A story of viral infections, broken winches and press misinformation!
In 1995, PETER was cast in the lead role of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
Produced by Bill Kenright, and written by Nick Fisher, the play was billed as a World Premier, and described in an official press release as follows:
‘There is nothing like being scared in the theatre. Liverpool audiences are the first to agree – the spine-chilling Woman in Black has been back to the Playhouse twice and broke all box office records each time.
We are now proud to present the World Premier of an amazing play in the same dread tradition. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari tells a story so macabre that when the film was first released in 1909, audiences were literally fainting in the aisles with shock
You will be scared… you will be VERY scared!’
However, not everything went to plan, and PETER ended up leaving the production after appearing in just one half of the play. What follows is a brief synopsis of his first-half performance 0n Tuesday, 19th September, 1995.
As the macabre sideshow music begins, the curtain rises to reveal the hunched figure on an old man, crouching on a step, centre stage. He begins to tell the chilling tale of the events which took place in a small village in the German Republic of Weimer in 1923.
Fear not, for this pitiful storyteller is merely Francis (Richard Trinder), and young out-of-work actor who, during the course of the play, adopts the guise of just about every inhabitant of the village, as he conveys his tale of murder, mayhem and intrigue.
The love interest is provided by Jane (Samantha Beckinsale), whose friendship with both Francis and Alan, the poet, is soon established. But on the arrival of the enigmatic Dr Caligari (PETER WYNGARDE), events take an inevitable turn for the worst.
We first meet Caligari on the afternoon of the village fair, when he enters the Town Clerk Office in order to acquire a licence for his sideshow. Although he’s initially refused, he eventually succeeds in extracting the necessary documentation from the Clerk, and proceeds to set up his ‘Two Man Show’.
Strangely, no sooner does the Doctor leave the Office than Jane – the Clerk’s assistant, is terrorised by an unknown assailant, whom she describes to Francis at their next meeting.
The following night as she makes her way home, Jane passes the Clerk’s humble dwelling on the edge of the village, where she notices the shape of a man brandishing a knife in the candlelit window. When she calls out to her employer, he assures her that all is well, and that both he and his family are safe, whereupon she continues on her way. However, as the Clerk returns to his book, a masked figure strikes from behind, leaving the unfortunate man lying in a pool of his own blood.
The following morning, Alan and Jane decide to pay a visit to the fair, where the happen upon Caligari and his mysterious ‘Cabinet’. On opening the door of the casket, Jane is horrified to find what she believes is the body of a man, but on closer inspection finds that he is in fact a Somnambulist, and is merely asleep.
On the word of his Master, Cesare (Peter Chequer) takes a step forward; his eyes dead as night. The Doctor proclaims that Cesare is capable of answering any question he’s asked, at which Alan
Asks directly: “How long will I live?”
Cesare steps away from the Poet in terror, causing Alan to mock – suggesting that both Caligari and his Ward are hoaxers and charlatans. But Alan stands corrected when Caligari explains that Cesare is a mute, and that only he may interpret for him. However, after a brief consultation with the Somnambulist, Caligari claims that the answer is too terrible to repeat.
Alan laughs. Again he accuses the Doctor of claiming false powers. At this, Caligari agrees to reveal Cesare’s prediction – exclaiming that the young poet has only a short time to live.
By daybreak, Alan is dead.
The following morning, Francis is given the unenviable task of informing Jane of the terrible deaths of both Alan and her kindly employer, the Town Clerk. She consoles herself with a return visit to the fair.
In the next scene we find Caligari sitting by his tent, clutching an old battered Bible: “Awake, Cesare! Awake!” he cries. “It is time to continue your lessons. Now what follows the miracle of water being turned into wine?”
A question from the supposed ‘Mute’, Cesare: “Is it the money lenders in the temple?”
Before the Doctor is able to reply, Jane appears before him. Cesare slips quietly away into the shadow, leaving his Master and the girl alone.
The young woman approaches Caligari, who invites her to sit beside her. He expresses his sadness at the death of her friend, Alan, with whom he’d spoken only the previous evening.
He asks her if it’s true that she can sing. She nods her head slowly. He requests a song just for him, and she begins as he rises from his seat. Gradually, he moves to stand behind her, staring at her with sinister eyes.
The curtain falls.
A PERSONAL STORY OF WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT PREVIEW AND THE TRUTH BEHIND THE HEADLINES
The Friday, 22nd September edition of the Liverpool Echo excitedly exclaimed: “STAGE FLIGHT!”, but the truth of the matter was that a throat infection, coupled with a catalogue of technical failures, contributed to PETER’s decision to leave the World Premier of Nick’ Fisher’s adaptation of ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ at the Liverpool Playhouse after only one first-half performance.
Having begun rehearsals on Wednesday, August 30th, with his then co-stars, Samantha Beckinsale, Paul McGann and Peter Chequer, PETER prepared himself for a three-week stint in Liverpool beginning on September 19th, followed by a similar run in Leatherhead, Surrey at the end of October. It was hoped that the play would then move to the West End.
With less than three weeks rehearsal time before the opening night, pressure on all concerned was tremendous – so much so that Paul McGann decided to pull out of the role of Francis just days before the cast were due to move north to Merseyside, leaving the door open for newcomer, Richard Trinder, to play the Actor/Storyteller.
At 7.30 on the evening of the first Preview (Tuesday, September 19th), and with the audience already in their seats, an announcement was made by Executive Producer, Bill Kenright that, due to unforeseen circumstances, neither Ms Beckinsale nor Mr WYNGARDE had been given the opportunity of a dress rehearsal, and so a certain amount of patience on the part of those present would be appreciated.
As the curtain went up, I could sense that the majority of my fellow patrons were as eager as I to see PETER’s first stage performance in six years. However, for the first part of the play, we were obliged to endure Ms Beckisale’s dulcets tones as she caterwauled her way through a song which had, apparently, been written by Nick Fisher. Thankfully, PETER soon emerged to save the day, arriving on stage in a top hat, scarlet riding jacket, breeches, and riding boots. The place erupted!
OK, so all the actors made a mistake or two; an occasional fluffed line. A missed cue (or three!), not to mention the debacle of the snapped cable used to hoist one of the actors 25 feet above the stage, which inevitably lead to the cancellation of the show at the interval. But it was, after all, meant to be a ‘Preview’; an opportunity for the actors to iron out any problems and polish their performance before the official opening night.
With the abandoning of the show came the inevitable scramble for replacement tickets, and thus a huge queue formed at the two box office windows, across the foyer and back into the now empty auditorium. Thankfully, my friend and I had been seated close enough to the exit to be able to renew our tickets for the following night’s performance, and to get around to the stage door before many of the others had realised what was going on. Unfortunately, PETER had gone straight into a meeting with Bill Kenright and the play’s Director, Richard Lewis, so I was unable to speak to him as I’d hoped.
The following evening we arrived back at the Playhouse to learn that, at the very last moment, THIS performance had also been cancelled. I decided to speak to the Front of House Supervisor, Gloria Ashworth, to find out what was going on, and I was immediately escorted backstage where PETER was paged to meet me.
As he arrived downstairs in full costume, he explained that he was about to go on stage for a full dress rehearsal, and that I should call him at his hotel the following morning. However, later that evening, PETER phoned me to say that, due to the worsening of a throat infection he’d had for over a week, he’d be unable to continue in the role of Caligari and that he’d, regrettably taken the decision to leave the production.
After a somewhat lengthy conversation with him that lasted well over an hour, he asked me to meet him at his hotel in Liverpool the following morning, which I did.
On my arrival, he told me that the Playhouse were planning to make a statement to the press with regard to his departure, and since there was bound to be a great deal of media interest, he’d prefer not to be in the vicinity when the news broke. And so after spending some time with him at the hotel, we made our way by taxi to Lime Street Station where at 12.45, I saw him off on the train back to London.
That afternoon, a brief announcement was made over the local radio stations – Radio City and Radio Merseyside. On the following afternoon – Friday, September 22nd, the Liverpool Echo published a half-page article: ‘Stage Flight: Dixon star steps in as Jason King walks out on troubled show.’
It went on to say: ‘Cult hero, PETER WYNGARDE, of the 60’s TV series, Department S – was back in London today after quitting the show. It was announced that he had a throat infection. But Mr. WYNGARDE was clearly not himself during previews of the play, when he had to be frequently prompted in what – ironically – was the first stage adaptation of a silent film.’
While it was true that PETER was, by that time, back in London, I wondered what the Echo had meant by “frequent prompts”? I was there, and I don’t remember THAT! I’d been seated right on the front row – only feet away from PETER, I only heard one “prompt”. (Indeed, PETER had recited a very lengthy, word-perfect monologue during one scene, which provoked loud applause from the audience, so their saying he “clearly wasn’t himself” was entirely incorrect!).
Having been at that fateful first night, I can say with hand on heart that PETER gave an absolutely wonderful performance under some very difficult circumstances, and was most definitely NOT in need of any kind of prompting – “frequent” or otherwise. The only mistake I can recall seeing was a missed cue around 20 minutes into the play, which was later attributed to the absence of an assistant who should’ve called PETER from his dressing room to go on stage. Evidently, the Liverpool Echo had decided to publish its own interpretation of the theatre’s press release, as so aptly pointed out by PETER’s own letter to the newspaper’s editor.
MORE INACCURACIES FROM THE PRESS
On Thursday, 28th September, The Stage (theatrical newspaper) published a story about PETER’s decision to pull out of the play. However, instead of doing their own research, they chose merely to repeat the erroneous wording printed in the Liverpool Echo:
DISASTER FOR CALIGARI SHOW
Bill Kenright’s production of the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was plunged into darkness this week when former television heartthrob, PETER WYNGARDE, was forced to quit after a disastrous opening night at the Liverpool Playhouse.
The actor, who made his name in the Seventies television series, department S, appeared for the first and only time in the show during a preview last week. According to onlookers, WYNGARDE suffering from a throat infection needed several prompts.
The shows much-vaunted special effects failed to materialise and a faulty winch was blamed for Liverpool Playhouse Administrator, David Redmayne’s decision to call off the show at half time and issue vouchers to the audience.
Bread actor, Peter Byrne took over the lead role and the show is expected to preview next week. It is due to run until October 7th, before transferring to Leatherhead.
A theatre spokesman said that WYNGARDE was disappointed the he could not go on, but “he clearly had a throat infection which was, if anything, getting worse. We got him a spray but it did not do any good. It was agreed on the Wednesday that it was not possible for him to continue in the role.”
A response was needed…!
Upon reading this report which, as previously mentioned, had clearly been based on the earlier article in the Liverpool Echo, I wrote the following letter to The Stage in response:
The Editor, The Stage, 47, Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3XT
October 4th, 1995
I am extremely annoyed and surprised to read in your paper an article headed ‘Disaster for Caligari’ (issue No. 5972 – September 28th). Apart from totally misrepresenting the fact, it is an insult to a fine and revered actor, namely Mr PETER WYNGARDE. The article suggested the reviewer had been present at the preview on Tuesday, September 19th, which obviously was not the case, otherwise they would not have said what they did. I, on the other hand, was at the Playhouse on that night, and would appreciate you printing this letter if only to get the record straight.
The first fact that your paper got wrong was Mr WYNGARDE’s age. It is understandable for the cheap tabloids to put over 10 years on an actor’s age, but to see such a mistake in a paper such as yours, which is supposed to be on the side of the gods is to say the least, misleading. It could be misconstrued for the kind of bitchiness the public have come to associate with second-rate amateur reviews.
It is well know that film starts have taken years off their ages to keep their fans guessing the ageless quality of their big Vaselined close-ups, but as a stage paper you must’ve been aware that young stage actors add years on to their age in order to get their first jobs. Alas, it is these added years which follow them around when they’d have rather told the truth in the dim and distant past. I can only hope that is your reviewers excuse for putting more than 10 years on to Mr WYNGARDE. He or she must’ve quoted from some long out-of-date yearbook. In fact, MR WYNGARDE is an extremely active man who visits the gym three time s a week, spending two hours at each session in order to keep the necessary stamina he was born with, and which he know is required for an actor dedicated to his craft. He is not, as your article intimated, ill, senile or remotely decrepit! God, you only need to look at the man – which your reviewer obviously failed to do on the night of said preview!
Now to the several “prompts”: In fact he was prompted just ONCE, and that totally by mistake! A stage manager, who I have since read a letter printed in the Liverpool Echo (September 29th), in reaction to an article written by their Art Editor based on reports of a group of mysterious “onlookers”, had been brought in only five days before the preview, and was naturally a bundle of nerves, had prompted Mr WYNGARDE because she could not see the actors on stage because the set obscured them. At the time he was reading from the Gospel According to St. John, and was agreeing with the quote: “He had shown them the way and they were ready to follow” – saying, “Yes! Yes!” (you see, I did see the play!). She, the Stage Manager, thought that Mr WYNGARDE was asking for a prompt, and gave it to him so loudly that the actors at the Empire Theatre several blocks away must’ve heard it! Perhaps your reviewer also heard it, as an echo, and multiplied it, severally.
Instead of writing niggardly remarks that can only infuriate Mr. WYNGARDE’s many admirers (your reviewer has probably never seen him on stage and can only snigger now, like so many school-leavers, at the flamboyant clothes he wore in his two highly successful series on television – a typical case of being able to see the wood for the tress!). If he had been more constructive in the past, perhaps we wouldn’t now have to bow to the constant stream of musicals that pervade what was once the finest theatre in the world; when actors of the calibre of Mr. PETER WYNGARDE , with talent and charisma, appeared on stage constantly. They’ll tell you when they’re ready to go: They are the true stars who don’t need to be told by lazy journalists, who cheat their readers because they can’t be bothered to see the subject of their reviews.
PETER speaks up!
Meanwhile, PETER decided to write to the Liverpool Echo to set the record straight over their article of September 22nd:
With reference to the story in the Echo on September 22nd regarding my departure from the excellent play, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
Of course Caligari has had many problems, but what good play hasn’t? It is an extremely complex play and the excellent production simply required more time.
I was told we had four weeks before a preview – in fact, we had less than two-and-a-half week! This brought the director and cast to pitch rehearsals to a frenetic state, which inevitably had its effects.
I contracted a throat virus which only increased as the pressure rose. If we opened on that day, it was obviously that I’d have no voice at all.
Rather than let the cast down, I asked if I could be released. It was not a decision I made lightly, as it meant havening to sacrifice the part altogether, as no actor of the caliber of Peter Byrne would consent to take over unless he continued in the play.
It was a painful decision for me to make and I resent reading that I “walked out”. I have never walked out of a show!
Let me also clear up the matter of being prompted: I was prompted once by a stage manager who was brought in five days before the Preview and actually couldn’t see I was reading from a Bible and mistook my vocal assents as a demand for a line.
Additional media reports…
The Liverpool Echo – Thursday, 28th September, 1995.
SECOND ACTOR HIT BY PLAY’S CURSE – Horror strikes again but show will go on, says theatre
The curse of Doctor Caligari struck again today. Peter Byrne, the ex-Dixon of Dock Green actor playing the title role in the Liverpool Playhouse version of the cult horror movie, has withdrawn from the production. It is the second time that the jinxed show has lost its leading man in less than a week. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is billed as the World Premier adaptation of a famous Gothic horror. Mr Byrne, who played Dixon’s son-in-law, Sgt. Andy Crawford in the famous TV series, has had to quit. He is suffering from a viral infection.
The shock news comes less than a week after another TV veteran, PETER WYNGARDE, quit rehearsals with a bad throat. Mr WYNGARDE, best known as Jason King of the 70’s Department S TV series, returned to London after last week’s preview. But the playhouse spokesman said today that in true theatrical tradition, the show will go on.
The lead will now be taken by actor Peter McNally, who last appeared at the Playhouse in John Godber’s comedy, Bouncers. There will be a preview of Doctor Caligari tomorrow, with the official First Night on Monday. Apart from MR WYNGARDE’S ill-health, there was also trouble with the winch on stage. The loss of ticket sales caused by the delays so far has cost the hard-pressed Playhouse thousands of pounds.
The Liverpool Echo – Friday, 29th September, 1995
THERE’S YET ANOTHER DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
Is there a doctor in the house? Fortunately, yes… and the show WILL go on.
For the curse of Doctor Caligari has finally been exorcised, and stepping out on the Playhouse stage tonight will be Peter McNally – the THIRD actor to be cast in the leading role in a week.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is billed as the World Premier of the cult movie. Veteran TV stars PETER WYNGARDE from Department S and Peter Byrne, from Dixon of Dock Green, have both got within hours of curtain up, only to be struck down with viral infections. A Playhouse spokesman said today, We’re keeping our fingers crossed this will be third time lucky”.
- Obviously no one from the Liverpool Echo had been to Preview on Tuesday, 19th September, 1995, or they’d have seen what good form PETER was in to have tackled such a difficult and lengthy monologue without a single error. This renders the comment that he was “clearly not himself during previews of the play” mute.
- The suggestion that he needed “frequent prompts” was reported by “onlookers”. It was never explained whether these bystanders were from the audience or theatre staff. Whilst one “prompt” was heard both by However, the “prompts” were not heard and acknowledged by PETER and spectators in the front row of the auditorium, no “further prompts” were witnessed by either.
- The editorial in The Stage had clearly been based on the earlier editorial in the Liverpool Echo. The point being that one erroneous article can set off a chain reaction, with each facsimile either being enhanced or enlarged.
- The Friday, 29th September edition of the Liverpool Echo stated that both PETER and Peter Byrne had “got within hours of curtain up, only to be struck down with viral infections”. However, in their report on Friday, September 22nd, they’d acknowledged that PETER had gone beyond “curtain up”, and had appeared in one half of the ‘Preview’ on the evening on September 19th.
The above might appear trivial points to make, but they do show how a lazy, misinformed journalist can set in motion a story that can, eventually, take on a life of its own. In doing so, the public are often left with a twisted impression both of the events as they unfolded, and of the individuals involved.
The press in this instance tried to give the impression that PETER was past his best, and that when push came to shove, he bugged out. This was most definitely not the case! The fact that a supposedly respectable ‘trade’ paper – i.e. The Stage reproduced the story, could’ve proven irreparably damaging to PETER’s career and reputation.
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