Muriel, Unity, Baron and 'Vulcano'
My friend Muriel Walker celebrated her 94th birthday this month. Happy birthday! We called on her for a coffee and a chat.
Muriel had a long association with the Hayward Gallery. In this photograph she is standing beside a wonderful portrait of her by her friend Philip Sutton RA.
Just as striking is a photograph of Muriel taken many decades ago by her brother.
I got to know Muriel when I was researching into the novelist Alexander Baron. At 18, she got a job at Unity Theatre - and quickly became part of the team working on the monthly journal Baron edited, New Theatre.
In this 1948 photo below taken during a Unity Theatre outing to Box Hill, Muriel is third from left at the front, with dark hair and a hand towards her mouth. Alexander Baron is three to the right - with glasses and arms folded.
After a few years, Muriel and her friend Beryl - another Unity Theatre regular - decided to head to Italy. Baron had served in Italy during the war, an episode he wrote about powerfully in There's No Home, and he wrote Muriel this letter of introduction:
While in Italy, Muriel worked on location during the filming of the cinema classic Vulcano and then with the actor Anna Magnani - what an adventure!
From Bicester to Catania
It's curious how one thing leads to another. I posted recently on this blog a Unity Theatre photo from the late 1940s which included Joe Figoff, a name which meant nothing to me but which is sufficiently distinctive that I thought I'd see what an internet search revealed. And, indirectly, it has led to the photo above - taken at Arncott Camp, near Bicester, in 1942.
I am publishing the photo with the blessing of Pat Langham-Service. It belonged to her father. George Dorrington, who died a couple of years ago in his 90s. He features in the photo, along with other members of a Pioneer Corps company - one of them, the tallish guy just right of centre, is Joe Figoff.
George Dorrington had done what so many others neglect to do - written down the names of all those in the photo on the back.
Some of these same colleagues, though not Joe Figoff, put their names to a wonderful signed Christmas menu - at the time, December 1943, they were serving with the Pioneer Corps in Catania in Sicily. Again, my warm thanks to Pat Langham-Service for permission to post this moving memento of war. I wonder how the 'community singing in the dining hall after dinner' went?
It may well be coincidence and nothing more - but also among those fighting in Catania in 1943 was Alec Bernstein, the novelist Alexander Baron, who was later a colleague of Joe Figoff at Unity Theatre. He had also at one time been in the Pioneer Corps. Baron wrote about his few weeks in Catania in one of the most powerful of his novels, There's No Home, republished just last year. I wonder if he would have known any of those who signed this Xmas Day menu?
Another wonderful photo from the left-wing Unity Theatre in the 1940s. This is from Beryl Vuolo (then Beryl Lund), 'Red Beryl', who - as I've blogged before - has a wonderful scrapbook of her acting career at Unity, and about the fuss when she was suspended from the civil service as part of the 'red purge' for appearing in a Unity revue, 'What's Left'.
Beryl is the young woman reading the paper. Harry Newton, on her right, was Unity's resident set designer. Joe Figoff is the man with the glasses standing behind Beryl. And on her left is her friend Muriel Dobkin, with whom she later travelled to Italy.
If you can identify the man on the left of the photo, do let me know - click here to contact me.
And the newspaper they are looking at - it's clearly a staged photo, they are staring at the back page rather than the front page story about Beryl - is the 'Evening Standard' of 5th October 1948, which Beryl happens to have in her fantastic cuttings book:
'Red Beryl' at 90
Beryl Vuolo celebrates her 90th birthday this coming weekend. Happy birthday Beryl!
I had the pleasure of wishing her well this week. She's featured in this blog before - as 'Red Beryl', the actress and communist who was suspended from her civil service job back in the autumn of 1948 because her political loyalties were seen as making her unreliable. The story is told in outline here.
She starred in a Unity Theatre revue, 'What's Left', which among other things poked gentle fun at the Labour government's 'red purge' ... and then fell victim to that very same purge.
At her home outside London, she told me about her acting, her politics - she used to sell the Daily Worker outside Earl's Court station - and her moment in the political spotlight all those years ago. She showed me a scrapbook full of scores of press cuttings, theatre programmes and wonderful photos - a treasure trove of memories. Most were about the 'Red Beryl', issue, and serve to show just how much attention her suspension from the civil service attracted. She was front page news - and in the Evening Standard as much as the Daily Worker.
The great cartoonists of the time - and this was the heyday of the political cartoon, as practised by Low, Vicky and the Daily Worker's Gabriel - all made use of the story of the purging of Beryl Lund (as she was then known). And their handiwork is preserved in Beryl's own personal archive.
The press photo that sparked their interest is this - of Beryl as showgirl against a backdrop of a deserted, cobweb-ridden 'mass' Liberal rally.
Low made use of the image to lampoon the Tories - the exact reference is lost in the mist of time, but the model for the dancer in the 'Tory Unity Revue' is clearly, yes, Red Beryl.
Gabriel in the Daily Worker took a more predictable cartoon potshot - showing an MI5 man taking Beryl's place in the revue line-up.
In the News Chronicle (below), Vicky was much more mischievous - the high-kicking revue line up consisted of the Labour cabinet, with the diminutive, moustachioed figure of the PM, Clement Attlee, in the middle. The MI5 agent in the front row is focussed however on the three dancers out of sync with the rest, and kicking with their left legs. Nye Bevan's left leg is particularly evident.
Beryl Vuolo was a talented actress, and she did much more at Unity Theatre than appear in revues and parade as a showgirl. But as she looks back from the vantage point of her 90th birthday on a very active life, she can reflect with - I'm sure - both pride and nostalgia that she caught the attention of the best caroonists of the age.
LATER: Sadly, Beryl Vuolo died in August 2018
This is a photograph of Beryl Lund who, in 1948, was an actress, a communist and a ministry civil servant involved in sensitive defence contracts.
She appeared in a Unity Theatre revue mocking the Labour government's 'red purge' of communist civil servants - the revue was reviewed in The Times - and 'red Beryl' ended up a victim of the purge which she had sent up on stage.
You can read more about the purging of Red Beryl here.
A Unity Theatre outing to Box Hill
This wonderful photo dates from 1948 - a Unity Theatre outing to Box Hill outside London. The Unity Theatre was a left-wing theatre group based in St Pancras which numbered among its members several future stars of stage and screen: Warren Mitchell, Alfie Bass, Michael Gambon, Lionel Bart, and others. Such literary giants as Peter Ustinov, Ted Willis and (my particular interest) the novelist Alexander Baron were also key figures in Unity - a creative power house in the years after the Second World War. The Unity Theatre Trust seeks to continue its work.
This photo was provided to me by Muriel Walker, herself a Unity veteran. She worked with Alexander Baron, and very kindly shared her memories of Unity and of him. But who are all those featured in this very warm and evocative group photo? With Muriel's help, and numbering those featured as below, I've started to put names to faces - if you can help, please do get in touch by adding a comment or emailing me at email@example.com
LATER: We're not doing very well in identifying those in the photo - do please spread the word if you know people who may be able to help.
For more about Unity's Red Beryl - do visit these pages: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/the-purging-of-red-beryl/
And there's another Unity photo on this site here: http://www.andrewwhitehead.net/1/post/2012/11/unity-revisited.html
1: Beryl Bass, wife of Alfie Bass
3: Muriel Dobkin
5: Betty Oxenbould
6: Alec Bernstein (Alexander Baron)
10: Ray Bernard
12: Joyce Kirby
24: Fred Bishop
28: Tom Kernot
29: Gerry Sharpe, general manager of Unity
31: Anita Davis
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