Work experience with theatrical grande dame Thelma Holt changed an impressionable young woman’s life and her name. Following the publication of her memoir, Sweetpea Slight tells Nick Smurthwaite all about ‘that mad woman with the red hair’
In the pantheon of theatrical memoirs, Sweetpea Slight’s book Get Me the Urgent Biscuits, about the 20 years she spent as Thelma Holt’s personal assistant, seems destined to become an instant classic. For the hardcore theatre buff, it has it all: a passion for performance, beautifully observed backstage howlers, celebrity gossip, devotion beyond the call of duty and, at its heart, a dazzling portrait of one of the great eccentrics of contemporary British theatre.
Jane Slight was an unworldly, blushing, stage-struck 18-year-old school leaver when she first encountered Thelma Holt in 1984. She was doing work experience with Ray Cooney’s Theatre of Comedy and dreaming of becoming an actor. Holt had left the Roundhouse, which she had run for seven years, to become Cooney’s executive producer.
“Hello darling, which raffle did we win you in?” were Holt’s first words to Slight, eliciting no doubt a reaction of blushing puzzlement.
‘There was nothing forced about Thelma calling me Sweetpea. It started as a nickname and just sort of stuck’
Meeting Slight in person, now 52 but looking a lot younger, it is not hard to see why Holt was so charmed by her. Tall and pretty, with cropped blonde hair, she has the natural elegance of a model only without the hauteur.
For her part, Slight was instantly smitten with Holt, or “that mad woman with the red hair”, as she referred to her after their first encounter. She writes: “Thelma was striking, radiant, utterly captivating. She had immense authority coupled with a childlike quality that set her apart from others who she often referred to as ‘the grown-ups’.”
Despite her bohemian upbringing in Dorset – her father was a sculptor, her mother a painter – nothing had prepared Slight for the craziness of being Thelma’s sidekick. Yet so intoxicated was she by this high-stress world of late nights, star casting, crisis management, and flying by the seat of your pants, that Slight even allowed Holt to rebrand her Sweetpea, the name she has answered to for more than 30 years.
“There was nothing forced about Thelma calling me Sweetpea,” she explains in a Hampstead coffee shop. “It started as a nickname and just sort of stuck. All my friends and family adopted it. It seemed perfectly natural and even when I stopped working for Thelma I didn’t go back to being Jane because I didn’t know who she was any more. Nobody bats an eyelid now when I tell them my name is Sweetpea. I had to meet Honeysuckle Weeks once at an audition. I said, ‘Hello Honeysuckle, I’m Sweetpea.’”
Her writing debut Get Me the Urgent Biscuits is an assured and ingenious conflation of autobiographical rite of passage, sharp character study and serious theatrical endeavour. It is also crying out to be adapted for the screen. Who doesn’t like to know what goes on behind the scenes, especially when it involves Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman and Vanessa Redgrave?
Tantalisingly, she does not reveal the identity of the A-list American star who shamelessly groped her during a visit to Holt’s office early on in her engagement, but there is a delicious tale of the actor Richard Harris receiving an apprehensive Slight in his dressing room, seemingly unaware that he was naked from the waist down.
Of course, it is Holt who hogs the limelight at every turn with her unpredictability, ripe expletives and propensity to shock – intentionally or otherwise. She told one visiting interviewer, keen to know how she relaxed after a hard day at the office: “Darling, I like to lie on the bed and stroke my pussy.” The ever-present Sweetpea nervously muttered ‘cat’ to the stunned-looking journalist, while Holt appeared unaware of the double entendre.
‘Arranging to see Thelma is like trying to get an audience with the Queen.’
Having become such a vital cog in Holt’s wheel of fortune, did Slight ever imagine that she would follow in her mentor’s footsteps?
“No, I never felt I had the right temperament to do what Thelma does. Even though she believed in me, I didn’t have her edge, her titanium-plated determination or unwavering belief in herself.”
Not surprisingly, the book jacket is festooned with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Zoe Wanamaker and Anne Robinson, but there is nothing from Thelma herself.
“I didn’t ask her for one,” says Slight. “None of the endorsements are from people I’ve written about. I showed Thelma the manuscript and said I would take out anything she didn’t like. We met up a few times while I was writing it but we’d always finish up talking about what she was doing. She is still very focused on what she’s doing. That always comes first.
“Arranging to see her is like trying to get an audience with the Queen. I’ve been summoned to breakfast at eight o’clock. I invited her to the book launch but she was already booked up with a first night.”
Did she feel any resentment towards Holt after two decades of loyal service? “No, not at all. I didn’t blame anyone for my growing disenchantment. It just took me a long time to grow up. As Shirley MacLaine famously said, ‘Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way.’ I was in my own way.”
Now that she no longer works in that world, what is Slight’s relationship with the theatre these days?
“After I left Thelma, I stayed away, but I’ve come back to it. I still have good friends who work in the theatre and I go to see what they’re doing. I’m really picky about what I see now.”
Get Me the Urgent Biscuits is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson