Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Peter Bayliss has died. He had secretly suffered ill health for some months, and was aged approximately 82, although he only admitted to 78.
Peter was a singular man, and actor. As a child his ambition was to be an astronaut, and he retained a lifetime fascination with the Universe, physically, mentally and spiritually.
He wanted no other memorial than that we should buy a yellow flower and give it to a complete stranger, or to send it to someone whom we have not seen for some time.
He was a man who searched every day for the best way to live, fascinated by gurus such as Krishnamurti and Timothy Leary. He's believed to have been brought up in the Catholic church, but was rather nearer to Buddhism in practice. Little if anything is known of his parents and childhood. All he would ever tell me of his mother and father was that he last saw them when they left him at a gentlemen's public convenience in Ware, when he was eight years old. One learnt pretty quickly with Pete to apply large doses of salt to whatever he said.
His career as an actor was immense, he used to boast of having been in over 500 plays, thanks largely to his years in weekly rep. As his (incomplete) CV testifies, his work embraced all media and possessed a seemingly limitless range. He was a favourite actor of Cameron Mackintosh, Jonathan Miller, Ninagawa and Peter Barnes.
His onstage persona, in whatever role he played, was always greatly informed by his own lovable, anarchic and eccentric self.
He was also a man of singular generosity and kindness. He always gave more than was ever asked for, and never required anything in return.
I first met Peter in Leicester, in 1979, where Cameron Mackintosh's revival production of My Fair Lady was produced, prior to a lengthy national tour and subsequent two year run at the Adelphi. My father was playing Higgins. At the time I was a teenager deep in angst. He appeared at my Holiday Inn room door on my birthday with a gift. It was Ian Dury's "New Boots And Panties" on cassette. Thus began a friendship that lasted for 22 years.
Peter was always young at heart, wherever life, youth, energy, loud noise, excitement, a "happening" was occurring, there would be Pete also. One of our first outings was to the original Comedy Store in Soho, very late one Saturday night.
Throughout his sixties he was a frequent clubber at Heaven, and even in his seventies he retained an appetite for loud dance music, playing it so loud he couldn't or wouldn't hear the phone when it rang. His Jermyn Street flat was stacked with powerful hi-fi equipment, neon lighting, video recorders, televisions, the latest computers. All of which, at times, were sources of endless and hilarious frustration to him at times.
His answerphone messages became legendary amongst my schoolfriends and I. We would phone his number in order to record them, and built quite a collection. They invariably involved Peter's butler, Father Christmas and Uncle Holly, Sonny Tufts, corgis going round the Grand National course (twice!) and Peter ("his grace") being in the "West Wing at the moment". Sometimes there was just the poem
Our maid, Sarah-Jane, fly by night
Left the dishes shining white
Left her stockings on the horse
Down the heel with stitches coursed
Dropped a message in a tree
This is what the message said
When you get this, I'll be dead
Alternatively there were fiendishly foxing messages along the lines; "hallo? oh hallo, yes?."(at this point the caller would begin to be in full flow) "Mmmmm, yes?.. no. No no?. No I'm sorry His Grace is out at the moment, but he can be reached.. etc" Pete believed that he'd probably lost work because of this message, producers phoning him and hanging up in frustration and humiliation, but he was never deterred. As a wind-up merchant he was the supreme and undisputed Universal heavyweight. He was merciless and relentless in mocking a target, sometimes going too far, and then forever seeking to make amends.
He was responsible for coaxing Dame Anna Neagle out of her shell, following the death of her husband, Herbert Wilcox. She was playing Mrs Higgins, and after the show on a Saturday night Pete would ensconce himself in the back of my father's 1957 Bentley, eating a baked potato, and simultaneously throwing his voice, talking to imaginary characters within the ashtrays, or the glovebox. "Does he mean it, Tony?" she would enquire in the passenger seat, genuinely bemused. Before long her bemusement turned to amusement and when she learnt the game she and Pete engaged in pyrotechnic displays of wit. Pete christened her 'Dame 5' after the number on her dressing room door. He made her laugh most by telling her that when he first met her he had to put his head to one side of his shoulders because he'd only ever seen her before whilst watching her films on television, lying in bed.
As Doolittle he was the most mischievous actor I have ever seen. A very great number of off-script excursions were made, and usually to reduce my father (as Higgins) to hysterics. Having been christened 'Paddington' (for his appearance when in costume) he would produce jars of marmalade from his dustman's coat pockets, eat a banana, and once or twice, on hearing of my father's acquisition of some land in Liphook, told Eliza "Now then! Don't you give these gentlemen none of your lip! Hook!" I worked with him a few times, and in Jonathan Miller's King Lear at the Old Vic, he was The Fool, to Eric Porter's Lear. When Lear rounded on Cordelia in the first scene he would occasionally place his hands on her shoulders in a gesture of support, but unseen by anyone, Cordelia's dress being rather longer than necessary, (and thereby obscuring the fact) he would lift her a few inches off the ground.
Offstage he was fond of reciting little ditties such as
Piddle fucker damn
Some silly bugger's gone and stolen my pram
Don't give a bugger
Soon get another
Piddle fucker damn
And was a dab hand at conjuring tricks, making coins and cards disappear/reappear at will. He was a prodigious photographer, and somewhere there must be many thousands of photographs, a few of which would surface some months or years after they had been taken, made into first night cards, usually having been doctored by hand or with computer assistance, and generally captioned bizarrely.
His favourite cartoon character was Sylvester the cat. He went to the theatre or cinema almost every night, having pored over the Time Out listings, and often plumped for the most way out fringe shows. He loved dinners at Kettners, and drank port and brandy for his booming rumbling Protean voice. One of his greatest delights was to make people laugh at the other end of the phone, for hours. When he couldn't do that, he'd say that he'd do half an hour with the fridge door open, bathed in its light for the benefit of its contents. He once greeted the Fair Rent representative from the council with a book of Hieronymous Bosch paintings, saying "Welcome, this is the guidebook". His advice to me as a hopelessly lovestruck teenager was legendarily hard but true: "If people want to be with you, then they'll be with you" and of performing night after night: "When it goes, it goes, and when it don't, it don't". He taught and inspired me, and many others.
There is nothing to be done. No one can bring him back. The world is palpably, deafeningly emptier without him.
'Being so much, too good for earth, Heaven vows to keep him.'
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