Arbuthnot. What a name to christen anyone with. Something about
millstones and necks comes to mind. To this day Ive never forgiven my
father for it. Hes gone now but he did tell me that I was named after his
fathers brother who lived over in the States. All because his Uncle Art,
as he was called, had made pots of money after emigrating, and dad hoped some
of it would come my way after this rich great-uncle kicked the bucket. It
didnt and so I was stuck with a name I always hated. Fortunately for me,
when I took up acting I could do something about it, and as long as Equity, our
actors union, didnt have an identical moniker on their list, I
could be who I wanted to be. The surname of Armstrong I could live with but I
changed it anyway. So Peter Tyndale was born. And Ive never regretted my
choice. Its been good for me.
Not that its an easy profession to be in. There are always
far more people looking for work than there are jobs available. Making films,
or stage work, the same thing applies - its an exceptional actor or
actress who is always busy. And when youre not - well.
Resting we call it in the profession. To you and to
most other people its being out of work but we actors are a funny lot -
and proud with it. Some of us wont always face facts and like to hide the
truth from ourselves. Then, as you move up the ladder the terminology changes -
like me, for instance - now that Im a name, a face people know, I
dont rest - at my level were between jobs
or reading up for my next film. The truth is, it all boils down to
the same thing - youre unemployed.
Well, back in my earlier days, before you were born even, I was
a poor, down-trodden bit player taking any jobs that came along. Telly
commercials with me playing the bloke in the defensive wall in front of the
goalkeeper who has the football kicked at his vitals, one of the queue who gets
splashed when the bus comes along, the guy reading the paper whose face you
dont see, the fourth frog from the right in the second row - you grabbed
anything that came along. It didnt matter whether you moved or not, or
whether you spoke a line - so long as you got full union rate and a cheque out
of it that was all that mattered.
It was never enough to live on properly so when Marcus Rifkin -
he was my agent at the time just as he still is - Marcus found me a few days
work at Hummages on Oxford Street. I nearly took his hand off I was so keen.
Indoors, in the warm, a guaranteed number of days work, use of the staff
canteen with subsidised meals and a morning coffee break. Wow. That was Heaven
on earth to me in those days.
Witchcraft was big that year. Disney had released The
White Witch and the Magic Pearl and it was the hit of the season with the
kids. Wonderful animation I recall. Being Disney they merchandised the film
like only they can, and the toy shops were packed out with bits and pieces
connected with it. You didnt seem to be able to go anywhere or switch on
the telly without being reminded of the film.
Well, naturally all the big London stores were in on the act and
everywhere you looked people seemed to be making money out of the Black Arts -
except that being Disney there was nothing nasty anywhere - even the old
witches on the broomsticks were loveable old ladies like everybodys idea
of the perfect granny - you know how sentimental the Yanks are, All-American
moms and apple-pie, that sort of thing.
The film was launched in the UK to coincide with Halloween and
the plan was for the sales campaign to carry on and overlap the Christmas
period. Naturally enough Hummages wanted to put on something that would allow
them to get their share of the action. In fact the store had decided to follow
the same pattern they used for the Christmas Grotto, but with an extra area in
the basement dedicated to the Witches and Magic theme.
Obviously instead of Father Christmas they substituted Witches,
Warlocks and Wizards except that there werent any warlocks, the
men were witches with a solitary Wizard in there too. The reasoning was
that the Disney people thought that Warlock wasnt a word that the public
would recognise so male and female alike were referred to as Witches. A sort of
dumbing down - or thats the way some of the stuffier papers
The area was festooned with cobwebs, and spiders webs were
trailing all over the place, there was a massive imitation fireplace with a
huge cauldron simmering away, a broomstick in the corner of the hearth and a
stuffed black cat with yellow eyes that purred and miaowed - really lifelike I
remember. It was all quite impressive - or at least the kids seemed to like it.
Enough anyway enough to make the parents spend their money and, after all, that
was the point of the exercise anyway.
There was a little bit of resistance from people in one of the
Churches who felt that the children were being exposed to malign influences,
but they represented a minority and inevitably they were on a loser. There was
no way that these days they could compete with Mammon and expect to come out on
top. It was like a vegetarian take-away with premises next door to McDonalds.
Where I fitted in was that they put me into a wizards
outfit with a red cloak patterned all over in symbols and astronomical signs
and things, and a big pointy hat that was covered in glittery stars. In those
days there was less of me than there is now and that made me ideal for the
part. As the Wizard I was the big cheese there, and expected to ponce around
and basically be centre stage most of the time. With an ego like mine I was in
my element. Somebody said I looked a bit like a young Basil Rathbone.
You youngsters. No soul at all. You look blank. Never heard of
Basil Rathbone? Hes part of our nations cultural heritage. Like
Bruce Forsyths cuddly toy and the Carry On films.
If you watch enough telly late at night or in the afternoons, youll run
across him sooner or later. An actor from way back in the old black and white
days - dark, lean and best known for his Sherlock Holmes. Look
under the deerstalker in Hound of the Baskervilles and youll
They also gave me a wand that they told me to wave about a bit
and make some magic. Fortunately for me the store had laid on a
couple of places in the area where magic actually did appear to happen. An
elaborate wave of the stick with my right hand well away from my left to
distract as I pressed a hidden button caused an illuminated miniature fountain
to start gently spurting water that they had already treated with coloured
crystals or something. The kids seem to be impressed though some of the parents
werent. Then the same sort of thing was done with coloured lights -
hidden button, wave my wand and say the magic word.
There were also places where smoke would appear on cue. They
would have used sparklers but the Health and Safety people wouldnt allow
that inside the building - they felt that the fire risk was too great. They
also told me to say URAMBALI every time I did a magic
trick. Under my breath I sometimes did say Abracadabra but the word
they heard me use was a big part of the film and the sales pitch to sell to the
children and had to be used a lot.
By the end of Day Two in the store I was bored out of my mind.
The Supervisor already had his eye on me - my attitude was wrong,
he said. He also told me that he had heard me HoHoHo-ing to myself.
Id been chatting up a couple of the younger mums but hadnt got very
far. Then I started to try a few basic conjuring tricks I remembered from my
schooldays. Mister Gullick, the Mister seemed to matter a lot to him - seemed
to find this acceptable until he accused me of trying to show a couple of
spotty schoolboys how to Find the Lady - and this wasnt even
Well, there I was on a yellow card with every likelihood of the
red one following and I would be out on the cold, wet streets with no money
coming in and Christmas getting closer by the day. So, on the morning of the
third day I was on my best behaviour. It wasnt easy, but I stuck at it.
Then I saw this beautiful lady and the day changed. Blonde hair, the loveliest
smile youve ever seen and a figure you would die for. She was gorgeous.
Naturally I started to chat her up - Gullick was on his break
fortunately - and felt I was getting somewhere. She bought something for her
little boy and I had managed to charm a phone number out of her and was as
happy as a sandboy. I was able to find out what the form-fillers would call
her marital status - she was divorced. Sad for her but it suited
me. Then Gullick returned and was all smarmy and creepy to the woman, but I
knew he was watching me. Probably it was jealousy. He really fancied himself
and when there was no-one about he was trying it on with the girls in the
Grotto. They hated him but they had jobs to protect so they had to be very
careful how they turned him down.
Gullicks return ended the lovely atmosphere and the woman
decided it was time for them to go. I knew we were going to meet again soon so
- mainly for the childs sake - I made a big thing of seeing them to the
way out. The boy was as serious as only little boys can be - completely
impassive all the time. Not sulking or anything but his expression never
changed, even though I knew very well he was taking it all in and not missing a
trick. (Sorry about that, the pun wasnt planned).
For years now Ive had a little mannerism. A snap of my
fingers at automatic doors, pretend they open at my command - it was just
something I did. And still do it to this day. Simply a personal thing. Harmless
fun. Well, the entrance and exit for the Grotto was through a pair of heavy
glass doors that opened in the middle when the magic eye thing was activated,
so when they were about to leave I went to the doors - I didnt snap my
fingers but waved the wand and said the magic word URAMBALI -
loudly just as I was expected to do. Somebody up there must have liked me that
day for the timing was right - absolutely spot-on to the fraction of the
second. The doors swished open and I was rewarded by a lovely beaming smile
from the child - a smile that would have tugged at the heart-strings of old
King Herod himself.
I bowed very low, down as close to the boy as I could and gave
him the wand. I say gave him - in fact it was a near formal presentation that I
felt was needed for this beautiful, serious child. I offered my hand to him -
he reached up and shook mine in return in a grown-up, dignified way. It was
almost like the Queen awarding an honour in Buckingham Palace. The two of them
left and I knew something important had happened in my life.
After they had gone out of my sight I turned to see Gullick
That was not your property to give away, Tyndale. It
belonged to Hummages. Its cost will be charged to you and deducted from
your pay. You have already had a warning - I personally put it on your record
card. Consider yourself dismissed and finish when the store closes this
evening. Collect your wages before you leave. He went off to the internal
telephone - presumably to arrange the financial side of things and whatever
other details needed to be sorted with the office.
I didnt bother arguing with him. I knew that I
wouldnt have won and it simply wasnt worth it. There are
Gullicks everywhere. Theyre just part of Lifes Rich Tapestry.
Still - alls well that ends well so they say. Two days
later I auditioned for a part in a film - just a little part but it was big
enough to give me the big breakthrough that put me where I am now.
Funnily enough when my book came out a year or two later - I put
my name to, even though I actually wrote about two paragraphs in it with a
ghost writer doing the rest - they wanted me to do a book-signing thing at
Hummages. I saw Gullick that day.
Apparently one of the girls had eventually complained about his
pestering her, and then the others joined in to support her. I saw one of them
when I went there with the book and she told me how the store management had
handled it. Gullick was demoted and told that it would be a police matter if it
happened again. At least it left the worm with a job of sorts. I saw him with a
bucket and mop cleaning in the gents where someone had been sick. He recognised
me too - that was a little something I enjoyed.
And, yes, I did see the lovely lady again. The little boy is
Michael, your brother - and thats how your mother and I met. So your
existence in this world is partly down to old Walt Disney himself. How many
people do you know who can say that?
So, no Arbuthnot for you to hide from, my boy. Your
mother and I both agreed on that. And thats why youre who you are,