In a story that starts with an ending, Sweetpea Slight has written a keenly observed memoir about the vanishing world of London’s West End in the 1980s and 1990s. Katherine Locke talked to her about the changing times and her life working with theatre producer Thelma Holt.
Sweetpea Slight has written a witty, rollicking account of growing up in the Eighties, set against a colourful, eccentric, theatrical backdrop. She takes us by the hand and leads us through a grimy London and reminds us what it was like to be young, impressionable and keen as mustard in an era where the art was edgy, housing was frequently substandard and to work in the creative industries meant giving it everything you had.
The story starts with the ending—Slight leaving Thelma Holt, the theatrical producer she had worked with for twenty years. In characteristic form, the parting was unsentimental (brutal, even), but underpinned with huge affection. Sweetpea portrays Thelma as her mentor and describes how mesmerised she was with the larger than life character throughout their time together.
‘Thelma had a way of getting the most out of everyone’, says Sweetpea, ‘She could summon up the extra mile needed to put on the best productions with the best people for the lowest budgets’. Slight recalls her paltry starting wage and being told by Thelma ‘You don’t need much for food, darling, just don’t eat’.
Thelma Holt is an ex-actress (‘I am never going to be as good as Vanessa Redgrave, darling, so why compete?’), turned theatre producer. Working at the highest end of the business, Thelma was instrumental in bringing productions from Russia to London and worked with some of the most respected actors of the time. ‘In some ways, the book is love letter to Thelma’, says Slight, ‘Or perhaps a break-up note’.
However, Bring Me the Urgent Biscuits, is not just a roll call of luvvies’ anecdotes, but equally a coming of age story about a young girl fresh from the Dorset countryside. Slight grew up in West Dorset and was educated at Powerstock Primary School, followed by Beaminster Secondary. ‘Dorset was very different then’, she recalls, ‘the lanes were narrower, there was very little culture readily available and it felt like a long way from anywhere’. Her parents, both artists working hard at their own practice, whilst simultaneously teaching at local colleges, were a rarity in those days. Blown in from London seeking a simpler life and wanting to give their children a rural upbringing. ‘In some ways, it was an idyllic childhood’, she says, ‘but being the child of artists, with our funny clothes and strange London ways, really did set us children apart’.
In a way that probably isn’t possible now, Sweetpea travelled to London in her parents Saab at the age of eighteen with a vague idea of trying to get into drama school (RADA). ‘I had always been fascinated with theatre’, she says, ‘I would spend long hours as a teenager listening to plays on the radio and being transported from my Dorset bedroom’. However, she didn’t make it to college, instead, a chance meeting turned into a life-changing choice.
Thelma Holt had obviously spotted something in Slight (or ‘the child’, as she frequently referred to her) that made her the perfect assistant. Loyal, hardworking and dizzy with the magic of the theatre, Sweetpea gave her heart and soul to the job.
‘I had no concept of not working hard for a living’, she says, ‘perhaps that is because I grew up with parents who were always working and still are. There is no such thing as retirement for artists’. Slight was no Trustafarian, the work ethic was firmly embedded in her, which suited Holt perfectly. ‘Work was everything for Thelma’, she says, ‘it was all consuming and she expected the same level of dedication from her staff’.
Above all, Bring Me the Urgent Biscuits—a reference to Thelma’s request for biscuits when the going got tough—is laugh out loud funny. Often reading like a Carry On script, the theatrical shenanigans are recalled with a keen sense of the ridiculous and a fantastic ear for dialogue. The stories of both Sweetpea’s home and working life are captivating and keep the reader turning the pages long after it should be lights out.
She recalls a time that has past. At 52, Slight says it feels very odd to be old enough to be writing about history, but nevertheless she writes about a pre-digital London, which would be very hard for the younger generation to recognise. ‘Life was not the same then’, she affirms, ‘for one thing drinking and drug taking were considered normal’. Although she didn’t indulge herself, the theatre was fuelled on Green Room drinking and her home life was made chaotic by the casual drug taking and partying of her flatmates.
‘In those days, it wasn’t at all unusual to see actors in costume propping up the bar and technicians, who were working with hugely complicated equipment, sinking pints was commonplace. That just wouldn’t be acceptable these days’.
Slight also notes that there are far fewer opportunities for actors from less than privileged backgrounds now. ‘University was free then and if your parents weren’t well off, you got a grant on top’. This brought a diversity to the theatre that appears to be lacking today, she thinks, ‘the acting world is dominated by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch now. It is a shame, because the theatre needs a variety of experience to bring it alive’.
The process of writing the book also required hard work and dedication, as it had to be fitted in around her full-time job (she now works as a PA for Anne Robinson). ‘The book was written at weekends’ she explains. This is her first attempt at writing anything ‘that wasn’t embarrassing poetry’. Originally, the book was written as a series of vignettes that gradually morphed into book shape. ‘My agent was incredibly encouraging’, she says, ‘she told me I could write, kept the deadlines rolling in and the enthusiasm high’.
‘It was hard’, she says, ‘mainly just getting into the right headspace for it’.
The book has received glowing national reviews and Sweetpea is inspired to think about her next project. She isn’t ready to reveal anything yet, but thinks it will be another non-fiction piece. However, her natural ability to tell a thumping good story means she could probably choose any medium she likes and make a great success of it.
Sweetpea clearly understands the business of storytelling. Perhaps it was her years in theatre, or maybe long evenings listening to plays in her teenage bedroom, but she fully understands the form and is able to inhabit it with ease. In fact, one of her favourite quotes is from the inimitable Joan Didion, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. With that in mind, we very much look forward to the next one.