera based on this scenario interlaced all the way through with dance, so I’m going to get Cameron [Mackintosh] to come up and have a look at this. We should do it on Scottish Opera. I’m going to have to get on with it, though, as I don’t think I’ll be here this time next year, darling, I really don’t. I think that David is incredibly courageous and brave to get me to do this. We showed what we have done so far on Friday, and he was thrilled.  But I’ve no idea how this will be received, as it’s from another era – even though there’s not one thing in it that we did then! But I was there, even though I’m ancient now. The only thing is that I have done so many musicals that I have advanced in a technical way.  And it’s a vey tricky subject, about Christ coming back and about being murdered, which could easily happen today with these awful people that are rising up. How will a public that has kids saving up to go over to join a Jihad army and kill, how will they look at something like this? We will find out.