Her passion for theatre propelled Peckham nonagenarian Vi Marriott into a life of excitement, from working with Laurence Olivier to setting up the Young Vic and receiving an MBE from Prince Charles
Photo: Lima Charlie
Two weeks after Vi Marriott began her dream job at the Old Vic theatre in 1946, she was alone in the office when the phone rang. It was Laurence Olivier, who was in the middle of rehearsing King Lear.
“He said, ‘I need somebody to come down here and take a programme note,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘There isn’t anyone here, Mr Olivier, except me.’ He said, ‘Come down at once!’
“I went with my notebook and he strode up and down the stage, with me tottering behind. I was so nervous that when I got back to the office, I couldn’t read a word of what I’d written.
“I thought, what am I going to do? Then the phone rang again. ‘Mr Olivier here! About that programme note,’ he said. ‘Yes, Mr Olivier,’ I said. ‘I’m terribly sorry, but…’ Then he said: ‘Scrub it, I’ve changed my mind.’”
Vi has led an extraordinary life. The 94-year-old, who has lived in Peckham since 1965, helped set up the Young Vic and was awarded an MBE for her services to theatre administration.
Her love of the stage came from her grandmother, a former showgirl from Stepney who lived there during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. “I adored my grandmother,” says Vi.
“She was a dancer at the Whitechapel music hall, and she taught me all the songs. She knew all the big names, like Ada Reeve and Little Tich. She never married my grandfather, which was shocking in those days.”
Aged 13, Vi went on a school trip to Streatham Hill Theatre to see John Gielgud in Richard of Bordeaux. “I took one look at him and said, when I grow up, that’s what I’m going to do,” she says. “I adored Gielgud. To me, as an actor, Gielgud was God.”
But when she left school two years later, her dreams of becoming an actress were quashed by her father, an East End boy who had worked his way up in a City firm and was determined for his two daughters to get “proper jobs”.
Vi duly went to commercial school to learn shorthand, typing and book-keeping, before joining a typing pool at a firm on Oxford Street. She endured the tedium by spending most of her wages watching West End shows.
She then took a secretarial job at Croydon Aerodrome and was evacuated from London to Bristol during the war, where she fell in love with a dashing blond airman called Charles Short.
“We got engaged on my 21st birthday in the middle of an air raid,” she says. “Chick, as I called him, gave me a ring – very romantic it was. He made it for me out of a flying wire, because we didn’t have any money. I’ve still got it today.
“Everything was lovely for about six months. And then, disaster. He was sent to Rhodesia and we were parted. For a whole year I wrote to him practically every day. I used to write and write and write. He wrote back, but not that often. Then one day, I got a letter that said, don’t write to me any more, I’ve got married.
“I was terribly upset of course. My mother said he ruined my life – but I think he made my life. You see, I would never have got into the theatre. I’d have settled down and been a quiet suburban wife.”
Vi moved back to London and was drafted in to work for Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, at the Ministry of Aircraft Production at Thames House on Millbank.
When peace was declared in 1945, she decided to follow her heart and wrote to dozens of theatres seeking work. She was invited for a job interview at the Old Vic, which needed someone to do administration for the general manager, Laurence Evans.
The theatre roof had been damaged in the Blitz, so the company, under Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Burrell, had temporarily moved into what is now the Noël Coward Theatre in Charing Cross.
“I was interviewed by a woman called Kathleen, and she asked me, ‘Have you seen any of Mr Burrell’s productions?’ I said, ‘All of them.’ Of course I’d seen all of them, I practically lived there.
“She went into Johnny Burrell’s office and said, ‘I’ve got this dotty woman outside. She’s worked for Frank Whittle so she’s presumably quite a good typist. And she’s seen your production of Henry IV about 30 times.’ He said, ‘Take her!’”
There was one hitch. “They said to me, Laurence Evans is in America. When he gets back, if he doesn’t like you, you won’t be able to stay. So Laurie came back, we took one look at each other and hated each other on sight.
“He gave me this great long, very complicated contract to type. I took it into him and he said, ‘This contract. There aren’t any mistakes in it.’ I said, ‘Of course there aren’t, I did it!’ And that was it, I was in. Me, walking through the stage door of the Old Vic theatre company. I thought it was the holy grail.”
Vi worked alongside the charismatic Olivier until he left two years later. “Larry was madly attractive,” she says. “Women and men fell for him. He had the most beautiful bone structure, dark blue eyes and black wavy hair. He was ravishingly handsome.”
After eight years at the Old Vic, Vi travelled to Australia with theatre director Hugh Hunt to help set up the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. By the late 1960s she was back in London and working with Frank Dunlop, administrative director of the National Theatre.
Dunlop had a vision to create a radical new kind of theatre for a younger audience, with high-quality plays accessible to all. “Frank called it paperback theatre,” says Vi. “It was as good as the National Theatre, well-cast, well-directed, but cheaply done.”
In 1970 they opened the Young Vic, which cost £60,000 to build and was only meant to last five years. “It had no finishes or carpet; it was all plain brick and concrete,” says Vi. “Our shows were very simple. We had no scenery and we bought the costumes from C&A half the time.”
The Young Vic staged innovative performances ranging from Shakespeare to Stoppard. “We did musicals too, like Godspell,” says Vi. “Terrible, embarrassing piece that is. I crawled under the seat I was so embarrassed. But whatever we did it didn’t matter; we were packed.”
The theatre also put on the first production of Joseph. “That got fantastic reviews. It was a marvellous show,” she says. “I could sell the Young Vic anywhere in the world. It didn’t matter what the play was or who was in it – I could sell it on the name only.”
Vi left the Young Vic in 1991 and set up the Cherub theatre company with director Andrew Visnevski. They toured universities in Iraq and Pakistan with Twelfth Night, which was sponsored by the British Council.
Vi, who has seen her favourite play Hamlet 42 times, including once in Greek, also wrote a prize-winning play called Ten Days’ A-Maze, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe.
In 2009, she collected her MBE. “Prince Charles said to me, ‘You work in the theatre.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Do you like it?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, sir’. He said, ‘How long have you been doing it?’ I said, ‘About 62 years.’ ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Jolly good.’”