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Richard Jordan: Sweetpea Slight’s memoirs reveal the climate of harassment that must end

Thelma Holt. Photo: Barker Evans Thelma Holt. Photo: Barker Evans
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In the same week that The Stage published its harassment report, I finished reading Get Me the Urgent Biscuits, Sweetpea Slight’s memoir about working as an assistant to theatre producer Thelma Holt.

Slight’s book was published last year and written before both the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign. It was undoubtedly intended as an affectionate account of working in the theatre for the talented and eccentric Holt, who is fondly portrayed within it.

 ‘I found many passages of her writing heart-breaking, and it left me feeling ashamed of our industry’

However, in the aftermath of the past few months, I found many passages of her writing heart-breaking, and it left me feeling ashamed of our industry. “I later learnt that, however a convivial family feeling the business seemed to engender, I would need to be on my guard,” she writes, before going on to talk about the first time a famous actor attempted to molest her when she was alone in Holt’s office.

Get Me the Urgent Biscuits: ‘A different time’

Last June when Slight’s book was released and reviewed, the reference to any assault upon her was given nothing more than a passing footnote by most reviewers who wrapped it up with the book’s backstage gossip.

Eight months on, and it’s reflective of how things have changed; had Slight’s book launched now, these events would certainly have been highlighted and addressed. Slight may not have envisaged her honest book as a catalyst for necessary industry change, but her memoir should serve to do this.

The cover of Sweetpea Slight's book
The cover of Sweetpea Slight’s book

Elsewhere in the book, Slight offers plenty of humour working for the supremely theatrical Holt in a chaotic world of theatre production. But, reading it in the current industry climate, the reader’s eye is drawn more closely towards the other side of the story, especially the loneliness you sense when confronted with passages such as: “I was woefully unprepared to sense any threat or deal with such things myself. In the early years before I became confident and wise enough to disallow even the opportunity, there were an uncomfortable number of incidents”.

These may get described as “different times” – a line now often used to mitigate a multitude of sins. Nonetheless, the emotions someone experiences, which they may hide, and the scars left as a result, are no different whatever the era.

This is a wake-up call

Many of us working in the theatre will recall that feeling of excitement and enthusiasm when we first started out, but it can also be overwhelming. It’s vital for the industry’s future that we create a better supportive environment ensuring a proper duty of care and good working codes of practice for all those who work in it.

If there is anything positive to draw from the accusations against Weinstein and those in our business, is that it’s forced a necessary wake-up call for both the industry and its workers on how they conduct themselves.

For far too long, as The Stage harassment report highlights, unacceptable behaviour has been tolerated often because it is linked to an abuse of power; many feared speaking out would damage their own career. In going forward, this must be properly addressed and eradicated.

‘It’s vital for the industry’s future that we create a better supportive environment ensuring a proper duty of care and good working codes of practice’

One problem is that bad behaviour in the theatre has often been feted and retold with laughter. “When on tour it doesn’t count” is one line that gets banded about. Even Irving Berlin’s great ode to the industry, There’s No Business Like Show Business contains the lyric: “Angels come from everywhere with lots of jack / and when you lose it, there’s no attack / where else could you get money that you don’t give back” hardly encourages a responsible and pragmatic business practice as recent cancelled debt-ridden musicals Wonderland and Heaven on Earth both demonstrated.

My concern is that when the public hears or reads about such poor behaviour or harassment how do they actually view our industry? Do they see an unfortunate stereotype of seemingly crazy, dramatic self-absorbed show-folk who are all double-dealing and bed-hopping; an image of the theatre that regularly gets immortalised, or even caricatured, in films and books.

Many industry outsiders are fascinated by the theatre as it can sometimes seem mysterious and thrilling. And as an industry, we enjoy playing up to that image of unconventionality often adding a large dollop of theatricality.

Still a long way to go

“The child darling – hands off!” was Holt’s way of handling Slight’s report to her of the inappropriate behaviour she’d experienced, directing her remark to the individual in question, and thereafter positioning herself between them both on a flight.

Sweetpea Slight. Photo: Kate Barsby
Sweetpea Slight. Photo: Kate Barsby

Today this resolution sounds as farcical as it does concerning. But it’s illustrative of an old-school eccentric theatricality that some members of the public still believe – and romanticise – that’s what backstage life is like today. We need to break these misconceptions for the sake of the theatre industry’s creditability and values.

Any parent reading Slight’s book may well think long and hard about letting their daughter or son enter the theatre. It’s a stark reminder of why things in our industry need to change. The past few months have seen steps taken toward this by impassioned and brave people who care deeply about each other, our industry globally and crucially, its future, but there is a long way still to go.

Sweetpea Slight: The low-down on life with a theatre impresario

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