|Marchbear, Philosopher / Companion|
Marchbear the First was given to me during the Liverpool Playhouse Christmas celebrations in 1966 when I was 'cast' as Father Christmas to distribute presents to members of the acting company and staff of the theatre. At the bottom of my almost empty sack, I took out an untidy brown paper parcel with a label tied to it which read "To Father Christmas with love." I recognised the handwriting of Lynda Marchal, the beautiful leading lady of the Company. I unwrapped the parcel to find inside a big brown bear, who I immediately christened Marchbear. I'd never had a toy or a bear of my own, so I was very happy to receive such a wonderful present. Obviously, Lynda had decided that the tender age of 33 was the perfect time for me to be introduced to the joys of childhood.
Lynda – now Lynda la Plante, writer and dramatist, has since achieved international recognition with her novels, films, television plays and TV series, including 'Widows,' the award-winning 'Prime Suspect' with Helen Mirren, 'Supply and Demand,' and 'Killer Net' .
The white cloth label fixed to Marchbear's left foot read "Made in Ireland." This label was to bar his entry to the local Teddy Bears' Club, but he got over his disappointment when he discovered that labels, though regarded as important to some people, were certainly not so to bears. "Just fancy" he thought, "being judged by a label."
On Christmas evening, Marchbear was taken to my 'digs' at 11 Canning Street in the heart of Georgian Liverpool and, though all the houses in the surrounding area were blackened by dirt and grime, he thought them elegant and beautiful. He settled comfortably into his room on the second floor and sitting on his table, looking through the shining clean window, he could just see the huge Liver bird perched atop the Port Authority buildings in the distant docks.
After two weeks in Georgian 'splendour,' he took up residence in the Liverpoool Playhouse Theatre in Williamson Square and for the next nine months sat in front of the mirror in my dressing room. Rather than gaze at his own reflection, he preferred to look at the fascinating and ever-changing world around him – every three weeks the clothes in my wardrobe would be whisked away and others hung in their place. Marchbear's small world would take on the identity of the clothes, as Rome replaced America, England replaced Greece, and Australia replaced Paris. He marvelled as Peter as Sebastian in Twelfth Night transformed himself into Albert Einstein in The Physicists, then to Marlowe in She Stoops to Conquer who, in turn, became Leonard JoliJoli in Pyjama Tops.
He thought all the people and clothes were real, although no-one bothered to explain anything to him. He was never invited to see the plays being performed on the stage just a few feet away. Perhaps everyone thought bears wouldn't like plays so very much. He felt he should have been given an opportunity to make up his own mind about that, but was sure that one day he would be given a stage of his own, and, therefore, his heart remained full of hope and optimism. At the end of every evening, there was often a lot of gaiety and drinking in the dressing rooms, but there were also evenings when an air of sadness hung over the theatre, which would empty very quickly, and he would then be left in silence in the dark alone. Marchbear found theatre life very exciting and for a while considered taking up the profession himself, but decided that, unlike me, he would be unable to exist on the bare necessities.
Many months later, Marchbear took his first train journey with me – his destination London, where he took up residence in my London flat at 538, King's Road, Chelsea. Although he missed the rich smell of greasepaint and the excitement and adrenalin of theatre, he basked in his comfortable armchair in my book lined study, watching from the window the busy and colourful life eighty feet below. That is until one fateful summer evening in 1969.
I had agreed to dog-sit Buster for one night, a nine-month-old bull mastiff, weighing some seventy-five pounds – the owner reappeared six months later, having served 'time' in prison for an unspecified crime! Returning home one evening during Buster's overlong stay, I found scattered in the hallway the torn remnants of my leather briefcase, the woven rush washing basket, a World War II airman's flying jacket and a large amount of straw – Marchbear in tatters. News of his early demise soon reached Lynda and that Christmas a small, and equally untidy, package was delivered by the postman headfirst through the letter box. Again, the handwriting quickly identified the sender – Lynda. Inside the parcel was a 6-inch-tall bear – immediately christened Marchbear the Second.
On October 14th, 1976, Michael Dale, the Publicity Manager for the Cambridge Theatre Company, persuaded me to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh by reading a selection of A.A. Milne's works at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge. I was a member of the Company and playing Faulkland in Bob Lang's production of The Rivals. The curtain fell at 10.40 p.m. I was scheduled to start my reading at the ADC Theatre at 11.15 p.m. Not knowing how to start the show, I had pushed Marchbear through the curtain opening. A small voice started to sing 'Happy Birthday to Pooh. The curtain slowly opened as over 300 voices joined in the singing and Bother! was officially brought into the world. The first voice belonged to my beautiful wife, Diane! Marchbear sat on a small chrome metal chair on the table to witness the show – he has not missed a show since. In 1998, he was presented with a rocking chair lovingly crafted for him by my cousin, Colin, and Marchbear has settled comfortably in this ever since.
During the past thirty-two years, Marchbear has travelled extensively. In March 1979, he accompanied me and Diane to Florence and Venice on our honeymoon, where he was serenaded by a gondolier through the canals and marvelled at the magnificent works of Caravaggio and Da Vinci. He has dined and wined with royalty and nobility, as well as commoners. He shared a pot of honey with the Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace and toured the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in the company of Princess Diana; he entertained the Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard "Jack" Weatherill with his wife, Lyn, together with several Members of the Government and Opposition in the Palace of Westminster and also helped the Marquess of Bath and his family welcome over 60,000 bears and their owners to the first ever International Teddy Bear Rally at their stately country seat, Longleat in Wiltshire.
In 1979, Marchbear had the great honour of meeting Christopher Robin Milne at the Ashdown Forest in Sussex and again in 1981 at the Mappin Terrace of London Zoo, where Christopher unveiled Lorne McKean's lifesize bronze statue of Winnie. Soon afterwards, he was invited for the first of his many visits with Christopher, his wife, Lesley, and their daughter Clare to their home, a former forge, in the hollow of a hill in Devon.
He had the pleasure of meeting the "real" Pooh bear, who had flown by Concorde from New York in the arms of his American friend, Nancy Winters. For security reasons, the priceless bear was being held "captive" in the vast nineteenth-century safe of the Savoy Hotel in London and was delighted to escape with Diane and me for a few minutes into the fresh air of the Strand to meet Marchbear. In 2000 he was allowed to meet Pooh again, when Pooh was allowed out of the captivity of the glass case in the New York Public Library.
He was introduced to opera at the Glyndebourne Opera House for a performance of Fidelio by Beethoven, conducted by Bernard Haitink. He has visited Scotland on a number of occasions, where, with the guidance of Archie Stirling's gillie he helped me and Diane catch our first salmon; to Wales, where he survived the huge waves as they beat on his hotel windows in Aberystwyth; to Ireland, where he almost got lost in the mists of Connemara, and saw his first rainbow on a trip around the Ring of Kerry.
Marchbear journeyed to Israel, where he watched as I recreated General Montgomery's relief of Tobruk; Yugoslavia, where he assisted Christopher Reeve in his Great Escape from Stalag 17; Bermuda, where he braved Turks and Tomahawks; Barbados, where he was embarrassed by my ignorance of the iambic pentameter; Trinidad, where the Governor General insisted he "jump up" at Carnival time; Tobago, where he met the great photographer Norman Parkinson; St. Kitt's and Nevis, where he watched me swim naked through the coral reefs; Antigua, where he turned a blind eye to Lord Nelson's good one; Paris, where he lined up for hours to see the Degas Retrospective Exhibition at the Quai D'Orsay.
Spending nearly a year away from the London smoke, Marchbear took up residence with me in Ibiza, where he often lunched, wined, dined and reached unexpected heights with Robin Maugham, Terry Thomas, Diana Rigg, and Denholm and Susie Elliott together with many other artists and writers; Mallorca, where he sat with Robert Graves and his family in their garden in Deja and Robert rediscovered a pair of nesting lovebirds and marvelled at Diane's 'beautiful black hair;' Mijas in Spain, where he played a set or two with Lew Hoad, the former Wimbledon Singles Champion; Corfu, where he was entertained by Emlyn Williams and Beverly Nichols; Crete, where he watched Hayley Mills record her first screen kiss; Rhodes, where he shared a beach or two with Diana Rigg; Rome, where he climbed the Spanish Steps and slept in the former home of the poet, John Keats; Mykonos, where he mistakenly went to Hell and back, before sailing to Paradise, and Athens, where he sat in state in the Emperor's chair after a performance of The Frogs by Aristophanes at the Herodicus Atticus Theatre.
One of his biggest adventures was to cross the Atlantic to America where Anna Strasberg, the widow of Lee Strasberg, one of the founders of the Actors Studio, had invited Peter to present Bother! This introduction took him to Hollywood and Los Angeles, then to New York, where he failed to persuade an unimaginative theatre producer to introduce Pooh to an off-Broadway audience; Florida, where I shocked the locals by swimming in the Gulf of Mexico on a blustery cold Christmas Day; Chicago, where twelve floors up overlooking Lake Michigan the cold winds almost blew his fur off, yet he still nightly opened The Famous Door; Brigham Young University, Utah, where the Paxman family introduced him to the Mormon way of life; South Carolina, where he slept peacefully in a four-poster bed; Las Vegas, where he stayed at The Mirage and wished it had been; Santa Barbara, where Bother! was presented during the 1989 International Film Festival; and San Diego, where he bravely faced one of his largest audiences at the University of California San Diego and successfully majored in English Literature.
He had a number of adventures during 1997, including a return trip to Chicago, where he introduced many of Disney's 'grownup' customers to the writings of Alan Milne, followed by a visit to the Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, Illinois, where echoes of operatic arias prompted him to renew his early ambitions to sing at the Met. A few days later, he took a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he met Arnold Schwarzenegger and joined us on the ice for a few hours. Then he celebrated Halloween in New Orleans, before making a long-awaited return visit to his many friends in England.
I once accidentally left Marchbear on the luggage rack of a Birmingham-to-London train. Fortunately, a fellow passenger handed him in to the Lost Property office in Baker Street, where, for a small fee, he was released and returned safely home. His most frightening experience was when his right arm suffered serious injuries as a result of being gnawed by Nellie, Lynda Marchal's King Charles Cavalier spaniel.
Marchbear underwent a series of major refurbishments in 1987, including nose lift, arm transplant, fur graft, and intravenous sawdust transfusion. Travelling several thousand miles by air, land and sea during the past ten years has aged Marchbear considerably and he is now in urgent need of further restoration. He anxiously awaits an operation and a speedy recovery in order that he may appear once again before his public.
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