In a Prison without Bars
by Robert Toogood
Tony Brinton and I go way back. We were both handsome young hopefuls who met at the prestigious Fromont Acting School and became friends. We had no idea of how precarious the acting profession could be, or how heavily dependent on a good agent and good luck. We both landed parts and started up the ladder of success, but neither of us managed to climb up many rungs, although I managed to get a few reasonably good roles. My chance came at last when I understudied in ‘King Lear’ and Richard Newton fell ill so that I stood in as Edgar at the last minute – but it is about Tony you want to know. His career went bumping along the bottom for years playing bit (or, as we called them, ‘character’) parts. Unfortunately for him, the passing years were not kind. He lost his bloom early, along with some of his hair and figure – the latter, I suspect, due to his eating too many junk meals.
It was quite by chance that he was introduced to June Lington and they struck up an acquaintance. To be fair to him, her name meant nothing to him – why should it? She was not exactly plain, but she was no beauty either and her figure was larger than it should have been at twenty. She had no dress sense, but was pleasant and grateful for his attention. It was only after a few of dates that he discovered she was Miriam Mayberry’s daughter. Well, after learning this, he became extremely keen on her, thinking it would boost his acting career if he married her and became Miriam Mayberry’s son-in-law. He thought (and rightly) it would lead to better parts.
Although virtually unknown, he was touched that a great star like Miriam Mayberry, again a widow, had no objections when he asked for her daughter’s hand in marriage. In fact she was gracious to him. You see, her rather dowdy daughter was an embarrassment and she was happy to see her married off. At this time Miss Mayberry’s career was beginning to stall after its glittering start, which had taken Hollywood by storm. Beautiful, talented, ambitious and complaisant towards amorous producers and directors, she had landed many leading roles. So it was not until she was thirty-five that she allowed herself time out to have a child by her third husband.
She was fifty-five, but looked younger, when Tony approached her and asked to marry June. Now she was really having to act rather than merely look stunning on screen. Her name was so well-known that she could land parts as a supporting actress, if not the heroine anymore and, as he became known as her son-in-law, Tony’s career took off, on the strength of which, he bought a modest mansion, dined out, went to parties, bought an enormous Cadillac and freely spent the money he earned. He and June had good times for five years and they would probably have continued had he been a better actor.
When Miriam Mayberry reached sixty she formally retired, as the parts had dried up and she had no wish to play the leading lady’s grandmother. Tony, living beyond his means, was now in debt and had to give up the mansion. Miriam, not entirely displeased, offered to let him and June move in with her. The proverb that ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune’, soon became apparent to them. They had to ‘fit in’ with her, fetch and carry. This was not too onerous at first. Unfortunately Miriam Mayberry had also enjoyed an extravagant life-style during her career and had not been provident, so was not as wealthy as she might have been. As the years passed and inflation rose, she found her income did not stretch as far and was forced to become more economical. As members of her staff left they were not always replaced and gradually the splendour began to fade. Guests ceased to be invited to stay and even those who called began to die off. Even worse, the ageing star became more autocratic and the requests for their help became demands. Then half-way through her eighties the old lady’s health began to fail and she could not get around as she once did, so that, imperceptibly, Tony and June became her carers and errand-runners: in other words, unpaid servants. To add to their discomfort, as her aches and pains increased, she became querulous, demanding and short-tempered with them. Tony never had the time to act now, even if parts were offered him.
“This can’t go on for long,” June would say when he got depressed, “she can’t live forever. When she dies we can sell this place, get something smaller and go on a cruise.”
He would nod in agreement and remark that, “It would be nice”.
I still managed bit parts in films, so when in Hollywood I would ring them up and visit. ‘The Old Lady’, as they called her behind her back, was always gracious to me, smiled and asked what it was I was playing in, but I noticed that Tony and June looked increasingly elderly and downtrodden, so I guessed that life was not easy for them. When alone with June she admitted that her mother could be ‘trying’ – her word.
“I suppose we should be grateful, for we share her home and as her only child I feel responsible for her in this great house with only a skeleton staff here now. Several rooms have been closed up, but she won’t move.”
“I suppose you’ll sell it when she dies?” I asked.
“Oh yes, we couldn’t possibly keep it. It might fetch a decent price as her name’s attached to it. Then we could really start living again. She’ll soon be a hundred – think of it!”
Poor June! She and Tony never did enjoy the freedom of a life together, for he died of a stroke after Miriam Mayberry celebrated her hundredth birthday party. Yes – she is living still.
(c) Robert Toogood 2020