The Debut

 

'But what are our memories if not acts of the imagination.'

 

The Debut was inspired by the great actor-managers of the Victorian age, and the histories of some of our lovely old West End theatres.

 

I've spent a lot of time in theatres over the years and visited many others during the research for this novel. I've also read a lot of memoirs, histories and biographies, and looked at hundreds of pictures. Here are just a few of the images that helped me with the writing of the novel and inspired some of the characters.


Sir Henry Irving, one of the most famous and successful actor-managers of his time. Even today, he's instantly recognisable and so he had to be the model for Hesketh. 


Bronze head by  Edward Onslow Ford (National Portrait Gallery, London)


This is an unfinished portrait of Henry by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Irving didn't like the picture because it showed him wearing glasses, which is probably why it was never finished, but I do think it shows his humanity in a way you don't usually see in his more staged pictures. 


National Portrait Gallery, London

Ellen Terry with her beloved fox terriers. There's a touch of Dame Ellen in one of the characters, while Fussie, the dog she gave to Irving, was the inspiration for Prince, the stage door dog. A story isn't a story unless there's a dog in it.

A wonderful costume design for Puck by C. Wilhelm for the Princes Theatre, Manchester, which was the inspiration for the risqué costume Belle is made to wear when she makes her debut in A Midsummer Night's Dream. 


Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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This pretty contemporary set design for A Midsummer Night's Dream was made for Charles Kean by William GordonWe so often think of the Victorians as living in a black and white world that it's easy to forget the theatre of the time was full of colour and spectacle.


And here is how Belle would rather have appeared on stage, projecting herself as an arcadian maid.


The theatre was one of the popular entertainments in the nineteenth century. People would queue around the block for hours to get a ticket for the evening performance.



And as this painting by Sickert shows, there was less concern for health and safety in those days. It wasn't so much about 'bums on seats' as hanging from the gallery.


W.R. Sickert, The Old Bedford


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This is John Martin-Harvey, a young actor who worked for Irving at the Lyceum. Just look at that smoulder. He has such a modern look, it's hard to believe he was born in 1862. This image was in my mind whenever I was writing about Kit. I think it might be love.



Bram Stoker was Irving's business manager at the Lyceum for twenty eight years, and Irving was said to be the original inspiration for Dracula. After Irving's death, Stoker wrote a wonderfully gushing (some say homo-erotic) memoir of the great actor. Some of its influence spills into The Debut.



And here's a photo of the two great men leaving the Lyceum together, caught by the paparazzi of the day.



The dark art of early photography plays an important part in the story. Even in those days, photographers and the press trod a fine line between being intrusive and creating much needed publicity for actors.



This is a far cry from the cameras used by today's photographers but just as significant in its day.