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James Leavey's Corner
Staging A Smoke

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Staging a smoke

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey

Many years ago,when I was a young drama student in London, I decided to quit my habit ofsmoking four packs of cigarettes a day – I simply couldn't afford it.  Aweek later, the principal gave me the role of a cigar-smoking producer inNoel Coward’s comedy, ‘Present Laughter’.  The play’s director, who wasworking for the British TV and film mogul – the late, great, cigaraficionado, Lord Lew Grade – used to hand me a double corona every night,just before I went on, which he borrowed from Lord Grade's humidor. Which ishow I found myself being weaned off cigarettes with Havana cigars.

 At that time,lovers of fine comedy and drama were not allowed to light up their favouritetube of tobacco in any of Britain’s theatre auditoriums, although most stillallowed smoking in the foyer and bar. This situation has grown worse inrecent years, especially on Broadway, where some theatres would prefer youdidn’t smoke in the street outside, never mind in the crush bar during theinterval.

 Jump forward toone non-matinee afternoon, a couple of years ago, when I found myself tryingnot to set fire to the set of ‘Guys and Dolls’ at the Royal National Theatrein London.  It was a brilliant production – the show, not the cigar - thatlater toured the UK and, I believe, other parts of the world.

 Niall O’Reilly,the South Bank theatre company’s fire and security manager, was standing tomy right, collecting the residue from my cigar in a large glass ashtray. Onmy left was Alan Davies, one of the theatre’s twelve fire persons (at thattime, they employed eleven men, and one woman), with a bucket of sand.

They had earlierinformed me that Frank Loesser’s famous musical was probably the mostsmoker-friendly production in Britain.  Fifteen herbal cigarettes, a coupleof joints, and Harry the Horse’s Havana were smoked during everyperformance.

“Is it true thatan actor can smoke on a British stage,” I projected into the emptyauditorium, “only if at least one fireman or firewoman is in the wings witha fire extinguisher"”

O’Reilly lookedat me, resisted the urge to light up another cigarette, and replied, “Yes,according to the large book of rules left to us by the former Greater LondonCouncil, a copy of which you can see in my office.”

“And yet,” Icontinued, grateful for the fact that these two kind-hearted stalwarts hadallowed me to smoke on their beloved stage, “as a member of the audience Icannot light up anywhere in your auditorium, even though I may enjoy theoccasional waft of tobacco smoke across the footlights if I’m sitting in thefront row of the stalls"”

“Not unless thedirector directs you to do so,” replied O’Reilly, “having requested me tofill in the details on a special form.”

Davies, thefireperson, then explained that smoking is only allowed on Britain’s stagesif it is a necessary part of the dramatic action.  It is even banned fromthe wings, except, apparently, when it soothes the First Night nerves ofworld famous actors.

“I’ve seenAnthony Hopkins puff a cigarette just before he goes on,” admitted Davies,“but I didn’t want to be the person to tell him to stub it out and put himoff his stroke.”

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