Magic Moments by Harry Downey


Arbuthnot. What a name to christen anyone with. Something about millstones and necks comes to mind. To this day I’ve never forgiven my father for it. He’s gone now but he did tell me that I was named after his father’s 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 didn’t 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 actor’s union, didn’t 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 I’ve never regretted my choice. It’s been good for me.

Not that it’s 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 - it’s an exceptional actor or actress who is always busy. And when you’re not - well.

‘Resting’ we call it in the profession. To you and to most other people it’s being out of work but we actors are a funny lot - and proud with it. Some of us won’t 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 I’m a name, a face people know, I don’t ‘rest’ - at my level we’re ‘between jobs’ or ‘reading up for my next film’. The truth is, it all boils down to the same thing - you’re 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 don’t see, the fourth frog from the right in the second row - you grabbed anything that came along. It didn’t 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 didn’t 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 everybody’s 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 weren’t any warlocks, the men were witches – with a solitary Wizard in there too. The reasoning was that the Disney people thought that Warlock wasn’t a word that the public would recognise so male and female alike were referred to as Witches. A sort of ‘dumbing down’ - or that’s the way some of the stuffier papers saw it.

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 wizard’s 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? He’s part of our nation’s cultural heritage. Like Bruce Forsyth’s ‘cuddly toy’ and the ‘Carry On’ films. If you watch enough telly late at night or in the afternoons, you’ll 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 you’ll see him.

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 weren’t. 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 wouldn’t 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. I’d been chatting up a couple of the younger mums but hadn’t 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 wasn’t even for money.

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 wasn’t easy, but I stuck at it. Then I saw this beautiful lady and the day changed. Blonde hair, the loveliest smile you’ve 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.

Gullick’s 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 child’s 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 wasn’t planned).

For years now I’ve 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 didn’t 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 watching me.

‘‘That was not your property to give away, Tyndale. It belonged to Hummage’s. 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 didn’t bother arguing with him. I knew that I wouldn’t have won and it simply wasn’t worth it. There are Gullick’s everywhere. They’re just part of Life’s Rich Tapestry.

Still - all’s 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 that’s 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 that’s why you’re who you are, young Walter.


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