Today in 1931, the Northern Irish film star Stephen Boyd was born at Doagh Road Corner, Whitehouse. He grew up in Glengormley and is always associated with Belfast’s theatre groups and some further afield across the six counties. Some time ago, when I was researching his life, I received a fascinating letter from a Carrickfergus man called Thomas Kemp who knew Stephen Boyd in his William or Billy Millar days. This was pre-Hollywood, The Man Who Never Was, Ben-Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire. These were the days, late 1940s and early 1950s, of travelling repertory companies, jobbing actors and playwrights, amateurs out to earn a few extra shillings on top of their day jobs while doing entertaining work that they clearly enjoyed.
As with any enterprise, money was at the heart of things with rep companies having to beg and scrimp for finances to buy scenery or cover petrol costs. Thomas Kemp said that some authors would accept a modest fee for their scripts while others, cannier, would seek out a percentage of ticket sales. If they were lucky, the actors would earn a few quid but how much depended on the size of audiences at village and town halls. The prices of admission in those days generally ranged between 2/= and 2/6d with flimsy programmes between 2d and 3d.
Mr. Kemp recalled that his company was fortunate to have one local supporter in the building trade who conveyed stage scenery to and from various locations in a lorry. Not all companies were that lucky and it was not out of the question for sheets of plywood and other materials to be strapped to the tops of vehicles and driven up and down the country with drivers praying for no sudden gusts of wind. The members of the cast were taken by people affluent enough to own cars. Cadging lifts and relying on the goodwill of others were vital parts of this wayward life. The question of staying overnight did not arise as players and stage hands always performed in towns that were accessible to travel to nightly and return home. To do otherwise would have required considerable financial backing, which would have been next to impossible to obtain in those years.
In many of the country halls facilities were not always of a very high standard and improvisations were always necessary. Dressing rooms were very often one room, which had to be divided by creating curtained divisions to separate male and female cast members. Such accommodation would invariably only include one toilet to cover all, so it was inevitable that situations arose when males and females would enter a toilet that had no lighting only to find it occupied by a member of the opposite sex. Shouts of ‘hey’ and ‘occupied’ and, perhaps the odd scream were not unusual backstage.
Each production had a prompter in the background should cues or lines be forgotten and also to provide sound effects which might be required in the play. Mr. Kemp remembered one occasion a prompter suddenly realised during the performance that he had to give the effect of thunder in the distance but he had nothing in his possession to create this effect. He was
engrossed in the play, holding the script in his right hand, with the left arm extended. The prompter beckoned to one member of the cast who was not on stage at this precise moment to find him a piece of wood. The member concerned was a bit of a wit and immediately rushed away and returned with a lavatory seat that he draped round the prompter’s extended arm. Of course this went down like a lead balloon. There was no thunder sound effect on that occasion but the noise of a disgruntled prompter made up for it once the play was over. Pranks, frustrations and unexpected incidents went with the territory. The spirit of comradeship was very strong and the odd, silly joke was almost always accepted in the best possible manner.
On another occasion, Mr. Kemp and friends travelled to Dublin by rail to take part in an annual dramatic festival. When making the return journey, the train pulled to a standstill at the last stopping point before crossing the border into Northern Ireland. As a general rule, the train remained stationary for a fairly lengthy period of time to enable the customs men to interrogate passengers about prohibited purchases. One of the cast decided he would leave the train and buy a drink and still have time to rejoin the train before it left. However, on this occasion the train did not wait as long as usual. The last the company saw of their friend was him standing on the platform waving frantically and shouting furiously as the train steamed out of the station. The next day, having thumbed lifts to get home, the hapless colleague never tired of telling the story as only an actor can with all the necessary pathos, humour and, of course, exaggeration.
During this period Billy Millar was dabbling in amateur and, occasionally, professionally paid theatrical jobs doing all sorts of small parts, shifting scenery or whatever was required. He was aged around twenty. Thomas Kemp was hired to play Archer Boyd in Boyd’s Shop at a hall in Ballymena in February 1951 but he was struck down by a severe bout of the flu. At short notice, Billy Millar deputised and was paid the handsome sum of £3.3.0 for his services. (Thomas Kemp sent me a photocopy of the cheque, issued by Northern Bank Limited, Carrickfergus branch, on 13 February 1951.)
Billy Millar, as we know, went on to become Stephen Boyd and enjoyed a few bigger cheques in his time as one of cinema’s most popular actors. But his beginnings were humble and there is little doubt that ramshackle and seat-of-the-pants repertory work across Northern Ireland acted as a sort of apprenticeship in his career. From rep work, he progressed to various roles in Group Theatre productions before travelling to England and more stage roles in the Midlands, Windsor and London. He evolved from bit-part player to leading actor in acclaimed productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Deep Blue Sea. It is sad that when his cinema career waned in the late 1960s that he didn’t have any appetite to return to the theatre but who knows, had he not died in 1977 at a shockingly young 45, what he would have done with his considerable skills, skills embedded and nurtured all those years ago in Northern Ireland’s breeze-block town and village halls.