Thriller sheds light on a time gone by

First published in Postbag

JAMES Mason was already a star of the British cinema when, in December 1944, he appeared in Gaslight at the Garrison Theatre in Fisherton Street, his only appearance at this theatre.

He appeared with Gillian Lind, and the author Patrick Hamilton produced the play.

In our archives we have a signed programme of Gaslight but no other documents pertaining to this production.

However, in John Bavin’s book, Heart of the City, there is this wonderful snapshot of a busy actor’s life: “Visiting stars stayed in local hotels and came to the theatre by taxi.

“One taxi driver of those days who was booked regularly to do much of the theatre work was Mr Thomas Noble. He remembers the week when Gaslight was being rehearsed and recalls how he would pick up James Mason, drive him to the theatre and pick him up later.

“The evening run puzzled Mr Noble because there was no performance during rehearsal week and he was delivering his client to, and collecting him from, a closed theatre which would be in darkness.

“One evening, however, James Mason was not on the steps in his usual position, waiting to be picked up at the end of the hour.

“Mr Noble waited about 10 minutes – there were no yellow lines in those days – and then he decided to go to the stage door.

He found it was unlocked and as he walked in he heard some horrible screeching sound coming from the direction of the stage.

“He saw James Mason with a violin and bow and, although he was drawing the bow across the violin, there was no melody coming forth, just a noise.

“Mason turned, saw him, and exclaimed ‘I can’t play this you know.’ He replied: ‘No, I didn’t think so.’ “Mason then explained that he would shortly be in a film called The Magic Bow in which he was to act the part of a first class violin player and that he had to get the fingering right on the instrument but that Yehudi Menuhin would actually be supplying the sound.

“As things transpired, Mason did not play the part after all. It was played by Stewart Granger.”

The Salisbury Playhouse archives also reveal that Leonard Rossiter was in the 1959 production of Gaslight playing Rough.

Gaslight is a classical psychological thriller set in fogstricken Victorian London. Catch it at the Playhouse from tonight until March 1.

Arthur Millie and Jane Ware, Salisbury Playhouse archivists

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