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Pantomime and grit

January 13, 2009 | No Comments

In London in 1963, the proprietress of “Freddie’s,” a children’s stage school, steers her ruthless, wily course, like a rusty man-o-war, through the choppy launch of television, rearing over-bearing, minor-talented little terrors to milk the pathos from the roles of Oliver, Peter Pan and that string of bit-part fledglings butchered in Shakespeare’s bloodier plays. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1982 acidic sweetie of a novella, At Freddie’s, Freddie is her finest creation. “She must have had origins. Even for Freddie there must have been some explanation…she had studied the craft of idealism, that is to say, how to defeat materialism by getting people to work for nothing.” Through deft bullying and emotional manipulation, Freddie controls her empire from the seedy velvet confines of herĀ office, surrounded by photos of thespians long-gone, “fixed by an indulgent camera in their best profile, they all portrayed the melancholy of those who depend on physical vanity.” She hires two teachers fresh off the boat from Ireland, nice and cheap, who begin a desultory affair, but the stolid Pierce is no match for the drunken charms of a second tier actor who soon seduces Hannah with his silver tongue and fading halo of grease and tinsel. Fitzgerald juggles her characters with her characteristic mixture of empathy and satire, granting the children the same humanity as the adults, and the same ruthless motivations – no political correctness here – and above it all floats the boy-actor Jonathon, whose delicate gift leaves the reader feeling queasy with apprehension, and directing it all is Freddie, “whose ruffianly behaviour had become ‘known eccentricities.’ Like Buckingham Palace, Lyons tea-shops, the British Museum Reading Room, she could never be allowed to disappear. While England rested true to herself, she need never compromise.”

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