Queen for a day – Anne Boylan on Strumpet City and Peter Ustinov

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Just over 40 years ago, I had a cameo role in RTÉ's historical drama Strumpet City and I have the picture hanging on the living room wall as a memory as to what might have been, showing me all dolled up as a young Britain's Queen Alexandra as I sat next to the great Peter Ustinov in a horse-drawn carriage, as he portrayed King Edward VII.

Ustinov also had a cameo role and we worked together for one full day. The day before had been taken up with fittings, endless rehearsals with a stand-in, and, of course, the make-up and wardrobe team. At the time I was in my mid-twenties, was studying beauty therapy and was a member of Irish Actors Equity, a company which offered me extra work on a regular basis.

My scenes working with Peter Ustinov are well featured in the first episode which was aired in March 1980. There were seven episodes in total.

I secured the part simply because I was the nearest lookalike to Queen Alexandra. I could tell that my “co-star” would be entertaining and a relaxing person to work with.

We can be seen just about to wave to the masses of Irish subjects, who came to gawk in curiosity, rather than admiration or pay homage to a leader of an empire that was on its way to oblivion.

We arrived in style aboard the royal yacht Victoria & Albert, disembarking at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire). I was instructed by the series producer and director, the late Tony Barry, who had a well-earned reputation for detail and excellence, to walk dutifully a deferential half-stride behind my "husband". Such were the times when wives were mere appendages to the dominant males of the realm.

My costume was an authentic to the era, which although very elegant, also made me realise just how constrained women of the day were, having to lumber around in such swathes of clothing on hot days.

I well remember it being a steaming July, and RTÉ's finest make-up artist, Evelyn Lunny, had to keep blotting my face with powder to prevent it glistening on camera. It is also fresh in my memory that my pearl earrings were loaned to me by Marese Smyth, also of the RTE make-up team.

At one stage (between takes) while relaxing in the horse-drawn carriage, Peter Ustinov asked me to smile. "You have a great smile," he said. I thanked him for the compliment before explaining that I had been instructed not to smile. "I understand," he replied , adding that "Queen Alexandra was not a happy individual. "Her husband was well known for his dalliances with Lillie Langtry and Alice Keppel", (the latter being the great-great grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, I later learned).

Ustinov continued to sign autographs and, to the credit of the wardrobe and make-up team, my ladies-in-waiting understood that I had been flown in from overseas and asked me to sign also.

Of course I obliged.

As we left the carriage for lunch, this great actor whispered in my ear, “Did you know, my dear, that Queen Alexandra had a limp and was deaf in one ear from childhood.” I thought this was funny and said in reply “I beg your pardon.” He got the Irish humour at once.

I recall a huge furore all those years ago that this epic gobbled up the greater part of the station's budget for the year, but it was worth it. Basically, this is a distilled story from a novel by James Plunkett which intertwines Dublin city life of the wretched poor, starkly contrasting it with the life of the comparatively well-to-do Bradshaw family, during the seven years from 1907 to the beginning of the Great War. Indeed, Dublin in the "rare oul times" was a social disgrace. Infant mortality rate, for instance, was very high, with poor sanitation and limited educational prospects.

Enter the colossus of James Larkin (played by Peter O'Toole), an older trade union contemporary and workmate of the writer who imbued him with the desire to chronicle and fight for the most basic human needs. It was the era when the workers took on the employers, led by William Martin Murphy, who is said to have answered the complaints against pay and conditions which led to painful strikes, "They'll come back when their children are hungry." They were already hungry, so things must have been incomprehensibly bad to have refused to work the conditions.

The cast was fantastic. Sadly, some of the greats are no longer with us. You will not forget the late David Kelly's portrayal of the tragic rascal Rashers Tierney. Sheer brilliance! Then there was Brendan Cauldwell as Hennessy, a martyr to every form of rheumatism known and yet to be identified, but one of life's great survivors. They were all there. Stars like Cyril Cusack, Bryan Murray, Angela Harding, Donal McCann, Daphne Carroll, Laurie Morton, Edward Byrne, and a host of others simply took their place in the queue for their stint of glory, which proves that this country has always had the talent if not the resources to produce the best.

Strumpet City, adapted by Hugh Leonard was a resounding success and sold in more than 30 countries.

I brought along a copy of Ustinov’s autobiography Dear Me, which he signed with hugs and kisses. Yours truly was paid the exorbitant sum of £250 for two wonderful days.

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